What Is a “Woman” Anyway?

I do not identify as trans*. I do not identify as a man. However, I am often identified as one or the other.


Most of the time, in the world of everyday, people at the grocery store, gas station, coffee shop, airport, and so on, identify me as a man: Can I help you, sir? Thank you, sir. Checking a bag today, sir? Handing them identification or a credit card with the name ‘Paula’ on it does nothing to interrupt or shake their confidence that I am indeed a “sir.”[1] This is the world of short hair, height, broad shoulders, and “masculine clothing” means “sir”. It just does. What matters in these brief interludes with strangers is not how I might identify; rather what matters is how I am identified. My intentions, my hopes, my beliefs about what I am communicating in my appearance are immaterial. I am not special in this regard. I don’t create social meaning all alone anymore than anyone else does. The meanings, the symbols, are out there, not in my head.

In more gender aware spaces, that of lesbians, gays, progressive academics, my “gender expression,” in the lingua franca of the times, makes me a man too. It’s just that a lot of these people can recognize that I was born female; hence, they see me as a trans man. Or they just straight up ask me “how do you identify?” The latter attempts to be ever sensitive, in the know, on the right side of progress. When I get that blunt question, in my mind I say, “well, I am definitely on the leftist side, radical about most things, especially feminism, vegetarian, atheist, dog-lover, philosopher, lesbian…” as if I am writing my personal ad. In reality, I often stare into space and then offer up, “well, I am a woman, if that is what you are asking.”

Trans-identified women and men and I have a similar problem: our sex and our gender are misaligned from the dominant point of view. Trans women and I share an especially acute problem: we both want our gender to be seen as a way of being a woman, a legitimate woman, a REAL woman—that is, a woman who doesn’t have to offer up her bona fides to the world anytime someone is confused, perplexed or unsettled when they perceive our gender and sex as incongruous or ambiguous.

And here we have arrived at the triple intersection of the metaphysical with the ontological with the political question: What makes a woman a REAL woman? What does it mean to BE a woman?

Although these questions may appear to be the central questions at stake, if feminism has taught me anything, it is not to stop with the obvious. To take this up from a critical point of view surely calls for asking whose interests it serves to police this line between the real and the “unreal” where “who is a woman” is concerned. Hold onto that thought as I return to the rarefied air of metaphysics and ontology for a moment.

Oh, were it the case that biology would answer this question for us. Look to nature as she carves the world up at its joints and be done! The biological sciences save us from many a tragedy but not from the politics of the “woman” question.

Nature alone doesn’t provide the neat and tidy, the either/or. Anne Fausto-Sterling has beautifully shown, in Sexing the Body, that categorizing even a body as male or female often, even almost always, comes down to a social decision.[2] Intersexed persons, roughly 2 percent of the human population, illustrate that nature is often less concerned with binaries than society is. There is a continuum of human sex-types, and while XY and XX represent two of the largest clusters, they do not exhaust the ways of being human even on the biologically-born level.

Turns out doing the metaphysics of this, the ontology, calls for dirtying oneself in the social, the political, that layer of reality regarded as “other.” Luckily, this work has been done. Radical feminism has theorized “woman.” One of its more salient contributions for this context is showing that what it means to be a woman is not an absolute; it’s relative.

The category “woman” and the category “man,” the groups “women” and “men,” are relational. One does not socially exist without the other.   For all the vexing about nature, social categorization is what is being dealt with here.   Men without women don’t exist as socially defined. Women without men don’t exist as such either.   The categories are equal in their relational existence. Unfortunately, such equality doesn’t extend to their social substance, although we are working on it.

Through consciousness-raising — the feminist method that brings to light the lived experiences of those typically assigned the status woman from birth — we know that femininity is socialization to subordination, enforced through violence, all too often sexualized violence. That this role is most frequently assigned on the basis of biology does not make it biological. To be a man, by contrast, is to occupy the space of “masculinity,” produced through socialization to dominance also majorly through sexuality. The brilliance of patriarchy has been to naturalize these categories ideologically as “man” and “woman” as if they are pre-existent biological facts. The brilliance of feminism has been to expose this lie.

Feminists and trans gender theorists, then, have at least this much in common: both believe that biology is not destiny, that one is made, not born woman, to quote Simone de Beauvoir.   Thus the inspiration for this essay: increasingly, some self-identified radical feminists and trans women are engaged in a political battle over “woman.”   This battle — and that is an apt term — is not new; it is decades long, only now becoming increasingly divisive and in some cases has included threats and violence against radical feminists and trans women.

