What does it mean to be a man or a woman?

[This was an exchange with Michael Hauskeller, originally hosted on the platform Letter (soon closing). There’s a more scholarly version of our exchange now published in Michael’s book The Things That Really Matter (UCL Press, 2022), which is available for free download here.]

Letter 1 | Michael Hauskeller | 1st September 2020

Dear Holly,  

I am wondering what it means to be a man or a woman. I have never had any doubt that I am a man, nor have I ever had any problems with being one. I am neither proud nor ashamed of it. Nor do I think it is in any way a big deal. Being a man is simply one of many things that I have always assumed can be truthfully said about me, just as it can be truthfully said about me that I am Caucasian, or that I am human. Like these other descriptive attributes, I used to take my gender for a fact of life: some people are men, others are women, and I happen to be one of the former. 

It is, however, not entirely obvious what ‘being a man’ actually means or entails and in what way and to what extent it defines my identity, making me who I am. Would I be a different person if I were a woman? And what would it take for me to be a woman? Could I conceivably be neither? Or both? 

The main reason, I suppose, that I call myself a man and not a woman, and others see and treat me as one, is that I have certain physical attributes that identify me to myself and others as a biologically male member of our species, for instance my sex organs, my beard, and a physique and facial features that are far more common in males than in females of our species. In other words, I look like a person needs to look if they wish to be immediately recognized as a man by others, especially since I also dress like a man is supposed to dress in our time and social environment. Clearly, though, some of those attributes that allow others, or make it easier for them, to recognize me as a man are not essential to my being a man in the sense that without them I would no longer be one. At least in the kind of society in which we live, if I cut off my beard, I would still, unambiguously, count as a man. However, if I changed the way I dress to a more ‘womanly’ appearance, people might initially be more hesitant to see me as a man, but in the end and if nothing else has changed they would probably settle on seeing me not as a woman, but as a man who dresses like a woman, the reason being that what people tend to see as the most if not only essential condition of being a man is being in possession of the kind of reproductive organs that the vast majority of biologically male humans possess. When pushed, people tend to identify gender (being a man or being a woman) with sex (being male or female).

Then again, we often talk and behave as if being a man required more than just being male, and being a woman required more than just being female. There are expectations that need to be met if someone wants to fully qualify as a man or a woman in their social environment, expectations regarding their behaviour as well as character. If for instance a man seems to lack the kind of courage and resolve that we think is merited and required in a certain situation we tell him to “man up”, “be a man”, or “grow some balls”. Women can of course show courage and resolve as much as men do, but it seems that this is not part of their established role description. Men on the other hand are believed to have failed as men if they are not brave and determined; if they are not, they do not meet the essential criteria for the job of being a man. Mechanical skills and today computer skills are also on the imagined list of essential criteria. The other day I watched an episode of the American TV show Modern Family, in which the dad, Phil Dunphy, was trying in vain to figure out how to get one of the smoke detectors in the house to stop beeping. What made his failure especially painful and humiliating for him was the fact that, in his own perception, this is the kind of thing that men are supposed to be able to fix, and he just couldn’t do it. “Changing the battery in a smoke detector is what they teach you in Man 101. So, of course, every time I hear that noise all I hear is, ‘Beep beep! You’re not a man! Beep beep! You’re not a …”

In his own estimate, Phil Dunphy is “not a man” because he is not the way he has been trained to think that men are supposed to be: skilful, tech-savvy. No doubt there is also a Woman 101, where women learn how to be a good or true woman, what to do and what not to do, and how to be and how not to be.

If gender were nothing but sex, statements like the one just cited would make little sense. Of course we can disagree with Phil Dunphy about what it means to be a man and how we need to behave in order to secure or maintain our manhood, but we are all likely to have some deeply ingrained understanding of what makes a man a man and a woman a woman that goes beyond mere biology. Does it, however, follow that gender can, if necessary or desired, be completely detached from sex, that I can be a woman despite having all the physical attributes of a male member of my species, or a man despite being biologically female? If this were so and we can safely ignore our physical constitution, how would we, given that there is no agreement on what makes a man a man and a woman a woman, decide who is what?

