“What is a woman, anyway? And who needs to know?”
September 15, 2009
Prof. of Political Theory and Anti-Racist Feminisms
Ithaca New York
There is a lot of talk at the moment about what it means to qualify as a woman,
especially if you are running in and competing in an athletic race. Caster Semenya, the
South African runner, has been said to have too much testosterone and internal testes and
no ovaries and uterus. As such, her female status is in question. This querying of sex
categorizations is much older and broader than this present controversy about athletics.
Sigmund Freud asked and wondered about it. So did Simone de Beauvoir.
While others are wondering if Caster Semenya can qualify as female, which is
also tied up with notions of being a woman, I wonder if Condoleezza Rice and Hillary
Clinton should be tested for their testosterone levels. Hillary started her run for the
presidency making clear she was not running as a woman, but because of her experience.
And then she went to extraordinary lengths to prove that she could be a hard and tough
commander-in-chief, just like a man. Condi Rice authorized the dropping of bombs in
Iraq and Afghanistan despite high civilian casualties. She watched along with Bush and
Cheney while black women and children were pummeled by hurricane Katrina. Do
Condi and Hillary qualify as women and if so according to what standard? their female
genitalia? Where does sex begin and end and gender kick in?
Biologists, like Anne Fausto Sterling in her book Sexing the Body, have
addressed this issue of sex categorization and its clarity. According to Fausto-Sterling,
“labeling someone a man or a woman is a social decision”; actual physical bodies blur
clear boundaries. She argues that the state and legal system may have an interest in
maintaining that there are only two sexes, but that “our collective biological bodies do
not.” She continues: “masculinity and femininity are cultural conceits”; that the “two
party system” of sex is a social construction”; that male and female “stand on extreme
ends of a biological continuum” with many other kinds of bodies which are a “complex
mix of anatomical components.” As such, our sexual bodies are “indeterminate” and
therefore “policed” to become male and female.
It then follows that biology, as well as gender, is bio-political; and the more
gender is challenged, the more rigidly sex is constructed as either male or female. This
extends to hormones themselves; which Fausto-Sterling says are identified as though they
were sexually determinant, but rather are simply part of an already “gendered discourse
of scientists.” Citing Frank Lillie, Fausto-Sterling states that there is “no such biological
entity as sex”, but rather it is merely a name for our impressions about sexual differences.
Sex is not fact here. It is random acts of science that name male hormones androgens and
female hormones estrogen.
According to Joanne Meyerowitz there are “overlapping sexes”; possibly a
universal bisexuality. Men and women have male and female hormones—“all women 2
had elements of the male and all men elements of the female.” As such, it is scientifically
inaccurate to “classify people as fully male or female.”
In this sense, biology is not
simply innate or genetically determined. Nancy Krieger and George Davey Smith write
that “societal conditions shape the expression of biological traits”; that there are “linkages
between bodily constitution and the body politics”.
New constructs of sexes and
genders reflect this fluidity. Krieger argues further that transgender, transsexual and
intersexual blur the established boundaries between and within the gender/sex dichotomy.
Gender influences biological traits and sex linked biological characteristics can affect
Similarly Susan Oyama queries the nature/nurture divide and says that each is
partly constructed by and through the other. She rejects the notion of biology as an innate
category and instead argues that innate and acquired are complexly intertwined—that
genes are complexly interactional and change as a result of context. “Bodies and minds
are constructed, not transmitted.” As such, nature is a product and a process; “nature is
not transmitted but constructed.” The biological/sexual body includes our whole selves
“which includes the social worlds in which we are made.” Oyama asks us to reject the
“disciplinary imperialism” of “genetic control.”
It is then crucial to understand that gender impinges on how we see and name the
sexual body; and the sexual body is used to justify the very notion of gender. Gender
even defines the sexed body and the sexed body constructs gender. There are several
sexes, and more than two. And there are more than two genders. Yet the language of
two-ness dominates. This means that both sex and gender are part of the most intimate
constructions of our political world.
It is often thought that sexuality—as in biological sex and sexual preference–is
more stable, or static, and predefined, than gender. But I wonder whether gender—as in
the cultural construction of masculine and feminine–is not more static and contrived and
more resistant to change.
In this way, gender rigidifies sex. Gender regulates sex and
sexual preference as much, if not more, than the other way around. This is not to
overdraw the distinctness of sex and gender but rather to query whether the body and its
sexuality is not more ambiguous and multiple and diverse than the constructs of gender
allow. Or put slightly differently: that gender exists to control sex and its variability.
Gender makes biological sex and sexuality static and rigid. The point: neither sex nor
gender are simply essentialist or constructed. Rather, they are a complex relational mix.
