Many philosophers believe that our ordinary English words man and woman are “gender terms,” and gender is distinct from biological sex. That is, they believe womanhood and manhood are not defined even partly by biological sex. This sex/gender distinction is one of the most influential ideas of the twentieth century on the broader culture, both popular and academic. Less well known are the reasons to think it’s true. My interest in this paper is to show that, upon investigation, the arguments for the sex/gender distinction have feet of clay. In fact, they all fail. We will survey the literature and tour arguments in favor of the sex/gender distinction, and then we’ll critically evaluate those arguments. We’ll consider the argument from resisting biological determinism, the argument from biologically intersex people and vagueness, the argument from the normativity of gender, and some arguments from thought experiments. We’ll see that these arguments are not up to the task of supporting the sex/gender distinction; they simply don’t work. So, philosophers should either develop stronger arguments for the sex/gender distinction, or cultivate a variety of feminism that’s consistent with the traditional, biologically-based definitions of woman and man.
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See, for example, psychologists like John Money (1955), Anke Ehrhardt (Money and Ehrhardt 1972), Linda Nicholson (1994), 80) and Robert Stoller (1968), psychiatrists like Richard Green (2010), sociologists like Judith Lorber (1994), and feminist philosophers like Gayle Rubin (1975), Sally Haslanger (2000), and Natalie Stoljar (1995). Though, for dissenting voices who challenge the sex/gender distinction, see Louise Antony (1998), Moira Gatens (1996), Elizabeth Grosz (1994), and Raia Prokhovnik (1999).
Similarly for boy and girl, though for simplicity and readability I will omit these terms in the discussion below.
An anonymous referee helpfully asks me to clarify: “If stipulative definitions can’t be false, why does the author want to investigate?” My idea is that, while a novel, stipulative definition of “gender” can’t be false, the claim that our ordinary English terms man and woman are gender terms in this novel, stipulative sense of “gender” can be false. For example, we often use a technical, stipulative definition for “valid” in our Logic classes. Since it’s stipulative, it can’t be false. But if we go on to claim that some particular argument is valid in this stipulative sense, we can certainly be wrong, depending on the argument. Likewise if we claim that our ordinary English term “convincing” means the same thing as “valid” in this technical sense; that too could be false. Another example: if I define “meter” to mean the length of this bar, it can’t be false that this bar is a meter long. But it can be false that, for example, my sledgehammer is a meter long, or that the ordinary English word “yard” names the same length that “meter” does, so defined. In a similar way, I mean to challenge the claim that our ordinary English words man and woman pick out genders, in these novel, stipulative senses of “gender.”
To say that this is the traditional concept of womanhood is not to deny conceptual connections between this concept and other concepts of norms, identity, expression, or social status. It’s only to say that, when exercising this traditional concept of womanhood—when using the “dominant manifest meaning” of the term woman, as Haslanger calls it—to think of, for example, norms about women or acceptable modes of expression for women, is to think of norms about adult human females, and acceptable modes of expression for adult human females.
Many biologists seem to hold that gamete size is the scientific essence of biological sex, as H2O is the scientific essence of water, i.e. to be a female is to belong to the sub-type of a species that produces large, immotile gametes, and similarly for male, though with regard to small, typically motile gametes. Most days, I think they’re right about this. To account for cases in which a male is (due to youth, advanced age, “malfunction,” etc.) currently unable to produce small, motile gametes, proponents of this definition will likely need to import teleological notions of proper function. And mutatis mutandis with females. Personally, I can’t get enough teleology; but those who are allergic may look instead toward more broadly-based criteria-weighting views. For views with a similar criteria-weighting spirit, see Jacob Hale’s (1996) first five characteristics of what he calls “the defining characteristics of the category woman,” which he thinks exhaust the sex characteristics. He says that these characteristics are, in our culture, more heavily weighted than any other when determining womanhood. See also Iris Young’s (1997, 32) definition of women in terms of female bodies and biological processes (e.g. menstruation, childbirth, etc.), and gender-coded objects and practices (e.g. pronouns, clothes, cosmetics, etc.).
If that’s surprising to you, perhaps that’s because, as Sara Heinämaa (1997) argues, de Beauvoir’s more famous dictum that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” is commonly misread metaphysically, as endorsing the sex/gender distinction, when really de Beauvoir is interested only in a phenomenological description of women’s situation. See also Kate Kirkpatrick (2019), who nicely traces the lineage of de Beauvoir’s famous saying back to philosophical debates in the 1920s, specifically to similar constructions by Maurice Blondel (ibid., 79) and especially Alfred Fouillée’s “One isn’t born, but rather becomes, free” (ibid., 255), a play on Rousseau’s famous line, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” In that light, Kirkpatrick interprets de Beauvoir’s dictum as a claim about the socialization and oppression of women (i.e. adult human females), rather than a revisionary claim about the metaphysics of womanhood.
