This is a free read by Michael Shermer at Skeptic, and I found it stimulating in several ways. The object is to pin down a definition of “woman”, if there is such a thing, and to see if there’s any common feature of the many definitions of the term (“fuzzy sets”, as Shermer calls them) that could give us a handle on its meaning. Shermer could have had an article called “What is a man, anyway?”, and it would have been pretty similar.
As we know, the word “woman” has changed meaning due to the burgeoning numbers of trangender women, and is, perhaps, even being eliminated. Still, I retain my own definition as that of a “biological woman”: someone in principle capable of making large gametes (eggs) as opposed to those who make small gametes (“men”). But reading this piece, which relies heavily on a documentary film, did raise several provocative questions beyond that of defining “woman.”
Click on the screenshot to read.
Shermer gives an introduction to the semantics involved, invoking people like Wittgenstein, Steve Pinker, and social psychologist Carol Tavris, to show the difficulty of defining a term like “women” when many have a different conception of what the term means, or of “women” even exist. (Wittgenstein famously used the example of a “game”, which defies strict definition but we still know one is when we see one). He then introduces the film from which most of the article is drawn: a documentary film by Matt Walsh, a host at Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire called “What is a Woman”. I haven’t seen that film, as you have to pay for it on this site, and I’m not that keen to put money into the site’s coffers.
However, the excerpts given by Shermer do show how evasive people get when asked to define “woman.” (Remember that Ketanji Brown Jackson punted when asked it during her Supreme Court vetting, saying, “I am not a biologist.”)
The problem is especially acute for LGBTQ+ or trans activists, who of course use the term all the time but don’t seem able to define it. Here, for example, is an exchange between Walsh and Patrick Grzanka, whose bio at UT Knoxville already shows that he uses scholarship to achieve social justice. In such a case, you might expect evasion.
Patrick R. Grzanka is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Chair of the Interdisciplinary Program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality at the University of Tennessee’s flagship campus in Knoxville. He is an applied social issues researcher who draws upon theory and methods in psychology, sociology, and science and technology studies to explore and intervene in systemic social inequalities.
Have a gander at this conversation between Grzanka and Walsh, with an intro by Shermer:
In a Borat-like series of conversations and encounters Walsh can’t seem to get a straight answer from anyone, including the University of Tennessee Chair of the Interdisciplinary Program in Women, Gender and Sexuality, Patrick Grzanka, who answered the titular question thusly: “When someone tells you who they are, you should believe them. If a person tells you they are a woman or a man they’re telling you what their gender is.” Unsatisfied with this answer, Walsh presses his subject: “What is a woman?” This exchange is emblematic of postmodernism’s turn to obscurantism:
Grzanka: “Why do you ask that question?”
Walsh: “Because I’d really like to know.”
Grzanka: “What do you think the answer is?”
Walsh: “I’m asking you, a college professor that studies this subject.”
Grzanka: “What other answers have you gotten?”
Clearly frustrated, Walsh explains that others he’s queried are equally obfuscating.
Grzanka: “The simple answer is a person who identifies as a woman.”
Walsh: “What are they identifying as?”
Grzanka: “A woman”
Walsh: “But what is that?”
Grzanka: “As a woman.”
Walsh: “Do you know what a circular definition is?”
Of course, Grzanka perfectly well knows the answer to that question, so he pivots: “You’re seeking what we call in my profession an ‘essentialist definition’ of gender.” That’s right, because essentialist definitions are examples of family resemblances, or fuzzy sets that must contain some agreed-upon characteristics or else the words are meaningless. But Grzanka’s dodge is not uncommon in academia today, and in exasperation with Walsh’s persistent questioning in search of the truth, Grzanka pronounces on camera, ”Getting to the truth is deeply transphobic.”
I don’t know what’s worse: Grzanka’s circular and evasive definition, or his claim that “getting to the truth is deeply transphobic.” That last sentence stuns me, for how can pursuit of truth be “transphobic”? A search for meaning is not fear, hatred or dismissal of transsexual or transgender people. (I’ll take “transsexual” to involve those who undergo physical changes to comport with their new sex, and “transgender” to refer to those who feel that they’re of a sex—or gender, if you will—different from their biological sex.)
Here’s another evader:
Walsh next turns to Michelle Forcier, a consultant pediatrician at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, Rhode Island, who asserts that “Gender affirmation means listening to children’s story about who they think they are” because “Telling parents that a newborn is 100% a certain gender based on the genitalia is not correct.” A woman, Dr. Forcier explains, is “someone who claims that as their identity. It could be many things to many people.” Do gametes make someone a male or female, Walsh queries? “No,” she retorts, “sperm does not make you a male” because “some women have penises, some men have vaginas.”
She’s wrong: gametes, either existing, or having the potential to make them, or having made them, are indeed what makes someone a biological male or female. The claim that “some women have penises” (she means transsexual women, who cannot usually make sperm) and “some men have vaginas” (she means transsexual men, who once had the equipment to make eggs but can no longer do so) simply evades the issue.
