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What Is a Woman?

An exploration of how transness can expand our understanding of gender.

What Is a Woman?
Sarah Lou Kiernan

As trans women like me struggle to be seen and respected as women, the most frustrating conversation to witness has been the one that probes at a trans woman's realness. It is a question that is so seemingly simple, yet insidious at its core as violence towards trans women continues: “What is a woman?”

This question brings divisiveness into the fold as people connect semantics with biology. Linguistics and definitions become a hurdle for someone like me to overcome. There is a silent threat in those four simple words that aims to dismantle the logic that trans women are in fact women.

As it is, common definitions of “woman” are often associated with an "adult female human,” in other words, “of or denoting the sex that can bear offspring or produce eggs.” Now, let’s face the facts here, I can’t do either of those things. I lack the ability to bear offspring, to produce eggs, or to menstruate, and some people will use that very definition of "woman" as a weapon to attack the notion that I am deserving of womanhood. And to compliment that, this "logic” insinuates that I, and women like me, are nothing more than men with a mental illness. To be a woman is much more nuanced and complicated than a mere biological function.

Last year we saw how divisive a simple question like this can be during the confirmation hearing for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson when Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn asked the Supreme Court nominee to define the word “woman.” Blackburn’s line of questioning was far from innocent and hit on all of the political hot-button issues centering trans people; from Lia Thomas, a transgender swimmer on the University of Pennsylvania’s women’s team to teaching children about gender identity in schools. When prompted to define such a term, Jackson responded that she couldn't, not in this context because, again, womanhood is far too nuanced.

This rhetoric continued on into June (Pride month, no less) as Matt Walsh, a right-wing political commentator, released his problematic documentary, “What Is A Woman?” In this film Walsh asked various people, from politicians to medical professionals, "what is a woman?" He intended to poke holes into the trans movement with mindless prejudices under the guise of 'common sense.’ It was portrayed that no one was able to give a universal definition of “woman.” The common response was that a woman is someone who “identifies as a woman.” And while this makes sense to me, Walsh makes a point to show that this violates the rule that you can not define a word by using that same word in the definition and ultimately puts into question the legitimacy that trans women are women.

This question began to feel cruel. As you can imagine, witnessing these conversations made me viscerally frustrated as I too struggled with finding an answer. My womanhood was being perceived as having no logic or basis because the English language failed to support or encompass my experience as a woman. It was the obsession of some to debunk my womanly existence with the exclusion of trans women from a definition in the dictionary or because of biological limitations. As politicians continued to argue my realness, as well as assess my threat to society, I grew obsessed with wanting to define “woman” through a transgender lens and questioned whether that was even possible. I wondered if I was asked such a question, what would I say? There was a desire to go toe-to-toe with Walsh’s pseudologic that trans women need to fit into a singular definition or otherwise we are not real women.

As I struggled to form an answer to Walsh’s questioning, I couldn’t help but feel like this was a clear indication that the English language sometimes does not appropriately grasp the nuances of gender. The brilliant Jacob Tobia explains the limitations of language when speaking to gender in their memoir Sissy: A Coming-Of-Gender Story with an analogy to the game, Mad Libs. Mad Libs is a game with a pre-written skeleton story, where the player fills in the blanks from a limited list of options. While the “list of options” resonates with some people’s experience, it can not encompass everyone’s. What it means to be a man or a woman is different for everyone and varies between contexts and cultures.

Come to find, I wasn’t alone in feeling the desire to challenge our old understanding of gender and language. As we rounded the end of '22 we witnessed dictionary sources like The Cambridge Dictionary update its definition of “woman” to include trans women—finally! While the entry for “woman” still includes the longstanding definition—“an adult female human being”—an additional definition of the word was added—“An adult who lives and identifies as female though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth.” The Cambridge Dictionary was one of many and soon and Merriam-Webster both took to changing or adding to their definition of “woman” as well as “man.” I’m sure this drove Blackburn and Walsh crazy.

While this is a major win and helps to formally expand what it means to be a woman, my relationship to the word is different from what it was a year ago. Then, it seemed so important to filter my gender experience to fit into what that word meant in order to be accepted. It felt as if the word “woman” and its association to me validated my gender experience as real and that it was imperative to “explain” my gender through a cis-normative lens. I realized the answer to “what is a woman?” is not dictated by biology or language but rather is defined by the people who identify with it. The point isn’t about going head-to-head with people like Walsh, trying to fit my ever changing, ever growing relationship with gender into the archaic and limited definition of “woman” but instead showing them that there are as many ways to be a woman as there are women.

The answer to that question can not be found through a scientific route. It's not based on what we do but rather who we are. To be a woman is not based on your ability to bear children—some cis women can not produce eggs or bear offspring—but on something much deeper. Our gender experiences are more accurately found in the small ways we interact with the world and how the world interacts with us. It is nuanced in how we think and how we feel. Therefore, our understanding of gender needs to be expansive and we need to relinquish ourselves of the need to fit into ancient definitions. It would be a shame to simplify something so beautifully complex.

I am a woman because I know myself to be a woman. I may not have what some women have, I might not act how other women act, but that can not and should not dictate my life or my experience with life. The definition of “woman” is found within me and within every person who identifies as a woman, and the meaning that I place upon that word is what I decide it to be. Suddenly, the word “woman,” something that was once aspirational but restrictive, now feels limitless because I no longer need to fit into someone else’s understanding of gender simply because they lack the language to even begin to comprehend me. I, and every single woman, is a walking, changing, growing definition of what it means to be a “woman” and no two will ever be the same.

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