What is a woman? Until recently, the word woman has unambiguously meant an adult human female, where female means the sex that produces ova and can bear young. But males are now being called ‘woman’ too. The word woman has been expanded to mean either an adult human female, or an adult human male who would like to be referred to as female. The only way that males can be called ‘woman’ is if ‘woman’ is a social category to which anyone can belong rather than a biological category based on observable criteria. However, even if ‘woman’ is a social category to which anyone can belong, we still need to define what is meant by ‘woman,’ in order to understand who is included in this category. We can change the meanings of words, but we still need to agree on what they mean in order to communicate effectively.
It is normal for words to change meaning over time. Language changes as new words come into being and as people use old words in new ways. Lots of people study the use of language and the way language changes. Here I’m going to contrast the fields of lexicography and terminology in order to demonstrate the way two different approaches to the word ‘woman’ give us two different outcomes. Lexicographers are people who study words and the way they are used in order to write dictionary entries. Their approach is to start with the word and then look at its meanings. In contrast, the field of terminology starts with a concept—the thing itself—and comes up with a term to designate that concept. Instead of assigning definitions to words, terminologists assign terms to things they have identified. That being said, there is some overlap in the work of lexicography and terminology. These fields are not necessarily as diametrically opposed as I am presenting them here, but I am using the contrast to illustrate a point.
If we start with a word, in this case the word ‘woman’ and look to current usage in order to define it, then we might conclude that ‘woman’ is a social category to which human females as well as males who are transgender both belong. It can look “progressive,” on the surface, to add more meanings to a word, based on new developments in society and culture. However, if we approach the question ‘what is a woman’ from the point of view of a terminologist, then we find out that we cannot add human males to the category ‘woman’ without turning it into a meaningless category. The terminologist’s approach is scientific. It starts with observing the material world, describing and narrowing down what is being observed, and giving it a name. Terms cannot have multiple meanings or interpretations—they have one specific meaning.
In the field of terminology, a ‘concept’ is a unit of knowledge created by a unique combination of characteristics. To distinguish one concept from another we look at all characteristics, and especially the delimiting characteristics—those that clearly differentiate the concept under study from other similar concepts. Female is a scientific term that designates the sex that produces ova and can bear young. These are observable characteristics based on the scientific study of human beings, as well as many other species. When terminologists study a concept, they make terminology records listing the characteristics of that concept, including the delimiting characteristics, and they include references to the research on which their observations are based.
Here is a simple example of a list of characteristics of ‘adult human female’:
- Is a living being belonging to the species homo sapiens
- Has the body parts that human beings have, including a brain, heart, lungs, stomach, and limbs such as arms and legs, etc
- Also has female reproductive organs such as a uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries
- Has reached sexual maturity (can reproduce) and menstruates
- Can gestate and give birth to babies if impregnated, in the absence of any medical problems
- Has mammary glands which produce milk to feed offspring
- Waist smaller than hips
- Fat deposits around buttocks, thighs and hips
- Body hair present on the head, under the arms and between the legs
- Round face
- Round shoulders
- Small hands and feet
- Soprano voice
Where do these characteristics come from? Scientists have studied the characteristics of living things for centuries, and we have noticed certain patterns. One pattern we have noticed is sexual reproduction, in which males and females of a species combine eggs and sperm in order to reproduce. In our species, approximately half of the population produces ova and can bear young, and the other half produces sperm which can fertilize ova. There are a few exceptions, but most humans fall into one of these categories. After observing these characteristics we can generalize them into concepts. The concepts of ‘adult human female’ and ‘adult human male’ were identified long ago by studying the human anatomy and naming the findings.
Not all adult human females share the same characteristics. For example, there are some who cannot bear young due to medical problems. There are some who have their breasts or uteruses surgically removed. Some human females have a voice lower than the soprano range. Some human females have broad shoulders. So how to determine what makes one a human female if the characteristics are different in each specimen? What you have to find, in order to clarify a concept and distinguish it from other similar concepts, is the delimiting characteristic. It turns out there is a delimiting characteristic that determines whether a given specimen is an adult human female or not. The adult human female is a living being who is a member of the species homo sapiens who has reached sexual maturity and who will, under normal circumstances and in the absence of any surgeries or medical problems, be able to produce ova and bear young, because her genes are set up to make it so. The fact of having sexual organs surgically removed or being unable to use them to bear young because of medical problems does not negate the fact that the human female is genetically programmed to develop a uterus and ovaries that allow her to bear young. It is this concept that was given the designation ‘human female.’ The word ‘woman’ exists as a way to refer to an adult human female as opposed to a female child, or an adult male.
The word ‘woman’ has meant ‘adult human female’ for centuries. If we are to change the word ‘woman’ to mean ‘a social category to which adult human females and adult human males who are transgender both belong’ then what word will we use when we speak specifically of the group of all adult female humans, the biological category of homo sapiens who will, under normal circumstances produce ova and be able to bear young? Do we need to come up with a new word to mean ‘adult human female’ so that we can easily designate this group of living entities, since the word ‘woman’ no longer represents us?