But, given this, the sexual body is probably more fluid than its gendered meaning. Yet,
the biological body—meaning both the so-called `natural body’ and its given heterosexual proclivities–is normalized as a justification for the cultural meanings of men and
women. In sum: gender colonizes sex.
I disagree with Peggy Orenstein’s depiction of the problem in “What makes a
Woman a Woman?” when she says “biology, at least to some degree, is destiny.”
me, biology matters but is not destiny. I do not depict nature and nurture in dichotomous
form. Nature is nurtured, and nurture natured. Women are not simply socially
constructed or biologically determined. We are always both our bodies and their
surroundings; bodies reflect cultures and cultures define bodies. There is no separation
that allows clear borders even though people insist as though there were.
Orenstein says that breast cancer was an assault to her femininity. Fine, but my
breast cancer was not for me. Years later, I have no female body parts left—given that 3
vaginas do not appear declarative–and I do not wonder who I am, or whether I am still
female or a woman. Technically, biologically, I am not female according to established
and narrow criteria. Culturally I am a defiant and insurgent woman that means that I
don’t care what others think I am. Do not get me wrong. I love jewelry and beautiful
clothes, and complete decadent sensuality. I just do not care how you choose to
What is the central need of sexual assignment? The distinctions are being found
to be more arbitrary than reasoned. This simply means that any categorization of
biological sex could be drawn differently and according to differently agreed upon
standards. This is not about right and wrong but about how differences destroy the very
clarity needed for such judgments.
This gets me back to the title query. Who needs to know what any of us are? And
why? If we each are human with a sexuality, then we remain curious and multiple rather
than singular and bordered. There are cyber bodies, and legal bodies and breast cancer
bodies, and AIDS bodies, and pregnant bodies, and gendered bodies, and war bodies, and
tortured bodies, and on and on.
Judith Butler has long argued that gender is made-up, performed, plastic,
improvised, and multiple. Enforced gender categorization is tied to an “anatomical
essentialism” when there is no simple original form of the copy. She thinks that many
so-called men can do femininity better than she can. A universal notion of gender can be
a form of cultural imperialism—so we need to pluralize our understanding of both
cultures and their genders. If gender dysphoria and sexual minorities can be embraced
and recognized in the human community then Butler says we most focus on the possible.
“For those who are still looking to become possible, possibility is a necessity.”
The idea that here are two biological sexes is then in and of itself a political
limitation/regulation that depends on a formulation of gender as two-ness too. Sexual
and gender classifications are regulatory and by and large stand in defiance of the fluidity
and changeability of sexual and gender identities. Sex is assigned at birth; but through a
gendered biological visor. According to Paisley Currah this denies chromosomal
ambiguity, gonadal ambiguity, gender pluralism and sexual indeterminacy.
But there is no adequate language to embrace this complexity so we recreate
gender while debunking it: female lesbians, female men, etc. Sexual and gender
indeterminacy needs to become a part of a radically pluralized sex/gender system
allowing for a democratic sexual life that is freely chosen. The presumption however of
essentialist biological/innate gender categories still remains firmly in place even when
they are scrutinized. Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University
explains that women are underrepresented in tenured science positions at top universities
because of “intrinsic aptitude” sounding awfully close to innate differences; as though
scientists are born, and not made.
Language that flexes with radically plural definitions and meanings is what I
search for. And the level playing field will be made out of this cacophony, not the
fantasized notion of two types.4
Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body (New York: Basic Books, 2000), pp. 3, 31, 32, 40, 54, 177, 179,
Joanne Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed (Cambridge: Harvard university Press, 2002), p. 28
Nancy Krieger and George Davey Smith, “Bodies Count and Body Counts: Social Epidemiology and
Embodying Inequality”, Epidemiologic Reviews, vol. 26, 2004, pp. 92, 93.
Nancy Krieger, “Genders, Sexes, and Health”, International Journal of Epidemiology , vol. 32 (2003), p.
Susan Oyama, Evolutions Eye (Durham University Press, 2000), pp. 3, 18, 22, 28, 29, 48, 191.
Although this has been a central query for feminist theory for over two decades now I particularly wish to
address this issue in terms of its relevance for my viewing of sex and gender decoys.
New York Times Magazine, Sept. 13, 2009, pp. 11-12.
Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 1, 7, 9, 31, 213.
Paisley Currah, “The Transgender Rights Imaginary”, The Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law ,
vol. 705 (Spring, 2003), pp.705-720.
Lawrence Summers, “Remarks at NBER Conference on Diversitfying the Science and Engineerig
Workforce”, January 14, 2005, available at: www. president.harvard.edu/speeches/2005/nber.htm