Letter 2 | Holly Lawford-Smith | 1st September 2020

Dear Michael,

I think you’re right to note that while people tend to identify gender (which you describe as being a woman or a man) with sex (which you describe as being female or male), there is also more to gender than sex. As you say, there are social ideas about being a woman and being a man that can lead to individual women and men feeling like failures as women and men. 

Feminists since the very beginning have been interested in identifying those social ideas that contribute to the meaning of ‘woman’, in order to show that they do not actually have much to do with women as people. Suppose our social idea of ‘woman’ at a particular time was that she is passive, submissive, weak; nurturing, caring, warm; she lives to serve others, particularly men and children. Feminists have argued that she might look that way, but this is only because she has been denied an equal education, or because she depended on marriage to a man for economic security, or because nearly all intellectual culture (e.g. science, literature, the arts) characterized her as inferior, as lacking, and she believed it.

Feminists aimed to show that the idea of ‘woman’ is something that has been created by men, and really does not have much to do with women themselves. If they could articulate all those social ideas and separate them from women, then they could liberate women to truly be themselves.

This did not really happen with men, which is why your Phil Dunphy could still feel like a failure as a man for not being able to stop the smoke alarm from beeping. Men never had a movement to identify all the social ideas about ‘man’ and work out how little they had to do with men, the people. I think that is part of the explanation for what is going on at the moment with changing ideas about sex and gender. Because men have not done this work as a class, individual men are literally fleeing from the category ‘man’. Some are trying to set up a new category – ‘nonbinary’ – but some are fleeing into the ‘woman’ category. And this, predictably, is causing some problems for women.

You asked whether it follows from the fact that there is more to gender than sex that “gender can (…) be completely detached from sex, that I can be a woman despite having all the physical attributes of a male member of my species”. I definitely do not think that is what the feminists were trying to do, but I think it is what modern trans activism is trying to do. Feminists were trying to decouple sex and gender in order to throw gender away. They wanted to show that those ideas about ‘women’ did not have anything to do with actual women, and they wanted women to be free to express themselves exactly as they pleased, to be and do whatever they wanted. 

Furthermore, they thought that it was no accident that the content of gender applied to female people was subordinating. That was the whole point of gender – a thousands of years old set of ideas that had grown up as part of an ideology to justify male supremacy. No feminist in her right mind is going to look at a system like that and say, ‘you know what, there’s a lot of value in the content of gender here, so instead of throwing it away we should simply detach it from females, so that everyone has an equal opportunity to be subordinated’. 

But that is what trans activism is trying to do (with quite a bit of success). There are men who like the content of gender applied to females and want it for themselves. For them, we should not detach sex from gender in order to get rid of gender and liberate female people, rather we should detach sex from gender a bit in order to let some men have that gender too. And the worst part is that this only works if we detach it a bit rather than fully; men cannot be women if no women are women anymore. If we detach sex from gender and all the female people are liberated and so no longer women, then only the men who liked the content of women’s subordination would be ‘women’. But for it to be intelligible that they actually are women, it probably cannot be only men in the category,

I have been using the terminology you introduced, of ‘woman’ for gender and ‘female’ for sex. But I do not actually agree with it. I agree with the sex/gender distinction because I think it is helpful to distinguish the physical subjects (e.g. human females) that particular ideas about gender are applied to. But I do not think that a female person who is non-conforming relative to those ideas is not a woman. I think men’s ideas about women do not have much to do with women. (Rather than, men’s ideas about women do not have much to do with female people, therefore there are no/few women). I prefer to use ‘female’ and ‘woman’ synonymously to track the physical subjects, and refer to the ideas about gender that are applied to her as ‘femininity’.

