I teach an introductory philosophy class. Don’t tell my other classes, but it is my favorite. Two things that I repeat to my philosophy students are that 1) philosophy is relevant even though it may at times seem abstract or even absurd and 2) if you are going to do philosophy, you might be a bit of a nuisance. The person doing philosophy often challenges the conventions of crowds by raising an inconvenient hand and asking “why.” These two realities are what informed this post. We recently had a section of class devoted to metaphysics. Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of reality. There are concepts related to metaphysics that can make it difficult for students to recognize its relevance. There’s a lot of talk about universals, particulars, potentiality, actuality, causation, essences, natures, and on and on. In an effort to show the relevance of metaphysics on every day life, I started thinking about gender. Our discussions about gender do not only reflect a political or cultural divide. They also reflect a deep metaphysical divide as groups of people have wildly different understandings of the essential characteristics of women and men. Beginning with conflicting metaphysical assumptions is guaranteed to mean that conversation is going to be difficult. This leads to that second point about the philosopher as nuisance. It’s not my desire to court controversy. It’s also not my intention to say everything that could be said about gender in this measly post. But talking about gender nowadays is like throwing yourself onto the grinding gears of our culture. There are few topics that send conversations into yelling matches and unreason quicker than gender. Nevertheless, the person who wants to think deeply and philosophically can’t help but raise his or her hand and ask “why.” Even if some regard it as offensive to dare ask the question.
So, with that preamble, I’m daring to raise my hand and ask, “What is a woman?”
Some commentators like Matt Walsh have enjoyed inflaming emotions on this issue by asking for a definition of the word woman. Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of this method of incitement. “Owning the libs” or the cons might feel good, but it is also the type of political discourse that erodes the common good in favor of cheap tribalism. I know that Walsh is extremely polarizing, but his point deserves a hearing even if you don’t like him. The way that our culture has gone about talking about gender has made it extremely difficult to offer a coherent, stable definition of woman.* Absent a stable definition of the word, we are left clueless on how to have a meaningful conversation about important matters like women’s rights. We are put in a confusing situation where we are told how critical it is to be mindful of issues related specifically to women, but we are unsure if we know what a woman essentially is. Women are mysterious creatures, at least to most men, but we can’t have a rational society when something as basic as the definition of woman becomes inscrutable. We are unsure of how to talk about gender because the language is ever changing. And if you use words in the wrong way, the social consequences can be severe. So the overwhelming majority of people are left in a predicament. We either put our head down and pretend that we don’t see the incoherence – maybe we’ll even cheer the incoherence – or we take the risk of becoming the boy who dared to notice the nakedness of the emperor.
So how do we define woman? Well, there are three major possibilities.
- Biologically – The standard definition for woman is that it is “an adult female person.” This is the first definition offered by Webster’s Dictionary. This definition is grounded in biological realities. A woman is a female. The female of any species is identified by certain unique congenital traits not possessed by males of the species.
- Psychologically – Another definition for woman is grounded in psychological realities. Psychological realities represent a “what-it-is-like-ness.” There is something about what it is like to be a woman that is different than what it is like to be a man. This psychological definition acknowledges that men and women generally think and feel differently from each other. So it is possible for a person to feel like a woman even though that feeling might resist clear articulation.
- Functionally/Aesthetically – Finally, you could define woman in functional/aesthetic ways. A person may be womanly in the ways that she functions in a society or in her appearance. The third definition in Webster’s gets at this understanding: “distinctively feminine nature; womanliness.”