I’m indebted to Alex Byrne (2020) for making me aware of this quotation.
For arguments in favor of the traditional definitions, see Alex Byrne (2020)
Butler (1988, 527) says, for example, that “the ‘reality’ of gender is constituted by the performance itself,” so that “the transvestite’s gender is as fully real as anyone whose performance complies with social expectation.” And, in Gender Trouble (1999, 34), she says “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.” Clearly, then, Butler means to deny the traditional definitions of manhood and womanhood, on which they are partly constituted by biological sex (which in turn is constituted by mind-independent/“prediscursive” chromosomes, gametes, physical characteristics, hormones, and the like). Butler’s view is complicated by the fact that she asks, rhetorically, “Are the ostensibly natural facts of sex discursively produced by various scientific discourses in the service of other political and social interests?” And she answers, conditionally, “If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all” (1999, 9–10). So, on some readings, Butler intends to collapse the sex/gender distinction, and have it that both are performative in just the same way. But I include her in this section for two reasons. First, she clearly means to deny the traditional definitions of man and woman, taking gender not to be identical to any mind-independent (“prediscursive”) characteristics of biological sex (since there is no such thing, on this reading of her view). Second, though she suggests that both sex and gender are social constructions, given that she thinks transvestites might be male-bodied and yet woman-gendered, there must be, by her own lights, a sex/gender distinction. If she really denied the sex/gender distinction and thought that being woman-gendered just is to be female-bodied, she wouldn’t use the term “transvestites” here. The people she describes would simply be women, and therefore females, dressing “normally.” This is because she thinks that sex is “discursively produced by various scientific discourses” (emphasis added), whereas she thinks that gender is produced by (a patriarchal) culture more broadly (cf. 1999, 11). Each has its distinctive kind of performativity, which is why there can be, to use her example, transvestites who are male-bodied but woman-gendered. See Alison Stone (2007, 70ff) for more on why, even if Butler is right that both sex and gender are social constructions, it doesn’t follow that there is no sex/gender distinction on her view.
A few of Burkett’s examples: coping with the onset of one’s period in the middle of a crowded subway, experiencing the humiliation of discovering that one's male work partners’ checks were far larger than one's own, and experiencing the fear of being too weak to ward off rapists. One must have enough of the right kind of experiences in order to be a woman, on Burkett’s view.
See Bogardus (2019). There, I argue that revisionary gender concepts are either unintelligible due to vicious circularity, or trans exclusive. And I argue that the project of ameliorative inquiry is incoherent, and impossible to complete (at least, in a trans-inclusive way).
For other historical and also more recent examples, see Greene (2004). Greene includes examples of this line of thinking from Steven Pinker’s (2002) The Blank Slate. Pinker says, “of course the minds of men and women are not identical,” and these differences “almost certainly originate in human biology.” As an example of such differences, Pinker claims that boys are more violent and excel at mathematics, whereas women “experience basic emotions more intensely,” and “have more intimate social relationships.”
As one anonymous referee for this journal helpfully put it, perhaps the idea here is, “if we don’t have two separate terms (one for the social and one for the biological) then we can’t refer to the social and will end up rolling all the apparently determined traits into the one concept.”
For other criticisms of this sort of project of conceptual engineering, also known as ameliorative inquiry see Bogardus (2019).
One might convey it like so, “[The biological facts] are one of the keys to the understanding of woman. But I deny that they establish for her a fixed and inevitable destiny. They are insufficient for setting up a hierarchy of the sexes; they fail to explain why woman is the Other; they do not condemn her to remain in this subordinate role forever” (de Beauvoir  1956, 60). Ironically, though they attempt to convey the utility of the sex/gender distinction in challenging biological determinism, the quotations provided at the beginning of this section themselves provide examples of how one might challenge biological determinism without using the sex/gender distinction at all. For example, Mikkola (ibid.) says, “To counter this kind of biological determinism, feminists have argued that behavioural and psychological differences have social, rather than biological, causes.” But of course one might argue in precisely that same way, while holding that men are adult human males and women are adult human females.
One finds similar arguments in Dembroff (2018), Bettcher (2009, 103), and again in Bettcher (2013, 236). Elizabeth Barnes (2019, 16) puts it this way: “The prevalence of intersex conditions seems to be enough to show that our gender terms are not simple synonyms for biological sex terms – even if ordinary speakers often take them to be. Research increasingly shows a spectrum of sex variation between the male and female binaries. But ordinary speakers seem happy to attribute terms like ‘man’ or ‘woman’ to people with various intersex conditions, so long as their gender expression and presentation is binary and has been consistent throughout their life.” I believe Barnes is right that (many) ordinary speakers seem happy to treat at least some intersex individuals as men or women, including calling them such. But Barnes’ version of the argument assumes that these ordinary speakers are not equally happy to treat these intersex individuals as male or female as well, including calling them such. For, if they are so willing, Barnes has found no discrepancy between our use of gender terms and our use of biological sex terms. And ordinary speakers may well be so willing, perhaps because they do not mean to use either gender or biological sex terms in a literal way in these cases, but rather in an honorific, courteous way. Without ruling out this possibility, Barnes’ version of the argument does not succeed.