If we had been using the terminology that way all along, we would be in a lot less trouble now. Saying that a man can be feminine, or can identify with femininity, is not difficult to understand, and no one would think this makes him a woman or makes him female. It is because we detached the idea of gender and called it ‘woman’ that we ended up in a situation where some people do think that you, Michael, could be a woman with your male body and male appearance, simply by identifying as a woman (which must mean, identifying with your man’s understanding of what a woman is).

Letter 3 | Michael Hauskeller | 1st September 2020

Dear Holly,  

I am intrigued by your suggestion that people who are biologically male but self-identify as women may do so because they like the social role that is traditionally assigned to women and want that role for themselves. That does not make much sense to me, at least not if we see that role as subordinate and associated with passivity, submissiveness, and weakness. If these were the attributes that defined a woman socially, then role-envy, if we may call it that, would be much more plausible as a motive in the case of women self-identifying as men, because it is easier to see something desirable in being, or appearing to be, active, dominant, and strong rather than passive, submissive, and weak. (Of course it is entirely possible that this is just my man’s perspective speaking.) Even if the envy were focused on the in my view much more positive ‘womanly’ attributes of being nurturing, caring, and warm, it would still be puzzling because there does not seem to be any good reason to think that one cannot be all that while still being a man (or, for that matter, be all that while being active, dominant, and strong). There may be certain gender role expectations and stereotypes, but they are actually far less rigid today than they used to be. It is also not the case that trans women tend to be particularly passive, submissive, and weak, nor are they, as a group, particularly nurturing, caring, and warm. 

If role-envy is indeed a causal factor here, then we should expect that there is some actual or perceived advantage to being a woman that certain men would like to share, and some advantage to being a man that certain women would like to share. And perhaps there are such advantages in either case. However, I do not think that this is what is going on here, at least not primarily. It is one thing to say that I want to enjoy the advantages of the gender role that society typically reserves for the other sex, and quite another to claim that I feel ‘trapped in my body’ because I am actually a woman who happens to have been born with a biologically male body. It may be politically opportune to make such a claim because it gives a lot more weight to the demand that one be addressed and treated as a woman despite not being one in the biological sense (which in the common understanding is the primary sense of the word ‘woman’). But the claim itself is ontological: it is about what I am, and not about what I want to be or have, or how people should or should not behave towards me. And that is what makes it so interesting philosophically because it is not at all obvious what exactly it is that is being claimed here. For that reason, it is also unclear what would make such a claim true or false.

Say I develop a strong conviction that the sex assigned to me at birth does not match my true gender identity. When I was born, people thought, based solely on the evidence of my sexual organs, that I was a boy, but now I have come to realize that I am in fact a woman. Why would I think that? One possible reason might be my sexual preferences. Perhaps I feel sexually attracted to men and not to women. But most men who feel sexually attracted to men do not think that this is because they are actually women. They are simply men who happen to be attracted to other men. So this cannot be it. What other options are there? Since my body is undoubtedly and unambiguously that of a male member of my species, the only other option seems to be that I feel like a woman. But what does that mean? Since biologically I am not a woman, I have no way of knowing what it feels like to be a biological woman (just as I have no way of knowing what it is like to be a bat). Presumably, then, I am not really feeling like a woman, but how I image a woman feels. But why should I presume that there is a particular way that a woman feels that is different from the way a man feels? Do all women feel alike? Is there a special experiential quality to being a woman (which is unconnected to their female bodies and hence their sex), and a different experiential quality to being a man? And if so, what would that quality be?

Letter 4 | Holly Lawford-Smith | 2nd September 2020

Dear Michael,

You say role envy cannot be the explanation of men identifying as women, because it is surely not that appealing to envy being passive, submissive, weak as opposed to active, dominant, strong. But you are overlooking the sexual domain. Women are sexual objects. Women are subject to the male gaze. According to sexist ideology, women are for fucking. In an average causal heterosexual encounter, the man can expect to dominate in the bedroom, the woman can expect to be dominated. Thoroughgoing sexual objectification – by which I mean, objectification which extends into all or most aspects of life, rather than being restricted to the bedroom – is something that men cannot experience as men. Men are the ones doing the gazing, the fucking, and the dominating.

