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Defining Gender

(77 Posts)
MsBeaujangles Thu 14-Dec-17 10:09:27

I am starting a new thread that I hope will be a single issue thread that focuses on definitions of 'man' and 'woman' for those that describe themselves as such because of their identity rather than biology.

I know that there are lots of important and related issues to discuss in relation to this, but these are covered in other threads and attempts to explore this often gets lost. It is often said that this is because there is no definition that works, but perhaps this thread might encourage those that view transmen/transwoman as men/woman to discuss this on this thread.

The sooner we have a definition to work with, the sooner we can start to address concerns from both sides about spaces, gender stereotyping etc.

I know that threads have a life of their own, but I really hope that this one can stick to definitions. Even if it means it has few posts!

MsBeaujangles Thu 14-Dec-17 10:29:41

@perfectly wretched.
Picking up from your points from the thread that inspired this thread.....

Sex is easily defined using science and everybody is born natal female or natal male. Intersex conditions exist but those with intersex conditions are still either biologically male or female. I think, in line with requests from intersex groups, we should not discuss intersex in relation to gender identity.

The issue lays with defining 'woman' or 'man' without using biology.

Many gender non conforming people do not identify as a man or woman (non binary) so this does not present an issue in relation to definitions.

The issue arises for those who identify as a man or a woman when widely accepted definitions of man or woman refute that they are what they identify as.

jellyfrizz Thu 14-Dec-17 10:30:33

I would not agree that man and woman are gender descriptions though.

Masculine and feminine are the gender descriptions. Man and woman are biological descriptions.

Thermostatpolice Thu 14-Dec-17 11:46:46

Thank you for starting this thread Beau. Totally agree that a 'gender non binary' working definition of 'man' and 'woman' would be helpful for everyone.

Did I understand correctly that you would prefer input on this thread to come from people on the gender identity 'side' and not from gender critics?

NotAPuffin Thu 14-Dec-17 12:03:44

*I would not agree that man and woman are gender descriptions though.

Masculine and feminine are the gender descriptions. Man and woman are biological descriptions.*
This. Man and woman, male and female describe sex, not gender, and are by definition grounded in biology. Masculine and feminine are the gender-based terms.

53rdWay Thu 14-Dec-17 12:11:16

It’s worth explaining a little bit why it’s important to so many of us to have a definition. It seems that often, saying “Define ‘woman’ then” is seen as just being pedantic for the sake of being mean.

For me, as a feminist, it’s very important to have a definition of ‘woman’ that is about my biology, not my brain. What I learned growing up as a girl in a sexist society was: being a woman is about how you think and act.

I was bullied very badly as a teenage girl with short hair who refused to wear makeup and refused to shave my legs and hated skirts and wasn’t interested in boys. I was called ugly and a freak for how I looked and acted, because that isn’t how girls were supposed to look and act.

What feminism gave me was this: all ‘woman’ means is your body, and the experiences you have because of that body. It says nothing about your personality, or your preferences or your tastes or your abilities. There’s no such thing as a female brain. Gender roles are expectations placed on you as a result of the body you have, and they are repressive and designed to reinforce a hierarchy. There’s no right or wrong way to be a woman. There’s no right or wrong woman-clothes to wear, or jobs to do, or personality to have.

So if you want to replace that: why? And what do you suggest replacing it with, that wouldn’t tell me (who doesn’t have any inner gender identity) that I’m failing to meet the definition of ‘woman’ because of how think or behave?

PricklyBall Thu 14-Dec-17 12:20:57

I've thought for a long time (I think I first made the point that follows about 4 years back) that part of the reason for this current mess is that the word "gender" has at least 4 distinct meanings.

1) As social scientists/ feminists have tended to use it in, I suppose, the last 30 or 40 years, to mean the set of socially sanctioned behaviours, roles, jobs, clothing choices, hobbies, interests etc. deemed appropriate for men and women (the biological categories) by a particular culture at a particular point in history. Some of these (usually the ones to do with childbearing or lactation, or the ones to do with extreme physical strength) show some degree of uniformity across cultures (lengthy and interesting discussions with friend who's an anthropology prof about this one). So raising children in the early years tends to fall to women, regardless of the length lactation is practiced in that culture, whereas handling heavy draught animals for ploughing or being a warrior tend to fall to men. Other roles vary across cultures - e.g. weaving: masculine activity in Medieval England, femine activity in Medieval Iceland, and among the Navajo in the southern US/northern Mexico right up to the present.

