What Is A Woman?

tty0 login: novatorine
login date: 2022-07-11

Since Matt Walsh’s transphobic ‘documentary’ What Is A Woman? was released, I’ve been seeing a lot of people, even allies and members of the LGBT community, reiterating this question. What is a woman? Just what does that mean? Well, I’ve got a simple, compact answer:

A woman is someone who identifies with womanhood.

I wouldn’t go beyond that for anyone in general conversation, certainly not with someone who asks that question as a challenge or in a “debate me bro” way, because actually elaborating on what you mean by that will take a lot of time and they’ll be likely to just dismiss you as dodging the question or being a post-modern neo-Marxist or whatever the fuck as soon as you start to take longer than a few seconds to answer. Because to them, everything has to have a simple, rigid answer, everything has to fit into neat little boxes and pre-defined roles. Subjects can’t be genuinely complex and sometimes fuzzy and subjective or relative for them, they start out with a presupposition that all that kind of stuff is “woke nonsense.” This is the deep-seated anti-intellectualism of the right that serves as a defense mechanism for having to change their minds. That’s why Matt Walsh’s documentary is so disingenuous to the core — he dismisses anything that sounds complicated or vague to him because ultimately it isn’t meant to be a measure of who can actually answer, or who’s right, it’s a measure of his own low comprehension abilities. Anything too complex for him is automatically “wrong.”

However, let’s dig into the meaning behind this a little deeper.

The idea I am trying to convey in that single sentence answer to the question is that womanhood, like all genders, is a complex cluster of cultural ideas, social roles to play, identities, histories, archetypes, exemplars, presentations, expressions, ways of being, philosophies, communities, and more, a huge ancient tapestry added to by millions of women over the millennia, some parts of which contradict each other just as all those same contradictory elements are at the same time woven together by other shared properties, in a great rhizomatic centerless web, and anyone who’s ideal self-image — whose internal sense of who they want to be and why — is shaped by this wide, varied, magical, beautiful collective thing, is a woman. They don’t have to adopt any specific set of expressions or roles or traditions, they don’t even have to exactly adopt any of them, as long as their picture of who they want to be exists in dialogue with womanhood, accepting some things, rejecting others, freely taking still others and changing them to suit. And by the way: when I speak of all these elements that mix together to create womanhood, I am not merely speaking of white Western colonial conceptions of womanhood and motherhood. Every indigenous culture’s conception of what it meant to be a woman, and the ways all their women actually lived All the women around you. All the butches and tomboys in media, Ripley and Sarah Conner as much as Caroline Ingalls. And everyone will identify with different parts of womanhood, give different accounts of why they are women, and that’s okay.

There is no one way to be a woman or one reason to identify as one. Even among cis women opinions vary, and in feminist philosophy it has been a hotly debated subject for at least a century, not to mention that the concept itself is socioculturally dependent, and is imbued with deep history. Maybe some women identify as such because of their capacity for motherhood and nurturing, or because of their biology, and this is how they find common ground with other women. For others it will be different. The key is always that they identify with other women — see themselves in them, feel comfortable with them, find common ground with them, and most importantly have their own self-image and identity shaped by the women they grew up seeing — and with womanhood, want to be seen as women. And that’s okay. We are all connected by this common web, this common “cultural construct” of gender anyway.

How can we say that all these things are part of the same concept? How can we identify someone who identifies with this concept of womanhood if it is so broad and multifarious? I’m glad you asked.

First of all, if someone identifies as a woman, then they probably want to be identified as one. They want to be seen as one. Therefore, most women will try, in one way or another, to perform womanhood, to adopt one part or another of the various ways there are to express that you’re a woman, in order to telegraph to people how she wants to be treated and perceived. That’s part of the purpose of gender expression, although the other part is self-satisfaction. So for instance, as a trans woman, before I was on hormone therapy long enough to be very obviously feminine, I performed womanhood pretty hard with clothes and jewelry and makeup. Then, once I’d been on hormone therapy long enough that I had very noticeable boobs, hips, and facial features, I could turn down my gender performance to a more comfortable butchy level, and let my anatomy do the talking.

Secondly, you can ask people if you aren’t sure — they’ll usually tell you how they want to be seen and treated! This is where the “a woman is whoever says she’s a woman” definition typically comes from — it’s an extremely simple, practical standpoint for people who just want to coexist with others and don’t want to get into all sorts of gender theory. Of course, as a non-theoretical practical stance, it has its issues. (Namely, that gender identity is an internal psychological state, a stance toward some social or cultural thing, as are all identities, and so just listening to statements, while usually correct, is an inexact approximation: sometimes people can lie. When this happens, we can usually tell through how their actions contradict what they say — for instance, the Colorodo shooter claiming he was nonbinary, or the school teacher that wore massive prosthetic breasts to a high school claiming he was a trans woman, but was later found to not dress up outside of that one class and just live and refer to himself as a cis guy.) But you really an just ask people.

On a more abstract level, womanhood as a concept coheres, and we can identify people who identify with that concept, through something called family resemblance. We don’t need to come up with a list of necessary and sufficient conditions — an essence — that is common to all women.

