Someone made the rookie mistake of asking writer and academic Julia Serano to come on air and discuss the bigot dog-whistle “what is a woman?” Serano declined, and explained why.
“What is a woman?” is not intended to be a question. It’s a slogan created and championed by UK “gender critical” activists who strongly oppose the social and legal recognition of trans people, with some even calling for eliminationist measures that would morally mandate us out of existence. Whenever gender-critical activists pose the “what is a woman?” question to politicians, organizations, celebrities, etc. (as they are wont to do), they are not looking to start a nuanced discussion or debate. Rather, they want a yes-or-no answer to their real question, the only question that counts in their minds: Will you support our anti-trans beliefs, policies, and legislation?
Serano’s right, of course. “What is a woman?” is a loaded, rhetorical question asked by the kind of people who praise the Taliban or Russell Brand for “knowing what a woman is”, and it’s asked in much the same way as “when did you stop beating your wife?”
It is a question with an agenda, and it is based on an underlying assumption, a belief, that there is a single, immutable definition of what a woman is. And of course, that isn’t true.
The term “woman” is a classification and as Serano says, it has different criteria and meanings in different contexts. So for example in genetics, the criteria might be chromosomes; in reproductive health, reproductive anatomy; and in everyday conversation, social class: “people who move through the world as women and are interpreted and treated (and sometimes mistreated) as such.”
…if I mentioned having a conversation with a woman that I know from work or ran into at the store, you wouldn’t think at all about her chromosomes or reproductive organs (unless, of course, you were some kind of creep).
…we all understand that “woman” is a broad category that comprises roughly half the human population. By necessity, it includes all sorts of diversity and seeming exceptions to the rule.
This is why, in everyday life, nobody ever asks the question “what is a woman?” In fact, the only people who bother to raise the issue these days are anti-trans activists.
And the reason they raise it, and the reason so many cisgender men parrot it, is because it’s a distraction from the very real issues all women experience, cis and trans. Because if we were to focus on any significant danger to women, we wouldn’t be looking at trans women. We’d be looking at cisgender men and some cisgender women too.