(Possibly a work in progress)
A common question asked by TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) is “what is a woman?” They often ask this with an answer already in mind, that woman is a adult human female. This is meant to exclude trans women from belonging to women as a class. Since the exclusion of trans women appears to be their primary motivation in how they define women, they reject any other answer, often claiming that the only other answer available is circular and rests only on self definition. This is blatantly false, and one can find other definitions easily even within radical feminism.
While woman and female are commonly used interchangeably, there is no reason to believe that they must share a definition, or that they should. In fact for decades feminists have argued that they mean very different things, with female reflecting biology and woman reflecting gender. There are exceptions as it can be difficult to fully separate the two, but often within feminist circles the thinking is opposite of what TERFs claim, in which female is just another way of referring to one’s gender (social position) rather than the other way around. Catharine MacKinnon and Christine Delphy are two prominent examples of feminists who have such beliefs.
Before moving on, I think it’s important to address why the question is important at all. Feminists claim to be fighting for women, as a social group or class. Determining who belongs to such a social group is necessary for feminist analysis and activism as it gives us a way to discover what the issues are and focus on plans of action to rectify them. This is where the issue of self definition comes in if there is nothing to ground it. If woman can mean anything, and anyone can be a woman, there is concern that feminism will be obfuscated; women harmed under patriarchy will then be ignored. I think the fear here is unwarranted. There are many instances of feminist action that do not apply to all women, but are still considered important. Feminists recognize (or should recognize) that women consist of individuals with differences. Ignoring those differences and how misogyny and sexism manifests itself within different contexts does a disservice to women, only fighting for some women rather than all. Classifying women as adult human females may seem like an easy way to address the above fear, but there’s also the concern that doing so hinders feminist analysis and ignores the plight of some women.
This is of course all only within the context of trying to determine who is oppressed and who is oppressing in relation to sex/gender hierarchies. A feminist definition of man and woman isn’t necessarily the only definition available. One could be a woman under a feminist understanding while being another gender in a different context. What I’m most interested in however is the feminist understanding of gender and my focus here will be providing a feminist definition that is inclusive to trans women.
I believe a much better definition of what constitutes a woman is what is implied above. Woman is a social position, that social position being one of subordination within a patriarchal context. Haslanger provides a materialist account of this, in which a person is a woman if they are observed or imagined to have certain physical characteristics related to being female and this is used to mark them as a member of the subordinate gender (woman). I would argue however that markers don’t necessarily need to be physical characteristics even if the case most of the time.
Sveinsdóttir gives a broader account in what she calls a conferralist framework. Here, woman is a conferred property. Similar to Haslanger, this is dependent on perception, but it differs in which physical characteristics are only one of the grounding properties that might be tracked. This, in my view, gives a much better account of our social reality allowing for differences in people’s perceptions of gender.
Using Sveinsdóttir’s framework, we can say that a woman under a feminist context is one that is oppressed as a woman, as that is the grounding property feminists seek to track. What it means to be oppressed as a woman however would differ depending on the context and what is being tracked and conferred by members of the dominant group. The grounding property then could be a number of things including reproductive potential, sexual roles, or even self identification.
I will likely expand on this post with future blog posts, but I hope I have achieved my goal in this post of providing a non-circular definition of woman that is inclusive to trans women and is better suited towards feminist aims than the definition TERFs advocate for.