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What Makes a Woman? Why Do you Ask?

Last weekend, Elinor Burkett published an opinion editorial in The New York Times calling into question whether Caitlyn Jenner is really a woman.  Sarah Miller points out the many problems with Burkett’s argument over at Jezebel, which I want to point to and double down on here, mostly because I’m put off that even the podcasters over at Slate’s DoubleX had a hard time finding the language to respond eloquently to Burkett.  Noreen Malone notes on the podcast that it was the #1 most emailed piece at NYT over the weekend, which is to say: it struck a chord.  So I want to say a few things about that chord.

I think Sarah Miller is right to point out that when Caitlyn Jenner says her brain is much more female, she means something less academic than what then-Harvard Lawrence H. Summers meant when he said: “Research in behavioural genetics is showing that things people previously attributed to socialisation weren’t due to socialisation after all.”  Burkett is concerned that Jenner’s remark does the same damage that Summers because it re-affirms a gender essentialism that assigns people roles in society on the basis of their biology, their brains, their bodies.  But as Miller points out, Jenner is speaking about her experience, not academically.

Beauvoir’s claim, “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman,” is the mantra for the feminist effort to separate sex from gender and to show that our bodies are not our destiny.  It turns out our bodies might not even be as given as the division between gender and sex suggests, following Foucault, Butler and other queer theorists.  Sex itself, the way the body is identified as male or female, healthy or sick, normal or not, is based on human determinations about what is most fundamental and fixed.  Decisions are made about what markers will show someone to be a male or a female and these decisions change over time (the capacity to have male children shown by actually producing male children was an essential part of the Greek conception of what it meant to be a man).  But this social and importantly, historical, construction does not make it any less real for that.  Neither does it mean that it is something that individuals can overcome, as if one could say to Jenner, just stop feeling like a woman and you will be happy in the body of a man.  As Jay Prosser argues, a transgender person may experience her body analogously to someone with body agnosia who feels herself in the wrong body.  What constitutes “wrong” can be felt in the body without having a biological basis.

If Beauvoir’s claim that one is not born but becomes a woman allows us to divide sex from gender, it also shows that one must become a woman.  In this “must” is a demand: become woman!  Out of this body produce this way of being in the world.  In becoming woman (or man), gender norms–the disciplinary project of producing male bodies as men and female bodies as women–demand a performance of gender, while also insisting on uniting this performance to biological sex.  Gender normalization demands a properly “matching” sex, and thus gender norms and binaries are bound up with biological sex norms and binaries.

This normalization along a binary is what Hannah Howard points to when she says that the cultural milieu in which we live makes it difficult for transwomen to discuss their experience without reducing it to an easily digestible one-liner.  What Howard articulates is the way that transgender and genderqueer persons are held responsible to make themselves knowable and understandable to those who have the power to accept them and make their lives livable or not, where those who assume the givenness of their own intelligibility judge whether others “make sense” about themselves.

Transgender theory addresses how the binary of gender fails and it leaves those it fails at its margins to their detriment.  When the Vanity Fair cover was first announced, Laverne Cox noted the privilege involved in having the means to go through the surgery and afford the cosmetic work involved in coming to look the way that she and Caitlyn Jenner do.  That such a privilege is required to feel like one can safely live within a culture of binary sex and gender should be a call to challenge the ways that we continue to discipline in one another a rigid gender binary.  What it shows is how much work and money goes into doing one’s gender in a way that is deemed acceptable.  But it should also be noted that not everyone is aspiring is to be Cox and Jenner.

Burkett makes much hay out of having had the experiences that make her a woman and these are experiences of struggle and abuse, experiences of fear, that she says make one a woman.  But isn’t she reproducing the very problems anti-essentialist feminists have been criticizing–the pressure to be woman in a prescribed way even as she rejects the prescribed way that Jenner is a woman?   In the DoubleX podcast, Rosin says: “Would you ever look at a picture of Kim Kardashian looking like that and just completely applaud it, like no irony and just say that’s wonderful?” Many feminists are critical of Kim Kardashian for so willingly submitting to these gender standards and seeming to want nothing else than to be good at performing her femininity.  In the power structure that demands certain ways of being man and woman, doing that well means different things from different places within that structure.

