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What is a woman, anyway?

September 23, 2009

From Zed Books:

by Zillah Eisenstein, author of Against Empire, Sexual Decoys, The Audacity of Races and Genders, Prof. of Political Theory and Anti-Racist Feminisms, Ithaca College, New York. September 15, 2009

There is a lot of talk at the moment about what it means to qualify as a woman, especially if you are running in and competing in an athletic race. Caster Semenya, the South African runner, has been said to have too much testosterone and internal testes and no ovaries and uterus. As such, her female status is in question. This querying of sex categorizations is much older and broader than this present controversy about athletics. Sigmund Freud asked and wondered about it. So did Simone de Beauvoir.

While others are wondering if Caster Semenya can qualify as female, which is also tied up with notions of being a woman, I wonder if Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton should be tested for their testosterone levels. Hillary started her run for the presidency making clear she was not running as a woman, but because of her experience. And then she went to extraordinary lengths to prove that she could be a hard and tough commander-in-chief, just like a man. Condi Rice authorized the dropping of bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan despite high civilian casualties. She watched along with Bush and Cheney while black women and children were pummeled by hurricane Katrina. Do Condi and Hillary qualify as women and if so according to what standard? their female genitalia? Where does sex begin and end and gender kick in?

Biologists, like Anne Fausto Sterling in her book Sexing the Body, have addressed this issue of sex categorization and its clarity. According to Fausto-Sterling, “labeling someone a man or a woman is a social decision”; actual physical bodies blur clear boundaries. She argues that the state and legal system may have an interest in maintaining that there are only two sexes, but that “our collective biological bodies do not.” She continues: “masculinity and femininity are cultural conceits”; that the “two party system” of sex is a social construction”; that male and female “stand on extreme ends of a biological continuum” with many other kinds of bodies which are a “complex mix of anatomical components.” As such, our sexual bodies are “indeterminate” and therefore “policed” to become male and female.

It then follows that biology, as well as gender, is bio-political; and the more gender is challenged, the more rigidly sex is constructed as either male or female. This extends to hormones themselves; which Fausto-Sterling says are identified as though they were sexually determinant, but rather are simply part of an already “gendered discourse of scientists.” Citing Frank Lillie, Fausto-Sterling states that there is “no such biological entity as sex”, but rather it is merely a name for our impressions about sexual differences. Sex is not fact here. It is random acts of science that name male hormones androgens and female hormones estrogen.[i]

According to Joanne Meyerowitz there are “overlapping sexes”; possibly a universal bisexuality. Men and women have male and female hormones—“all women had elements of the male and all men elements of the female.” As such, it is scientifically inaccurate to “classify people as fully male or female.”[ii] In this sense, biology is not simply innate or genetically determined. Nancy Krieger and George Davey Smith write that “societal conditions shape the expression of biological traits”; that there are “linkages between bodily constitution and the body politics”.[iii] New constructs of sexes and genders reflect this fluidity. Krieger argues further that transgender, transsexual and intersexual blur the established boundaries between and within the gender/sex dichotomy. Gender influences biological traits and sex linked biological characteristics can affect gender.[iv]

Similarly Susan Oyama queries the nature/nurture divide and says that each is partly constructed by and through the other. She rejects the notion of biology as an innate category and instead argues that innate and acquired are complexly intertwined—that genes are complexly interactional and change as a result of context. “Bodies and minds are constructed, not transmitted.” As such, nature is a product and a process; “nature is not transmitted but constructed.” The biological/sexual body includes our whole selves “which includes the social worlds in which we are made.” Oyama asks us to reject the “disciplinary imperialism” of “genetic control.”[v]

It is then crucial to understand that gender impinges on how we see and name the sexual body; and the sexual body is used to justify the very notion of gender. Gender even defines the sexed body and the sexed body constructs gender. There are several sexes, and more than two. And there are more than two genders. Yet the language of two-ness dominates. This means that both sex and gender are part of the most intimate constructions of our political world.
It is often thought that sexuality—as in biological sex and sexual preference–is more stable, or static, and predefined, than gender. But I wonder whether gender—as in the cultural construction of masculine and feminine–is not more static and contrived and more resistant to change.[vi] In this way, gender rigidifies sex. Gender regulates sex and sexual preference as much, if not more, than the other way around. This is not to overdraw the distinctness of sex and gender but rather to query whether the body and its sexuality is not more ambiguous and multiple and diverse than the constructs of gender allow. Or put slightly differently: that gender exists to control sex and its variability. Gender makes biological sex and sexuality static and rigid. The point: neither sex nor gender are simply essentialist or constructed. Rather, they are a complex relational mix. But, given this, the sexual body is probably more fluid than its gendered meaning. Yet, the biological body—meaning both the so-called `natural body’ and its given hetero-sexual proclivities–is normalized as a justification for the cultural meanings of men and women. In sum: gender colonizes sex.

