What Defines a Woman?

“One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.”

— Simone de Beauvoir

I won’t comment on how unlikely it is that the typical woman will be photographed by Annie Leibowitz for a cover shot and photoessay in a glossy magazine but that’s really the least of the things that disturb me about this situation. My February post on Transgender Socialization  presaged the whole brou-ha-ha that has erupted since Bruce became Caitlynn. When Ms. Jenner followed up her transition by posing provocatively in a swimsuit for the cover of Vanity Fair magazine—as well as in a variety of designer outfits for the article inside—it generated a storm of controversy about what makes a woman. This was best articulated in two articles, “What Makes a Woman” by Elinor Burkett in the New York Times followed by “What Makes a Feminist” by Jill Filipovic in Cosmopolitan. Both have interesting, if somewhat different, perspectives.

I won’t comment on how unlikely it is that the typical woman will be photographed by Annie Leibowitz for a cover shot and photoessay in a glossy magazine but that’s really the least of the things that disturb me about this situation.

My husband thinks it’s a tempest in a teapot and refuses to give it any of his attention. Fair enough. That’s generally my opinion about any celebrity gossip having to do with scandal, pregnancy, marriage or divorce and that is what passes for news these days. Also, I can see where a man would be far less interested in this story than a woman would. But as I said in my previous post, I tend to agree more with @elinorbur and Simone de Beauvoir that being a woman transcends possession of the biological equipment. Biology is not destiny but socialization is important.

On the other hand, I think that actually possessing the biological equipment, whether for elimination or reproduction, is important, too. Who defines a woman can dictate what defines a woman.

Redefining Womanhood

According to Elinor Burkett, transgender females are seeking to redefine what makes a woman in way that accommodates their choice. It does not surprise me that people who were born men, socialized as men, and took advantage of the privileges of being men seek to define—or redefine—womanhood. Men have been doing this for centuries, after all, dictating women’s behavior, physical attributes, social status, level of acceptance, fashion, and even how, when, or whether women could speak. Having chosen to become women, they now want to make sure they are accepted, and they do this by behaving in ways so typical of men that they demonstrate their total lack of understanding of their adopted gender.

“Well she knows what I’m about,
She can take what I dish out, and that’s not easy,
Well she knows me through and through,
She knows just what to do, and how to please me.
She’s a lady. Whoa, whoa, whoa. She’s a lady.”

Tom Jones — She’s a Lady

Exclusionary Terms

In the process of creating that definition, some transgender women have been attacking the use of physical terms like “vagina” as exclusionary. They prefer, it seems, to call it the “front hole.” (Those of us who are born women, on the other hand, understand its actual anatomical position.)

Rosie the Riveter poster, We Can Do ItWhen you’re talking about reproduction, however, a vagina is essential. If you don’t have one, you don’t have any skin in the reproductive game, as it were, or truly understand the issues that affect women around reproduction. It’s all philosophical or political to you.

I would have hoped that transgender women would join the fight for equality of employment, treatment in society, opportunity, and choice. It would be nice to have more women marching arm in arm for equality. But no. Instead they are joining the ranks of women criticizing other women, as we have seen so often in the Mommy Wars that pit working mothers against stay-at-home-moms. Trans women are fighting born women for the right to be included in the ranks without realizing that they don’t need to go on the attack to get there.

“I’d never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member.”

Woody Allen 

The Societal Impact

Transgender women might not get the biology-oriented issues because they lack the required biological components. But once they dress as women, identify as women, act as women, and use women’s names they are going to feel the impact of other societal behaviors.

As Jon Stewart so brilliantly pointed out, Caitlynn Jenner can now expect to be catcalled on the street, demeaned and insulted in gatherings, harassed and paid less at work (well, maybe not her), and objectified pretty much all the time.As Jon Stewart so brilliantly pointed out, Caitlynn Jenner can now expect to be catcalled on the street, demeaned and insulted in gatherings, harassed and paid less at work (well, maybe not her), and objectified pretty much all the time. Her accomplishments faded into the background almost immediately with the press focusing instead on her looks. Having already objectified herself in pursuit of femininity, Ms. Jenner might not protest some of these but encountering them in her daily life may come as a surprise nonetheless.

I hoped that transgender trailblazer Renee Richards would have touched on these issues in her recent GQ interview but Editor-at-Large Michael Hainey is a man and thus he was unlikely to probe for details in this particular area. Life as a woman seems to have been pretty much a walk in the park for Ms. Richards, much as her life as a man was marked by one grand-slam success after another. Again, that’s not the norm for most people of either gender.

If Jon Stewart looks perplexed, it’s no wonder. This is all very confusing. What to think about a man who wants to be a woman yet keeps his penis and is attracted to women but doesn’t consider herself a lesbian? It makes my head hurt.

“I quite agree with you,” said the Duchess;” and the moral of that is—‘Be what you would seem to be’—or, if you’d like it put more simply—‘Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise that what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.’”

Lewis Carroll — Alice in Wonderland