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In contemporary society, the theoretical and philosophical question of what gender is is an active topic of discussion.

Arguably, while gender may have been a topic of philosophical analysis prior to the 20th century, by asking for example what the nature of a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ was, it was not until the 20th century that theorists began to question the category of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ itself - Western feminism may have taken hold some time in the 17 or 1800’s, analyzing the conditions imposed on females, and possibly critiquing them - but not until perhaps the work of Judith Butler in the 1990’s did the notion become widespread that ‘gender’ was in some way socially, or discursively, constructed.

In the aftermath of this, in contemporary culture, it has become a much more common discursive theme that gender is not an objective nor obligatory category for classifying people into. There are many dimensions to this theme, but it includes the idea that there is a distinction between gender identity vs. anatomical sex, that there are more possible gender identities than man and woman, and the possibility of self-identification, in which a person’s gender is linked to an inner, subjective sense of self.

Public debates on the nature of gender have made the question of what gender is more salient.

What is gender? Specifically, what is a woman, and why? Please justify your answer with as much rigor as possible, explaining the background epistemological principles the argument draws from.

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10 Answers 10

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'Woman' and 'man' are social categories founded on innate biological differences, but which extend far beyond such to imply numerous social and psychological features: social roles, habituated attitudes, relationship styles, ego identifications, etc. To identify as a gender means to connect with or embody the social and psychological features implicit to that category. One takes on the social roles. falls into the habituated attitudes, is drawn to the relationship styles, etc, of a given category. Most people — through a combination of innate tendencies and strong social conditioning — identify with the social and psychological features of the biological difference they present at birth. But it's perfectly possible for someone to identify with the social and psychological features of the opposed biological set, or not to identify with either biological set.

In other words, if someone embraces or embodies all of the social and psychological aspects of a particular gender, the physical biology they present (which has limited impact on cognition) can seem consistent or inconsistent with the enriched inner life they experience. But this is only a problem to the extent that it brings them into conflict with societal pressures.

It's dismissive to use the phrase "just 'identify' as"… Identity is pervasive and wholistic. Imagine how enraged someone might be if I were to suggest that they 'just' identify as a Christian, Muslim, or Jew, and if they would identify as something more 'normal' everything would be better. Imagine the looks I would get if I told people they 'just' identify as intelligent, beautiful, or powerful, and they should just admit they are dumb, ugly, and weak like everyone else. Identities are not adopted lightly, and trivializing them as though they were mere choices, not integral parts of socio-personality, is question-begging.

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  • I haven’t taken the time to fully absorb or respond to your post, but I wanted to suggest one point of discussion. I think the concept of “to identify” has gotten reified, where it is common to hear people assert that this is a universal category of human existence. It is often assumed that the way you identify is of major psychological, emotional, social, and therefore moral, import. A very common “moral argument by symmetry” is that it would be starkly untenable to deny certain kinds of identity; therefore, it logically follows to never question any kind of identity. Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 13:06
  • I question that argument. I would like to see people derive the conclusion that, for example, “someone would be enraged if I suggested that they ‘just’ identify as a Christian”, rather than use that as a background assumption. A similar argument builds on the belief that it is deeply offensive to “misgender” someone. I haven’t heard people analyze, or “problematize”, that claim, and I think there are examples that could show it’s not universally true. Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 13:10
  • I’d like to see this answer developed a bit. It only answers the question a little bit. ’Woman' and 'man' are social categories founded on innate biological differences. How do you know? How do you know these words denote “social categories”, and not, say, something else? What if I said gender is completely determined by biology? How can you show that your definition is justified to the exclusion of all others? Commented Jan 7 at 7:32
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There are some good responses to a fair philosophical question, and I'll add a few thoughts.

