What is a woman?
[Posted to Medium 16th November 2019].
[This is the text of my talk from the Speak Up For Women NZ event Feminism 2020, held on the 15th of November 2019 at Parliament in Wellington. The video is here].
What is a woman? Is there a difference between being a woman and being female? If there is a difference, which one is feminism for? Which one – if either – should the law protect? Which one do we need data about? Is language like ‘pregnant people’, or ‘people who have experienced sexual assault’ inclusive, as we are often told, or exclusive, because it obscures the fact that more than half of all ‘people’ won’t experience these things?
I. Souls, natures, identities, and social roles
In her 1988 book Inessential Woman, Elizabeth Spelman argues that there’s some sense in which Plato was a feminist (despite the often derogatory comments about femininity scattered throughout his works). For Plato, it’s all about what kind of soul a person has. In the hierarchy of souls, there are ‘philosopher-kings’, who are at the top, then ‘auxiliaries’ (a kind of assistant), then ‘artisans/producers’ (next in the hierarchy), then, finally, slaves (at the bottom of the hierarchy). But because Plato insists on a dualism between the body and the soul, where the soul is a real, immaterial thing that transcends and outlasts the body, he thinks there’s no necessary connection between a certain type of body and a certain type of soul. So while we hear a lot today about ‘philosopher-kings’ in Plato’s worldview, he actually admits the possibility of ‘philosopher-queens’. This is the sense in which he was a feminist, at least for his time. You can’t know just from the fact that someone is female that they’re not at the top of the hierarchy. There can be manly souls encased in female bodies. Notice that if I had said ‘trapped in female bodies’ instead, we’d be right up to present gender theory with this 2,367 year-old text (Laws was written in 348 BCE).
Spelman also asks about Aristotle’s conception of woman. In Aristotle, people have ‘natures’ that make them either highly rational and fit to rule; a bit rational but mainly driven by bodily appetites and emotion, and so not fit to rule; or fit to serve / be ruled. The Aristotelian hierarchy goes: free men, free women, slaves. What is interesting is that feminist theory before Spelman had focused on the relationship between free men and free women to understand Aristotle’s conception of woman (which, you probably won’t be surprised to hear, was really quite sexist). Spelman argues that if we want to understand Aristotle’s conception of woman, we need to think about both free women and slave women. Working through this reveals something interesting: Aristotle makes an early version of the sex / gender distinction. Free women and slave women are both female, but only free women are “women” in his sense, and only free men are “men” in his sense. “Man” and “woman” (or their Greek equivalents) are being deployed as gender terms, that pick out a particular societal role only accessible to those marked as having superior (highly rational) natures. There are no gender roles between slaves; sex doesn’t matter. But there are between the ruling classes and their companions (the non-slaves). Unlike Plato, Aristotle didn’t think women were fit to rule; he thought women were across the board substantially less rational than men, but some of those women were fit to be companions to free men, to have their children and run their households (lucky them), while others of those women were fit to serve the ruling classes and their companions (alongside similarly positioned men).
I’m aware that I might have made it sound like Spelman wrote a really great book about what all the dead white men much revered in philosophy had to say about woman, but actually that isn’t what the book is about. The book is actually an argument against the idea that there’s a coherent category “woman” that all women are members of, and in favour of the idea that there are, rather, highly specific groups of women (e.g. women of particular race and class backgrounds). In focusing on slave women in Aristotle, and philosopher-queens in Plato, she’s deliberately paying attention to an overlooked category of women. But for our purposes here, what’s more interesting and revealing is the dualism between manly and womanly souls and female and male bodies in Plato, and the distinction between sex and gender roles in Aristotle. Today we’re used to the idea that gender is the social meaning of sex, but ‘social meaning’ is just vague enough to obscure what the category of gender actually is when decoupled from sex.
Let’s skip ahead from Spelman in 1988 to Doug Murray in the present. Murray complains in his new book The Madness of Crowds about the ‘new metaphysics’ of the identity politics era. In a sense he’s right: it’s ‘new’ compared to what we’d settled on prior, which was a materialism (or in the philosophy of mind, physicalism) grounded in the hard sciences. Few people believe in souls anymore; the sensible forms of dualism that persist today are about consciousness, and the ‘hard problem’ of why there is something that it’s like to be me (or you). Most progressives, at least, reject the idea of ‘natures’ today, at least in the sense that there are significant differences between people in terms of their rational capacities, and that these differences make them fit for different positions in the social hierarchy. But in another sense, Murray is wrong: this metaphysics of gendered souls (Plato) or gendered natures (Aristotle) or gender identities (the more common term today) is thousands of years old, and had been largely discredited. Most of us would reject the hierarchies of Plato or Aristotle today; in modern day New Zealand and Australia we are egalitarian. We acknowledge that women reproduce, without thinking that women are the ‘reproductive classes’ whose job it is to produce future privileged men and run the households of the men who they produce them with. Souls and natures stratify people into social roles. If gender identities don’t do this, then they’re inert, and we wouldn’t expect to see people defending them so vociferously. But if they do, why should we accept them?
