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Are women adult human females?

Abstract

Are women (simply) adult human females? Dictionaries suggest that they are. However, philosophers who have explicitly considered the question invariably answer no. This paper argues that they are wrong. The orthodox view is that the category woman is a social category, like the categories widow and police officer, although exactly what this social category consists in is a matter of considerable disagreement. In any event, orthodoxy has it that woman is definitely not a biological category, like the categories amphibian or adult human female. In the first part, a number of arguments are given for the view that women are adult human females; the second part turns to rebutting the main objections. Finally, a couple of morals are briefly noted, one for activist sloganeering, and one for ameliorative projects that seek to change the meaning of ‘woman’.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Categories are interchangeable with properties: S is a woman iff S has the property being a woman iff S is a member of the category woman.

  2. 2.

    In Haslanger’s terminology, wife, firefighter, and so on, are “constitutively socially constructed” categories (Haslanger 2012: 87). For the purposes of this paper we can adopt one of Haslanger’s accounts of constitutive social construction: a category F is socially constructed (i.e. is a social category) iff “in order for X to be F, X must exist within a social matrix that constitutes F’s” (131; cf. 87). Biological categories are categories proprietary to biology. These explanations are imprecise, but that will not matter here. It will do no harm to individuate categories modally: necessarily equivalent categories are identical.

  3. 3.

    Given AHF, those with a taste for hyperintensional metaphysics will want to investigate whether it can be strengthened to give a real definition of woman (see, e.g., Rosen 2015; Passinsky 2019).

  4. 4.

    For a defense of a view that would count certain disputes about AHF as “merely verbal”, see Chalmers 2011.

  5. 5.

    Cf. Haslanger 2012: 14.

  6. 6.

    See, in particular, Williamson 2007: ch. 7.

  7. 7.

    Some argue that categories like female are social categories (see, e.g., Kessler and McKenna 1978; Butler 1990: ch. 1; Hood-Williams 1996; Ásta 2018: ch. 4). This position is assumed false here (for an examination of some arguments see Byrne 2018), but there is no obvious reason why its proponents could not meet the thesis of this paper half-way. As will become clear later, if female is a social category then AHF is easier to defend.

  8. 8.

    Haslanger subsequently suggested that her “ameliorative” proposals instead exposed existing meanings (2012: 12–16); on this descriptive understanding of Haslanger’s project AHF is directly engaged. For discussion see Saul 2006, Cappelen 2018: 78–81, and Bogardus 2019.

  9. 9.

    ‘Woman’ is likely one of the very few lexical universals (Goddard 2001: 12–13).

  10. 10.

    A similar example (“This is the DNA of a woman”) is in Saul 2012: 200. However, Saul denies AHF. See Sect. 3.3 below.

  11. 11.

    See McGrath 2019: 116. In the later translation of The Second Sex the indefinite article is omitted: “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” (Beauvoir 2011: 283). The iconic sentence is often supposed to express the insight that woman is a social category (e.g. Butler 1986). This is not the place for Beauvoir exegesis, but it is worth noting that in the introduction she contrasts a paradigmatic social category (proletarian) with the category woman: “But proletarians have not always existed, whereas there have always been women. They are women in virtue of their anatomy and physiology.” (Beauvoir 1989: xxiv, emphasis added); the later translation is more literal but preserves the basic point (Beauvoir 2011: 8). And in a 1976 interview she said: “A positive definition of “woman”? Woman is a human being with a certain physiology…” (Brison 2003: 192).

  12. 12.

    Stone (2007: 141) comes close, writing that “in everyday language ‘woman’ often just means ‘female human being’”, but then immediately qualifies this by arguing that “the word ‘woman’ is ambiguous between sex and gender”. By standard tests, there is no relevant ambiguity in ‘woman’, and in any case there are theoretical reasons for suspicion. Lexical ambiguity is rife arguably because it leads to efficient communication when the context can easily disambiguate (Piantadosi et al. 2012); but the suggested ambiguity in ‘woman’ would presumably lead to misunderstanding.

    Saul (2012: 196–197) does not explicitly mention AHF, but reports that she used to be sympathetic to the view that ‘woman’ “picks out those who have certain biological traits”, before changing her mind. See also Bogardus 2019: 1–2, 16.

  13. 13.

    Stoljar is clearly not using ‘woman’ in some technical sense, hence the need for the qualification. Haslanger, on the other hand, stipulates that ‘woman’ (in her usage) applies to girls (Haslanger 2012: 40; see also Haslanger 2017: 165).

  14. 14.