The dispute with Burkett seems to be over how people end up in those places: Jenner chose it so she’s not a real woman, Burkett seems to say, though Jenner’s account shows how her own experience of her body shows how the language of choice is woefully inadequate to express the politics of gender and sex.  When Burkett maintains that real womanhood is about struggle and difficulty and experiences, yet still complains that woman as a category is becoming too broad because it is not being rooted in a certain body, she still inscribes the body as the site of truth (real women are born with vaginas), just as the truth we don’t want to be reduced to.  In so doing, she sets herself up as one empowered to judge others’ people’s womanhood as legitimate or not.

I think Burkett’s op ed epitomizes how “feminism” has become less about liberation altogether and more about certain people’s liberation.  A cisgendered woman can deny essentialism, but still function in a society that sees gender as essentialist because her body is recognized as “the right one.”  As Howard notes, its transgender theorists like Talia Mae Bettcher who are at the forefront of reconceptualizing what it means to be female in a way that exposes the essentialism of “natural” notions of womanhood.  To really deny essentialism from the part of the cisgendered woman would be to say that it doesn’t matter how you got to your body.  The insistence that woman is only in a certain body makes the body matter far more than the anti-essentialist feminist seems to claim.

To suppose–nay, to demand–that women share the same agenda is to produce the same monolithic thinking that Burkett is railing against in gender essentialism–as if her experience of being woman is not marked by her intersectional situation of being white and having access to the NYT op ed page.  I fear that the more profound problem is that those of us ciswomen who find ourselves “doing well” within the gender binary find ourselves benefitting from it too much to really want to bring it down in order to create a space for those who suffer at its expense.

Here’s my point: The question, “What makes a woman?” is a not chiefly an ontological or a phenomenological question, and it will not be answered by ontology (a certain essence) or phenomenology (a certain experience).  In fact, the ontological and phenomenological failures to produce a consistent account make my point: the question, “What makes a woman?” is a political question.  It functions to establish who has power and who gets power and who gets associated with and recognized by those in power.  To ask this question is to insist on an account of woman in order to continue to produce a line of transgression that grants access of all kinds to some at the expense of others.  So the answer to my second question of the title, “Why do you ask?” seems to be in every case, for the sake of safeguarding my privilege.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. I think you nailed this. I keep liking Appiah’s argument that identity is a strategy to deploy rather than an essence to inhabit. Who knows what we could become if we didn’t require ourselves and each other to be this or that? But since we do, there’s no way to sort out what any identity category means without looking at the fields of force and resource it arranges access within.

    Recently I had a tense exchange with a student who was claiming that suffering defines the Black experience. That’s a powerful claim, but a dangerous one, I suggested. Wouldn’t this be a suffering to be thankful for, to seek out and to preserve at all costs? Well, sometimes power feels like what’s needed, and Jenner is reaching for hers.

    June 12, 2015
  2. I would suggest that identity is always deployed as a strategy (even when it is claimed to be an essence – that is a strategy). I think it is more problematically so deployed from the top when that identity becomes a way of excluding others from power. I’m especially interested in how what was once a strategy of identity politics to secure power for those who don’t have it becomes a way of maintaining power at the expense of others who don’t have it. That looks to me like what Burkett is doing when she polices what it means to be woman.

    June 12, 2015
  3. Yes, agreed! And if identity is a strategy of access to power, then the boundaries it inherently creates are always ways of excluding Others from that power. I’m more sympathetic when that’s being done from the bottom up, but I’m not going to close my eyes to how it works. But putting my cards on the table, I tend to think that if power is the problem, it’s unlikely to be the solution.

    June 12, 2015

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