But what if you are a man who finds the thought of sexual subordination exciting? It would seem the only way to truly secure this, not just in the bedroom but in your everyday life, is to become a woman. You can find this motivation in the writings of some men who identify as women. Andrea Long Chu is the most honest about it – he literally says that sissy porn made him trans (you can find this on p. 79 of Females). Anne Lawrence gathered testimonies from autogynephilic males (this means, men who identify as women, but who are not homosexual). Here are a couple, just to make the point: “My sexual fantasies all include myself in female form, either being forced to become female or voluntarily. Frequently they involve a submissive element on my part: I am either forced to be a woman or forced to behave in a particularly submissive manner” (Men Trapped in Men’s Bodies, p. 47); and another one, “I have also questioned myself on whether I’m gay. But I just don’t think so, as I have never really thought of having sex with a guy when I’m physically male. At the same time, I have also fantasized myself being a woman and being gang raped” (same book, p. 52). 

What is fascinating about this is that it is actually consistent with a radical feminist analysis – Catharine MacKinnon thought that women’s subordination was primarily sexual. So the men who identify as women because they want to be sexually subordinated actually understand something of crucial importance about the politics of sex inequality. MacKinnon talks about the content and consequence of women’s sexual subordination: male control of abortion, birth control, forced sterilization, domestic violence, rape, incest, violence against lesbians, sexual harassment, prostitution, trafficking for prostitution, and pornography (this discussion happens in her paper ‘Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: An Agenda For Theory’). Of course, there is something pretty grim about men finding sexual excitement in the thing that is the source of so much suffering for women.

I should clarify that I am not saying all men who identify as women are doing so for sexual reasons. There is a lot of evidence from the sexology in the late 1980s through the 1990s that many men who identified as women had this motivation – basically all those who were not gay (this was before ‘gender identity’ took over as the sanitized explanation for all things trans). But the fact that some, if not many, men who identify as women are doing so for sexual reasons helps to explain why the envy point stands even when we might otherwise consider it incomprehensible. It also helps to explain why so many women are angry about the vociferous trans rights movement, because it is literally pitting women’s safety against men’s sexual rights and elevating the latter.

The other point you made was about hypothethical-you’s claim to be a woman, and how that connects to knowing what it is like to be a woman. I think this claim, when men make it, is enormously hubristic, and reveals a complete dismissal of women. It is ‘colonial’ in the metaphorical sense – it treats ‘woman’ as a sort of conceptual terra nullius, that has no indigenous inhabitants. ‘Here is an idea I have!’, proclaims the man, ‘I am woman’. The woman sitting next to him looks up and blinks hard a few times in rapid succession. Maybe he will see her there, and notice that she is woman, and wonder what they have in common? Maybe he will ask her? But he does not.

As I said earlier, men’s idea of ‘woman’ really has little to do with woman, and that is as true as it was six hundred years ago when Christine de Pizan wrote The Book of the City of Ladies, reflecting on all the denigrating things men had written into the scholarly texts about women at the time; as it is now, with men claiming that indeed they are women. In response to the former, feminism eventually emerged, and pushed back on men’s ideas about woman. We should have the vote; we deserve an education; we need equal political rights; we need legal protection against discrimination; women said. But there is no ‘feminist movement’ against today’s men identifying as women. On the contrary, the feminist movement has embraced these men, and thrown out its definition of ‘woman’ and the attached sense of what feminism is and who it is for. It is also in the process of throwing out all the women who say, however cautiously, that something seems to have gone wrong here.