    Since there is no restriction to humans XX counts a female hippopotamus as a woman; there is also no mention of developmental stage. These omissions are no accident, because Bach says that the properties mentioned on the right hand side are supposed to “supervene on…Q’s occurrent physiology”, i.e. be “intrinsic” (2012: 233). And even waiving these issues XX fails to give a necessary condition for many reasons (e.g. some women with Turner syndrome have only one X chromosome, women with triple X syndrome have three, and women can lack “female reproductive organs” due to birth defects or surgery).

  15. 15.

    Bettcher gives two more objections to AHF. First: “One problem for a definitional account of ‘woman’ is that the term ‘sex’ [more exactly, ‘female’] does not itself seem very easy to define” (2009: 103; cf. Saul 2012: 198). It is hard to see how this is a problem at all, since in general one can define a word W1 using an undefined word W2; naturally a regress looms if W2 also has to be defined. Second: “consider adjectives such as ‘womanly’, ‘manly’, ‘girly’, and the like. It seems as if they have cultural traits packed right into their meaning” (Bettcher 2009: 104). That is, ‘womanly’ does not mean: like a (stereo)typical woman; it rather means: has cultural traits X, Y,…, where X, Y,… are cultural traits actually distinctive of women. So, Bettcher thinks, ‘Ditch digging is womanly’ is necessarily false. Whether Bettcher is right about ‘womanly’ is debatable, but what is quite unclear is how this is supposed to “suggest that there is something wrong” (104) with AHF. For another argument that also appeals to ‘womanly’, see Spelman 1988: 14.

  16. 16.

    Cultures with a “third gender” (e.g. the berdaches in many native North American tribes) might be thought to provide a similar (and perhaps more effective) argument against AHF. Plausibly, third genders (also sometimes called ‘third sexes’) are cultural expressions of male homosexuality or androphilia (Vasey and VanderLaan 2014; see also Hames et al. 2017). (The phenomenon is mostly but not entirely male.) Adult male members of these third genders do not socially identify as men; can we go further and say that they are not men? In his seminal study of the Zuni berdaches in New Mexico, the activist and author Will Roscoe writes that “[t]he answer to the question ‘Was We’wha [a berdache] a man or a woman?’ is ‘Neither’” (Roscoe 1991: 145, but cf. 147). And if adult male berdaches are not men, then men are not simply adult human males, and (by parity) women are not simply adult human females. Obviously this is an immense topic, but here are three brief observations intended to dampen any enthusiasm for this objection. First, Roscoe recounts a story in which a Zuni elder is asked where a deceased member of the “third gender” will be buried: “On the south side, the men’s side, of course…Is this not a man?’ the Zuni replied with a smile” (1991: 126). Second, literal translations of berdache names do not inspire confidence: admittedly they include ‘man transformed into a woman’ and ‘man-woman’, but also ‘acts like a woman’, ‘woman pretenders’, and ‘unmanly man’ (Roscoe 1998: 213–220). Finally, in an Australian television documentary about the fa’afafine, the Samoan third gender, one fa’afafine remarks: “We know that we’re boys at the end of the day” (SBS 2013).

  17. 17.

    This argument can also be found in Oakley 1972: 115. It cannot be said that philosophers have reacted uniformly to these sorts of cases (in medical terminology, “disorders of sex development”): cf. Manne 2018: 26–27.

  18. 18.

    In the cultural anthropologist Gayle Rubin’s “androgynous and genderless (though not sexless) society, in which one’s sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is” (Rubin 1975: 61), there is no such thing as “treating someone as a woman”.

  19. 19.

    See Kahneman 2012: chs. 14, 15.

  20. 20.

    Standardly characterized as natal males who have a history of gender dysphoria (significant distress or unhappiness with one’s sex), which has led them to “transition” and live more-or-less full-time as women.

  21. 21.

    Some animals change sex (for a review, see Vega-Frutis et al. 2014); mammals do not. Current surgical techniques and hormone treatments do not come close to reproducing the process of sex change as it occurs in the wild.

  22. 22.

    “These examples” include the “sexually indeterminate people” just discussed, and also (improbably) “male transvestites” (Stoljar 1995: 273–274). It should be noted that Stoljar at one point puts her conclusion somewhat cautiously: “the examples suggest that being a female human is not necessary to being a woman” (274). The same argument, minus the crucial last sentence of the quotation, is in Kessler and McKenna 1978: 1–2.

  23. 23.