In this sense gender is a social construction, but like other social constructions although it's variable, it's not arbitrary at the level of individuals - if your particular society dictates that women should be veiled outside the house, that's going to have real world consequences for you in the form of beatings/stonings/corrective rape if you venture out unveiled. (Likewise, money is a "social construction", but one with massive and near-universal consequences for human beings).

2) Gender as a euphemism for sex among people who think "sex" is a slightly naughty word because it also comes with two meanings - the biological sex of an animal and the sexual act. Hence gender reveal parties. I think this conflation has proved particularly fertile ground for the complete state of confusion which seems to reign at the moment.

3) Gender as an internal sense of "maleness/femaleness". Some people claim to have this, some do not. For me it's a bit like religious faith. Some people claim to have a senses of the presence of god, and interpret that sense as evidence of the reality of god, some do not and are atheists and agnostics, some even have that internal sense but choose to interpret it as some kind of delusional state rather than the real thing.

4) Finally (and mercifully not one we need to worry about) gender as a technical term in linguistics/the study of grammar.

Nuffaluff Thu 14-Dec-17 12:24:29

Woman = adult human female
Man = adult human male
They describe the sexes. Nothing to do with gender. It's science.
Gender = socially constructed mostly made up ( apart from secondary sexual characteristics, e.g. Beards, breasts,etc.)
It's trying to come up with a definition of 'man and woman ' in terms of gender that has got us into this mess.
Sorry, I'll try harder:
Woman = likes pink, shaving legs and giggling
Man = likes blue, fighting and whiskey
It's nonsense isn't it?

Nuffaluff Thu 14-Dec-17 12:25:22

I do not feel like a woman inside. I know I'm a woman because of my biology and experiences.

53rdWay Thu 14-Dec-17 12:39:50

I think that comparing internal ‘gender identity’ to religious feeling is a great way to put it, Prickly. (And I don’t see that as dismissive or insulting - I am religious myself!)

If someone has a deep religious sense or conviction of something I don’t think is true, then that person should still be free to hold that belief and society should not dictate otherwise to them, or discriminate against them for it. But it is not hatred and bigotry to say “hey now hang on a minute, I don’t think we should be teaching that as fact in schools.”

Lancelottie Thu 14-Dec-17 12:48:58

I don't think we can quite ignore point (4), Prickly, because 'gender in the sense that I want you to say "she" not "he"' is important enough to some Americans that fines can be issued for getting it wrong.

ItsAllGoingToBeFine Thu 14-Dec-17 12:50:09

Honestly? Apart from no 4 as listed by pricklyball I think gender needs to be removed from the language.

Again using pricklyballs excellent categorisation I would

Rename no.1: sex based expectations / stereotypes or something similar.

2. Just use sex FFS.

3. Personality will do nicely I think.

MsBeaujangles Thu 14-Dec-17 12:54:59

@thermostat police.
I am keen for people from all sides to contribute. I guess what I am hoping for is for the thread to stay focussed on the issue of definitions and terms so we don't repeat/rehearse related issues discussed on other threads.

I'm really keen to unpack what 'woman' means when it is said 'transwomen are women' (or transmen are men). It gets shouted and it gets shouted down. I have heard and understood the arguments that lead people to shout it down (the term relates to biology not gender). I have also heard and understood the arguments surrounding why people support the statement transwomen are women (they are validating a chosen gender identity) but I haven't heard or understood what the term 'woman' means in this context.
I haven't met anyone who says that transwomen aren't natal males. In this regard I think it means those that identify as feminine or female. The problem is this then excludes natal women who don't have a gender identity.

LassWiTheDelicateAir Thu 14-Dec-17 13:11:47

The problem is this then excludes natal women who don't have a gender identity

Excludes them from what? Being women ? Being female?

