Jennifer Robertson, A long answer to the question, “What is a woman?,” March 2022
On Tuesday, March 22, during the Judiciary Committee’s interview of Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) asked a question that she probably thought was as easy to answer as it was to ask. The question was, “What is a woman?” It is a question that reflects Senator Blackburn’s and many people’s tendency to confuse biological “sex” with socio-cultural “gender.” Judge Jackson was wise not to answer this confused (and confusing) question. The “correct” answer is not self-evident at all, as I will explain. I am an anthropologist who teaches classes and lectures widely in the United States, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East on the relationship of sex, gender, and sexuality. I wish to clarify for readers of all demographic categories and political stripes, how sex and gender differ, and why it is important to know and understand how they differ.
The relationship of sex, gender, and sexuality, and roles assigned and attributed to that relationship, are central to the formation of personal identities, families, communities, societies, nations, and cultures. The key word here is “relationship,” as sex, gender, and sexuality while often synced, are neither synonymous nor self-evident. Moreover, their relationship has changed over history and across languages and cultures. My own archival research and ethnographic fieldwork—mostly in Japan, but also cross-culturally—has compelled me to develop working definitions of sex and gender that do not automatically presume their synonymy.
“Sex” refers to the biological, anatomical body. There are at least two kinds of human bodies: the “female” body and the “male” body. That said, female and male bodies themselves are distinguished by a broad spectrum of biological variability from outward (or phenotypic) appearance—size, shape, color—to biochemical (hormonal, chromosomal) constitution, to, post-puberty, “usual” physical capabilities (menstruation, pregnancy, lactation, ejaculation). Sex also refers to activities involving the body that in turn refer to “sexuality.” Sexuality is most efficiently described as a domain of desire and erotic pleasure quite complex and far more varied and inventive than conveyed by the nineteenth-century European terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual.” Sexuality is certainly more complex than simply an urge to procreate.
There are also intersexed bodies—about 1-2% of newborns—that do not conform to this basic anatomical binary. Such infants have been identified across cultures for centuries; different cultures have different categories and roles for sexed and intersexed bodies. In the United States today, as Suzanne Kessler points out in Lessons from the Intersexed (1998), the sex of newborn infants is determined by their medically prescribed “appropriately sized” genitalia. The presence of a penis that fits the parameters identifies a male baby, whereas the presence of a vulva (labia, clitoris, and vagina) identifies a female baby. Kessler’s nuanced and sensitive book provides accounts of “ambiguously sexed” infants whose penis or clitoris does not fit within medically prescribed sizes, and their experiences as they age and go through puberty.
“Gender” is often use synonymously with “sex” and/or as a euphemism for sex. But sex and gender are not the same thing. Much unnecessary confusion and friction has arisen precisely because sex and gender are conflated in everyday speech. Gender is not simply a congenital or “natural” feature or characteristic of a given female body or a given male body. Rather, gender refers to social, cultural, and historical conventions of costume, posture, hairstyle, gesture, speech, and so forth attributed and ascribed to female and male bodies. When ascribed to female bodies, those conventions are labeled “feminine and womanly” and when ascribed to male bodies, “masculine and manly.” In the United States, infants with ambiguous intersexed bodies have been “corrected” surgically and with hormonal supplements to fit into the so-called pink and blue binarist categories of sex (female/male) and gender (feminine/masculine). Bioethicist Kevin Behrens has recently emphasized that such corrections should not be made until an intersexed individual is old enough to make a decision about their own body (https://bmcmedethics.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12910-020-00550-x#citeas).
Because, with some isolated exceptions, most humans today do not walk around naked, gender markers such as clothing, cosmetics, and coiffures are usefully thought of as “cultural genitals” in that they point to or suggest the type of anatomical body underneath. In humans, gender, i.e., femaleness/maleness, femininity/masculinity, is ascribed at birth by obstetricians based on visible and unambiguous genitalia. Individuals mature in environments structured around binary gender roles, from the home to the school. They learn how to conform and perform according to those conventional gender roles. Mainstream dress codes and the fashion industry also effectively ensure that clothing, cosmetics, and coiffures reinforce both the binary construction of gender and the conflation of sex and gender. Moreover, gender roles (e.g., child raising) are often confused or conflated with sex roles (e.g., child birthing), which contributes to a rigid sexual and gendered division of labor. What is learned can be unlearned. The advent of “house husbands” and same-sex marriage are new models of sex and gender roles that have not replaced but that exist concurrently with more “traditional” models.
Clearly, an awareness is growing that gender is learned and not hard-wired. The conventional alignment of sex and gender is an ideology; that is, a system of ideas and ideals, sometimes referred to as the sex-gender system. There is a growing recognition that gender does not naturally conform to sex, and that gender is fluid and contingent upon personal choices and socio-cultural circumstances and may not conform to conventional binary markers of femininity or masculinity. Clothing, cosmetics, and coiffures may be used in ways to scramble the strict alignment of sex and gender. Thus, man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine might just as easily signify a male body as a female one. A female body need not be feminine; a male body need not be masculine.
Separate from those who are intersexed as defined earlier, some individuals today identify as transgender. They feel that their sex (female/male body) does not align with the gender (femininity/masculinity) they were initially assigned or learned, which is understandable. The strict conventional alignment of sex and gender can be suffocating and psychologically unbearable, even harmful, to some individuals, especially if they must navigate their lives secretly or within an unsupportive family or community. Consider this: if a more and more people in society learned and appreciated the difference between sex and gender, and became comfortable with biological, social, and cultural ambiguity, variety, and differences, then there would be no need to create new pathologies like “gender dysphoria” and attendant medical and surgical interventions that arguably “realign” sex with gender and, in effect, retain a strict and unambiguous binary model.
En fin, strictly speaking (in an anthropological sense), the category of sex (female and male) should be distinguished from the category of gender (woman and man). Using female/woman and male/man as alternates is standard practice; however, should it be necessary, as when asked “What is a woman?,” then a definitional distinction between “female” and “woman” is called for. Such an answer is unlikely to have been what Senator Blackburn was seeking.