    Saul formulates and sympathetically discusses a context-dependent proposal for the semantics of ‘woman’ (for more sympathy see Barnes 2019: 16–17):

    ‘S is a woman’ is true in a context C iff S is human and relevantly similar (according to the standards at work in C) to most of those possessing all of the biological markers of female sex. (Saul 2012: 201; endnotes omitted, some typography changed)

    The idea is that in “a context in which our concern is with how people self-identify” (201), self-identification becomes the relevant respect of similarity. Since most females self-identify as women, in such a context ‘Charla [a trans woman] is a woman’ will be true, because Charla is similar to most females in the relevant respect: she, like most females, identifies as a woman. (Whether this secures the truth of ‘Trans women are women’ is another matter.) Saul raises a number of objections, including “complications about how to understand ‘self-identification’”; she concludes that the proposal “is far from perfect or complete” (206).

    Matters are worse. First, consider ‘girl’, which presumably should receive a similar treatment. (Saul’s proposal as written fails to take account of developmental stage, and ‘adult’ should qualify ‘human’ on the right-hand side.) A parallel account of ‘girl’ would mean that in “a context in which our concern is with how people self-identify”, ‘girl’ applies to Jazz, a natal male child with gender dysphoria who identifies as a girl—the desired result. But now suppose that Jazz has a 1-year old sister, Jane. It seems that ‘Jazz and Jane are both girls’ will be false, uttered in the same context, because—whatever “self-identification” comes to—Jane is too young to self-identify as anything.

    Second, and more troublingly, the word ‘woman’ is used in specifying the contextually salient respect in which Carla is similar to most (adult) females: Carla identifies as a woman. The proposal is therefore circular (a vice, since it is supposed to specify the meaning of ‘woman’). Moreover, since ‘woman’ is context-dependent, ‘identifies as a woman’ is also context-dependent, and the proposal cannot explain how it should be interpreted.

  24. 24.

    More examples (some perhaps with minor qualifications): McKitrick 2015: 2576, Barnes 2016: 90, Manne 2018: 14, Mikkola 2017: 177, and Tuvel 2018: 81–82.

  25. 25.

    The quotation is difficult to reconcile with Jenkins’ stated project of supplying an “ameliorative…definition of woman…[that] respect[s] the gender identifications of all trans people” in the Haslangerian sense (Jenkins 2016: 396; see Sect. 1.1 above). The word ‘woman’ in the quotation in the text plainly has its ordinary sense and so is unameliorated. (Indeed, the quotation occurs long before Jenkins has explained her ameliorative proposal for redefining ‘woman’.) Jenkins is therefore saying that (in the ordinary sense of ‘woman’) trans women are women and so their identities are “entirely valid”. And the ordinary sense is the relevant one. For instance, the distinguished economist Deirdre McCloskey—who transitioned from the (slightly less distinguished economist) Donald at age 53—writes in her memoir Crossing, “Am I a woman? Yes.” (McCloskey 1999: 176). This quotation is in standard English, not philosophical argot, and so any ameliorated sense is irrelevant to whether McCloskey is correct.

  26. 26.

    Caveat: given her “cluster” analysis of ‘woman’, Stoljar might not endorse TW interpreted unrestrictedly (1995: 284–285).

  27. 27.

    Witt’s account illustrates how the view that woman is a social category (albeit one with a biological component) and that AHF is false, may be combined with the denial of TW. Her account has some dubious consequences. For instance, a Brave New World scenario in which human reproduction is offloaded to hatcheries is one in which there are no women (Witt 2011: 39); she thus disagrees with Aldous Huxley. For the same reason, Witt’s account conflicts with the radical feminist Shulamith Firestone’s own description of her “cybernetic communist” utopia (Firestone 1970: 221–224).

  28. 28.

    The most infamous in feminist writings is Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire (Raymond 1994; original publication in 1979). Some others are Oakley 1972: 122; Daly 1978: 68; Gatens 1983: 153–4; Paglia 1992: 5; Hale 1996: 115; Greer 2000: 70–80; Bach 2012: 269; Jeffreys 2014. Haslanger (during her descriptive period—see fn. 8) can also be included. (A few of the preceding allow that some trans women are women; that milquetoast position is understandably not very popular, however.) Some theorists, while not rejecting TW (even implicitly), do not flatly affirm it either (cf. the quotation from Chappell, above). For instance: “The question ‘are MTF transsexuals women?’ is not well-formed in the absence of a fixed set of criteria of womanhood to which we can appeal” (Heyes 2000: 93). See also Scheman 1993: 191 (cf. Scheman 1999: 69–70, 86); Moi 2001: 37, fn. 50, 78, 88–99 (arguably belonging on the first list); and Ásta 2018: 90.

  29. 29.

