What Is A Woman?
It’s possible to define “woman” in a way that is both coherent and inclusive—but ignoring biological sex is not the way to do it.
One of the most virulent culture war issues in recent years has been a collection of controversies concerning transgender individuals. One of those controversies has been over the question of how gendered terms like “man” and “woman” should be defined. During Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, for example, Senator Marsha Blackburn demanded that Jackson define the word “woman.”
Concern with this question of definition is not exclusive to the right: trans-rights activists insist that trans men are men, that trans women are women, and that anyone who denies this is a bigot. Whether or not it’s true that trans women are women depends on the definition of the word “woman.” So let’s see what clarity we can lend to the question of what the word “woman” means.
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.
So what should “woman” mean? The standard trans-inclusive ameliorative analysis is that “woman” refers to someone with a certain gender identity. Because trans women have the gender identity of a woman, they are women. But what is gender identity? We’ve now traded one semantic problem—the definition of “woman”—for another problem—the definition of “gender identity.”
The Human Rights Council (HRC) defines gender identity as “one’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither—how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves.” But male and female are biological sex categories. So someone who is biologically male but whose “innermost conception of self” is female is, according to this view, just mistaken about their biology. So that definition won’t do.
More charitably, we could define gender identity as “each person’s internal and individual experience of gender. It is a person’s sense of being a woman, a man, both, neither, or anywhere along the gender spectrum.” This defines gender identity as the sense of being a man or woman, rather than a person’s sense of being male or female, where we define “man” or “woman” not as biological categories but in trans-inclusive terms. The problem with this is that trans-inclusive definitions of “man” or “woman” define those words in terms of a person’s gender identity. So this definition is circular in a particularly unhelpful way. A woman is someone who identifies as someone who identifies as someone who identifies as… This is incoherent.
The HRC defines transgender people as those whose gender identity and/or expression is at odds with their sex assigned at birth. So perhaps we should understand being transgender in terms of gender expression rather than gender identity. The HRC defines gender expression as “external appearance of one’s gender identity, usually expressed through behavior, clothing, haircut or voice, and which may or may not conform to socially defined behaviors and characteristics typically associated with being either masculine or feminine.” Set aside the worry that this definition invokes the contested concept of gender identity. There still seems to be a coherent view here: gender expression is acting or presenting yourself in “typically” masculine or feminine ways.
On this understanding of gender expression, females who are dominant and aggressive, powerful and taciturn, have a stereotypically masculine gender expression (and are perhaps expressing a masculine gender identity). So they are transgender men, and therefore men, full stop. Similarly, this implies that men who are submissive, sensitive, prefer to stay home and take care of the kids, and act in other “typically” feminine ways are really women. Not only is this counter-intuitive, but it threatens to essentialize gender norms in a regressive way: it suggests that women are feminine and submissive by nature, and so anyone who is dominant and powerful isn’t fully a woman. Feminists have spent decades arguing against this conception of gender norms.
This understanding of gender expression can also be strikingly homophobic. There is no more masculine norm than the norm to pursue women, and no more feminine norm than the norm to make oneself attractive to men. So by this definition, masculine lesbians who pursue other women are actually straight men, and feminine gay men are actually straight women. Or, if pursuing men isn’t enough to make a gay man really a woman, he would at least seem to be less of a man. These are good reasons not to define “man” or “woman” in terms of how the person acts.
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.
Chappell also suggests that transgender women are those who want to transition from one gender to another, where gender is defined in terms of social norms, not biology. I’m wary of this suggestion, since it comes quite close to the sexist view that being a woman is a matter of acting like a woman. But there’s an acceptable interpretation in the vicinity. Gender norms are not just about how particular people act, but about how they are treated by others. A (biological) man who wants to be treated the way that (biological) women are generally treated, and thought of in the way that (biological) women are generally thought of, should be considered a transgender woman.
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.
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. We can speak of abortion as raising questions about “a woman’s right to choose,” and anyone can tell from context what is meant. This use of language isn’t exclusionary—transgender men are men(2), of course, but they are also women(1) who have a right to choose.
Of course, this doesn’t resolve any of the important moral and political questions around transgender individuals. Should women’s sports teams only be for women(1), or women(2)? Are women’s restrooms women(1)’s restrooms or women(2)’s restrooms? At what age and under what conditions should women(2) who want to medically transition be allowed to do so?
These questions can’t be solved by one or another account of the meaning of the term “woman,” since these aren’t questions about language. They’re moral and political questions. They should be answered by appealing to our values, and worked out in the political realm. I hope that one of our shared values is kindness.
So let the question of definitions rest: the two definitions I’ve suggested above are both coherent, and are appropriate in different circumstances. But there are many circumstances where either definition could work equally well, and you have a choice of which convention to adopt. When you confront that choice, be kind.
Matt Lutz is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wuhan University.