If you think about it, we don’t do that for most of the words we use: instead, we have examples of what to use the word on, drawn from our experience using language with other people, and we consider the word to apply to anything that bears a resemblance to those examples. In that fashion we are able to productively use the word and understand what it means in a broad, holistic sense, without ever needing to come up with a set of properties that everything the word applies to shares: each thing that the word applies to can be related to other things the word applies to in different ways, creating an overlapping, crisscrossing network of different relations between each example of the word, where some things are even only related to others through a chain of intermediary relations (like the transitive property in math).

The things a word applies to will all have a sort of “family resemblance”: like a family, there may not even be one thing that every member shares in common, but different things (hair, nose, face, eyes, gait, accent) are relatively alike between different members of the family, in different ways. Not only that, but the borders can be fuzzy, because how much something resembles another is up for debate sometimes — it’s more a relative question of whether something is more like an example of one word, or more like an example of another, because almost everything has a commonality with anything else.

All of that doesn’t matter, though, because exactitude isn’t actually a bar to being able to use a word in a language-game and have people understand what you mean. I can say “stand roughly there” or “give me a red square” and you can do as I ask without knowing where I want you to stand down to the inch or knowing exactly which wavelength of light I want the square to be reflecting. Wittgenstein talks about all of this in Philosophical Investigations in great detail, presenting counter arguments to various objections you’re likely to hear, and I highly recommend reading it. It is dry, but clearly written and, to me, was engaging.

This is how we can identify women, through this fuzzy, transitive, resemblance between their identities and expressions of gender.

Not only can we do this, we should understand gender through this lens. Often times, when categorizing humans, trying to essentialize us or taxonomize actually ends up doing violence to us far more than actually improving our understanding of ourselves and our (social) reality. After all, even in biology, taxonomy is a discipline with fluid categories, fuzzy definitions, many disputes and open questions, and numerous exceptions. That is all the more true with respect to humans, with the added difficulty that there are social realities we have to take into account, and that means most taxonomies are likely to be “wrong” in some sense. Yet society often takes these constructed, limited, and non-objective categories as not only absolute, but also as having normative implications, and the enforcement of these implications is often violent in one way or another. Thus, absolute taxonomies are often violent.

For me what’s important about being a woman is the family resemblance between what and who women identify with, how we conceptualize our ideal selves in relation to others who also identify with womanhood, and how we want to be in the world, both personally and socially. This is what is typically termed one’s “gender identity.” It is what is most relevant in our social and cultural lives, as it determines who a person identifies with, is comfortable with, how they want to be seen and treated, what social roles they are comfortable playing, how they present themselves, and how they want to be spoken about — it also partially determines how they are in turn actually perceived, which effects their experience of the social world (for instance, misogyny, although that is not limited to those who identify as women by any means). After all, do we go around karyotyping everyone we meet? Do we examine the genitals and sexual organs of our friends?

Now, a natural question might be — aren’t we reinforcing gender roles by identifying womanhood with cultural constructs?

Not at all.

The difference between what I do and what your average bioessentialist or conservative traditionalist does is that I’m querying the internal sense of identity of the person in question — I’m asking them whether, to what degree, and in what ways they identify with womanhood, and letting their answer dictate what I believe about them. So a woman who dresses in a masculine way, has a career, has had a hysterectomy, and has no children or husband remains a woman for me because she wants to be a woman in one way or another, wants to exist and be acknowledged as one, whereas a particularly angry traditionalist might deny her her womanhood — or, conversely, a man with long hair who is stereotypically feminine remains a man so long as he wishes to remain one, unlike the schoolyard bully who might call a boy a girl for having long hair.

Likewise I do not take my conceptions of what it means to be a woman, or my ideas about it, as universal or normative: I do not tell a woman who doesn’t relate to womanhood like I do that they are wrong, or failing at womanhood. I do not say to a woman who lies farther along the family resemblance between women, or perhaps at the fuzzy border, that she should move ‘more toward being a woman,’ because she is equally a woman to me, because she still shares that resemblance and, through the transitive property, is related thus to all other women, and there is no center, is no essence to womanhood for me!

Crucially, you will find, that for everyone who truly is a member of their gender, if you deny them their gender they will protest, and if you ask them — and they have time to think about it and a space to answer without feeling judged — they will give you an answer about how they relate to their gender. And that is all that is necessary. For me, womanhood is about the feeling of kinship and identification with other women, the way I want my body to be and the way I want to be treated and exist and present myself in the social world. For my best friend, it’s about wanting her body to be as female as possible (this is why I call myself transgender and she prefers transsexual). But these are equally valid.

To summarize — the point is not to abolish identities. Let people who enjoy their identities revel in them, be proud of them, love them, find common cause and community through them, connect to history and literature and poetry through them! The point is to abolish normativity — telling people what identity they should have, or how they have to fulfill that identity. Let each person find their own dao. This doesn’t just go for womanhood and manhood, either. This framework also allows for the construction of new genders, by creating new sociocultural clusters of associations, roles, presentations, expressions, histories, and identifications with others, to name just a few dimensions along which gender can be understood, or the mixing of manhood and womanhood, or even the rejection of all gender entirely.

This is what I meant above about trying to force people into essentialized categories ultimately being something that does violence to at least a few of them, maybe all of them to a certain degree. When it comes to matters of social existence and identity, subjectivity and phenomenological experience, complexity and nuance, must be given their due — humans are complex creatures, after all, and I personally wouldn’t have it any other way.