What is a woman?

Anyone who wants to be is a woman. Trans women are women. I am going to argue what the word “woman” means and what it should include, considering various conservative and feminist arguments. This is a different argument from what is true in the real world, or what is morally right, but people use these arguments to argue about truth and justice.

I wrote, “What is a woman? It depends why you ask. Trans people are in all cultures over millennia, and for most social purposes trans women are women. Satisfied?”

This attracted the attention of LifeSiteNews, a conservative site fighting culture wars on abortion, equal marriage, trans rights etc from an Evangelical Christian perspective. Joseph Shaw wrote, “What, after all, is the officially approved, ideologically correct answer to that question? I particularly liked this approach.” Possibly he was gently poking fun.

Well, what is a woman? Some people have genes, gonads and genitals all indicating they are women, and are happy to call themselves women. I am happy to call them women too. But some people don’t- there are various genetic and developmental conditions leading to ambiguity of genes, gonads and genitals, and it’s a social rather than purely medical decision whether such people are treated as women or men. And a very few people have the genes, gonads and genitals of one sex but an unshakeable conviction that they are or want to be of the other, and most societies grudgingly tolerate that. I have been expressing myself as female for decades. If you have come from LifeSiteNews, please leave a comment: how would you define “woman”, and why? Or what do you think of my explanation? Christ be with you in this blessed Easter.

That answers the simplistic conservative Christian argument- “Male and female created He them” as in Genesis. If we’re all made in the image of God then God is androgynous. I am not claiming to be intersex, only that for some people there is no clear answer whether someone is male or female, and there has to be a choice. People with androgen insensitivity syndrome are brought up as girls and I hope Joseph Shaw would be kind enough to accept that.

But trans women exist, and transition despite appalling persecution in some cases. When we are allowed to transition, and accepted, we thrive, and contribute to society, and when we are repressed the lucky ones find accepting subcultures and the rest live miserable stunted lives.

I defined woman before, considering the objections of radical feminists. I was thinking of gender critical friends, who were gender non-conforming, and I argued they could still be “women” with no particular gendered requirements while I was a “woman” because of my gender. Their femaleness is different from my femininity, but that’s OK. Both language and society should be flexible enough to allow that. It is hard to come up with a nice quick elegant definition which includes us both against the strident objections of polemicists, but the definition should not be held to be more important than the people. Let us argue about how to recognise everyone’s rights, wishes and worth, without quibbling about the definitions of words.

A tiny proportion of people transition male to female. We are often only grudgingly tolerated, and often we live stunted lives anyway- because of the intolerance and discrimination, not because transition is inherently wicked. Why not call us women? It makes many of us pathetically grateful!

Part of the difference of opinion is between authoritarians, who want to define womanhood for everyone else, and libertarians, who can accept others’ harmless eccentricities. So Mr Trump wants to prevent trans women from using women’s loos, even though we only want to pee, because he is authoritarian, but the British position is to allow us to use women’s loos, because that is harmless. If any of us are criminal, deal with the criminals, don’t treat us all the same.

Feminist arguments support calling us women. Under patriarchy, the best thing to be is an educated middle- or upper-class white cis male, especially one who easily fits some characteristics called “manly” which can be viciously policed on boys and men from birth. That is how everyone is assigned a gender- not by the midwife after a quick look between your legs, but by people demanding to know what sex you are and treating you accordingly, by rigid gender rules. Everyone would be better off if those rules were subverted. No-one fits them particularly well, and macho posturers may fit them particularly poorly.

So when someone transitions male to female we are rejecting patriarchy, and subverting it. Many of us get read as trans, and that should not matter. And however easy transition becomes, most “women” will still have female genes gonads and genitals, and the number of trans women will be tiny.

It is harmless to treat anyone who wants to be a woman, as a woman. If any trans woman is a criminal, deal with her by punishing the crime, not by expelling all trans women. If any trans woman is posing a risk in women’s space, kick her out, not all trans women. Trans women are women. Anyone who wants to be called a woman is a woman.

A woman is:

  1. a person with genes, gonads and genitals all indicating she is female, who wants to be seen as a woman, (so not trans men, not all genderqueer people)
  2. a person with genes, gonads and genitals ambiguous about whether she is female, who wants to be seen as a woman, or
  3. a person with genes gonads and genitals all indicating she is male who wants to be a woman or to be seen as a woman or who thinks she is a woman.

Therefore a woman is anyone who wants to be seen as a woman. And almost all women will still be type 1. It depends why you ask: if a person with genes gonads and genitals indicating they are male wants to have a child with a woman without medical assistance, she has to be type 1, but for all other purposes whatsoever the other definitions are appropriate as well.

This is not a question of morality. Where women of type 3 should be able to go, be or do is a separate issue, to be answered considering equality and human rights. When people consider rights of “women” or exclusions of “not-women”, we are tempted to argue about definitions, but the moral and the definition questions are different.

I would rather use the word “woman”, or “man”, only when strictly necessary, instead using “person”, because I think using sex or gender markers of people helps reinforce Patriarchal stereotypes. More on this soon.

5 thoughts on “What is a woman?

  1. Iris Marion Young in “On Female Body Experience” distinguishes between “feminine” behaviours – as in the title of her most famous essay “Throwing Like a Girl” (though there are many others worth reading in the book) – and “female” behaviours. The former are more social conventions, the latter more determined by anatomy. I find this distinction useful in thinking about what it means to be a woman.

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    • Welcome, Peter. It is lovely to have you here. Thank you for the recommendation.

      Of course. Though I wonder which sitting with your knees together is. Is it mammalian to hide ones smell, at particular times? And I am particularly interested in feminine emotions. Not fitting the macho emotional stereotype, but seeing that some men apparently do, I wonder if some cis women fit the feminine emotional stereotype.

      Talking about “nature v nurture” seems to me if not like trying to unwhisk an egg at least like trying to sift sand from salt once they are mixed.

      When I think about “what it means to be a woman” that matters less to me than what it means to be me. I seek to be authentically me, rather than authentically a woman. Trans women are women, and women are varied.

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  2. It is precisely because we get hung up on strict definitions that we miss out on the humanity and kindness that should be afforded this question. There are always going to be exceptions to any rules and intersex people are but one example. In the end, what is important is that we employ what our eyes and ears tell us about someone but that isn’t going to work for someone who deliberately wants to discredit and destroy. LifeSite is one such example of American right wing talking point which desperately wants to simplify the issue by ignoring or discrediting any anomalies as being freaks to e despised instead of individuals looking to be raised up and being counted. These groups are the exact antithesis of what true religion should be all about.

    It matters less what they think of you than what you do.

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    • Freaks, ridiculous, illogical- the article mocks the difficulties of defining “woman”- and dangerous- it says trans women are dangerous in women’s prisons, when in fact trans women prisoners are endangered in men’s prisons. I don’t care what they think, but pointing out that “woman” including “trans woman” is more logical than “woman” meaning genes gonads and genitals woman is a useful exercise.

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