Perhaps you think any human is either male or female and never both, while still being skeptical that it’s always clear which of those categories a person is in. I mean to express only that latter skepticism, while remaining neutral on whether every human is either male or female and never both.
As de Beauvoir ( 1956, 52) put it, “In nature, nothing is ever perfectly clear.”
For another, helpful response to the argument from intersex individuals and vagueness, please see Alex Byrne (2020).
Even Judith Butler (1993, 1) agrees: “The category of ‘sex’ is, from the start, normative; it is what Foucault has called a ‘regulatory ideal’.” Now, this normative fecundity of sex is less plausible when it comes to at least some purely social norms that “insist that people must look, love or act in particular ways,” as Dembroff puts it. If we have in mind norms about, for example, shaving legs, it’s not very plausible that our concept of being an adult human female “marks,” as Dembroff says, that such a one must shave her legs. (Or, if you prefer to put the argument in terms of properties, it’s implausible that the property of being an adult human female necessitates the normative property of being obligated to shave one’s legs.) So if our concept of being a woman did “mark” that such a one must shave her legs (and likewise with the corresponding properties), Dembroff’s argument would be on firmer footing. However, though it is indeed implausible that there are conceptually necessary connections between being an adult human female and being socially obligated to shave one’s legs, it’s implausible to precisely the same degree that there are such connections between our concept of being a woman and being socially obligated to shave one’s legs. (And likewise, mutatis mutandis, for the relevant properties.) The proof is that our concept of womanhood can survive societal changes in leg-shaving norms. The norm concerning leg-shaving is eroding, and may soon disappear. And yet, even so, we may well continue to use our concept of womanhood. We can easily imagine without contradiction, that is, a situation in which women are not socially obligated to shave their legs. So, it’s not essential to our concept of womanhood that such a one must shave her legs. But, if that’s right, our concept of womanhood is on a par with our concept of being an adult human female: neither one has these sorts of social ‘oughts’ “built in,” as Dembroff puts it. (And likewise, mutatis mutandis, for the relevant properties. And similarly if we interpret the argument in terms of moral obligations.) Or, at least, that’s how things will seem to anyone exercising the traditional concept of womanhood, in which case she’d be well justified in rejecting Dembroff’s argument.
Dembroff alludes to David Hume’s is/ought gap. But I can’t see how this is relevant here. If one is worried about basing normative judgments on descriptions, including those concerning biological categories, one should also worry about basing normative judgments on descriptions concerning gender categories. If you can’t get an ought from descriptions of sex, then you can’t get an ought from descriptions of gender. Dembroff seems to think there is no barrier deriving oughts from descriptions of gender, but then what’s the objection to deriving oughts from descriptions of biological sex?
You can read more about the tragic case of David Reimer in Colapinto (2006).
I’ll run the argument in the first-person, for my own case, but the reader should make changes appropriate to his or her case.
I’m using Corvino’s language here, but, as I said above, I don’t think the traditional definitions of woman and man are best expressed by saying “gender is identical to biological sex.” Biological sex is a crucial part of the definition of gender, but the definition also includes information about age and species.
Perhaps we do something similar with each of the other biological categories mentioned above, like “life,” “adult,” and “human.”
If this is “a second problem,” perhaps you’re curious what the first problem is meant to be. Bettcher (ibid, 103) makes trouble for some definitions of biological sex, concluding that “the term ‘sex’ does not itself seem very easy to define.” Since this is similar enough to the argument from vagueness above, I omit it here.
Do you mean your gold chalice is a lovely shade of red? That’s fine. Or do you really mean that your gold-colored chalice is colored red? Not so fine. (Infelicitous; impossible.)
You might sneak up on this question by first reflecting on Shakespearean plays, with male actors playing the roles of women, and then “expanding out” from there, to include complete social function. I’m grateful to an anonymous referee for this suggestion.
Just as, when “here” picks out Malibu, it doesn’t follow that wildfires, mudslides, and movie stars must somehow be connected the “the semantic content” of the word “here.”
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Bogardus, T. Evaluating Arguments for the Sex/Gender Distinction. Philosophia 48, 873–892 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-019-00157-6
- sex/gender distinction
- ameliorative inquiry
- conceptual engineering
- biological determinism
- biological sex