II. Two visions of the future
There are two moves we can make at this point. We can preserve the idea of ‘gender roles’ (that is to say, gendered social roles) but update them to fit our current values, meaning, work to make them liberal and egalitarian. Or, we can get rid of the idea of roles. I think this choice is exactly where the tension arises between contemporary transgender activism, and contemporary radical / gender critical feminism. Trans activists want to do the former, or something close to it, and feminists – I’m going to say it, actual feminists – want to do the latter.
i. Update the social roles to fit our current values
Julia Serano in Whipping Girl, for example, makes part of the first move, the move where we update the idea of gender roles to fit our current values. She says the problem is not that there are masculine and feminine roles in society, the problem is that the feminine role is devalued relative to the masculine role. We don’t need to get rid of gender roles, we just need to make sure that we see them as equal, as operating in harmony – there’s the masculine and the feminine and they’re both good and they work together, they’re complementary. But while this is egalitarian, it’s not liberal: most people are coerced into their roles, except for trans people who get to resist their coercion and swap roles. This presumes that most people are happy with their roles, and that if they weren’t, they’d be trans. But we know that many people are not happy with gender roles and expectations, in particular we know this from feminist theory, but also from what some progressive men say about (the constraints of) masculinity. So to patch this view we’d at least need to get rid of coercion, which means making all gender roles fully voluntary. I guess that would mean something like, not coercing anyone until they were old enough to choose, in which case they could make an informed decision.
And indeed, this looks something like the current ‘progressive’ gender ideology: raise kids gender neutral, be extremely receptive to any claims they make about whether they’re a boy or a girl, and what kinds of gendered behaviours they seem to be engaging in, and if they look like they’re doing their sex wrong ‘affirm’ them into the other category. We end up with a world in which male and female people get to choose: man, woman, nonbinary. There are male and female men, male and female women, and male and female nonbinary people. The mantra “some women have penises!” is true in this world. And all these three categories (or more, if we like) are equally valued and there are no serious differences in outcomes between them.
This is a valuable way to go if we think there’s something desirable about a society stratified into ‘man-role people’, ‘woman-role people’, and ‘neither-role people’. Would sex matter in this society? At the end, no; there would be a difference between being a woman and being female but that difference would be like the difference between having blonde hair or brown hair. But along the way, possibly; it matters now and it’s likely to continue mattering for a while. We need to keep protecting sex until it stops mattering. So this suggests decoupling ‘woman’ and ‘female’ in the beginning, and seriously considering whether both involve discrimination or disadvantage. Are woman-role people disadvantaged, or are only female people? It seems doubtful to me that a person known to be male in the woman role would suffer e.g. pregnancy and breastfeeding discrimination in the workplace, but perhaps there is a form of disadvantage that attaches purely to feminine appearance. That would be something to work out.
Who would feminism be for, on this view? In the end, it would be for woman-role people, but we probably wouldn’t need it because all genders would be equal. Along the way, it might need to be for either female people or woman-role people or both; that would depend on the ways in which people from either category were socially disadvantaged and the extent to which they needed a social movement to advocate for their interests. (Many liberal feminists now are simply taking the ‘both’ line, although some seem to focus rather more on the woman-role people than the female people, at the expense of the latter). In the end, the law wouldn’t need to protect anyone on the basis of gender because all genders would be equal; we wouldn’t need to collect data on the basis of gender because all genders would be equal; and language like ‘pregnant people’ and ‘menstruators’ and ‘people who have experienced sexual assault’ would be perfectly appropriate, because after all, people from all three gender roles could experience these things. But along the way – given that sex still matters, and words that enable disadvantaged groups to articulate their own situation are important to advocating for equality or liberation, and data enables us to track progress – we’ll still need these things.
ii. A problem: what’s the content of the roles?