Letter 5 | Michael Hauskeller | 2nd September 2020

Dear Holly,

You make it sound as if the whole transgender rights movement is nothing but a clever ploy of men to extend and consolidate their dominion over women. While I appreciate the apparent absurdity of a man telling women what being a woman really means, and while finding the idea of sexual subordination arousing might indeed be a reason for some to seek a female gender identity, we should not forget that there are also a lot of trans men out there. And if a man should not assume to know what it is to be a woman, then I suppose the same must be true for women: they should not assume to know what it is to be a man. If men’s ideas of ‘woman’ have little to do with real women, then women’s ideas of ‘man’ are unlikely to have much to do with real men. But all this assumes that there is some unbridgeable difference between men and women that makes it virtually impossible for either to understand the other. I do not see any good reason to believe that. While it is true that I do not know what it is like to have a female body, surely this is only one aspect of what makes you, a woman, what you are. We may not share those particular bodily features, but there are plenty of other things that we have in common, perhaps many more than I have in common with most other men. I may not know what it is to be a woman, but I also do not know what it is to be, say, a New Zealander, or to be only 1.50 m tall, or to be born with a disability, or to have grown up in Italy, or to be super-rich. Ultimately, I do not know what it is to be someone other than the person that I in fact am. I can, however, imagine what it must be like to be in a very different situation, and while what I imagine might not be entirely accurate (since I have never actually been in that situation), it does not have to be completely wrong either. Why would my imagining what it is to be a woman be any different?

I think we need to resist the temptation to attach too much importance to the supposed differences between men and women, and instead insist that the only difference between men and women lies in certain features of their bodies, and that everything else is not in any way essential to being a woman or being a man. That includes what you say about men, that they “are the ones doing the gazing, the fucking, and the dominating”. Clearly, a woman can do that too, and in fact the vast majority of women objectify men sexually just as much as men objectify women. Non-objectification defines a woman no more than weakness or subordination does. We are all different from each other, and we all have a lot in common, too, both with those of our own sex and with those of the opposite sex.

For me, this makes it even more puzzling that so many people these days seem to believe that they have somehow been assigned the wrong gender, insisting that, even though their bodies are unambiguously male or female, what they really are is different from what their bodies say they are. What I would like to understand is what this claim, which is a claim about identity and not just preference, is based on. When I, a biological male, self-identify as a woman, what I am claiming is not that I wish I were a woman and that I would very much like people to treat me as one. Rather, what I am claiming is that I am a woman, and that precisely because I am, I have a right to be recognized and treated as one. But my body is a male body, so what exactly is it that I think makes me a woman? From our discussion so far it would seem that it is not enough to feel like a woman, for one thing because it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a biological male to know how women feel, and for another because it seems rather unlikely that there really is such a thing as “feeling like a woman”. So it seems to me that we can only make sense of that claim if we think that there is some sort of female essence that is present in women, including trans women, but not present in men, a bit like the traditional ‘soul’ that is believed to exist independent of the body, except that now that soul is seen as gendered. It is a revival of the old Cartesian dualism, which is problematic in its own right. But even if that does not trouble us, can we say anything more about that gendered soul, except that it is female or male? If so, are we doing more here than unduly essentialising certain social norms and expectations? And if not, if being a man and being a woman is a basic quality that cannot be analysed any further, how do we recognize it? Is it something directly intuited? I know I am a woman, I might say. But how do I know?

Let us assume I self-identify not as a woman, but as black. This might happen less often, but it has happened, and it is curious that such claims have been widely and vehemently rejected as preposterous. Apparently a person who has all the physical attributes of a man can be a woman, but someone who has all the physical attributes of a white person cannot be a black person, no matter how they feel about it or how convinced they are of it. Yet what exactly is it that makes many people view those cases so differently?

Letter 6 | Holly Lawford-Smith | 2nd September 2020

Dear Michael,

You said ‘if men’s ideas of ‘woman’ have, as you say, little to do with real women, then women’s ideas of ‘man’ are unlikely to have much to do with real men’. I do not think that is right, because it presumes that there is symmetry in the knowledge base. But there is not. Men have literally written history. They have held most of the positions of power, they have written most of the laws, the science, the history books. They have produced most of the art, including the books, films, television, and radio shows that represent women characters. They have given themselves a central place.

