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Escaping the natural attitude about gender

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Alex Byrne’s article, “Are Women Adult Human Females?”, asks a question that Byrne treats as nearly rhetorical. Byrne’s answer is, ‘clearly, yes’. Moreover, Byrne claims, woman is a biological category that does not admit of any interpretation as (also) a social category. It is important to respond to Byrne’s argument, but mostly because Byrne’s argument is a paradigmatic instance of a wider phenomenon. The slogan “women are adult human females” is a political slogan championed by anti-trans activists, appearing on billboards, pamphlets, and anti-trans online forums. In this paper, I respond to Byrne’s argument, revealing significant problems with its background assumptions, content, and methodology.

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  1. Foucault (1972), p. 181. Cited in Brison (2019).

  2. Throughout this paper, I use ‘they’ as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun. See Dembroff and Wodak (2018) for a philosophical criticism of gender-specific pronouns.

  3. See also Corredor (2019) for discussion of far-right political groups’ exploitation of anti-trans rhetoric.

  4. For this reason, most references to ‘Byrne’ can be read as shorthand for ‘Byrne and those who make similar arguments’.

  5. Byrne (2020) frequently refers to “the meaning” of ‘woman’. See also p. 19, footnote 29: “If AHF has two interpretations—corresponding to the dominant and resistant meanings of ‘woman’—the one clearly at play in the relevant literature is the first”. Byrne also refers to resistant meanings as “non-standard” and dominant meanings as “ordinary”.

  6. See pp. 18–19, footnote 29. It is also worth noting that although Byrne acknowledges that people use gender terms in a variety of ways and that the meanings of these terms are “disputed”, they interpret anecdotal data as showing that some people “systematically misapply” gender terms. Byrne does not consider their own uses of gender terms as potential instances of such misapplication.

  7. The entirety (or near entirety) of Byrne’s Sect. 2 defends Premise 3. While some of the arguments in this section are presented under the guise of epistemological arguments, I argue that these are simply disguised linguistic arguments (see my footnote 10). But even if one is not convinced, one could re-run Premises 1–6 with appeals to the “standard” concept of woman (rather than meaning of ‘woman’), in order to reflect these supposedly epistemological arguments.

  8. Byrne, p. 3: “[The] thesis of this paper is that woman is a biological (and not social) category, and that AHF is close enough.” See also p. 3, footnote 7: “Some argue that categories like female are social categories… This position is assumed false here…”.

  9. Byrne, p. 2: “[T]here is nothing wrong with appealing to linguistic evidence that clearly bears on the meaning (or intension) of ‘woman’, since that has immediate implications for AHF via disquotational principles.” Notice that Byrne refers to “the” meaning of ‘woman, per Premise 1. Bafflingly, Byrne denies that “ordinary use” of ‘woman’ is “evidence” for or against AHF, but then proceeds to provide arguments for AHF that entirely rely on particular, everyday uses of ‘woman’ and ‘girl’.

  10. Byrne p. 2.

  11. “See, e.g., Nolan (2014).”

  12. Byrne p. 2, fn 2: (“It will do no harm to individuate categories modally: necessarily equivalent categories are identical.”).

  13. Byrne’s arguments for this claim simply disregard or ignore the testimony and scholarship of all those whose language use conflicts with Byrne’s claim, not least of which includes trans and queer persons, persons with intersex variations, and scholars who specialize in gender and sexuality. (More on this in Sect. 5.)

  14. Byrne might protest that three of these six arguments (2.3, 2.4, and 2.5) are not semantic arguments, but rather, arguments that appeal to “facts about where the women are”. These three arguments are meant to show that someone knows that someone is a woman if they know that person is an adult human female, thereby supporting AHF’s sufficiency direction. First, note that one typically can know that someone is a woman by knowing that that the person is a lesbian, a wife, a mother, or a sister. Supporting the sufficiency direction of AHF is highly uninformative. Second, these arguments reduce to appeals to semantic intuitions, insofar as they are arguments at all. For example, two of these arguments (2.3 and 2.5) appeal to what are stipulated as “correct” descriptions of persons as falling under the term ‘women’, as well as intuition pumps about what counterfactual statements “ordinary” people (people who share Byrne’s linguistic intuitions?) would assent to. Arguably, the third argument (2.4) rests on linguistic intuitions as well, as it simply stipulates that a female-assigned baby is “known” to be a girl. If this argument has more content than the claim that people use the term ‘girl’ to describe female-assigned babies, I couldn’t find it.

