Anyone who is at all online these days – as you are if you’re reading this – will know that one of the most fierce culture wars revolve around the meaning of “woman”. They’re fought in courts, in universities, on other blogs and of course on social media and even on streets.
In brief, there are several candidate accounts of “woman”: as a biological entity, i.e. as a sex term, or as a cultural entity, understood either as a social gender role/class or as the possession of a gender identity. All of these accounts lend themselves of different interpretations, thus containing internal disagreements which track different ways of thinking about the metaphysics of sex or gender.
In a paper in progress, I’m struggling with the question of what we are to make of these disagreements, and would like to share with you two worries and a proposal. I start with the worries: one is that without broad agreement on a concept of “woman”, feminism – both as an intellectual enterprise and as a political movement – is fragmented. The traditional definition of feminism is as the overcoming of women’s oppression; without knowing what and who is a woman, how can we know what is feminism’s constituency and who is a feminist? Another worry compounds the first: all the different accounts of “woman” on offer are, in some version, backed up by reasonable moral convictions. (I’m not saying that all who embrace one or another of these accounts are reasonable people!) “Woman” as a sex concept is supported by those who believe that one group of individuals, namely female people, have always been and still are oppressed on the basis of their sex, and that resistance to this oppression is the main concern of feminism. “Woman” as a gender concept that picks out a gender role or class is supported by those who think that we should ameliorate the concept of “woman” for the sake of advancing the kinds of oppression that concern feminists. And “woman” as a gender concept that picks out a gender identity is supported by those who believe that the inclusion of trans women into womanhood is a test that any feminist account must pass, on pain of inflicting further injustice on a minority that is already marginalised and stigmatised by gender norms.
But if the controversy over “woman” is enduring and driven by reasonable disagreements about metaphysical and ethical issues, then it is very unlikely that it will subside. Hence, the first worry really is that we are dealing with the irreversible fragmentation of feminism.
And now, the proposal, which starts from two observations: One is that, in the face of these fierce debates, self-identified feminists themselves don’t seem to entertain doubts about their own feminist allegiance. As far as I know, nobody has expressed doubts on whether they really are feminists. If “feminism” has to be understood by reference to “woman”, given the apparently intractable nature of the disagreement over the latter it would be reasonable to doubt that one knows what a “woman” is, and hence to wonder whether one really is a feminist. That self-identified feminists don’t seem to entertain such doubts is not, I believe, the sign of an epistemic failure. Rather, it’s an indication that the definition of “feminism” by reference to “woman” is a superficial one, and that a deeper definition is available, one that feminists implicitly accept, and that shows that feminism itself is not after all threatened by the disagreement over “woman”.
Second, people who endorse one or another account of “woman” sometimes level the same criticism at one another, namely that holding the rival view entrenches sexist gender norms. I’m not saying that such criticism is fair. Rather, I’m saying that it is interesting, because it points to an implicit agreement about a meaning of feminism that makes no reference to, and thus does not depend on, the right view about “woman”. This is an understanding of feminism which I defend at more length elsewhere: as opposition to unjustified – primarily to sexist – gender norms. If so, then we have, perhaps, enough reason to look beyond “woman”.