It’s women’s history month! Which means it’s time to argue about who is a woman again.
I’ve had it with the argument. “Woman” is a meaningless category. The only time it’s useful is in structuring someone’s own self-identity. That’s not something we can police. In short, gatekeeping who is a woman and who isn’t is a big problem.
I’ve said before that “a woman” is anyone who identifies as one. It can’t be only about performance of particular behaviors. Those aren’t constant across time or space. And it can’t be bound by biology, because that’s not only exclusionary but dangerous as well.
So, let’s take a look at how “women” have been constructed, why they’ve been constructed in that matter, and why it’s time to change it.
“Woman” Only Exists in Contrast to “Man”
Let’s start with the linguistic roots of this. “Woman” derives from “man,” much the same as “female” derives from “male.”
Both use the root word associated with masculinity and then add a prefix. That prefix suggests that “woman” is derivative of “man.”
It does imply difference. This is not “man,” but “woman.” Thus, woman only exists in direct contrast to man. Female only exists in contrast to male.
An experiment: What would we call a species with only one sex? Many snails are hermaphroditic; they are both sexes at once. There is neither a “male” nor a “female” snail, because the snail is both.
What about lizards and snakes? Both can reproduce parthogenically, meaning females can reproduce without males. They clone themselves. In these cases, it’s possible that species would ditch sexual reproduction. The species would only ever have and need “females”—but are they still females if there is only one sex?
Biology can offer us an answer to this. It depends on the gametes. This is how you can have female insects with penises and male insects with vaginas. As long as the female produces eggs and the male makes sperm, we classify them as “female” and “male.”
That … certainly fucks with our perception of things. We tend to use visible characteristics to categorize people. Men have penises, while women have vaginas, or so the thinking goes.
Biology Doesn’t Agree
Nature doesn’t always stick to “male” and “female,” even with humans. We can take a look at historical examples. We have plenty of anecdotes about individuals who had seemingly intersex conditions and lived their lives either as men or women, genetic sex notwithstanding.
Gender, then, is a social construction. The categories of “man” and “woman” have no biological ties.
And they can’t. If we tie womanhood to wombs or breasts or markers of “female sex,” we inevitably categorize some people wrong. Some people who identify as women do not have functional reproductive systems. Many who identify as women suffer a sense of loss if they have their breasts removed or undergo a hysterectomy.
Why should these women stop identifying as women due to these circumstances?
What about people with male biomarkers who present as female until puberty? These children present as girls, so they’re treated that way, even though, on a biological level, they are male.
Gender identity can be incongruent with genetic sex markers for many reasons. Recent science says it’s even possible for brain and body to have totally different identities. A trans identity is merely one along a spectrum here.
Biology also lays bare how society constructs gender identities. We categorize people based on observed features, then treat them accordingly. People classed as biological females are thus expected to wear dresses and play with dolls, even if they’re not actually biologically female.
Why Are We So Concerned with Gender Identities Anyway?
The hyper-policing of gender identity started in the imperialist era. Remember, control over bodies is a hallmark of this period. Slavery and indentured service, as well as capitalism and nationalism, made control over bodies a predominant concern.
There’s also the emergent concern about civilization/savagery that existed throughout this period. Civilized men and women were characterized along particular (Christian) lines, which became codified gendered behavior. Anyone who didn’t conform to those ideals was “uncivilized.”
This ties back to the “civilizing” mission given to Victorian women. Women were the guardians of empire and nation, for they created the next generations. They raised children, who would become the men who maintained the empire. Women were thus to be both protected and controlled.
Concerns about Paternity and Inheritance Provide a Catalyst
This desire for control has a long history in Christian Europe, which I’ve mentioned before. Since European cultures passed property through the male line, there was a need to ensure paternity. The cuckolded husband’s inability to control his wife screwed his own genetic children out of their rightful inheritance.