  15. Claims 1–6 are, respectively, the headings of Byrne’s Sections 2.1–2.6.

  16. See Bettcher (2013), Saul (2012), Diaz-Leon (2016), Barnes (2019), Laskowski (2020), and Dembroff (forthcoming).

  17. See Sect. 2.1.

  18. Of course, as Bettcher (2013) and Dembroff (forthcoming) both point out, gender terms like ‘woman’ do systematically extend to trans women within trans-inclusive communities. Byrne ignores this contradicting evidence and instead offers two cursory arguments: (1) There could not be a contextual meaning of ‘girls’ that secure simultaneous reference to both trans girls and female-assigned babies; and (2) an identity-based meaning of ‘woman’ would result in circularity when it came to specifying who is a woman, since the answer would be ‘those who identify as a woman’. The first argument displays a startlingly uncharitable reading of Saul, who suggests that meaning might be fixed by standards of “relevant similarity” to those possessing female-coded bodies, never once claiming that these standards could not be ambiguous, disjunctive, vague, or underdetermined within a given context. The second argument, in turn, simply ignores the existing literature on gender identity, which provides substantive and non-circular accounts of what it means to “identify as a woman”. Jenkins (2018) and Bettcher (2009), for example, directly address the circularity worry.

  19. Byrne, p. 19, fn. 29.

  20. E.g., See the fields of sociolinguistics of gender and LGBT linguistics, and especially the work of Lal Zimman, such as Zimman (2014).

  21. For a richer critique of philosophy’s tendency toward myopism, see Dotson (2012).

  22. Barnes (2019), 9.

  23. See, e.g. Thomas (2019): “Author David Thomas still lives as a man, but has begun the male-to-female gender transition that will eventually result in becoming a woman.” See also Fadulu and Flanagan (2019): “At least 22 transgender people have been fatally shot or killed in 2019… Nearly all of them were black women”.

  24. Byrne, p. 4, “AHF reproduces the dictionary definition of ‘woman’”. It’s unclear which dictionary Byrne is referencing. None of the dictionaries I looked at, including the Oxford English Dictionary and Mirriam-Webster’s Dictionary, defined ‘woman’ as “adult human female”, making it particularly obvious that Byrne is defending a political slogan.

  25. Miriam-Webster’s, for example, lists six, including the quite obviously social meaning, “distinctively feminine nature”. This aligns with (Bettcher 2009)’s point that terms like ‘womanly’ show that cultural meanings are “packed right into” the meaning of ‘woman’—a point that Byrne first misrepresents as entailing that “‘Ditch digging is womanly’ is necessarily false”, and then dismisses purely on the grounds that it “is debatable”—an assertion that certainly leaves something to be desired qua philosophical argument. (P. 11, footnote 15) Moreover, Bettcher is by no means alone in their observation. As an anonymous referee pointed out, Beauvoir, in the introduction to The Second Sex, also argues that the term ‘woman’ (or, more precisely, ‘femme’) encodes evaluative content.

  26. Section 2. Later in the paper (pp. 16–17), Byrne also appeals to cherry-picked examples of trans writers’ uses of ‘woman’ and ‘man’ as evidence for their claim that trans people are not of one mind on how to understand the relationship between trans identities and dominant gender categories. (“…trans women themselves are not of one mind on [the claim that trans women are women].”) However, Byrne ignores the fact that, in the very same quotations, one finds uses of ‘woman’ that conflict with the thesis that ‘woman’ means ‘adult human female’.

  27. Byrne might respond that this just shows that who counts as an ‘adult human female’ differs across contexts. This response would undermine their insistence that adult human female is a “biological and not social” category, since presumably a “biological and not social” category would not consistently differ in nature and extension across contexts. See Sect. 4.

  28. For example, Byrne stipulates that physiology-based uses of ‘woman’ and ‘man’ in gender role reversal cases is “correct” (Sect 2.5, “AHF predicts the correct verdict in cases of gender role reversal”), and later appeals to this stipulation to dismiss out of hand Talia Bettcher’s argument that in role reversal cases “it isn’t clear how to apply the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’.” (Byrne p. 12, cf Bettcher 2009: 103–104).