Violence has to be condemned. Period. Full stop. Stop it.

At the core of the ideological battle, at least, is a policy adopted by some radical feminist groups of allowing only “womyn born womyn” at some conferences and, importantly, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.[3] Setting aside the awkwardness of enforcing this policy, assuming no one’s genitals are going to be examined as a condition of entry, let’s look at the rationale for the policy. In keeping with the analysis above, these radical feminists are committed to a non-essentialist understanding of gender: it is not simply biological sex. However, their position seems to be that under conditions of patriarchy, biological sex is used as a basis of assigning gender at birth, so those “born women” are socialized to “femininity” — to “womaness”– from birth in a way that gives rise to a unique relation to the category woman. In particular, a prominent element of that relation to the category of woman is, in their view, bodily—having a vagina, breasts, the sex organs upon which femininity is typically inscribed—that makes one a social woman and hence, for instance, subject to objectification and sexual violation on that basis. Further, the claim seems to be that such “women” constitute a unique and exclusive category for political organizing and activism. Moreover, it is claimed that while biological females have been socialized to femininity since birth, through puberty, and into adulthood, trans women have not, but were instead socialized to male privilege based on their biological sex, hence lack the requisite experience to qualify for the category “woman.”[4]

This is the rubber/road moment: does having a vagina, breasts, etc., the sex organs upon which socialization to femininity is initiated at birth, serve either as basis for a unique kind of womanhood or a unique kind of political group? Is it requisite for being a woman in the politically relevant sense? Or is that requisite separable from the body as such, attaching instead to having femininity inscribed upon one’s body, irrespective of the physical structures of a vagina and breasts, etc., so as to “authorize,” say, sexualized aggression? If so, the basis for understanding women as a political group is social womanhood itself. This doesn’t, of course, mean that everyone perceived as “socially feminine” is a social woman independent of his or her own self-identification.

No doubt women who have been socialized to femininity since birth on the basis of their sex organs do have a relationship to womanness that is in some important sense particular. But so, too, do white women, Black women, Latina women, Asian women, lesbian women, poor and working class women, differently abled women, even if it is not based exclusively on their sex organs. In other words, even if one commonality among all these groups is socialization to and subjection to femininity on the basis of sex organs at birth, that does not exhaust their relation to the category woman. Femininity varies along other hierarchies.   Sojourner Truth reminds of this in her “Ain’t I a woman?”[5]

Moreover, gender nonconforming persons, whether trans identified or not, are typically confronted with the hierarchy of gender in often violent and torturous ways. Socialization to masculinity is itself about socially demonstrating one’s ability to dominate. Fail at it, and what are you? A pussy. A fag. In short, a girl, a woman, someone who allows “them”selves to be penetrated, dominated. I have had fleeting experiences of male privilege myself, despite the fact that I am not a male, don’t identify as a man, and sure wish others wouldn’t identify me as such either. Walking my dog at night in Chicago, during graduate school, knowing that certainly from a distance, I would be taken for a man made me relax a bit about being targeted for sexual assault. But it created another kind of fear; men are victims of male violence too. On two terrifying occasions, I was threatened to be beaten up by a man who thought I was a man. Being taken for a man, by these men, meant that they felt they could challenge me to a fight, in public, and my “manhood” would mean I would defend myself. Once it was over a fender bender, once it was over asking the man sitting next to me at a concert to please stop using his mobile phone and talking loudly.   In both cases, I narrowly escaped being punched in the face, and in both cases my avoidance of the physical fight resulted in a slur “faggot” the first time, “pussy” the second.   And in both cases, I was totally fearful that if they figured out I was “really” a woman, at any point, it would be much worse. One learns the social meaning of being a woman potently from the ways it is imposed on those whose biology alone do not paint a target on them. And I suspect many trans women, from experience, find the male privilege that is lived out over and against subordinate others to be as revolting as the rest of us do.

Now return to our observation that gender is a relational category. Where do trans women stand in relation to men? (For that is the question, not how do trans woman stand solely in relation to women, as is often treated as the only question.) The radical feminist analysis revealed that femininity under conditions of male domination entails widespread forms of discrimination including sexual access for men to women on men’s terms, often with impunity, including often with force. How do trans women stand in relation to these forms of male power? Trans women are often socially marginalized, locked out of employment opportunities for gendered reasons, excluded from housing opportunities, lack basic protections for physical safety and bodily integrity, aggressed against for their perceived gender transgression, raped in order to be taught the meaning of womanhood and for who knows what other “reasons,” forced to sell their bodies for sex for sustenance, and murdered for asserting their right to exist.   That starts to sound a lot like being a woman in this world to me.

