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The difficulty with defining women

The difficulty with creating the perfect definition of a woman stems from the issue that womanhood is an ever-changing and evolving phenomenon.

First and foremost, it is important to distinguish between sex and gender. Sex is largely seen as biological; when you are born, the doctor puts your sex on the birth certificate and the whole business is supposedly decided. For the majority of people, their sex correlates to their gender; however, gender is a choice and an identification. For example, those assigned the male sex may identify as a woman as they mature and question their gender identity. In this way, gender is not necessarily linked to sex. As society progresses, there is recognition of the redundancy of biological sex and the introduction of a third gender: non-binary. Non-binary allows people to identify as a gender outside the constrictive binary of man or woman. It is a gender which allows fluidity and rejects social labelling. Many would argue that non-binary rejects the idea of a label but in a society obsessed with labelling differences, non-binary is only allowed space under a title. Feminists, like Germaine Greer, reject the concept that men can opt into becoming a woman, at any point in their mature lives, through gender reassignment surgery. This is an ignorant idea, if a man chooses to become a woman then it is for the reason that he has never been comfortable in his assigned sex and therefore has likely unknowingly identified as a woman since consciousness. Greer also believes that these transgender women cannot identify with cisgender women as they have not been through the same struggles and therefore have benefitted from the patriarchy. While a transgender woman may not have experienced the same range of discrimination and sexism that cisgender women have grown up with; it is incredibly obtuse to suggest that transgender women do not share experiences with cisgender women. Furthermore, transgender women endure suffering and social pariah with which cisgender women cannot empathise because of their different experiences in their own bodies. Audre Lorde said: “The failure of academic feminists to recognize difference as a crucial strength is a failure to reach beyond the first patriarchal lesson. In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.” This means that as women we can draw strength from our differences and our different stories. Gender is not only a spectrum but a choice. If you choose as a feminist to exclude someone who identifies as a woman, you are making the choice that womanhood is an exclusive club. This is no better than the men who choose to exclude women from board rooms on the basis that they are not intellectually able. Excluding those who are not born with the double X chromosome is not feminism and it is eradicating the possibility of welcoming the talent, beauty and passion which can be added to the feminist diaspora. It is my firm opinion that TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) are not feminists as feminism exists for inclusion not exclusion. Disappointingly, more and more feminists are favouring exclusivity over inclusivity. For example, J.K. Rowling recently aligned herself with a TERF using the hashtag “#IstandwithMaya”. The woman in question, Maya Forstater, was fired after her contract was not renewed due to her inflammatory opinions stating: “men cannot change into women.” This ignorant belittling of transgender women could have fallen through the cracks in the media and Forstater would have learnt the important lesson about transphobia, if it were not for Rowling. Rowling reignited the fire and showed her true, transphobic colours to her 14.5 million followers with the words “sex is real” and her support for Forstater. The words “sex is real” may seem innocuous, but upon dissecting the meaning behind those three words, we can understand that Rowling believes that the sex you are assigned at birth is immovable and rigid. Therefore, this invalidates all transgender men and women who have undergone sexual reassignment surgery and those who are choosing to identify under a different gender to their sex. This language is subtle and slippery but it influences millions of impressionable people across the globe. Furthermore, the idea that your sex is your gender degrades people who are transgender; it encourages the idea that if a person has not had sexual reassignment surgery, they are not transgender. This idea that gender is defined by sex allows gender dysmorphia to tear down self-esteem and body confidence.