Any woman alive today is likely to have been exposed, throughout her education and across her exposure to media and entertainment, to men’s stories, men’s accomplishments, men’s thoughts and ideas. Women have an abundance of material on which to draw if they want to understand men. And we know from other minority groups that when there is a very serious social power differential, as there was between black and white people during slavery, and between men and women when women were economically dependent upon men through marriage and the family, the class who are worse off tend to become experts in the class who are better off, because this helps them to survive. So I think if a woman says she identifies as a man, there is a much stronger sense in which she could be getting something right – at least, she knows what it is, roughly, to be a man, and she is saying she wants a slice of that.

Not so for the man who says he identifies as a woman. There are so many examples of the ways that we can be completely unaware of things just because they do not affect us – Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women is absolutely crammed with examples of the ways that women’s issues have been invisible to men. Here is just one tiny example: when Apple developed HealthKit to track people’s health, it managed to overlook menstruation. Probably because it was developed by men, and this just did not occur to them. I agree with you that this knowledge gap is not ‘radical, unbridgeable’. I think if men wanted to, they could bridge it. But the extent of the problem we still have is striking, and I have not seen any evidence that trans women are better at bridging it than other men.

You also said “in fact the vast majority of women objectify men sexually just as much as men objectify women”. Hah! I hope it does not seem too obnoxious to suggest that this might be an example of what I have just been trying to explain, namely some things being largely invisible to men, which allows them (here, you) to assume the situation is roughly symmetrical for the sexes. Girls start being sexually objectified by boys and men around the age of puberty. They are routinely subject to sexualised comments about their bodies and appearance, from people they know, and from people they don’t, e.g. in street harassment and catcalling. Many teenage girls develop eating disorders or self-harming problems in what is arguably a result of this treatment. Pornography, which presents a particularly distorted view of women and girls as things for men to fuck, makes this situation considerably worse. Advertising uses women’s bodies and women’s sexuality to sell products. In her representations in film and television she is generally presented as something whose primary value lies in her appearance. None of this is true for men. I am sure you can find some examples of a handsome shirtless man being used to sell cologne or whatever, but this is nowhere near as pervasive, and with nowhere near the consequences, as it has for girls. For even while men are objects they are also subjects, and this is unfortunately often not true for women and girls. No wonder so many girls today are declaring themselves to be men!

Which, of course, takes us nicely to your point about trans men, and whether the existence of trans men shows that trans activism can’t just be “a clever ploy of men to extend and consolidate their dominion over women”. I think trans men’s reasons are very different to trans women’s and have more to do with escaping the clutches of socialised femininity (and in some cases, escaping homophobia). It is the ideology that you can be whatever you identify as that has created the ‘refugees’ from sex categories, and perhaps they have in common that in both the female and the male case, trans individuals want not that – where ‘that’ is the stereotypes and expectations imposed on people of their sex. But their reasons for seeking asylum have very little in common apart from that. I think this started with men (nearly all transsexuals were male) and then the ideology created an opportunity for some women.

Finally! Your comments about dualism and gender essences seemed exactly right to me, and I find it amusing that this movement is billed as progressive when it is really just a return to the ancient Greeks! I also have all the same questions you have, about how arbitrary it seems to be advocating self-identification for sex but not for race, and not for identifying as a specific person. I cannot find the logic in it. It would be good if there was something I could say that would help us to advance on this point, but I really don’t have anything to suggest. I think it is nonsense. Like you, I think the unavoidable differences between men and women are mainly, if not entirely, differences in our bodies (and differences in experiences that come from those, in context). But there are other avoidable differences that come from how sexist particular societies are or have been.