This insight that one’s assigned social status as subordinate on the basis of sex, and in turn sexuality, is what socially defines “woman” is not mine, of course. Nor is the insight that one need not be biologically a woman to be subordinated as women are. In their canonical work on pornography, Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin expose pornography as “a form of discrimination on the basis of sex.” Because their analysis is grounded in material reality, they define pornography as “the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women, whether in pictures or words, that also includes… women are presented as sexual objects who enjoy pain or humiliation… sexual pleasure in being raped, sexual objects for domination, conquest, violation, exploitation…” among other things.[6] Yet, in the subsequent subsection, they add “The use of men, children, or transsexuals in the place of women…[in the list enumerated] above is pornography for the purposes…of this statute.”[7] There it is. When one is socially reduced to sex, treated as women definitively are treated, one is a social woman. Possession of female sex organs is not a necessary condition. To hold as the only constant or ultimate prerequisite the possession of “the female sex organs” as a basis for womanhood is to re-essentalize biology.

It must be said, however, that to the extent that some trans gender theorists or persons claim that their internal sense of gender as male or female is the product of hormones shaping the brain in utero, or offer up any other biological basis of gender identity, they are also essentializing gender in a way that is false (scientific research does not vindicate this claim) as well as politically dangerous. [8] Relying on a politics of immutable characteristics for asserting rights claims is tempting under the current legal framework, but not only is it irrelevant to inequality in fact, it’s as likely to work against unequal groups as for them, as history has repeatedly shown. It also makes gender a problem with you rather than with the world, as evidenced by the “gender dysphoria” disorder diagnosis.[9] Describing the desire to live as the sex opposite of one’s assigned sex at birth as a “disordered” or “dysphoric” condition relative to individuals omits (and possibly eliminates) any critical assessment of the sex/gender system as it operates independently of individual desires.

Another issue that seems to divide radical feminists and trans people is that radical feminists want to eradicate gender while trans people tend to want to celebrate gender, or at least to be allowed to live a gender in peace. Radical feminists want to abolish it while trans people want to assimilate with another position in it. Trans persons and trans-theorists are certainly no monolithic set, and I cannot speak for either group. However, some trans-theorists argue that “trans genderism” serves to denaturalize the sex/gender identification that forms the foundation of patriarchy. Gender and sex can come apart, they show, and male bodies doing feminine gender or female bodies doing masculine gender expose this rift. And if sex is social, doing gender is doing sex. Radical feminists aim for a world in which people can dress, behave, act in ways that reflect their self-understanding and not be assigned roles, especially hierarchically ranked ones, on the basis of their sexed body types. There are shared premises here. The category trans* is broad; only some of those persons who identify as such seek to surgically transform their bodies to gain the appearance of sex organs representative of typical biological males and females. As to whether that choice is in keeping with a radical politics that aims to denaturalize gender and free the body from gender, I have this to say: In a world in which hierarchy isn’t transcribed on bodies, surgical transformation of one’s body to meet an ideal, an archetype, won’t be perceived as necessary to live and be loved the way one wants to live and be loved, whether with breast implants or mastectomies, penis enhancements or penile implants, liposuction or collagen injections, face lifts, leg lengthening, or whatever and anything else. It may be a form of conformity to sex and gender to change one’s body and adopt stereotypical roles, but it is a perceived necessity that surely radical feminists, if anyone, should understand the pressure to accomplish. And many trans people, having been required to sex-stereotype themselves thoroughly to be allowed to transition, have a grasp of the politics of this dilemma that is more trenchant than the understanding of many who are born women.