So which of these three definitions should provide the foundation for our understanding of woman? Or, to use more metaphysical language, what is the essence of a woman? An essence is a property that is necessary for the existence of a particular thing. An essence is a property where, if it were changed, the identity of a thing would also have to change. So, it is essential that a cup is a vessel capable of holding liquid, but it is not essential that a cup be a particular color in order to be called a cup. What is the essence of a woman? Well, the functional/aesthetic definition definitely won’t work because these standards change so much from culture to culture. There are clearly functional/aesthetic differences between men and women. To pretend otherwise is just delusional. But functional/aesthetic definitions are also very plastic. What is regarded as manly or womanly in one culture or one time period is not guaranteed to be the case in another. The other problem is that when you define gender primarily in terms of stereotypes you end up excluding people from your definition just because they don’t fit the stereotype. Can a person who only wears pants or who works in a factory still be regarded as a woman? Of course! The psychological definition won’t work either because the essence of a woman is grounded in subjectivity. Even though we could reliably say that there are similarities among women, one person’s “what-it-is-like-ness” is unique to that person and is accessible to no other person. In other words, grounding a definition of woman on psychology allows each person to define the word in whatever way seems best to them at any given time. Woman becomes a word with only private meanings. The only definition that works as an essential definition of woman is the biological definition. Nether a particular person’s social function, personal aesthetic, or subjective feeling disqualifies her from being properly called a woman. Similarly, function, aesthetic, or subjectivity do not automatically qualify a person to be called a woman. And this is how we arrived at our present incoherence. Having a metaphysic bound to biology will necessarily draw you into conflict with a person who has a conflicting metaphysic.
Consider that sexual orientations rely on biology as the basis of gender. Heterosexuality and homosexuality are completely meaningless terms if gender isn’t stable as a fundamentally biological reality. Transgender ideology** grounds its understanding of gender not in biology, but in psychology. A person may have a penis, but they are still a woman if they feel that they are a woman. This person will then routinely adopt a functional/aesthetic “womanliness” to support their subjective feeling. They are often more stereotypically a “woman” in look and dress than many biological women, sometimes adopting garishly feminine looks in an effort at authenticity. This difference in the importance of biology has led to uneasiness in the LGBT coalition, particularly the relationship between lesbians and transgender women. Biology is critically important to lesbians which is a potential affront to trans women who expect to be regarded as women in every way regardless of biology. The conflict between the groups often gets heated. To be called a TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) is a slur employed by trans activists against anyone who might be otherwise considered an ally in progressive gender issues but who questions their ideology. This isn’t merely about people being mean online. According to a shocking article from the BBC, some lesbians are allowing themselves to be raped by trans women out of fear of being outed as a TERF. If a lesbian is truly attracted to other women, then sex organs shouldn’t matter. A penis is a legitimate female sex organ according to some trans women. I’d encourage you to read the whole article. I should warn you though. It is very dark and vile stuff and it may be a trigger to anyone who has suffered sexual abuse in their past.
Now, all of the necessary caveats are needed. Again, it’s so fraught to even talk about these things. It is true that not all (or even most) transgendered people engage in the type of abuse mentioned above. It is also true that as Christian people, we have a debt of love with all people regardless of their orientation or identity. You could argue that we have a greater debt of love with people who are from marginalized communities due to the abuse that they so regularly endure. I am also willing to grant that these issues are extremely complex and personal.
But I am no longer willing to put my head down and ignore the incoherence. A couple weeks ago, The New York Times tweeted this:
Whatever your understanding of gender identity, it is flatly untrue to call Rachel Levine a female if that word has any remaining association with biology. It is no longer enough to call Rachel Levine a woman. Biology – including the word female – have to be swallowed up by the ideology. The tweet isn’t just a lie. It is gaslighting. It is intended to make you question your reality. “No, Rachel Levine is definitely a female. You are the one who is crazy.” They are parading in front of you, daring you to point and say they are naked. Maybe it’s time people took them up on the dare.
*It’s equally hard to offer a stable definition of “man” but much of the debate about defining genders seems, for the moment, to be more relevant to women than men. For instance, we are much more concerned about things like women’s bathrooms and women’s sports than we are about men’s. I think there are reasons for this disparity, but that’s not something I’m exploring in this post.
**I use this language to draw a distinction between transgender ideology which is a largely political/cultural movement and gender dysphoria which is a psychological condition.