Letter 7 | Michael Hauskeller | 3rd September 2020

Dear Holly,  

If I understand you correctly, what you are saying is basically that, because men have always been so dominant, women know very well what it is to be a man (mostly: to be in a position of power) – which is why women who self-identify as men are “getting something right” – whereas men who self-identify as women have no idea what they are talking about because women have never been properly heard, so men cannot possibly know what it is like to be a woman. And yet you also said earlier that trans women are motivated by a (in your view twisted or at any rate misguided) desire to experience for themselves the submissive role that men think women should occupy. I do not quite see how these two claims can both be true, but the power dynamics between men and women is not really the issue here, at least not for me. You look at things from a gender-political perspective, whereas I try to do so from a gender-metaphysical angle. I want to understand what ‘being a man’ or ‘being a woman’ actually means in order to make sense of claims by some biological males that they are in fact women, by some biological females that they are in fact men, and by some biological males and some biological females that they are in fact neither. To understand and assess these claims (which pose exactly the same difficulty ontologically), their personal reasons for making such a claim are not really relevant. People do all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons. And there are also many different ways of being a woman and being a man, or perhaps I should say, many different ways of being a person. As far as I am concerned, people should be free to be whatever they want to be, provided they do not harm other people in the process. If a biological male wants me to address him as a woman, or a biological female wants me to address her as a man, or if they want me to call them ‘they’ because they identify with neither, I am happy to oblige and call him ‘she’, and her ‘he’, or both ‘they’, and treat them with the same respect I show to every other person. I do not need to know why they prefer that particular social identity (‘man’ or ‘woman’), or prefer not to be burdened with any gender-related social identity at all (‘non-binary’); it is none of my business. I appreciate this can cause problems in certain contexts (for instance when it comes to the use of public bathrooms or changing rooms, or in sports where it raises issues of fairness in sex-segregated athletic competitions), but apart from that we should respect people’s choices to live and present themselves any way they want. But that does not mean I have to unquestioningly accept an identity claim that, on the face of it, is highly paradoxical. 

It seems to me that while we can change our social identity, that is the way we present ourselves and through this possibly also the way we are perceived by others, we cannot change what we are simply by declaring ourselves to be something on the inside that we are not on the outside, especially if what we claim to be on the inside is something that can by its very nature only exist on the outside. We are embodied beings, and my sex is just as much a biological fact, that is a fact about my body, as is the colour of my skin, or my height, or my species affiliation. There is of course also the social role that is commonly associated with a particular sex – which is what we normally mean by gender – but that role is precisely not something that I am, but consists mainly in social expectations, which, even though we may have internalized them to a certain extent, we are ultimately free to reject. And that is indeed what many people do or try to do today. Gender non-conformity may indeed be a good way to break down gender norms and make everyone more free, and it may well be that the most effective way of doing this is by declaring oneself to be ‘non-binary’, while declaring oneself to be a ‘man’ in a female body, or a ‘woman’ in a male body is probably less so because it might actually reinforce certain gender stereotypes. But all such attempts to reinvent oneself can easily be understood as acts of defiance – a refusal to be pigeonholed and an insistence that one is unique, uncategorizable, oneself only rather than this or that – and as such they are quite understandable and legitimate. 

However, the narrative that is often being used here to convince others of the legitimacy of such conversions (and of the rights claims and demands that are being tied to them) strongly suggests that gender is presented here neither as a social construct nor a biological fact, but as something much deeper and more foundational, and unconnected to both my body and my social role. It is, rather, made out to be an essential part of what I really, truly am, and something that I can discover myself to be. What puzzles me is this narrative of detached authenticity and self-discovery. It is one thing to reject the gender norms that society inflicts on us, and quite another to think that we or our true selves are somehow trapped in the wrong body, as if our body had no relevance to what we are. But it does. We can sometimes change what we are, but we are not free to be anything we want to be, and reality cannot be neatly separated from materiality (which is, contra Plato, not mere appearance). 