  29. Byrne, p. 3: “People vary in their abilities to correctly identify members of categories, or to correctly apply words. Woman and ‘woman’ are no exceptions… It can be tempting to respond to such disagreement by losing one’s nerve and retreating to the claim that one’s evidence really consists in neutrally characterized facts about speakers’ use of words, or (perhaps worse) facts about ‘‘intuitions’’—evidence that one’s opponents are less likely to challenge. That temptation should be resisted. Pointless charges of ‘‘begging the question’’ may be anticipated; this paper does not attempt the futile task of convincing everyone.” Emphasis added.

  30. See Lakoff (1973), 61: “[W]omen of all ages are 'girls'.” While Lakoff claims that this does not hold true for ‘boy’ and ‘man’, this overlooks the important fact that, historically in the U.S., ‘boy’ has been a common substitute for ‘man’ when referring to black men. These substitutions share derogation in common.

  31. Lakoff (1973), 61. This is particularly notable, given that one of Byrne’s six arguments in favor of AHF (2.6) is that ‘woman’ and ‘female’ are used interchangeably.

  32. Barnes (2019), p. 2. Barnes takes this to mean the attempt to “theorize what it is in virtue of which people have genders, or in virtue of which members of a given gender can be said to have something in common with each other, or in virtue of which gendered norms and roles have the significance they do”.

  33. Barnes (2019), pp. 2, 3. Barnes’s critique does not apply to Haslanger’s (2000) analysis, which seeks a real definition of gender categories, and not a semantic analysis of gender terms. While Haslanger describes these categories with the terms ‘women’ and ‘men’, this is because they hold that we can and should appropriate the terms ‘women’ and ‘men’ for these metaphysical categories.

  34. Byrne fails to even acknowledge, much less address, this argument.

  35. Barnes (2019), p. 9.

  36. Barnes cites paraphrasers van Inwagen (1990) and Merricks (2001). They point to Bennett (2011), Cameron (2008), Dorr (2005), Schaffer (2009), and Sider (2011) as examples of metaphysicians denying the need for natural language paraphrasing.

  37. Barnes (2019), p. 14. Also, as an anonymous referee pointed out to me, Byrne’s assumption that ordinary language use is a direct guide to metaphysics is most dubious with respect to non-social kinds, and is far more plausible with respect to social kinds. There is, then, tension between Byrne’s claim that woman is a non-social kind, and Byrne’s assumption that we have epistemic access to the metaphysics of womanhood via ordinary language use.

  38. The closest discussion in the analytic literature is Dembroff (forthcoming). But see Wittig (1985) for a similar suggestion in earlier feminist thought.

  39. “Floating signifiers” are closely related to “empty signifiers”, which are signifiers that attempt to become devoid of particular content in order to represent a universal, hegemonic reality. Laclau (2005) suggests that signifiers of populism, like the ‘moral majority’, are examples of empty signifiers. In practice, however, and as Laclau points out, empty and floating signifiers constantly overlap. (p. 43).

  40. Laclau (2005), p. 40.

  41. Burgess and Plunkett (2013), p. 1092.

  42. Burgess and Plunkett (2013), p. 1097.

  43. Haslanger (2000), p. 47.

  44. See Haslanger (2000), p. 48: “[I]t is possible to view our gender…vocabulary as, in effect, providing terminological place-holders marking space for the collective negotiation of our social identities.” On one reading of Bettcher (2009, 110–111), Bettcher takes a similar view of gender terms according to which claims such as “I am a woman” can be speech acts that are not truth apt, and primarily communicate one’s “reasons for acting” rather than a “conception of self”.