First, philosophy often recognizes two broad types of definitions (SEP): real and lexical. Lexical definitions are those which generally describe how people use language (what dictionaries do, for instance), whereas real definitions are attempts to state essential properties of entities (SEP). For instance, "arcoiris" is Spanish for rainbow and "Regenbogen" is the German. In English, rainbow might be adopted for slang. These sorts of definitions are about how people use words. But a real definition is an attempt to explain what a rainbow really is. Is it mere light? Is it a collection of colors? Is it an experience of viewing light under certain conditions? Philosophy has traditionally been preoccupied with devising real definitions, and on the classic conception, such definitions are treated as description of concepts (SEP) usually by describing essential properties with necessary and sufficient conditions.

The reason the question is controversial is that competing real definitions are often struggles about what reality is: what is true and not, what is real and not, what is important and not. The resulting back and forth around this topic is often referred to as a culture war. Culture wars in history are quite common, and sadly, sometimes one culture simply exterminates another. Sometimes, there are hundreds of years of sporadic warfare for control of ideas and resources. Consider Alfred the Great who rose to power a few hundred years after the Romans abandoned the British Isles and struggled with non-Christian Danes. Were their many gods or one true God? These are philosophical struggles just as much as they are actual physical conflicts.

It helps to understand the motivations of the two competing definitions of "woman", because one is very biologically oriented and the other is very sociologically oriented. The simpler way to understand a woman is along the lines of an organism that has the ability to reproduce biologically by contributing an egg, a womb, have 2 X chromosomes, etc. It's a tried and true definition which has been used since time immemorial. No ovaries, no womb, an X and Y chromosome, more testosterone production, etc. of course is taken to be a man. You'll hear terms like sexual dimorphism and sexual characteristics used.

The sociological definition arises because reality seldom fits in simple black and white buckets. For instance, intersex birth rates are substantial. Homosexuality is pervasive in nature. And sexual identity can be quite complex (after all, the brain is extremely complex). Therefore, beside being a biological woman, in a very real way, there is womanhood in the same way there is personhood. It's a psychological identity, and it is the subject of feminist thinking. (See Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender (SEP) for an introduction.)

In many traditional cultures, the solution to this gray area between traditional male and female definitions has been to admit an additional categories of people in society with a term like "shemale". In the Philipines for instance, ladyboys are quite a common phenomenon (Quora). Many cultures through the ages accept non-binary categories of identity and behavior. Many people love the movie 300, but few people realize that the Spartans, like many Ancient Greek societies, practiced pederasty extensively. Thus, in Sparta, to be a man was both to be a militant warrior and to have homosexual relations with young men (who today might be considered older boys). Obviously, manhood also varies from culture to culture.

So, with the question of what is a "woman", we see a very real application of metaphysics and philosophical discourse, one that people are literally willing to kill and die for. Western society used to put people who didn't conform to a strict binary order to death. In many places in the world, such thinking and behavior still obtains. Thus, the struggle over who has womanhood and what a woman is a complicated topic, and your questions will not be answered satisfactorily in a Q&A post.

Good luck!

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  • In some ways, this answer doesn’t answer the question as head-on as it could. I’d like to see an expanded section on “real definitions”, drawing from the linked article: how are they to be determined? What is a ‘woman’, and why? (Unless your thesis truly is the final sentence, essentially, that the question is unanswerable / unknowable). Commented Jan 7 at 7:40
  • lol I like your directness. Okay. I can emend as time permits over the coming week. :D
    – J D
    Commented Jan 7 at 23:48
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"Woman" is a category which is historically based on the reproductive function of a human.

Categories of real-life observables are often correlated with measurable properties (such as presence or absence of a Y chromosome, of certain hormone levels, primary and secondary sex attributes, but also age, skin and hair type, language, ethnicity, caste etc.) but the borders may be arbitrarily defined and somewhat blurry.

In general, categorization is a social process - a society agrees (mostly) on the names and distinguishing features of the categories and uses them for purposes such as partner matching, resource allocation, role assignment etc. None of this is static but can develop over time as the needs and insights of a society change.

So there is no "objective" truth here but a social consensus that changes over time, may be even different in different sub-societies, and may be disagreed with by individuals. As scientific knowledge and insight grow, we would expect societies to realize that categories can not fully describe real-world phenomena, and that some categorizations (such as the caste system or "race" theories) lead to inhuman discrimination. So categories must be reflected, questioned and possibly discarded where they cause suffering.

