What is a woman?

“Women, Lesbians and Trans*”

I have been fascinated by this description of the feminist movement as defined by the Barcelona feminist indignatos ever since I first heard it.  While I was in Barcelona hearing about their intervention within the movement to ensure that women were well represented and their demands taking into account, the feminist movement in the UK was tearing itself to pieces over RadFem12, a “women born women, living as women” only conference.

The implication of “women, lesbian and trans*” comprising the feminist movement is that there are essentially three groups of people who are affected by patriarchy and that these are distinct. At the moment the debate rages over trans* inclusion, with transphobic statements of “men in dresses” coming from radical feminist.  While there is no current question over lesbian inclusion, this was not always the case.

The “lavender menace” identified by Betty Frieden was considered at the start of the second wave to pose a distraction from the main issues affecting women.  Once the second wave was in full swing however, lesbianism was seen as a liberatory sexuality – with the woman identified woman held up as the epitome of feminist activism – one who had chosen to free themselves from the compulsory heterosexuality demanded by patriarchal society and reorientate themselves to prioritising women. The woman identified woman manifesto produced by the Radical Lesbian collective hints at the analysis of Whittig in contrasting woman with lesbian, pleading for women, not to “be women”.

As long as we cling to the idea of “being a woman, ” we will sense some conflict with that incipient self, that sense of I, that sense of a whole person. … Only women can give to each other a new sense of self. That identity we have to develop with reference to ourselves, and not in relation to men. This consciousness is the revolutionary force from which all else will follow, for ours is an organic revolution. …As long as woman’s liberation tries to free women without facing the basic heterosexual structure that binds us in one-to-one relationship with our oppressors, tremendous energies will continue to flow into trying to straighten up each particular relationship with a man, into finding how to get better sex, how to turn his head around-into trying to make the “new man” out of him, in the delusion that this will allow us to be the “new woman. “

The Woman Identified Woman.

What then are the main ways in which “women” as  a group have been identified.

Biological Definition 

One definition is that of woman as the class of beings with a chromosomal identity of XX.  Generally favoured in popular discourse as well as in science,  Judith Butler demonstrates that this definition doesn’t really hold up too well to close examination.  Cases of intersex challenge the binary which gives rise to woman as a biologically defined creature.  Such a definition excludes both intersex and some trans*bods from the category of “woman” while including others who do not identify in that manner.

Reproductive Definition

This definition is that of women as the class of beings who are capable of producing units of labour.  Again this is a popular definition of “woman”, yet while men remain fertile well into old age, women end their fertility in their late 40s or early 50s, and sometimes prior.  Moreover both natural infertility, selected infertility (through sterilisation), contingent infertility (through the use of contraception) and consequential infertility (through medical intervention for other purposes) mean that not all women are capable of reproduction.  Such a definition excludes the older and infertile from the category of “woman”.

Sexual Definition

Following the analysis of some feminist theorists, woman is the class of beings who are fucked by men.   Less popular now than at the start of the second wave, this definition suggests that the category of “woman” can be transcended by refusing a heterosexual orientation – refusing to have relationships with men.  This definition excludes lesbians from the category of “woman” while at least in part including those who would be defined as “men” under the biological definition but who in popular discourse are frequently feminised – usually insultingly, by virtue of having sexual relations with men.

Cultural Definition

The practical, everyday definition of “woman” is the class of beings who act in manner appropriate to that class.  Defined by appearance, mannerisms and behaviour, a woman is someone who performs their woman-ness.  In addition to its popular manifestation, this definition is favoured by most third wave feminists.  This definition includes trans*women, and excludes trans*men as well as most genderqueer individuals and those who self-define as androgynous.

That gives you four different ways in which you can “be” a woman.

The one which is most popularly used to define “woman”, biological sex, is both fixed and relatively neutral. There is no choice in this matter  – chromosomes cant be changed – you are born XX or XY and you die XY.   Those with XX chromosomes comprise almost all people with the remarkable superpower to conceive and gestate babies have XX chromosomes.  The reproductive definition and chromosomal definition are therefore closely entwined although not entirely synonymous.

The third, the sexuality definition, despite some protestations to the contrary is a choice that people make.  Choosing what, if any, sexual relationships you have is individually determined.  (Although forced sexual activity may mean that through rape and sexual assault people experience sexual activity which is not of their choosing).  Engaging in relationships with men subjects you to the patriarchal tropes which bound such relationships.  Although there have been moves to establish relationship which are more equitable, and many radical lesbian separatists claim that these can be overcome, the domination/submission pattern which is assumed to be natural in heterosexual relationships can be reproduced based on the sexual preferences of the partners.

The cultural definition, favoured by transfeminists, obscures the reproductive aspect of womanhood.  While it is true that much of the discrimination that women face is predicated on the assumption of reproductive capacity rather than whether or not this assumption is accurate, to gloss over the main distinction between the sexes and the basis on which gender oppression is predicated, risks masking the some of the most significant risks that those with reproductive capacity face.

And what then are we to make of trans*lesbians – those with XY chromosomes and no reproductive capacity, who present to wider society in manner culturally appropriate to that which is expected of women, yet who engage in relationships which many feminists believe transends the restrictions of “womanhood”.

There are no easy answers to the question of what makes a woman, but the distinction made of “women, lesbian and trans*” made by the BarcaFems, give us food for thought.

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