Letter 8 | Holly Lawford-Smith | 4th September 2020

Dear Michael,

I agree with most of what you just said. I share your puzzlement about the idea that genders are essential parts of what we really, truly are; I too reject the bad metaphysics behind the idea that our bodies have little to do with our ‘selves’. (By the way, if you haven’t read it, Kasja Ekman’s book Being and Being Bought notes that this kind of self/body dualism is used ideologically to support institutionalized surrogacy and prostitution—the use of the body becomes a good/service, rather than a selling/renting of the self).

One thing I didn’t agree with is your optimism, I think, about the new gender category of ‘non-binary’ being a good way to help to break down gender roles. It does change something, by creating a third gender category, so there’s a bit more freedom for the people who choose to opt into it. But it can also do what you noted straightforward swapping of categories could do (from man to woman or from woman to man), namely reinforce gender stereotypes. That’s because non-binary people, just like transgender people, make an exception of themselves: by saying I am not my sex they are in effect also saying, this is not a way that someone of my sex can be. The transgender person says he is more like the opposite sex, the non-binary person says she is not like either sex.

But they are both some way: suppose the transgender person is a feminine male and the nonbinary person is an androgynous female. Why isn’t ‘feminine’ a way to be a man, though, or ‘androgynous’ a way to be a woman? If you ask, they’ll say, it is! But this person just happens not to be merely a feminine man, he is in fact a woman (because he identifies as a woman). So then you have two people side by side who are materially pretty much identical, but somehow one is trans and one is not, because they identify differently. If this catches on—which it seems like it is doing, with huge increases in the numbers of girls reporting to gender clinics—then it looks like we’re definitely going to be reinforcing feminine gender norms, because any woman with the slightest bit of a personality will suddenly be ‘not a woman’. Maybe it looks like an improvement from the perspective of the female nonbinary person, who has taken an individual solution to a collective problem, but it is sure not helpful for all the women left behind, who now have to fight to explain why they’re not trans just because they like wearing pants. (The Australian lesbian comedian Hannah Gadsby, who likes wearing pants, talks about being pressured to come out as trans during her show Nanette. The Danish comedian Sofie Hagen, who also enjoys pants, came out last year as ‘non-binary’, noting how annoying it was that people paid so much attention to her being female in comedy).

You said you were interested in the metaphysics of gender, and wanted “to understand what ‘being a man’ or ‘being a woman’ actually means in order to make sense of claims by some biological males that they are in fact women, by some biological females that they are in fact men, and by some biological males and some biological females that they are in fact neither”. Orthodox / establishment feminist philosophers are moving away from a metaphysical understanding of ‘being a woman’ to a political one, probably because the metaphysical couldn’t be made to work for their purposes (could not be made to do useful theoretical work and also not exclude anyone who wanted to be included). The problem with moving to the political is, whose politics? I find their politics repugnant. (The same problem exists for amelioration projects, where people talk about what ‘we’ want our words to do. What we is that?)

That means, for me, that we should keep it metaphysical, so in that sense I share your interest, as well as having a political interest. But if ‘being a woman’ isn’t just being female, then it seems like it involves a reification of how women have been treated, into a social role. So ‘being a woman’ becomes occupying a particular social role. But I agree with Kathleen Stock’s analysis in her recent paper ‘Not the Social Kind: Anti-Naturalist Mistakes in the Philosophical History of Womanhood’, that the move to thinking of ‘woman’ as a social kind was a mistake in the history of feminist thinking. Being a woman turns out to be just being female, after all. Is this compatible with there being some contexts where we should go along with a man’s claim to be a woman? Maybe. But it helps to make it more intelligible why some women don’t want to do this. It’s not only because it’s not true, it’s also that it perpetuates the idea that ‘female’ refers to sex while ‘woman’ refers to gender in the social role sense. (So that anyone in that role can be a woman, even a man). Reclaiming the word ‘woman’ for female people, and reserving the use of sex-based pronouns for people who actually have the sex, are helpful tools in getting feminist theory and movement back on track as being fundamentally about sex caste.

%d bloggers like this: