Who and what is a ‘woman’… and what does it mean for feminism?

"The enigma that is woman will therefore constitute the target, the object, the stake, of a masculine discourse, of a debate among men, which would not consult her, would not concern her. Which, ultimately, she is not supposed to know anything about."

Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman

"...either I don't have any "self," or else I have a multitude of "selves" appropriated by them, for them, according to their needs or desires... I'm completely lost. In fact, I've always been lost, but I didn't feel it before. I was busy conforming to their wishes. But I was more than half absent." 

Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One

Every year, International Women's Day is celebrated around the world. Community groups hold nice, family-friendly events. All female punk bands perform in raucous joy and fury. Corporations co-opt the intent of the day for marketing purposes. 

But very few ask the question, "What is womanhood?" or, indeed, "What is a woman?"

In childhood, most of us are taught at every turn by the culture which surrounds us that humans exist in a simple binary: an either/or of male/female, boy/girl, man/woman. But the reality of sex and gender is far more complex.

When I was first learning feminism in-depth, the generally agreed standpoint was that sex is biological and gender is socially and culturally constructed. Then Judith Butler troubled our assumptions, by making the (rather obvious in retrospect) claim that sex and gender are both socially constructed. We cannot know sexual distinction outside of our social and cultural context, which shapes our thinking about what exists, and therefore what things-that-exist we are alert to observing and noticing.

The detail of sexual biology bears out her argument. Matters are nowhere near as simple as 'penis = male, vagina = female'. Hormones, chromosomes, and brain structures all play a part in biological sex, and they vary dramatically, in both men and women, far beyond oestrogen/testosterone and XX/XY

Even the obvious shaping of the visible body is not as simple as the hegemonic notion of a simple sexual binary. The existence of intersex people was long hidden from sight by doctors who routinely surgically altered their genitals at birth to conform to a single sex, without their consent, and often without that of their parents, either. 

Thankfully, this practice has shifted in many places, and is being challenged in others, but the attitudes behind it remain: that the body of every person must conform to normative cultural and social conventions when it comes to sex, as well as gender.

So what is a woman?

I am not a woman. I have 'female' secondary sexual characteristics. I was assigned female at birth and raised as a girl. I accepted the categorisation of 'woman' until very recently. 

But now, I am not a woman. I have not changed much, except getting a bit older, a bit fatter, and a lot more unwell -- but the boundaries I experience around what a woman 'is', socially and culturally, have become narrower, to the extent that I can no longer find myself within them. 

In addition, many branches of feminism have once again been taken over by biological essentialism, even though such essentialism is utterly contradicted by current scientific evidence. 

There is clearly no direct line from biology to womanhood, to say nothing of all the variety and diversity in the range and content of gender categories in human cultures and societies across time and space -- especially in pre-colonial cultures and societies -- including many that go far beyond a binary of male and female. The continuing existence of non-binary, agender, genderqueer, and genderfluid people even in 'Western' cultures also demonstrates that a fixed or binary sex/gender identity is not by any means the rule. 

At the same time, the existence of trans people whose absolute certainty in their actual and experienced sex and gender as a man or a woman is directly at odds with the sex assigned them at birth and expected of them by society, points to some element of binary sex/gender identity being innate, at least for some people. 

How can it be possible, then, to say what "a woman" is?

Luce Irigaray, quotes from whose work began this piece, says that it is in fact, not possible. She claims that 'woman' has been a complete unknown in Western cultures, because she has never been known by herself, for herself, but always through the eyes of men -- male psychoanalysts and male-viewpoint psychoanalysis, male philosophers and male-viewpoint philosophy.

According to Irigaray, women exist in Western culture only as projections of male fantasies, or as objects for men to circulate between them -- both literally and in terms of ideas. Fundamentally, women are only allowed existence insofar as they serve men. 

One of Irigaray's solutions to this is strategic essentialism -- the stating of a female subject position based in the female body, despite all of the reasons why this is counter to reality. This is not a solution I can get behind. Indeed, it could be seen as one of the roots of the increasing adherence to biological essentialism within feminism.

Instead, my answer is to acknowledge that sex and gender both exist in many parallel contexts at once.

In addition to the latest biological research, which leads to the conclusion that biological sex itself is extremely varied and multifarious, there is internal sex/gender identity, which may or may not accord with that assigned to us at birth, or the one in which we are raised.

Secondly, there is sex/gender expression and presentation, i.e. how we express and present our gender in different settings, through dress, habits, mannerisms, speech patterns, bodily movement, etc.. Some of this is unconscious, based in the patterns, mannerisms, etc. that were expected and rewarded in our childhood; some of it is conscious, a deliberate act of choosing from the current cultural and social resources available to us, in clothing, adornment, colour, use of language, style of movement etc.

Then there is social sex/gender identity, i.e. what other people see when they look at us. All of us make sexed/gendered meaning from one another's sex/gender expression and presentation, as well as our interpretation of one another's visible sexed and gendered physical characteristics. This social sex/gender identity includes the sex/gender assigned to us at birth, based on the appearance of our bodies.

Woven through all of these are the variations in sexed and gendered identities and resources for expression that come with our race/ethnicity, class/income, dis/ability, religion, sexuality, nationality, and other sources or lacks of social capital. 

But where does that leave us with feminism?

If the reality is that sex and gender are so multifarious, so varied, so complex, why bother? If 'woman' cannot even be found, what sense does it make to engage politically around women and women's rights?

The answer, I hope, should be obvious: because people's lives are at stake.

When it comes to the crunch, in law, policy, and our behaviour to one another, social sex/gender identity trumps all others. 

A child assigned female and raised as a girl in cultures which practice female genital mutilation will be subjected to it regardless of her internal sex/gender identity. 

But this is not an argument for biological essentialism.

A woman who was assigned male at birth -- a trans woman -- is at much greater risk of gender-based violence than a woman who was assigned female at birth.

A woman who was assigned female at birth -- a cis woman -- is at much greater risk of gender-based violence than a man who was assigned male at birth -- a cis man.

Men assigned female at birth -- trans men -- also face increased risk of gender-based violence as compared to cis people, both men and women, as do 'effeminate' gay men of all sex/gender histories.

In all of these examples, the violence meted out to women and gay men of all sex/gender histories, and to people assigned female at birth, is motivated by particular ideas about social sex/gender identity. Other people look at a person, judge their social sex/gender by their presentation, then mete out violence to keep them in their place within the social order, whatever the assailant has decided that is.

This is why I reject gender essentialism of any kind, even strategic essentialism, as a part of my feminism. The roots of gender-based violence are absolutely in misogyny -- but that does not mean that it only affects cis girls and women. 

My feminism will always be about combatting misogyny, never about policing inclusion into the social and cultural sex/gender category of 'woman'.

Image credit: photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash 

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