However, completely negating categories in some cases may be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. While we rightfully accept that people may choose occupations and partners independent of their assigned or chosen gender identity, skin color, social status, there are areas where it makes sense to consider the presence of biological differences, for example in medical research which was often based on data obtained from white male patients and lead to results which put women or people of color at a disadvantage.

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Your question mistakenly assumes that a word such as 'woman' has a single meaning, when it does not. Most people, if pushed to be clear on the matter, would take the word to mean an adult human with no Y-chromosome. Increasingly, however, some people take the view that anyone can identify as a woman, and that an adult with no Y-chromosome can identify as a man. As is often the case when long-standing social conventions are challenged or disregarded, the changing use of the word 'woman' is hugely controversial, with passionate arguments for and against its legitimacy.

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If woman means female human being, then the semantic heavy work is carried by the meaning of "female". Biologists seem to be able to neatly categorize an immense variety of life forms as male, female, neither (asexual) or both (hermaphrodite). There are species which use different sex chromosome systems (such as the ZZ/ZW system where, opposite of our XY/XX one, males are homogametic and females, heterogametic) or none (such as determining it based on the temperatures exposed to as an embryo), so it can't be reduced to chromosomes. Even the sex of plants can be determined, though admittedly it took quite a while to even figure out that plants can be male and/or female considering the alien-ness of their means of reproduction compared to ours. But what criterion is so effective across species?

It's all quite simple: there are species with organisms which produce bigger gametes and organisms which produce smaller gametes. The former are females and the latter, males. Organisms which produce both types of gametes are called hermaphrodites. This is the essence of it. So all other traits happen to be instead accidental even while still biological: in humans, for example, homogametic (XX) means female (unlike in chickens [ZW]), women are the ones who get pregnant (unlike in seahorses), women tend to be smaller than men (unlike in anglerfish), and so on. But these are what we would call proper accidents, as in, they follow directly from the nature of the being. It is not, say, a matter of social convention that women have vaginas, even if some women may be missing it for some reason - and we don't say a man is "missing" a vagina if he lacks one, just like we don't say trees are blind if they lack eyes. The vagina exists as a means for smaller gametes to be delivered to the bigger gamete. We can often intuitively recognize what is meant to follow from nature, and in this way we have grouped various traits as "feminine" - that is, as properly associated with woman-ness.

But, of course, not all that is regarded as feminine is strictly biological. Sometimes the connection is too remote to be clear. Sometimes it's purely arbitrary. But even where it is arbitrary, the derived femininity still must come from somewhere. You don't make the color pink feminine by associating it with, say, rocks. You do by associating it with real women. So if it's not being female what makes one a woman, all other traits associated with women which demonstrably either follow from female-ness or are only feminine by correlation will hardly do as a more consistent underpinning for the meaning of "woman".

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Because I know a lot of people will describe a woman as someone who identifies as a woman... but what is that?

A name. More specifically a name for a grouping of people. Like what does your name mean? Sometimes it has a specific meaning often times it just denotes members of the group of people who feel meant when that word is articulated.

And if someone can just 'identify' as a woman then isn't that just putting real women down?

If all it takes is to call yourself a woman in order to be one, then they ARE for all intents and purposes real women. Think of it as "what does it mean to be in Anonymous", well all it takes to be in is to say you are in, so if you say you are in, you are a real member.

So the problem isn't that this definition doesn't make sense, the problem seems to be that you have a different definition (an unstated one).

If saying that men who think they are women can be a woman, then doesn't that diminish what a woman is?

Depends on your definition here. If all it takes to be a woman is to call yourself one, then that would not be a problem, if in addition woman is mutually exclusive with man then they must not simultaneously identify as man.

I mean you didn't give a definition of woman and it's actually not a trivial task to give one, but without having one how can it be diminished?