Capitalism and the Imperative of Policing Bodies
In the Victorian era, the concerns about controlling women’s bodies changed. Capitalism wants to replicate disposable bodies. By controlling reproduction, capitalist societies ensure there will be a future generation of poor, desperate bodies willing to do poorly paid jobs. Capitalism relies on this.
Ever wondered why we argue about providing abortion or birth control to poor people? That’s why. Capitalism needs people to reproduce in desperation.
By contrast, we can look at reproductive capacity in the middle and upper class. Wealthier families tend to be smaller. That allows the family to allocate more resources to individual children. In turn, wealthier people are able reproduce more “skilled” workers.
Thus, upper class reproduction tends to be controlled through education, birth control, and abortion services—even when it’s illegal.
Refusing these to the poor forces them to rely on “abstinence only” messages. The denial of abortion services when that doesn’t work is all according to plan. People complain about poorer people who can’t “support” their kids, arguing it’s not their responsibility, that those people should have been more cautious or careful.
These arguments ignore the truth. It’s all according to plan. If these children grow up in poverty, lacking access to education, they become the disposable workforce of capitalism’s future. The “moralistic” arguments are only moral insofar as they help capitalism.
Exploiting Women and Children Alike
So, how does that tie back to “women”? Obviously, capitalism concerns itself with the (re)production of the workforce. So it also wants control over bodies—particularly those bodies that are responsible for pregnancy and childbirth.
Capitalist societies are intimately concerned about creating “women” as a separate, specialized class, which they can control.
To that end, capitalism wants to define who is “a man” and who is “a woman.” Once it does, it can then acculturate particular bodies to doing a particular kind of “job” and keep tabs on who is (potentially) capable of reproducing.
Constructing Pregnancy and Childbirth as Uniquely Feminine
Now we come to the crux of the problem. Capitalism needs future workers, so it needs people to reproduce. For that to happen, it needs to control what people—particularly people with functional wombs—do. Think again about access to birth control, abortion, or even sex ed.
There’s an inequality here. Wealthier people have access to these resources. Someone without employer-sponsored insurance might be able to afford birth control on their own. A part-time Hobby Lobby employee is out of luck. Their employer doesn’t have to offer them coverage, but they can’t afford birth control out of pocket on a $7.25/hr minimum wage.
Moralists tell these people simply not to have sex, then shame them when they have children they “can’t afford.” They refuse to offer supports, make parents jump through hoops, and keep these people impoverished. If another child comes along (due to lack of birth control and money), it’s, again, the parents’ moral failing and evidence they’re “bilking the system.”
In fact, it’s the system working exactly as planned. Capitalism ensures desperate bodies remain that way by forcing them to reproduce and provide for children. Those children, raised in a state of desperation, then become the future “desperate bodies.”
We could easily correct this situation. But capitalism does not want us to, because it requires a supply of people desperate enough to work under horrendous conditions for minimal wages.
Enhancing Patriarchal Control Too
This system also works to keep “women” dependent upon “men.” “Women” often face discrimination in terms of wages and time off.
Let’s look at another example. Did you know it’s discrimination to ask someone if they plan to have children in a job interview or if they have a family? That’s because employers use that information that to weed out female candidates. Employers tend to see people who want to be parents as “less committed” to their jobs. Employers assume parents will need more time off and special accommodations so they can attend to their motherly duties. Most businesses would rather hire “a man” so they can commit to the job.
On the other hand, “women” are trained to think looking after their children should be their top priority. Mothers who don’t take time to care for their children are “bad moms.” Capitalism encourages “women” to concern themselves with children.
Capitalism Makes Ya Want It (and Exploits That Too)
And we find this vein of thought in the construction of pregnancy, childbirth, and mothering. Capitalism encourages us to envision this as a uniquely female experience, something that can only belong to the domain of “women.”
Capitalist societies train us from early on that “women,” as a gendered group, are more caring and sensitive; more emotional and empathetic. The pinnacle of femininity, of womanhood, is to have children and rear them, because that requires much caring and empathy.
And we see this argument echoed by many who do identify as women and mothers. Yet, within this construction, the “mother” identity becomes master status. We expect it to subsume almost everything about a person. And letting motherhood take over your identity is even presented as an ideal to strive for.
“Women” are encouraged to pursue motherhood as the be-all, end-all of themselves. This is inherently anti-feminist. Women advancing the position that pregnancy is somehow a sacred rite of womanhood are guilty of buying into some fairly patriarchal notions.
Biological Difference Creates Belief in Inferiority
I want to address the idea of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood as a space of the sacred feminine. Many groups think of it as inherently feminine—imbued with “feminine” cosmic energy. My argument here isn’t to deny that idea. The divine feminine is about generation and life-giving, whereas the contrasting masculine energy is usually destructive in some capacity.
The problem is not in these events tapping into some “divine feminine.”
Rather, the issue is with the idea they are unique to women. Womanhood becomes intimately tied to one’s biology. The performance of a social role hinges on what kind of body you have or don’t have.
That’s ridiculous. It’s like suggesting that someone can’t be good at math because they have a vagina or the XX phenotype.
As we know, that exact argument continues to plague us. The construction of women as different than men is given biological basis. People then use that explanation to position women as the antithesis of men. Thus, your ability to do long division suddenly hinges on whether you have XX or XY in your chromosomes.
While there is some suggestion that there are certain genetic differences—such as a higher prevalence of red-green color blindness in XY individuals—the idea that “XX humans can’t do math” is pretty preposterous.
All Humans Come Equipped to Care
The suggestion that someone’s ability to effectively parent relies on whether they are XX or XY is similarly ridiculous. Humans of all phenotypes want to make sure at least some of their offspring survive to adulthood.
Reproduction is, after all, how any living organism achieves immortality.
So, XY humans are just as invested in having children survive to adulthood. And since humans have such a long development period, it makes sense that adults of all persuasions can provide some degree of nurturing. The idea that men are incapable doesn’t hold water.
Special Treatment Doesn’t Undo Oppression
And that’s where the idea of “women” as some specialized category becomes inherently dangerous. Women are different than men, exist only in contrast to them, and thus they can be cast as inferior, less than.
This thinking happens even in groups that want to protect “women’s” interests. They argue “women” need special “protections” under the patriarchal-capitalist system that oppresses them. Wouldn’t it make more sense to just … do away with the oppressive system?
But they don’t argue that. They slap bandages on the problem. Governments, largely controlled by cis men, toss money at “women’s groups,” without the aim of changing anything. “Women” must deal with the fallout of “men’s” violence and oppression, without ever addressing causes.
The root is a system that wishes to keep them subservient and controlled. It thus encourages “men” to perpetuate oppression and violence through the continued use of these separate categories.
It’s all rather silly when you break it down like that. “Women” only need to be a specialized group to protect them from an oppressive system. That same system encourages them to join that group specifically so it can enact oppression and violence upon them.
A Better Way Forward
When we argue for equality of all bodies, gender expressions, and identities, we strike at the roots of the problem. We wrestle with the fact that the patriarchal-capitalist system has created these categories specifically to control and oppress. And we address the tension of arguing for them and, in turn, merely upholding our own oppression.
Arguing for womanhood to be defined along biological lines is like asking someone to oppress you more.
That’s not to say people shouldn’t identify as women or even be proud to be women. Certainly, people can and should identify as women and perform that gendered role if it fits with their identity and sense of self.
And people should take pride in their identities. What I’m arguing is that delineating membership in “womanhood” on the sole basis of biology is dangerous. It may seem innocuous at first—indeed, oppression often comes in the guise of a friend. But using the biological argument comes with an inherent danger; biology has long been weaponized to make “women” into lesser creatures.
Thus, it’s time to dispense with the notion of womanhood as somehow based in or rooted to biology. Doing so puts us in a stronger position to end oppression and violence against all people—women of all stripes included.