I disagree with Peggy Orenstein’s depiction of the problem in “What makes a Woman a Woman?” when she says “biology, at least to some degree, is destiny.”[vii] For me, biology matters but is not destiny. I do not depict nature and nurture in dichotomous form. Nature is nurtured, and nurture natured. Women are not simply socially constructed or biologically determined. We are always both our bodies and their surroundings; bodies reflect cultures and cultures define bodies. There is no separation that allows clear borders even though people insist as though there were. Orenstein says that breast cancer was an assault to her femininity. Fine, but my breast cancer was not for me. Years later, I have no female body parts left—given that vaginas do not appear declarative–and I do not wonder who I am, or whether I am still female or a woman. Technically, biologically, I am not female according to established and narrow criteria. Culturally I am a defiant and insurgent woman that means that I don’t care what others think I am. Do not get me wrong. I love jewelry and beautiful clothes, and complete decadent sensuality. I just do not care how you choose to categorize it.

What is the central need of sexual assignment? The distinctions are being found to be more arbitrary than reasoned. This simply means that any categorization of biological sex could be drawn differently and according to differently agreed upon standards. This is not about right and wrong but about how differences destroy the very clarity needed for such judgments.
This gets me back to the title query. Who needs to know what any of us are? And why? If we each are human with a sexuality, then we remain curious and multiple rather than singular and bordered. There are cyber bodies, and legal bodies and breast cancer bodies, and AIDS bodies, and pregnant bodies, and gendered bodies, and war bodies, and tortured bodies, and on and on.

Judith Butler has long argued that gender is made-up, performed, plastic, improvised, and multiple. Enforced gender categorization is tied to an “anatomical essentialism” when there is no simple original form of the copy. She thinks that many so-called men can do femininity better than she can. A universal notion of gender can be a form of cultural imperialism—so we need to pluralize our understanding of both cultures and their genders. If gender dysphoria and sexual minorities can be embraced and recognized in the human community then Butler says we most focus on the possible. “For those who are still looking to become possible, possibility is a necessity.”[viii]

The idea that here are two biological sexes is then in and of itself a political limitation/regulation that depends on a formulation of gender as two-ness too. Sexual and gender classifications are regulatory and by and large stand in defiance of the fluidity and changeability of sexual and gender identities. Sex is assigned at birth; but through a gendered biological visor. According to Paisley Currah this denies chromosomal ambiguity, gonadal ambiguity, gender pluralism and sexual indeterminacy.[ix]

But there is no adequate language to embrace this complexity so we recreate gender while debunking it: female lesbians, female men, etc. Sexual and gender indeterminacy needs to become a part of a radically pluralized sex/gender system allowing for a democratic sexual life that is freely chosen. The presumption however of essentialist biological/innate gender categories still remains firmly in place even when they are scrutinized. Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University explains that women are underrepresented in tenured science positions at top universities because of “intrinsic aptitude” sounding awfully close to innate differences; as though scientists are born, and not made.[x]

Language that flexes with radically plural definitions and meanings is what I search for. And the level playing field will be made out of this cacophony, not the fantasized notion of two types.

[i] Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body (New York: Basic Books, 2000), pp. 3, 31, 32, 40, 54, 177, 179, 188.
[ii] Joanne Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed (Cambridge: Harvard university Press, 2002), p. 28
[iii] Nancy Krieger and George Davey Smith, “Bodies Count and Body Counts: Social Epidemiology and Embodying Inequality”, Epidemiologic Reviews, vol. 26, 2004, pp. 92, 93.
[iv] Nancy Krieger, “Genders, Sexes, and Health”, International Journal of Epidemiology , vol. 32 (2003), p. 652.
[v] Susan Oyama, Evolutions Eye (Durham University Press, 2000), pp. 3, 18, 22, 28, 29, 48, 191.
[vi] Although this has been a central query for feminist theory for over two decades now I particularly wish to address this issue in terms of its relevance for my viewing of sex and gender decoys.
[vii] New York Times Magazine, Sept. 13, 2009, pp. 11-12.
[viii] Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 1, 7, 9, 31, 213.
[ix] Paisley Currah, “The Transgender Rights Imaginary”, The Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law , vol. 705 (Spring, 2003), pp.705-720.
[x] Lawrence Summers, “Remarks at NBER Conference on Diversitfying the Science and Engineerig Workforce”, January 14, 2005, available at: www. president.harvard.edu/speeches/2005/nber.htm

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