Seriously to define a gender is actually challenging. You could argue that female is not male or vice versa. That doesn't really solve any of your problems but you just need to define one to define the other. Though that also means that the other has no means to define themselves or if they do it would conversely define the other. So maybe one should define them separately.

You could do that via reproductive systems, like some branches of biology think that is a good way to differentiate entities of the same species. But then again what if that doesn't fit or isn't readily visible (no electron microscope available or even for the secondary sex organs what if people wear clothes). So you might go for more secondary characteristics. But if you define it by more secondary characteristics you approach the point where it's unclear whether you are female/male because you appear, behave, clothe yourself, (not) wear makeup or whatnot or because you do these things because you are female/male. You might end up with words like "feminine" and "masculine" referring to characteristics that are male or female but can also be present in the other.

And people can have vastly different ideas of what it means to "be like a man/woman".

And you can add way more definitionally load if you look at sexist social structures where manhood and womanhood is defined by things that have little to nothing to do with biology, but everything with societal expectations and roles carved out for different groups.

So it's actually a pretty good question because the answer is anything but obvious.

And if the answer isn't obvious but rather about drawing lines, then who should be the one drawing lines? So it might actually come back to people self-identifying as that.

Or a tangently relevant question, could you chose not to identify? Like what if you say "You are X" and I'd say "What is X" you list a bunch of things and I'd say "Nah that doesn't describe me".

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  • A woman is an adult female human.
    – user76284
    Commented Jan 5 at 4:46
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Why I think this is a great question

Even after Matt Walsh insulted everyone who could not answer this question in his documentary "What Is a Woman?", and specifically accused someone of providing a circular definition when he said "a woman is someone who identifies as a woman", Matt Walsh himself provided a circular definition at 7:50 in this interview with Piers Morgan when he said "a woman is an adult human female and a man is an adult human male" without defining "female" and "male".

Therefore, I think this is a great question and that Stack Exchangers can do a better job than Matt Walsh did :)

Brief note about semantics

As with many questions in the realm of semantics, definition 1 might be satisfactory to population A and rejected by population B, whereas definition 2 might be satisfactory to population B but rejected by population A. Twenty years ago (or even two years ago) this question was not being asked as much as it is now, and the sizes of populations A and B (and perhaps C,D,E,...) have changed. The population that identifies as right-leaning tend to prefer definitions like "A man is an adult human with a Y chromosome and a woman is one that does not have a Y chromosome", whereas the left-leaning population tends to prefer definitions like "a woman is someone who identifies as such" (but for a topic like this, there are many exceptions on both sides).

Community consensus

Wikipedians tend to be left-leaning but also tends to have strict editorial standards that make it easier for academics to thrive than it is for others, and since people who don't agree with a Wikipedia definition can change it, definitions for very common words like "woman" tend to have by now reached some level of "democratic convergence" even if the word's meaning has come into question in the last couple years. To my surprise just now, the definition that Matt Walsh gave Piers Morgan, which I felt was circular, is actually the surviving first line of the Wikipedia article for "Woman", but it isn't "circular" because we can click on "female" and see that in general they do not define it by chromosomes but by the ability to produce an egg cell, and specifically for humans the article about XXYY syndrome gives the clearest definition I have found so far:

"The appearance of at least one Y chromosome with a properly functioning SRY gene makes a male."

Based on that definition, not even the Y chromosome makes you a male, if you have a mutation on the SRY region of the Y chromosome, and in theory someone without a Y chromosome but with the same sequence of SRY nucleotides on a different chromosome, could be considered a male, but this type of extremely rare scenario is not what interests most people that ask the question "what is a woman?". At least one group (Wikipedians, based on fairly high standards for citations to primary resources by scientists, anthropologists, etc.) seems to have consensus on a definition that assigns "male" to anyone that has a functioning SRY gene on a Y chromosome, including:

  • XY
  • XXY (which happens in about 1 of every 2000 to 4000 live berths)
  • XXYY (which happens in about 1 of every 36,000 to 80,000 live births)
  • XXXY (which happens in about 1 of every 100,000 live births)
  • XXXXY (which happen in about 1 of every 170,000 to 200,000 live births)
  • XXXYY (which happens in less than 1 of every 1,000,000 people)
  • XYYYY (which happens in less than 1 of every 1,000,000 people)
  • XYYY
  • XYY, and
  • any other combination that contains a Y chromosome as long as the SRY region of it is functioning.

Their definition of a female is anyone that does not have a functioning SRY gene, so virtually everyone without a Y chromosome would be ruled out, including people with X, XX, XXX, or any other combination not including a Y chromosome, is a female.

However, the Wikipedia article Female also says:

"In humans, the word female can also be used to refer to gender in the social sense of gender role or gender identity."

As you can probably tell, I'm a scientist and have been trying to take as rigorous of an approach as possible here, but I do think it's fair for a word to have more than one definition (just look at any word in any dictionary and you'll likely see more than one definition), and Wikipedia is often not right but in this case seems to be spot on by saying that it depends on the context of whether you're interested in the biological definition or the sometimes-used (but increasingly so) social science definition.

If you will accept the second definition

The first definition of woman (adult human without a functioning SRY gene) is quite clear, as things in the hard sciences like biology usually are, so what about the "social science" definition?

This is my first time looking at any of these Wikipedia articles, but I again think that Wikipedia, over its years of edit wars and democratic path towards a consensus, has got this spot on in the Gender identity article:

"Gender identity is the personal sense of one's own gender."

As is common, the social science definition is not as clear as the hard science definition, but that is how it is and social science has its place in our world. According to this definition, if someone is "female" in the "gender identity sense" it means that they have a certain personal sense which is not defined in as clear of a way as physicists or biologists like to define things.

Note about biological definitions

Even hard science definitions change over time. The word atom is derived from the ancient Greek word "atomos" meaning "uncuttable", but we have "split the atom" into nucleons and electrons, and then nucleons into quarks, and we haven't detected these yet but there are theories that suggest that quarks are made of preons.

In biology, we didn't know about chromosomes until relatively recently. Before that the "definition of a woman" was probably "an adult human with a vagina" but when we discovered chromosomes the definition probably changed to "an adult human with the XX chromosome combination at location 23", but then we discovered that some people with the XY combination might not have a functioning SRY gene on their Y chromosome, which makes them grow into adults that fit much better with our notion of a "female" than "male", so the biological definition changed again, and it may change again.

What is a human?

This is not as easy of a question for biologists as the "common-sense" approach that Matt Walsh and others take. If you are reading this you are probably a Homo sapiens sapiens, which is a subspecies of the species Homo sapiens. There's also Homo sapiens idaltu (only discovered in 1997), Homo sapiens denisova, Homo sapiens heidelbergensis, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, etc., but what precisely makes these Homo sapiens and makes Homo erectus or Homo habilus a different "species", and what makes Australopithecus afarensis a different genus, is not as precise or as common-sense as people would hope (I have worked on this topic, and this paper was the culmination of work from 2009-2015 and my preliminary studies that went further back). The definition of species that we learn in school: "organisms that can reproduce with each other" is too simple because the liger was created by mating a lion and tiger (thought to be different species, and still considered to be different species) and people thought ligers can't reproduce but in 1943 a liliger was born with one parent being a liger and one being a lion, and the liliger survived to adulthood (there are many other examples, not just ligers and liligers).

What is a mammal?

I love this one! We grow up thinking that non-mammals lay eggs and mammals store their offspring in a uterus, but monotremes are egg-laying mammals and many reptiles give live births via oviducts that consist of a uterus and vagina. It turns out that mammary glands aren't enough to decide whether or not a species is a mammal. In my sophomore-university vertebrate zoology class, at least at the time that I took the course, I was amazed to learn that what distinguishes mammals from non-mammals has to do with the form of three bones of the middle ear (the malleus, incus and stapes).

Consequences

I'll try to address your follow-up questions:

"if someone can just 'identify' as a woman then isn't that just putting real women down? If saying that men who think they are women can be a woman, then doesn't that diminish what a woman is?"

Some genetic women (people who lack the SRY gene) feel down about it and some advocate for it. As for people with the SRY gene identifying as women, the impact of that depends on a lot of things. As a powerlifter we have the following age categories: Sub-Junior (18 and under), Junior (19-23), Masters 1 (40-49), Masters 2 (50-59), Masters 3 (60-69), and "Open" (24-39). "Lifters of any age can enter the Open class" so a 17-year-old or 69-year-old can compete in the "Open" class if they want to but anyone between 24-39 must compete in the Open class (and cannot compete with 15-year-olds). Perhaps there can be a class that is only for people without the SRY gene (what I have been calling "genetic women") and a separate class for people that identify as women but may or may not have the SRY gene, and Lia Thomas would be allowed to compete in this "Open" class but not in the one that is only for people without the SRY gene (this is still not a perfect solution because hormone replacement is known to be able to affect athletic performance in both beneficial and detrimental ways, so hormone levels may enter the discussion for the most fair athletic competitions). Likewise, perhaps there can be washrooms for people without the SRY gene, washrooms for people with the SRY gene, and also rooms that are the equivalent to powerlifting's "open" category (many places already have these "gender-neutral" washrooms: large places like universities and airports have enough space for all three types of washrooms, and small places like mom-and-pop restaurants usually have just one gender-neutral washroom anyway).

Conclusion

A word can have more than one meaning:

  • In the context of genetics, a woman is an adult human without a functioning SRY gene (not having a Y chromosome basically guarantees this, and having a Y chromosome almost always rules this out). Even hard-science definitions change over time though, and some biologists may disagree with this definition, but it is currently the most common and accepted definition world-wide among geneticists.

  • In the context of gender identity, a woman is someone who has a certain personal sense which doesn't yet have a single, precise, definition (but neither do a lot of things in social sciences and even in the hard sciences words like "species" and "human" and "mammal" are still changing and not as precise as "neutron" vs "proton").

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It's always had multiple contexts. In a biology lab, or a coming-of-age ceremony, the attention will be different.

In many social contexts, it is simple politeness to use the pronouns people ask you to. But in terms of what prison facilities people already arrested for being immoral and dishonest get put in, much harder thinking has to be done. There is a tension, between some of the goals and achievements of Feminism, and those who see gender as entirely volitional. Mostly people don't realise how far we are from that latter situation though, in the UK to legally change gender requires a Gender Recognition Certificate, which is meant to be very difficult to get and involves a multi-year process.

It's very likely that by the turn of the next century synthetic wombs or womb transplants will be possible - I mean the first human head transplant is being planned to happen before the end of the decade. So people with simplistic and rigid views about gender should think harder. The availability of synthetic hormones and surgeries is just the beginning of changing how rigid the categories are. The future is cyborg, as Donna Haraway would say, in the future not even human will be a clear category.

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A woman is someone would feel dysphoria if male, and not if female. I generally like this transmedicalist view because often purely social definitions end up with some dodgy self-referential definitions, however it still largely accommodates the (apparently) innate feelings of 'being a man' or 'being a woman' that people, particularly trans people, tend to experience. However, this may pose some issues for the classification of intersex people that I'm not entirely sure how to solve so it's definitely not perfect.

I'd also like to add that it takes on many different definitions, as someone said above, in a medical situation versus a coming-of-age ceremony. The above is generally my evaluation of what makes someone a man or a woman, but the word itself has many uses and definitions.

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Man from manus - hand. Guided by the God hand, lord's hand.

Human - humus+man, earth being, (agri-)cultural creature...

Woman - wife+man, from old-german wīfmann (“woman”), she, who has a birth giving possibility. Frau from *prau- - to throw out, about a baby ejecting function.

So a woman is that who can to give birth to a baby and throw it out from self. Man have a genus, a genus owner, woman belong to man's genus.

But in the modern(postmodern) moral customs all of these senses are meaningless.

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