This provokes the question: why are some feminists and women afraid to allow gender to become fluid? Many people have cited the dangers for cisgender women that would exist if transgender women could enter female bathrooms in public spaces. This can be refuted by simple fact; many think tanks such as MediaMatters and Politifact have carried out surveys and studies to determine whether allowing those identifying as women to use female only bathrooms will increase the numbers of sexual assaults. The overwhelming consensus is that this is fallacious (and I have attached the links to these studies at the end of this article). I believe the fear of non-cisgender women is a result of fear. Feminists have fought for centuries to achieve the same rights as men, a feat yet to be accomplished, and there is an anxiety amongst many feminists that allowing non-cisgender women to join the ‘Girls Only Club’ will degrade the movement. This comes from a place of fear and the fear of men attempting to hijack feminism for their own purpose. There is a fear that the hard-won rights are being spread around too easily and that transgender women and intersex women want to use and abuse the rights that feminists have struggled for and won. Perhaps there is also a fear that their safe spaces will be infiltrated by men masquerading as women. Our female ancestors fought tirelessly to enable us to attend feminist societies and speak freely within these circles with no fear of being ridiculed, patronised or judged. I am the first to admit that I am more forthcoming, headstrong and decisive when surrounded by a group of women; once a man joins the throng of women, I automatically become reticent and tamer. So, although I can understand this opinion and the desperation to insist that only ‘proper women’ have a right to enjoy the liberties that we ourselves only enjoy in recent times, there is no point in feminism if it exists to lock out other minority groups. 

If you were to ask a second wave feminist, for example Germaine Greer, their definition of a woman they may argue that women can be defined by their basic biology. Greer would happily say that a person’s gender can be defined by their chromosomes: “women [are] people with two Xs and men [are] people with an X and a Y”. This is a rudimentary statement and it stumbles at the first hurdle when we consider intersex people who are pressured by society to identify under one of the two genders. Greer has been particularly vocal on the subject of transgender women and their failure to meet her standards of a ‘woman’. Greer has repeatedly defended her opinions by repeating variations on the line: “I don’t think that post-operative transgender men are women.”  With the burgeoning LGBTQIA+ communities, more information has been brought to the forefront of feminism. The transgender and intersex communities are not new, but the readily available information and cultural awareness on a global level is new. Many second and third wave feminists are still attempting to make sense of this. The Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) estimates that 1 in 100 children are born as intersex. This means that a huge part of our society is unaccounted for at birth and fail to meet the socially prescribed standards of biological sex. In fact, in an effort to make new-borns conform to societal standards, doctors would follow a process called the Hopkins model and perform cosmetic surgery upon the young babies or children without their consent in the recent past. Intersex is a blanket term and can be used to describe anyone who deviates from the typical descriptions of male and female; this encompasses external genitalia or extra chromosomes which differ from the perceived norm. The appearance of an extra chromosome may not appear until later in life. Intersexuality is natural and is fairly common but there is no place for it in our society. The existence of those who are intersex revokes the entire binary system of sex and gender.

Personally, I believe that the concept of gender is paradoxically outdated. As I write, arguing for the right to be able to choose your gender, I simultaneously believe that gender should not exist. Of course, this is a utopian ideal but, in essence, all political and social systems are based on idealistic structures. Gender serves a limited purpose for women in our current society. By identifying as women, we are able to recognise and dismantle the patriarchy; but, in the long term, what purpose does gender serve? Highlighting the difference between men and women only allows sexism to fester. We would thrive as a society if we allowed people to exist outside the gender binary and stopped questioning what genitals people had. This seems farfetched and a fantastical pill to swallow but we can put this into practice in everyday life. Instead of trying to guess what sex someone ‘really is’ when they dress in androgynous styles, accept them and accept those around you who bravely defy gender stereotypes by presenting in a gender-bending manner. The idea of a genderless society is regarded as heretical and blasphemous by many older feminists and this is understandable. A woman who has spent her life fighting for the right to be feminine and simultaneously powerful is unlikely to suddenly accept that the concept of gender should be scrapped. It is the next step in feminism but one that is resisted. Women have fought for their rights as women in a patriarchal society and so to discard this can appear to unravel the ladder that women have painstakingly built. Ridding ourselves of gender stereotyping, and the idea that everyone must slot neatly into one of two boxes, breaks the whole system and creates true equality. People are treated as equals on the basis that their genitals are irrelevant. As I have said, this is a utopian fantasy, but we can learn valuable and practical lessons from said utopia which can be enacted on a daily basis.

To conclude, it is almost impossible to define what it means to be a woman. A woman is someone who chooses to be a woman; you cannot create a checklist or a rigid definition.


  • Written by Phoebe, April 2020



Twitter -

The Guardian newspaper online -

Experts and studies on allowing the use of bathrooms -

Hopkins model -

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