  45. See Byrne pp. 11–12.

  46. Thanks to an anonymous referee for bringing this point to my attention.

  47. Haslanger (2000).

  48. Byrne, pp. 14, 21.

  49. Crenshaw (1989) and Hill Collins (2000, 2016).

  50. Spelman (1988), Mikkola (2016) and Scheman (1997).

  51. Meyerowitz (2004). See also Valentine (2007) and Gill-Peterson (2018).

  52. See p. 10, fn 16, where Byrne appeals to linguistic translation (from a language with nonbinary gender terms to one with only binary gender terms) to undermine the legitimacy of nonbinary categories. (“… 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’.”) See also p. 16, where Byrne dismisses trans persons’ testimonies as unreliable due to ‘personal investment’. (“[W]hen someone declares ‘I am an F’ that is often a strong indication that she is an F. In the present [transgender] case, however, this is unpersuasive for a perfectly general reason: if someone is personally heavily invested in the truth of p, it is prudent to treat her claim that p is true with some initial caution.”) We are presumably meant to suppose that Byrne is an uninterested, objective observer.

  53. Byrne, p. 1, fn 2.

  54. Or, to put this in technical terms that Byrne borrows from Haslanger (2012) (131; cf. 87): “in order for X to be F, X must exist within a social matrix that constitutes F’s”.

  55. The language of normalcy is normatively loaded, and has a long history of weaponization against ethnic and racial groups, as well as persons with disabilities. Moreover, as biomedical history and physical variations show, there is nothing that answers to description as a “normal” female body.

  56. Thanks to an anonymous referee for this example.

  57. Butler (1993), Kessler and McKenna (1978), Karkazis (2008) and Meyerowitz (2004).

  58. Byrne, p. 6.

  59. Byrne, p. 4, fn 7. (“Some argue that categories like female are social categories… This position is assumed false here…”) Byrne also claims that “if female is a social category”, their thesis is easier to defend. Given that their thesis is, in their own words, the thesis that “woman is a biological (and not social) category”—namely, adult human female—I’m unsure how to interpret this claim.

  60. As an anonymous referee noted, these difficulties are not unique to sex classification—they also are mirrored in species classification. See, e.g., Kitcher (1984) and Ereshefsky (1998).

  61. Meyerowitz (2004), pp. 21–22. Emphasis added.

  62. Meyerowitz (2004), p. 2.

  63. See, e.g., Karkazis (2008).

  64. See, e.g., Richardson (in progress).

  65. Karkazis and Jordan-Young (2018).

  66. Karkazis (2019). See also Fausto-Sterling (2012).

  67. Richardson (2013) cf Karkazis (2019).

  68. See discussion in Karkazis (2019).

  69. Kessler and McKenna (1978), p. 2.

  70. Ainsworth (2015).

  71. In this, I include beliefs about persons who stand at intersections of gender with race, ethnicity, disability, age, and class—see, e.g., Karkazis and Jordan-Young (2018), Gill-Peterson (2018) and Snorton (2017).

  72. Fausto-Sterling (1995), p. 21. cf Karkazis (2008), p 6.

  73. See Karkazis (2008), p. 12: “Our insistence on a so-called true sex is tied to a deep and abiding social interest that individuals engage in “correct” (I.e., socially sanctioned) forms of sexual behavior… The moral interest in limiting licentious behaviors…has driven the social interest in the medical determination of a single true sex”.

  74. Karkazis (2008), p. 13. ““Dichotomous gender, far from being natural or innate, or based in our being, is accomplished, constructed, and reproduced in interactions and interpretive processes.” See also Kessler and McKenna (1978), p. 163: “Biological, psychological, and social differences do not lead to our seeing two genders. Our seeing two genders leads to the “discovery” of biological, psychological, and social differences.” See also Butler 1990.

  75. Zimman (2014).

  76. Kessler and McKenna (1978), pp. 4–5.

  77. Byrne, p. 1. (“Are women (simply) adult human females? It might surprise the woman on the

    Clapham Omnibus to learn that philosophers almost always answer no.”).

  78. Byrne pp. 16–17.

  79. Byrne p. 10, fn 16.

  80. See Byrne p. 11. (“[Intersex] individuals behave and look just like (human) females. But behaving and looking like a female is not sufficient for being one. By any reasonable standard, CAS individuals are not female”).

  81. See Bettcher (2018) for further elaboration on this criticism.


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Many thanks to Lori Gruen, Katharine Jenkins, Karen Jones, Katrina Karkazis, Suzy Killmister, Hannah McCann, Naomi Scheman, and two anonymous referees at Philosophical Studies for helpful conversation and feedback during the development of this paper.

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Dembroff, R. Escaping the natural attitude about gender. Philos Stud 178, 983–1003 (2021).

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