Grey Matter Episode 11: What Is A Woman?

What Is A Woman?
by Kaitlin Puccio

The Cambridge Dictionary recently updated its definition of “man.” Previously it was defined as  “an adult male human being.” Now it includes an alternative definition: “an adult who lives and identifies as male though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth.”

There are two points to note about this new definition: First, the Dictionary uses “they” to refer to a single adult. This is presumably not the non-binary version of “they,” given that the Dictionary is defining the binary “man.” So this means that the Dictionary either decided to use the colloquial “they” to refer to a single individual, or couldn’t figure out whether the correct pronoun to use was “he” or “she,” and thus favored using the socially correct “they” over the grammatically correct singular pronoun.

This choice may bring the credibility of the alternative definition into question, because by choosing to eschew the grammatically correct pronoun, it may seem to some readers that the Dictionary is prioritizing social activism over English grammar. This concern brings to light the intriguing second point to note about this new definition: By providing the alternative definition, the Dictionary is being exclusive in its effort to be inclusive. That is, it is potentially prioritizing social activism at the same time that it is “othering” transgender individuals.

Including transgender men as part of an alternative definition rather than expanding the primary definition of “man” is effectively indicating that “an adult who lives and identifies as male though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth” is distinct in some way from “an adult male human being.” To be fully inclusive, the Dictionary perhaps should have included the alternative definition as part of the primary definition.

This exemplifies why it has been so difficult to define “man” and “woman” in a way that is satisfactory to all. Every new or altered definition is prone to being picked apart in this way because we are conflating social issues with terminological issues.

Defining the term “woman” satisfactorily has proved to be particularly difficult in recent months. In general, we as a society have been both broadening and narrowing the definition of “woman” too broadly and too narrowly. For instance, “woman” has been replaced with the term “person with a uterus” in order to avoid calling transgender men (biological women) “women” in a women’s health context. But not all women have a uterus—not all biological women, and not transgender women (biological men). Other terms that have been suggested are “birthing person” and “person who menstruates,” both of which fail to avoid the issues raised by using the term “person with a uterus,” and both of which have been rejected as degrading to women.

Because the spectrum of gender identity—man, woman, trans woman, trans man, non-binary, gender fluid, trans non-binary (which needs definitional clarification itself, because it is unclear how one be trans if one is non-binary. That is, isn’t it necessary for a trans individual to have something to transition to and from?), etc.—is broader than the spectrum of biological gender, (in general, male and female, and rarely, intersex), what is the purpose of commandeering the term “woman,” separating it from its traditional definition, which is based on biological factors—and which leaves the traditional definition without a term—and trying to force-feed it with various new definitions that are inclusive enough while being exclusive enough such that certain parties are not inappropriately gendered, i.e., transgender men?

Would it not be more efficient and effective to avoid the confusion over the once-settled terms “man” and “woman”—which pointed to biology—if we are not considering biology as part of the definition? In other words, why is “trans woman” an insufficient term, where it is more accurate, and both inclusive and exclusive enough to accurately communicate the gender identity of individuals?

The issue, it seems, with using the term “trans woman” rather than altering the definition of “woman” to include those who identify as women is a practical issue, not a terminology issue. If “trans woman” is used separately from the term “woman,” it is an indication that trans women are somehow different from women, and the distinction will lead to “othering” in women’s sports, etc. Adding an alternative definition under a primary definition of “man” or “woman” in an attempt to be inclusive does not avoid this issue. But the attempts to redefine the term “woman” have not had a positive impact on the societal acceptance of trans women in women’s sports, for example, so continuing to fight over terminology as a means of fighting for whatever rights the trans community delineates as needing to be fought for is going to continue to be ineffective.

Rather than focusing on words, we should be focusing on the substance of the argument, because even if the primary definition of “woman” is changed to include trans women, that doesn’t mean that a new term won’t be introduced that means “biological woman,” that will then be used to replace the term “women” in “women’s sports.” Language is unrestrictedly malleable over time. Human rights are less malleable. If trans women believe that they have a right to compete on women’s sports teams, use women’s locker rooms, etc., the argument shouldn’t be that they have the right to do so because they are women, because that argument is based on flimsy and ever-changing terminology. The argument needs to show that they have such a right intrinsically.

Is it possible to argue this in the same way that biological women would be able to? Some would argue that this is not possible because of the biological differences between men and women. If we reject this biological argument, the counterargument put forth cannot be primarily focused on the pliable terms we use to communicate about transgender individuals. How we talk about something doesn’t change the real-world facts, it can only change the perception of a number of individuals insufficient to bring about lasting societal change. If one side wants to present an argument about how the facts the other side replies upon are incorrect, the former needs to use reliable facts to present that argument, and not rely on linguistic acrobatics.

Copyright © 2023 Kaitlin Puccio