What is a Woman?

April 2, 2020 | Published first in Catholic World Report

What would men be without women? Scarce, sir… mighty scarce.” — attributed to Mark Twain

Fifty years ago, only rogue philosophers bothered to ask, “What is a woman?” It seems so simple, until suddenly it is not.

We all know that the definition of “woman” today is a fraught question. The Supreme Court will be deciding a case related to this very issue: can a biological male demand workplace treatment as a woman because he has a profound inner feeling of being a woman?

So is womanhood a matter of profound inner feeling? A matter of appearance (primary and secondary sex characteristics)? Genes? Let’s put the question this way: what makes women different from men? Why did we instinctively have these two categories—the dreaded sex binary—for millennia? Prudence Allen’s monumental study of the history of the concept of woman shows that the nature of the sexes has been a subject of philosophical reflection since the very beginning of philosophy, starting with the pre-Socratics in the sixth century BC. No one seriously disagreed with the idea of the existence of two sexes until approximately the day before yesterday (if you consider the long sweep of human history)—that is, until around the 1970s.

Why such early unanimity concerning a question that is now so vexed? The reason has to do with what sex—male and female—described from the beginning of the term’s use: the two distinct contributions made to the generation of human persons.

Sex and Generation

The ancient Greeks noticed that binary sexual generation was not reserved to humans but also was a feature of the most developed animal species. While entailing quite a bit of variation, nevertheless sexual generation that was a binary affair usually followed these parameters: approximately one-half of the species-members contributed by reproducing outside of themselves (the males), and the other half of the members by reproducing inside themselves (the females).

We know now that this is because males produce spermatozoa, and females produce ova. But these gametes contribute to reproduction outside and inside the body respectively, so the ancients were grasping things correctly, albeit partially. This division certainly holds for human beings.

Thus, we can say that a woman is a human being who reproduces inside of herself. Now, in any given woman, this ability might be damaged or non-functional, but yet she is the sort of human being who has the kind of reproductive system that is oriented to this sort of generation.

This can help us to work through very difficult, but fortunately rare, cases of people whose genetic sex is ambiguous or at variance with their appearance. Many bioethicists specialize in this work, and I am not in their realm of expertise. I will hold onto the coattails of one of them, Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., who argues that reproductive function trumps other ambiguities: that is, if you have someone who is capable of carrying a baby to term, you have a woman. (Obviously, in sexually ambiguous individuals with no reproductive functioning, other considerations would have to come into play, which I won’t try to address here.)

This ancient solution cuts through much of the confusion. It keeps us close to the realm of the bodily as well. One of the curious phenomena of contemporary thinking (or emoting) about gender is that we on the one hand idolize the body and on the other hand make it completely irrelevant to the question of sex and gender. But sex, as male and female, was only ever a bodily reality; the category exists solely in order to talk about the distinct, dual contributions of different kinds of people—men and women—to the reproductive process.

In other words, if we aren’t talking about bodies and reproduction, we aren’t talking about sexual differentiation. We might be talking about our feelings, our perceptions, or our cultural expectations about maleness and femaleness, which are all important things to discuss. But those things are not the same as the reality of being male or female.

“Gender,” or Sex-Lived-Out

In fact, this distinction was grasped with more clarity fairly recently, and the insight was crystallized in the 1970s by differentiating between gender as a cultural and lived reality and sex as a biological one. In other words, one’s sex is female or male depending upon biological factors—by, as I have argued, the way in which one’s reproductive organs are oriented to generating inside or outside of oneself respectively.

But these biological realities are not the last thing to be said about femaleness or maleness but rather the first thing. Many questions immediately follow: are there certain norms or expectations that should follow from biological sex? Are there unjust expectations a culture loads upon women or men? How should one live femaleness or maleness?

These are questions about culture and existential experience, questions that have their jumping-off point in biology but aren’t really biological. You don’t examine a stereotype with an MRI machine. We can say that these questions circle around gender. The term “gender” was pulled into service to speak about such cultural and lived experiences of sex.

Many people have sound objections to the sex-gender distinction, but it has its usefulness. It can help us escape the kind of simplistic thinking that would say that a boy who likes dolls is somehow not really a boy, for example. The distinction allows us to say that there are only two sexes, whereas there is a range of legitimate feminine and masculine experiences.

For instance, as a kid, I played football with the boys at recess instead of looking at sticker books with the girls, and I honestly would have preferred to pull out my fingernails than to babysit your kids. I had a paper route instead. And yet here I am, with six kids, a fully womanly woman, even if not a stereotypically one.

But now, as I will show shortly, “gender” is now understood to be divorced from sex (male and female). So many people have argued that the term should be jettisoned. I think we can express the best of the idea of gender, namely, the cultural baggage (good and bad) that accumulates around sex, as “sex lived out.” In other words, whatever was good about this term “gender” comes down to the individual and cultural experiences of living out maleness or femaleness.