Some people believe that it is acceptable and even necessary to include male humans in the category ‘woman.’ I would propose that the people who want us to stop using ‘woman’ to refer exclusively to adult human females are people who do not believe we need a word that applies only to adult human females. They are people who believe that adult human females do not need to be named and talked about as a group. However, we do need to be named and talked about as a group. We have a distinct biology that includes menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause; we have a distinct socialization based on our sex, and we experience distinct oppressions based on our sex as a part of living in a male supremacist society.
For the sake of argument, let’s consider the opposite situation, in which ‘woman’ is a social category to which human females and human males who are transgender both belong. If ‘woman’ means ‘the group of all humans that identify as women,’ then we still need a description of what ‘woman’ is, or else how do people know whether they identify as one? You can’t identify as something if you don’t know what it is. And surely, if someone feels very strongly that they are something, they can describe what the something is. But the only definition of ‘woman’ that we get from trans activists is the circular definition of ‘anyone who identifies as a woman.’ You can’t use a word inside its definition—to define a word by restating the word is to go around in a circle without getting anywhere. Words describe things, they describe concepts, whether real-life, physical things, or ideas. A woman is a real-life, physical thing. We should be able to observe the set of all ‘women’ and name the characteristics of this category. There should be characteristics that are measurable and observable in real life, since women are not ideas, they are real things that we can see. And there should be a delimiting characteristic that we can use to distinguish a specimen of the group ‘woman’ from those of other similar groups.
If ‘woman’ is a social category to which human females and males who are transgender both belong, then what are the characteristics of this group, and what is the delimiting characteristic that distinguishes this group’s members from other groups? If we take the approach of observing body parts similar to both groups, we come up with all the parts that are common to all humans—arms, legs, heart, lungs, etc. This doesn’t help us distinguish the category ‘woman’ from other categories though. We can’t say that sex stereotypes such as high heels, makeup and dresses are the characteristics of this group, because not all human females wear these things—they aren’t common to all members of the group ‘woman,’ so this doesn’t help us distinguish the category woman from other categories. I’m looking at what there could be in common between all members of the group of all human females and males who are transgender, and the only thing I’m coming up with is the presence of estrogen in the body—whether it is there naturally or artificially. That almost works as a delimiting characteristic, except for one small problem. In trans ideology, any male who claims to be a woman is one, even if he hasn’t started injecting himself with hormones yet, and even if he doesn’t plan on ever injecting himself with hormones. It is sufficient that he ‘identifies with the concept.’ So the ‘presence of estrogen in the body’ characteristic won’t suffice, either, even though that is my best guess. If we are to take transgenderist logic seriously, and any intact male can be a ‘woman,’ then the only common characteristic that we can measure in real life among members of this group is that they are all human beings. There is absolutely no way to distinguish members of the social category ‘woman’ from other categories, according to transgenderist logic, because there is no delimiting characteristic. This is one of the goals of trans activism—to break down the categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’ so that they are meaningless, and anyone can belong to any category.
If we adopt the approach of transgenderism, then two linguistic problems arise that cannot be resolved. The first one is that we lose the ability to easily refer to the group of all humans who will, under normal circumstances, produce ova and bear young, because the word that used to refer exclusively to this group now applies equally to its opposite. The second is that we are unable to define what a woman is, because we are not allowed any delimiting characteristics that we could use to distinguish the category ‘woman’ from other categories. The word ‘woman,’ then, becomes useless, having no discernable meaning. ‘Woman’ simply means any human being.
These problems are linguistic problems that impede clear communication, and they are also sociological problems. If we are unable to talk about the group of all humans who are female, we are not able to recognize their particular biological and social needs. This has real-life implications when, for example, females are unable to use single-sex facilities in public places and unable to gather together to discuss and organize around the experience of being female in a male supremacist society.
I believe that some trans activists are well-intentioned when they attempt to break down the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ but I think their approach is not the right one. Instead of pretending that ‘man’ and ‘woman’ do not refer to biological categories with real-life differences, trans activists should be breaking down the sex stereotypes that limit the ways that men and women can express themselves. It is not the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ that we should attack. Those words describe reality and we need them. What needs to be attacked is the idea that human males need to behave and dress in certain ways because they are male, and that human females need to behave and dress in certain ways because they are female.
I believe it is not useful to destroy the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ by making them meaningless, and in fact, it is downright dangerous, since women are oppressed by men in our patriarchal system. Anyone who is in the trans cult and is saying that there is no difference between trans women and women need to consider the following questions:
- If there is nothing distinguishing trans women from other women then why are we calling some women trans? How do we know which women to call “trans” if there is no way to tell them apart?
- Assuming that transgender means transitioning from one gender to the other, then what did trans women transition from? If they were born women and have always been women then why did they need to transition?
- Do you think we need a word that describes the set of all adult humans who can produce ova and bear young? Why or why not? If so, what do you think this word should be?
- Can you define the word ‘woman’ without using the word in the definition? (i.e. without using a circular definition.)
I welcome answers to these questions from anyone. However, I think you’ll find that if you are holding on to the idea that trans women are women, you won’t be able to answer them at all.