I’ve been assuming for the sake of argument that it’s coherent to simply divorce female and woman-role person from each other. The feminists throughout history who have divorced these two have not said they come completely apart. Rather, they have said that there’s more to being a woman than merely being female. Other stuff gets added on top. But that’s not what we’re talking about with the current gender ideology, we’re talking about the possibility of the woman-role person being a man. The problem is, it’s a bit hard to fill out the content of these roles – are the women-role people the sparkly, pretty, decorative ones? Are they the ones who stay home with the kids? Are they the kind ones that listen to people’s problems and have deep friendships? Is there anything the man-role people can do that the woman-role people can’t do, and vice versa? If the content isn’t any of these things, what is it? And if there’s nothing woman-role people can do that man-role people can’t, why would someone feel the need to be in one role rather than the other? There’s certainly something appealing about this way of updating the Platonic and Aristotelian view of gender roles (via gendered souls or natures), given the improvements it offers to the status quo: more freedom in that we choose our gender role rather than being socialised into one, and more equality in that all gender roles are accorded equal social value. The question is whether it’s the best strategy we’ve got available.
iii. Get rid of the social roles
I think it isn’t. The other option is to reject the new (old) metaphysics, to remain firmly materialist, and to work to dismantle gender roles entirely. That means we keep believing in sex (it’s good to believe in the things that science tells us there is), but we resist the idea that a person’s sex limits what she or he can do or be like in her life (except for the obvious, experiences tied immediately to which kind of body you have, like menstruation or pregnancy, but not things tied to the politics of which kind of body you have, like being more vulnerable to sexual assault or domestic violence). We teach kids that their sex doesn’t limit them in terms of their friends, their clothes, their hobbies, their sports, their academic subjects, their future partners or their future careers. But we also make sensible accommodations for differences, like having different sporting categories to make competition between different types of bodies fair. For as long as women are sexually objectified by men, or at risk of violence from men, we offer them protections, like single-sex changing rooms, and single-sex prisons. Maybe one day we won’t need these, but we won’t get to that world by just pretending we’re already in it (or if we might, the cost to women of bringing it about that way is too high).
This future has the same kind of starting point as the other one, something like raising kids gender neutral (not socialising them into specific roles on the basis of their sex), but it doesn’t require sex denialism and it doesn’t justify panicking every time your kid does something not 100% ‘gender conforming’ and it doesn’t mean packing them off to the gender clinic if they do something that doesn’t fit a stereotype. In this world, when all is said and done, there will be boys in dresses and glitter and there will be girls in pants with short hair (you see how much progress feminism has made in liberating women from their gender role just in reflecting on how ridiculous that comparison is: women are already doing all the things men do and being all the ways men are, it’s just men that aren’t doing that in the reverse, because they still have so much work to do to escape the constraints of masculinity). But abdicating manhood in order to escape is no way to achieve liberation, especially not when it means i) leaving the rest of the men to their lot, and ii) compromising women’s path to liberation by compromising e.g. women-only spaces, provisions, and services (by having men in them). Imagine what the history of feminism would look like if the initial resisters had just declared themselves to be men!
What about those men who feel desperately strongly about gender roles, and swapping over into the feminine role? Philosopher Andrea Long Chu, author of the recent book Females (she’s not), writes (elsewhere) about the desire for the female role, and about having no real interest in abolishing gender or gender roles. While her honesty is unusual, and appreciated, it’s clear that the desires of a small number of men do not justify the non-liberation of half the population of the world. It’s good for women to not be socialised into narrow and constraining gender roles (and actually, it’s good for men, too). We should abolish gender roles, and be left with nothing but sex. The cost of liberation for a large number of people is the frustrated desire of a small number of people. So be it.
On this alternative, there is no difference between being a woman and being female. Feminism is for female people, also known as women. The law should protect female people until such a time as it doesn’t need to, because there are no significant differences in outcome between female people and male people. We need data about female people in order to track this difference, and know when the difference has disappeared. Language like ‘pregnant people’ and ‘menstruators’ and ‘people who have experienced sexual assault’ is ridiculous, performing a kind of #alllivesmatter on feminism. It obscures the fact that more than half of all people, the male ones, won’t have these experiences.
III. Woman: adult human female
In conclusion. I hope you agree that when we consider these two moves side by side, it’s clear which one is better. Woman is not a soul independent of a body, and it’s not a nature that makes you fit for one social role rather than another. We don’t need to merely tweak those social roles so that they’re a bit more equal and there’s a bit more freedom about which one you end up in. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to slip from woman as a gender term, and gender as the social meaning of sex, to a social meaning entirely divorced from sex. Feminists worked hard to articulate the social meaning of sex so that they could show that it had been imposed upon women, rather than being an essential part of women’s natures. We don’t make the world better by continuing to impose those meanings and just opening the imposition up to some men. We need to continue to mitigate women’s historical exclusion and marginalisation, which means keeping sex-based provisions and protections in place, while working toward a future in which we no longer need them.