What is a woman? What is a transwoman?

Re-posted from http://www.aguycalledhelen.com

I think that these are really important questions. On the surface they seem quite simple questions but once you start to look at the implications we can start to understand what the real issues might be.

The question is about the definition of woman. A good place to start with definitions is usually the dictionary.

“woman
noun
An adult human female.

I don’t think that the definitions of human or adult are in contention, but let’s look at the dictionary definition of female.

“female
noun
Of or denoting the sex that can bear offspring or produce eggs, distinguished biologically by the production of gametes (ova) which can be fertilized by male gametes.”

We could just leave it there, and some people would like us to, but I don’t think that fully answers the question and wouldn’t help us to understand why these are contentious words.

The words man and woman are imbued with social connotation.

“imbue
verb
inspire or permeate with (a feeling or quality).

“connotation.
noun
an idea or feeling which a word invokes for a person in addition to its literal or primary meaning.

In our society the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ mean so much more than their literal meanings. The word ‘woman’ is imbued with what we understand women to be in relation to our culture and our social environment.

We live in a society where we have very distinct expectations of what men and women are expected to be. We have commonly accepted rules for what are considered acceptable and unacceptable behaviours for men and women.

So what is gender? Well here is where it starts to get tricky because even just looking at dictionary definitions we seem to get into a bit of a mess.

“gender
noun

  1. The members of one or other sex
  2. The state of being male or
    female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones).
  3. The behavioural, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex

The first definition isn’t really very helpful as it is just the same as sex.

The second definition is a bit of a mess and actually encapsulates the confusion that we often get into. If ‘female’ denotes the sex that can bear offspring or produce eggs how can the state of being female have anything to do with social differences rather than biological differences? It’s a contradiction in terms.

The third definition I think pretty much nails it and that is what I mean if I refer to gender from now on.

Ok. Still with me? Good. So armed with this we know that the dictionary definition of ‘woman’ is an adult human female, but it has connotations of gender i.e. it invokes the idea of the behavioural, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with females.

In this sense it is quite easy to define gender identity and transgender (and apologies in advance for the repetition that is coming)

Gender Identity is how a person identifies with the behavioural, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex.”

Transgender is used to describe a person of one sex who identifies with the behavioural, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with the opposite sex.”

“A transwoman is a male who identifies with the behavioural, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with females.”

That last sentence is probably quite provocative, but it isn’t meant to be. I understand that saying that a transwoman is male hurts a lot of trans people and I understand why. But it isn’t meant to hurt. It’s a rational and honest way of describing the situation. Of course there is merit in deconstructing this further and stopping to explore why it hurts so much, but that would be a whole post in itself. We could also explore the fact that the experiences of some transwomen feel like so much more than identifying with certain traits and it’s a feeling that the whole body is wrong and that this totally ignores the feeling of body dysphoria. These are valid points for discussion also.

Now if everybody agreed on these definitions of gender identity and transwoman we could stop here, but actually these definitions are problematic to different groups in different ways.

The trans community has adopted the mantra that “transwomen are women” and of course promotes any scientific evidence that suggests that there are physiological factors in play and rejects any scientific evidence that there aren’t any inherent differences between male and female brains. “Transwomen are women” makes sense in the context that we live in a society which is heavily based on gender and so we are more closely aligned with the superficial traits associated with females than those associated with males and seek to integrate with that social group. The argument is that trans people just want to be free to get on with their lives without rejection or stigma and so the tolerant and compassionate thing to do is to accept us as women. It is how we identify and how we attempt to live.

However, the feminist community rightly points out that women have been oppressed for millennia not because of their ‘gender identity’, but because of their sexual and reproductive capacity as females. Feminists, especially radical feminists are also opposed to the concept of “lady brain” as this has been used as a justification for the oppression of females and instead assert that male and female brain function is inherently the same, and that any differences are a result of socialisation. This community tends to reject the assertion that the scientific evidence presented of measurable differences between female and male brain function is evidence that the differences are  innate rather than socialised. Instead they point to the growing evidence that there are no real differences.

An important point is also that radical feminists see gender (as described in the third definition above) as being a tool of oppression. The traits and behaviours expected of males and females places women (as a class) in a position of being subjugated by men (as a class). As a result many adopt a position of gender abolition and believe that the emancipation of women can only be achieved through abolishing the rules that constrain the acceptable
behaviours of males and females.

So we can see how these two viewpoints conflict.

Gender abolitionists want to break the association between sex and behavioural, cultural, or psychological traits and so find the implication that women are defined by these things as both insulting and regressive. Hence they reject the assertion that males who identify with these traits are women as that reinforces the association that they reject.

Having spent years thinking about these things and exploring them, I believe that the aims of gender abolition actually serve women and transwomen equally. Both sides want the same thing. That we can all be free to not conform to the behaviours and traits assigned to us because of our genitals.

As a result, whilst I can see how “transwomen are women” makes sense with reference to cultural norms, I support gender abolition as a cause that better serves women and transwomen and so I don’t believe it’s necessary to consider transwomen to be a subset of women in order to support us and free us from constraints and stigma.

Read more posts by A Guy Called Helen

2 comments on “What is a woman? What is a transwoman?

  • 21st October 2016 at 19:17
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    What I LOVE about this post is that it’s not a male telling us what we are – but a male understanding the difficulties in the question. The fact that she’s a male ‘woman’ makes it all the more valuable.

    Big squishy hugs, Helen!




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  • 22nd October 2016 at 16:18
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    Very good.




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