Which brings me to another element of the critique of trans* offered in the name of radical feminism: that trans women perform hyper-femininity, akin to blackface.   Well, so do plenty of biological females. Radical feminism is not, as I understand it, committed to androgyny as the only politically acceptable form of self-representation. But there is a deeper issue here involving the distinction between the ideal world, the one we want to live in, and the world we do live in, the here and now. In the here and the now, failure to have a clear and intelligible gender presentation that signals “woman” or “man” renders one socially unintelligible, sometimes invisible, and sometimes frightfully visible (as a target of violence). Such social unintelligibility comes at a steep cost and can often only work for an individual with many other layers of privilege protecting them. I am an academic philosopher, now with tenure. The safety of that means that I can work and earn money while living out my perceived androgyny. But it also means that every first day of a semester, I have to live with the fact that half of the class will think I am a man and half will think I am a woman. The students are often baffled; it takes some time to ease that uncomfortableness in the classroom. It means that I have to time my bathroom visits to avoid producing confrontation and fear in women in the bathroom, everywhere I go. It means that I fear and dread traveling to parts of the country where people like me are made to know we aren’t welcome. It means in every single interaction with a person I’ve just met, I wait to see “who” they think I am. This is no cake walk in the park, folks. Add to this narrative that part of the way I get interpreted is a result of the body I was given. I am tall, 6 ft. I am big; I’ve got the frame of a linebacker. When I was a teenager and tried to do the somewhat feminine thing, at least with very long hair, I was still often called “sir.” I was just a boy with long hair to them. I am pretty sure that if I were 5’ 2” and thin, I would be seen as a woman, irrespective of my gender neutral or masculine dress. This is to say, bodies matter to how we are socially interpreted, independent of our choices. If others choose to gender themselves in this world, in the here and now, and that includes “re-sexing” their bodies to remove any question in a society obsessed with the natural basis of gender, I get why.

Another objection some radical feminists make against trans women is that they stand in relation to women as Men in sexuality; Shelia Jeffreys claims that a core part of trans women’s sexuality is the fetishization of the female body, so much so that these “men” want to become women.[10] Aside from the fact that the empirical basis for this claim is in serious doubt, there are other ways to think about this. I have long thought about my own lesbianism that I am a lesbian because of gender not because of sex.  That is, it’s not about male or female bodies for me, but about gender. I can’t be a woman in relation to a man, and in particular that means to me being feminine in sexuality.  I literally can’t do it and be authentic in any way.  I don’t want to perform sexy in the way that is sexy to men.  But, I can be sexual in relation to a woman because then I don’t have to be feminine (there are no scripted power roles involved).  (This is not to say that plenty of lesbians don’t do power roles in sexuality, they do. I don’t.)  Now that I am thinking about this topic, the question arises:  what if trans women don’t want to be men in sexuality?  That is, what if they can’t be masculine in relation to women in sexuality in any authentic way, don’t want masculinity as such anywhere near their sexuality?  I don’t mean they can’t perform, or get off, but literally don’t want to play the role of masculine in sex.  If that is right, then it may just be that the way they can be with women is as women precisely because there is no necessarily scripted dominance/power role in that relation.

I don’t know this to be true, but if it captures a part of the set of trans women, there is something really interesting going on here. And it is the opposite of fetishization. It is the only way they can imagine or live, or imagine to live, egalitarian sex. Add to this analysis the social symbolism of a penis, and you can see pretty easily why one might be motivated to remove that “offending appendage”. I am not saying this is true of all trans women. But it does offer a way of thinking about trans women sexually that is an alternative to seeing them as fetishizers of the female body. It gives a very unwierd meaning to their desire, if it exists, to make love with women like women do. Before one jumps to the conclusion that I have just said that egalitarian sex between men and women, or men and men, or trans men and women is impossible, I haven’t said that and do not think that. I have said that the socially scripted roles of masculinity and femininity in sexuality are not egalitarian, and situated trans women at a potential location in that critique, which is a radical feminist critique if there ever was one.

On an airplane from Chicago to Baltimore, the flight attendant taking drink orders turns to me and says, “what would you like to drink, sir?” I was about 27 at the time and more in place where I would correct anyone who called me “sir.” I have now stopped correcting people and just let them believe whatever they believe about me. In this case, I said to this flight attendant, a woman, “I would like a coffee, and I am a woman, not a sir.” She looked at me, and said “excuse me?” I said, “you called me sir, but I am woman.” I wasn’t angry or confrontational, I said it flat and matter of factly. She scanned me from head to toe and said “no, you are not.” Meanwhile, all the passengers around us are now observing the conversation. I said, “yes, I am.” Again with no inflection. She handed me the coffee with a “whatever,” turned her back, and proceeded with her drink orders. This actually happened! No doubt many trans persons live with this kind of thing on a daily basis, although maybe they are better at looking like a woman than I am. I know it’s humiliating, it’s anxiety-producing, and it’s also just plain exhausting. The entitlement of perfect strangers to pronounce what or who you really are, to dismiss you as crazy, to make a public display of your “freakishness,” is beyond comprehension. Why do they care?

