“In an ideal world, it wouldn’t matter very much if someone was a woman or a man: sex would have little effect, direct or indirect, conscious or subconscious, on their prospects, their status, their pay, their relationships to others, the way they were expected to dress and behave, the way they were judged, etc.”
I take this to be a fairly typical expression of what we might call ‘liberal feminism’. Right now, sex is loaded with all this cultural stuff that’s bad for all of us, particularly women and assorted deviants. But we can and should separate that from sex, so that it becomes about as significant as being right- or left-handed.
I don’t at all disagree with the sentiment expressed, but I want to suggest that the way it’s expressed is actually incoherent: to do away with the untoward cultural baggage would be to do away with the categories ‘woman’ and ‘man’. To acheive this suggestion, I’m going to do one of those socratic ‘what-defines-X’ gimmicks. One approach would be to dwell on said deviants – people who want to change sex, or who are born intersex, etc. But I think a case can be made independently of that.
(I won’t mention ‘gender’ because, in my experience, the ‘sex-gender distinction’ blurs more issues than it illuminates, though that may be a symptom of too much time with undergrad papers)
When someone asks after a definition of ‘man’ or ‘woman’, the first response is usually to look to biology. Chromosomes, gametes, gonads, and sundry such things get mentioned. But it’s actually quite obvious that the meaning of, say, ‘man’ can’t reside in having an XY chromosome, because people used the word and the concept for millenia while knowing squat about chromosomes.
Maybe ‘man’ means ‘person with a penis’? But then surgically changing one’s sex would be not only possible, but alarmingly easy. A car accident, a vengeful attack, or a masturbatory misadventure might lead me to literally cease being a man.
But that’s not how we think – if a man loses his penis he becomes an injured, defective, man, but still a man. That is, we tend to assume in practice that being a man or a woman is something ‘essential’ to a person, i.e. something that is enduring over time and hard to change, and can’t be altered by a wild stab with kitchen knife.
We might suggest, then, that the meaning resides in the myriad sex characteristics of human beings – genitals, but also breasts, shoulder-to-hip ratio, facial structure, distribution of hair, etc. One or the other of these might change, or might be absent, but their variety makes it almost impossible to change all of them, at least short of a deliberate ‘sex-change’ project.
But this seems like completely the wrong sort of definition: for a start, who could actually formulate it? And even if we have this enormous list subconsciously, most of the items are matters of degree. Do we have specific thresholds for, say, degree of hairiness? And why think we all have the same ones?
This definition makes ‘womanhood’ into, firstly, a composite concept, and, secondly, a continuous concept, a matter of degree. But this seems to be totally at odds with the way we actually think: to be a woman is one feature, not ‘5-or-more-of-the-following-13’. Similarly, it is not a matter of degree – one is either a woman, or not.
Of course have evaluative standards of ‘femininity’, on which people can score higher or lower. But to say that a large, hairy, aggressive woman is ‘not a woman’ is to speak figuratively. The speaker may think less of her, but has no hesitation choosing between ‘she’ and ‘he’. Indeed, if the speaker wasn’t confident that she was a woman, they wouldn’t know to apply the standard that says that enormous aggressive hairiness is bad.
Maybe, then, the meaning does involve the genitals, but refers to the genitals at the time of birth: a man is someone born with one set of genitals, and a woman is someone born with a different set.
But there are two problems with this. Firstly, why birth, and not some later or earlier point? What if, during a difficult delivery, a ‘male’ baby has his genitals accidentally sliced off by very sharp forceps? How is that any different from losing them at the age of 60?
Secondly, this makes manhood and womanhood essentially historical concepts: they refer to a past event. The statement “I am a man”, despite being phrased in the present tense, is really saying “In the autumn of 1952, there occurred…” But this seems completely wrong – surely being a man is something I do right now, if at all? We use the word to refer to present features of people.
I think the ‘genitals at birth’ definition is on the right track. But it should be re-phrased, as something like “the underlying state, fixed before birth, which leads people to have a vagina/penis.” To be a woman is to be ‘the type of person who has a vagina’.
But now see that this definition is very different, semantically speaking. All the previous ones referred to some observable, detectable, already-understood feature – but this one refers by means of a definite description: “the underlying state, whatever it is, that causes…”
And not just any cause. If it turned out that aliens were using their special genital-lasers to give all babies weighing an odd number of kilograms at birth penises, and all babies weighing an even number vaginas, surely we wouldn’t conclude that ‘maleness’ was just ‘weighing an odd number of kilos’ – we have a constraining idea of how maleness causes its characteristic effects.
Hence terms like man and woman are theoretical: they depend for their meaningfulness on certain beliefs, just as to refer to ‘witches’ or ‘electrons’ requires certain beliefs (about magic, the devil, atoms, charge, etc). If the theory is false, its terms cease to have determinate meaning: for instance, the claim that “more than half of witches are actually benign” is not true, but it’s also not really false – it fails to sensibly say anything, because the term ‘witches’ refers to nothing.
If this is correct, then we can’t separate people being men and women from the theories which society has or had about what that means.
‘Luke is a man’ is not a fact, on which a patriarchal society will put one interpretation and a liberated society another: the facts are the visible things, hair and stature and genitals and so forth, which ‘Luke is a man’ serves to theoretically structure and make sense of.
So to define ‘woman’ or ‘man’ is to ask about the role it plays in some sort of common-sense theory that has persisted for centuries. And it seems eminently likely that this theory will feature many concepts that are intrinsically evaluative – that carry value-judgements, standards for what sort of X is a good X, or for what the purpose of X is.
In that case, just as “the condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of every class”, similarly the condition for the emancipation of women is the abolition of womanhood, and the condition for the emancipation of men – and perhaps many other groups as well – is the abolition of manhood.