    Bettcher claims that both ‘trans woman’ and ‘woman’ have non-standard meanings in some idiolects. ‘Trans woman’, she says, is often “understood to mean ‘a man who lives as a woman’”, but “in trans subcultures it simply does not mean that” (Bettcher 2013: 235). If that is right then TW, on its ordinary interpretation, amounts to ‘All men who live as women are women’; assuming that there are such men and that they are not also women, TW turns out false. This is not an appealing view of the meaning of ‘trans woman’. First, a man might live as a woman as a journalistic experiment, as Vincent lived as a man (see Sect. 2.5 above); he would not thereby be a trans woman. Second, new words are often introduced by pointing to paradigm cases of application and non-application, with some additional explanatory verbiage, in the hope that the listener will catch on (as we’ll see, Bettcher herself appeals to this model). No explicit definition is given or needed. ‘Trans woman’ fits this nicely (see fn. 20, where the paradigms are too obvious to mention) and nothing in the introduction of the phrase forces it to have the meaning of ‘man who lives as a woman’. (The remainder of this note assumes that this neutral account of the meaning of ‘trans woman’ is correct.)

    Turning now to ‘woman’, and following Bettcher’s notation, the standard (or “dominant”) meaning of ‘woman’ is woman-D. According to Bettcher, some trans women are not women-D—further, she suggests, some trans women are men-D. Thus TW, interpreted in the standard way, is false. However, ‘woman’ supposedly has another (“resistant”) meaning, woman-R, found in the idiolects of (some) “trans subcultures” (244), and all trans women are women-R. (See also Dembroff Forthcoming.)

    Where does this leave AHF? As we have seen (Sect. 3.1), Bettcher thinks it is false, but the ambiguity view alone does not show that. If AHF has two interpretations—corresponding to the dominant and resistant meanings of ‘woman’—the one clearly in play in the relevant literature is the first. There is no reason to think this interpretation falsifies AHF—quite the contrary (cf. 236).

    Moreover, Bettcher’s account of the alleged resistant disambiguation has difficulties of its own. In a number of places she describes it as a more inclusive understanding of ‘woman’: its extension is “broadened” (240), corresponding to “an expanded category of womanhood” (246). If that is right, then S is a woman-R iff S is either a woman-D or a trans woman. But then, assuming a similar resistant interpretation of ‘man’, and that (some) trans woman are men-D, in the trans subculture idiolect ‘(Some) trans women are men’ will be true, which is clearly not what was intended. Bettcher also has a quite different idea, that the resistant interpretation of ‘woman’ is introduced by using trans women as paradigm cases (241): she is a woman (pointing to a trans woman); he (pointing to a stereotypical man-D) is not. The problem here is that it is unclear why ‘woman’ (in the resistant interpretation) doesn’t simply mean trans woman, or at any rate fails to apply to many women-D, which again is not what Bettcher intends. Finally, as she notes, ‘female’ and ‘male’ are capable of resistant interpretation too (214): if AHF is true on a thoroughgoing dominant interpretation, it is likely also true on a thoroughgoing resistant one.

  30. 30.

    For a century-old example (this time of a trans man claiming to be a woman), see Hirschfeld 1991: 95–102; on varieties of identities among trans men, see Hale 2009: 46.

    Which opinion on TW holds the majority appears to be a highly contingent matter—anecdotally, TW has gained support over the last decade or so. There is a near-by possible world in which trans women merely claim that they have—in a phrase from Lawrence 2013: 89—“earn[ed] the right” to call themselves ‘women’, not that they literally are women. (And there need be no shame in that: being an honorary F is sometimes more of an achievement than being an F.) It seems unlikely that the philosophers in that world would be so keen on TW, which suggests that its actual philosophical proponents are responding to the way the zeitgeist happens to be blowing, rather than to the essence of womanhood.

  31. 31.

    Here it is important to distinguish the belief that one is female and the belief that one is anatomically female (has a vagina, uterus, etc.). If one is in fact an ordinary anatomic male, having the second belief would probably be delusional. But having the first belief might well be understandable and even to some extent defensible: what being female consists in is unobvious.

  32. 32.

    For critical discussion of Jenkins’ proposed adjustment see Bogardus 2019.

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Acknowledgements

For conversations and comments thanks to Louise Antony, Ray Blanchard, David Haig, Caspar Hare, Sally Haslanger, Debbie Hayton, Carole Hooven, Mark Johnston, Ari Koslow, Holly Lawford-Smith, Miriam Schoenfield, Kieran Setiya, Jack Spencer, Kathleen Stock, Alison Stone, anonymous referees, and an audience at Princeton University. I am especially indebted to Tomas Bogardus for suggestions that significantly improved this paper.

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Byrne, A. Are women adult human females?. Philos Stud 177, 3783–3803 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-019-01408-8

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Keywords

  • Sex
  • Gender
  • Transgender
  • Intersex
  • Conceptual engineering