But that brings up more interesting questions. If, as many of these folks profess, a “woman” is anyone who identifies as a women—gender being about psychology and not reproductive bits—why do transsexuals go to such lengths to transform their bodies? It surely means that part of being a transsexual man or a transsexual woman involves transforming your body into the body of one who was born with a different biological sex. In other words, you act on your transgender feelings to alter your body in specific ways. And that itself seems to make three points (this is my take on the issue, but it’s implicit in what Shermer/Walsh say):
a. There seem to be two sexes, i.e., sex is binary. There are transsexual men and transsexual women. While there may be a few transsexual hermaphrodites, generally we have people of one biological sex who feel that there are members of the other biological sex. This is a tacit admission that “men” and “women” are real biological classes, not arbitrary segments of a gender spectrum.
b. The morphology of the two sexes is different, and nearly always diagnostic of biological sex. That is, transitioning usually involves taking hormones that will turn your body in the direction of the biological sex that you weren’t born with, and having surgeries that comport with that biological sex. As I said, biological sex is really defined by whether you have large immobile gametes or small mobile ones, but in most animal species the biological sex goes along with a suite of “primary sexual characteristics“, including, in men the penis and the scrotum and the apparatus to make sperm. The primary sexual characteristics of a female are those connected with reproduction, including the vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes, clitoris, cervix, and the ability to bear children.
There are also secondary sexual characteristics: physical or physiological differences between the sexes that aren’t directly connected with reproduction. Wikipedia gives a list; in women they include enlarged breasts, wider hips, and labia minora. Secondary characteristics in men include facial hair, a larger larynx, and a heavier bone structure.
When someone transitions to the other sex, they often change these traits through surgery or chemicals (most often surgery on genitals or breast removal or enlargement). And they don’t change to a never-before-seen suite of traits, but to traits often used to diagnose biological men and women. So again we see that people have in mind a physical binary here.
c. The way that trans people often change their appearance to resemble the sex they identify with is both arduous and puzzling. For both sexes, surgery to transform the genitals is difficult, especially when becoming a trans woman. You’re not only sterile (that goes with hormone blockers and then supplements), but the genital surgery is dangerous and often reported to be damned inconvenient. The same goes for becoming a transsexual man with a penis. Walsh tells the story of one trans man who required 17 surgeries, has lifelong complications, and noted that “I’m probably not going to live very long.”
Now I can understand that if you are a woman who identifies as a man (or vice versa), you may want to go beyond just psychologically identifying as a member of the sex you weren’t born with, and try to look like a member of the sex you feel to be. But the fact that the changes are always in the same direction (breast removal and penis construction, as well as taking testosterone for trans men) show that people not only recognize that there are two sexes—not three, not five, and so on—but that changing sex means adopting diagnostic signs of your new sex: more hair, smaller breasts, acquisition of a vagina, etc.
At what point in this process does a trans man, for example, become a “man”? Some would say that the assertion by a biological woman that she is really a man is sufficient (in fact, that’s the most common answer of activists). Why, then, is it necessary to go through medical hell if you’re already a “man”? I have some tentative answers, but I’ll leave that to the readers. It’s sufficient to me that the way transitions are made tacitly recognizes the existence of two sexes that have their own biological characteristics. Although most trans advocates deny that sex is binary, they certainly act as if it is.
So those are the issues that arose when I read Michael’s stimulating article. I’ll give two more quotes from the piece, the first giving the correct biological definition of women and taking care of the usual caveats (“menopausal women can’t produce viable eggs”, “some women are sterile”, etc.), Shermer quotes biologist Carol Hooven:
What criteria should be used to distinguish females from males? The relative size of the sex cells or gametes, Hooven explains, echoing the definition agreed on by the vast majority of biologists. “Males produce small, mobile gametes (sperm), and females produce larger, immobile gametes (eggs),” although even here Hooven cautions readers not to take this definition too strictly, inasmuch as “my son doesn’t yet make sperm, but he’s still male. And although my ovaries are no longer regularly producing eggs, I’m no less female than when they were cranking them out on a monthly schedule. Rather, it’s the design plan for the gametes that counts.”
That design plan for producing two different types of gametes is what you would expect in a sexually reproducing species like ours, so that seems as foundational a conceptual category as we’re going to get in defining females and males, while still allowing for the rare outliers.
Hooven, by the way, who lectures on evolution at Harvard, has been pretty strongly attacked for even saying that there are two sexes.
And I’m adding this bit, which is by Shermer, to show that the man is not a transphobe for writing an article like this. Such caveats might seem unnecessary, but they are necessary because any discussion of what “men” or “women” really constitute is considered transphobic. You must simply accept the assertions of activists or suffer accusations of bigotry. But I refuse to admit that such discussions are transphobic, and Michael ends like this:
However the language games play out with this issue in the coming years, and whatever the science provisionally concludes about the actual rate of trans sans the social contagion element, it is good to remember that trans rights are human rights and that discrimination based on sexual or gender identity, along with sexual orientation and other protected classes, is both illegal and immoral. No one should be fired for being trans, much less treated as less than human. The fuzzy set of Homo sapiens includes all of us, regardless of how we subdivide the species.