Of course there are some sex differences between biological females and biological males (the largest clusters of sex types).   Reproductive politics is one way these sex differences, bodily differences, come to matter. No biological male has yet been impregnated as a result of a rape or any other way, nor will a biological male need an abortion anytime soon. Such facts cannot be elided. But so what? It’s equally true that not all females can become pregnant, either because of infertility or age.   Yet all persons concerned with women’s equality have a stake in reproductive politics and they know it. Reducing this, an issue with a biological basis, to a “woman’s issue” in the biologically limited sense of woman-born-woman limits our political base in the interests of male domination.

To return to the woman question: the category woman is political. “Women” is a political group, for whom the aim of a radical politics is full equality including real liberation. Equality for women, as a group, will be real when sex/gender are no longer a basis for status. Equality for all women will be real when the various forms of interlocking and pyramiding hierarchies — race, class, age, sexuality, geopolitical location, etc. — are no longer used for social ranking.

Catharine MacKinnon, who has been around these politics a long time, put it to me this way. After all these years surrounded by born women who do not, for reasons we do get, identify as women at all, not to mention all those who say they are feminists but clearly have priorities other than the liberation of women from sexual violence and exploitation, it is a breath of fresh air to encounter this whole new group that identifies as women, wants to be women, sees through sex roles, and opposes sexual violence. Not to mention making the question of sex, which has been pretty thoroughly absorbed into a discourse of gender, interesting all over again.




[1] My given name is Paula. My parents and everyone else have called me “Lori” since day one, however.

[2] Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body (Basic Books: NY, 2000). See pp. 36-77.

[3] Since I wrote this article, the festival has announced this year will be its last. https://jezebel.com/trans-excluding-michigan-womyns-music-festival-to-end-t-1699412910

[4] Many of these claims have been made to me in private conversation with radical feminists over the “woman” issue.

[5] You can access a copy of the poem here: https://www.sojournertruth.org/Library/Speeches/AintIAWoman.htm

[6] Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, ed.s., In Harm’s Way: The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 435.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Again, claims of the biological basis of trans gender “ism” have been made to me in private conversation by self-identified trans persons. The media is also particularly invested in this narrative, as are some scientists. Here is one example: https://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7689007.stm. Much of the media coverage tends to focus on biological explanations of trans identification.

[9] The DMS V, the latest version, defines gender dysphoria disorder here: https://www.dsm5.org/Documents/Gender%20Dysphoria%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf.

[10] Shelia Jeffreys, Beauty and Misogyny (New York: Routledge, 2005), argues that “transfeminity” is a form of masochism that is based in the sexual eroticization (and fethisization) of subordination. See, pp. 46-66. Since I originally wrote this article, Jeffreys has published Gender Hurts: A feminist analysis of the politics of trangenderism (New York: Routledge, 2014). Tim R. Johnston writes an important critique of the book here: https://hypatiaphilosophy.org/HRO/content/gender-hurts-feminist-analysis-politics-transgenderism.


Lori Watson is Professor of Philosophy and Director of Gender Studies at University of San Diego.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Michel Kail , Richard Sobel: Economic Crisis and the Crisis in Economic Thought A Progressive-Iconoclastic Perspective Inspired by Sartre

By Frank Kirkland: The Questionable Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education: Du Bois’ Iconoclastic Critique

By Lori Watson: What Is a “Woman” Anyway?

By Kevin Anderson: Four Years After the Arab Revolutions: Fighting on Amid Reactionary Retrenchment

By Steven Panageotou: No Democratic Theory Without Critical Theory

By Brian Caterino: The Practical Import of Political Inquiry: Perestroika’s Last Stand

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By Chris Byron: A Critique of Axel Honneth’s Theory of Reification

By Kurt Jacobsen: Prefatory Note to The Twin Research Debate

By Jay Joseph , Claudia Chaufan , Ken Richardson , Doron Shultziner , Roar Fosse , Oliver James , Jonathan Latham: The Twin Research Debate in American Criminology

By Leonard Quart , Al Auster: Hollywood Follows the Money: Films of the ‘Great Recession’

By Tony Lack: Slavoj Žižek: Absolute Trouble or Recoil in Paradise?

By Brian Trench: Gabriella Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy – the many faces of Anonymous

By Kurt Jacobsen: Daniel P. Bolger, Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

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By Linda Etchart: Eduardo Galeano, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History

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