Distinctions Become Divides

Any sound insight rooted in the sex-gender distinction was quickly lost in absurdities. What happened soon in the 1970s was a dual divide: first gender was divided from sex (maleness and femaleness), then sex was divided from the body.

The first divide first: we were told that gender need not have anything to do with bodily maleness and femaleness. Gender was now construed to be a free-floating feeling or personal identity that was not rooted in the body. Hence, we are told that our feelings and cultural codes concerning maleness and femaleness don’t actually have anything to do with maleness and femaleness. I am supposed to feelabout womanhood—mystically, maybe, or magically—without consulting my body that makes me a woman to begin with.

Please note that this first divide cuts the legs from under any genuine feminist project of cultural critique. One cannot follow the suffragette strategy, which said, “Look here, you say women can’t vote because they aren’t fully rational. But women aren’t the way you say. They are rational and free people who need to have that rational freedom reflected in the law.” But once such norms are presumed to be independent of the reality of femaleness, the intelligibility of those norms is no longer questionable—because you aren’t allowed to use as your criterion the reality of female humans.

This makes norms based on sexual differentiation a simple matter of power, not argument: the cultural ideals that win the day will not be the ones that best reflect the reality of women, but instead the ones with the most brute force behind them. This is the kind of thing Pope Benedict XVI had in mind when he spoke of a “dictatorship of relativism.”

The second divide was more recent and even more radical: bodily sex is divided from the body. Sex itself now is considered to be the result of construction and one’s own action: you perform yourself into maleness or femaleness, as gender theorist Judith Butler insists. Even your body is the result of the sedimentation of power. (She is by necessity vague about how this would work at, say, a molecular or organismic level.)

Another way of putting this is that sex is now put on the side of gender (sex lived out), and there is nothing occupying the place of bodily sex any more. Nothing is given by nature; everything is constructed, as power meets power.

With this second divide, we are now asked to be totally forgetful of the basic reality of human generation: inside or outside of the body. If this binary is forgotten, there is no intrinsic reason why there cannot be 3, 8, 45, or 12,630 sexes.

If the generative binary is forgotten, the only thing supporting two sexes is sheer power. And that is precisely what the sexual binary is presumed to represent. Hence speaking in terms of femaleness and maleness as simple binary givens is viewed as an attack, a power-play. This fact goes a long way toward explaining all the heat (along with the lack of light) surrounding the question.

“The Feminine Genius”

I haven’t discussed the implications of being female—of reproducing inside oneself—so let me do that now. John Paul II is famous for speaking of the “genius of women,” a phrase that has understandably left men feeling a little neglected. I don’t think that was his intent, but I’ll stay focused on women for this essay.

What is this feminine genius? John Paul II noted that it entails a special sensitivity to other people. Why would that be? Because women physically have a space for others inside their very bodies, they are wired to relationships in a way that men are not.

Right there, lots of women begin to feel their stereotype-alarms go off. Is the pope saying women are destined only for the caring professions? Or only for motherhood? They can’t mess up relationships? John Paul II actually explicitly denied he was saying any of these things at various points in his writings. He thought well of women, but he didn’t put them on a pedestal, and he didn’t want to limit their roles to gender stereotypes. As a woman who revels in abstract thinking and who enjoys a good football game, I appreciate this point.

At the root of many objections to John Paul II’s thinking is probably this assumption: biology is not destiny. John Paul II would certainly agree that biology is not destiny in the sense that it would eliminate our free choice or imprison us in stereotypical roles; his emphasis on free and rational integration rules out any biological determinism. But he would deny that biology is simply irrelevant to being women and men. Think of the alternative: if we say that biology has nothing to do with our persons, then we are denying the body-soul unity of human beings and releasing the soul to be some free-floating ghost in the bodily machine.

If biology has an influence on who we are, then it matters that every woman is bodily oriented to being a mother and every man to being a father. In particular, “motherhood” here doesn’t mean in the first place cultural roles (which may or may not be good), such as being the one to stay home with the kids. Motherhood at its most basic means being capable of gestating a baby and then nursing it at the breast during the “fourth trimester” or “exterogestation” of early infant development. This motherhood is, in fact, the whole reason we have femaleness to begin with. The woman is the kind of person who makes space in her very body for a human being at its most vulnerable.

Thus, a woman’s personal integration of her femaleness would include integrating the fact that she is the kind of person who is capable of generating inside herself. She would see that vulnerability is not something to despise but to nurture. She would bring a capacity for spiritual motherhood into whatever she does, whether working in a lab, teaching her children manners, or cleaning toilets in an office building. A woman’s true flourishing, in other words, must involve her integration of the fact that she is the kind of human being oriented to self-gift by making room for the other.

I have introduced the word “person,” which points us in the direction of a better understanding of the human being as a whole. My next essay will pursue that point.


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