What is a “woman” anyway?

This is really good from Matt Lutz.  I gotta say I love the analytical rigor he brings to the issue as a philosopher:

As a starting point, it’s important to remember that words often have multiple definitions. Sometimes a word can have several meanings that are closely related. (Linguists and philosophers of language refer to this phenomenon as “polysemy.”) For instance, the word “hands” can refer to either the body part or to people who do physical labor (typically with their hands). So a better question is not what the definition of the word “woman” is. It’s how many coherent definitions there are.


There is at least one coherent definition: a woman is an adult human female. That’s the definition you’ll find in almost every dictionary. This is a biological definition—“adult,” “human,” and “female” are all terms that refer to biology. Some have attempted to dispute the idea that “female” picks out a coherent biological kind by pointing to intersex individuals who have some but not all of the biological features associated with being female. But this does not change the fact that 99.98% of the human population has either all or none of the biological features associated with being female—specifically: XX chromosomes, female genitalia, and gonads that produce eggs rather than sperm. The few indeterminate cases which show that biological sex is not strictly a binary don’t render the biological definition of “woman” incoherent.

Although the biological definition of a woman is coherent, some philosophers have argued that the biological definition is bad in other ways. The biological definition of woman is “trans-exclusive” in that it counts trans women as men and trans men as women. Many find this morally and politically unacceptable. Their response is to engage in what is known as “ameliorative analysis.” This means finding or creating another definition for the word “woman” that is “trans-inclusive,” not to have that definition stand alongside the biological definition but to replace the biological definition. Ameliorative analysis doesn’t aim to say what a term does mean; it aims to say what a term should be…

Fortunately, there is a trans-inclusive definition of “woman” that avoids these difficulties. The preceding accounts of what it takes to be a woman have all been proposed in the service of ameliorative analysis—a project which, in this context, usually aims to eliminate the biological definition of “woman” and replace it with something better. But we can make progress if we simply allow the biological definition of a woman to exist alongside the trans-inclusive definition, and even to define a trans woman in terms of a biological woman. This is what Sophie Grace Chappell, a feminist philosopher and trans woman, has suggested. Chappell doesn’t think that we can give any of these terms neat definitions, but has suggested that being transgender involves wanting to transition from one sex to another. In short: Biological men who want to be biological women are transgender women…

So these, then, are our two coherent definitions of the term “woman.” The first is a biological definition: a woman(1) is someone who has the homeostatic cluster of biological properties that are characteristic of adult human females. With this definition in hand, we can define a trans woman as a man(1) who wants to be a woman(1) or wants to be thought of and treated the way that women(1) are treated. And now we can give our second definition of “woman:” a woman(2) is anyone who is either a woman(1) or a trans woman. Adopting two definitions for the term “woman” means that everyone wins. Those who insist that “woman” refers to a biological category are correct. Those who insist that “woman” can be defined in social terms, and that trans women are women, are also correct. [emphasis mine]

This isn’t linguistic prescriptivism: the terms “man” and “woman” clearly are used in multiple coherent ways. We should recognize that this is the case without fighting over the definition of gendered terminology. There’s nothing to fight over; these words are just being used in two different ways. People can use them however they want, and context will usually determine what is intended.

I love this.  Of course words have multiple meanings that we use differently in different contexts.  Man and Woman are no different.  And, this should not have to be an italicized thing, but… context matters.  Sometimes we are talking about adult human females. Sometimes we are talking about people who prefer to move through the world as a “woman.”  Most of the time these are the same thing.  Some of the time they are not– and that’s okay! 

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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