The issue lays with defining 'woman' or 'man' without using biology

Well yes, it is a problem if you don't use the actual real, objective, biological definition.

ItsAllGoingToBeFine Thu 14-Dec-17 13:16:08

I'm really keen to unpack what 'woman' means when it is said 'transwomen are women'

The problem is, it doesn't mean anything meaningful. It's kind of like shouting, "God is great" it's a loud and forceful expression of a belief - it doesn't quantitively mean anything.

SummerKelly Thu 14-Dec-17 13:22:44

I was wondering whether there's been any research on what trans people mean by feeling like a man/woman but I haven't got round to looking yet! Understanding this seems key in the discussion.

I like the religion analogy, because this too is something I just don't "get" in the same way that I don't feel like a woman and I definitely don't feel feminine, but is there something I am missing because even though I don't feel feminine I don't have a problem being a woman. Similarly am I missing something about God? I don't think so in either case but others feel differently so who knows?

BeyondAssignation Thu 14-Dec-17 13:36:56

Having debated it in detail with linguistics-clever-person DH, I've gone from "gender needs to be removed apart from to explain social category" to "actually, gender can mean sex - gender comes from genus (Latin) meaning group, edited to genre/gendre (French) - but in that case, we need a new word for the social category" grin
As I learnt that the idea of the social category is only 60 odd years old, compared to the Latin which is a smidge older. And as I'm keen on accurate definitions, sex is split into two "genus" - male and female.

None of that explains how a transwoman is female though.
Cause they aren't, they're male.

Nuffaluff Thu 14-Dec-17 13:37:12

I was wondering whether there's been any research on what trans people mean by feeling like a man/woman but I haven't got round to looking yet! Understanding this seems key in the discussion.

I think this might be where only a trans person would be able to help. I'm thinking someone like Miranda Yardley who is a trans woman, so perhaps has the experience of 'feeling like a woman ' but doesn't actually claim to be one.

ItsAllGoingToBeFine Thu 14-Dec-17 13:38:24

I was wondering whether there's been any research on what trans people mean by feeling like a man/woman but I haven't got round to looking yet!

This is an interesting read

BeyondAssignation Thu 14-Dec-17 13:38:37

(There was also much conversation about why tables are female in Spanish but little girls are neuter in German. But a lot of that went over my head as I'm a Real Science person, not a Linguist)

BeyondAssignation Thu 14-Dec-17 13:50:33

That's not actually clear - I mean that gender can be used to split sexes into the binary, same as horse (Equus) genus contains horses and zebras (picking a random example out of thin air!). It isn't synonymous with sex.

Though DH is now saying I have misunderstood completely and gender only ever applies to words. So now I'm lost again grin

BeyondAssignation Thu 14-Dec-17 14:02:07

This is probably why you wanted to avoid #4!! grin

BatShite Thu 14-Dec-17 14:10:06

The issue lays with defining 'woman' or 'man' without using biology

Its impossible to do.

Unless you admit to using stereotypes. In which case many many women aren't actually women and many men are not men.

Using gender identity as a marker for sense of self, I do not exist at all! I don't have any internal sense of man/woman. I know I am a woman because biology. But I don't 'feel like' a woman at all. I just feel like me.

hackmum Thu 14-Dec-17 14:10:50

Good post from Prickly. I think TRAs use this confusion to their advantage.

"Transwomen are women" is, as far as I can see, an assertion whose only aim is to prevent thought: it can be said over and over again, rather like "Four legs good, two legs bad" without any attempt to explain what it means. After all if transwomen are women, then women must be a thing you can define. If feeling like a woman is the same as being a woman, then being a woman has to mean something - so what does it mean? That's the question that they never volunteer to answer.

MyVisionsComeFromSoup Thu 14-Dec-17 14:10:51

when I've asked transwomen on here what it is they "feel", it seems to be that they don't feel they fit into what society expects of "man", and so the only option is then "woman", but only by default ifswim? So it's more "not feeling like a man" rather than actively feeling like a woman.

Would be handy if there was a word to describe someone not conforming to gender expectations, rather than appropriating another word though wink.

TBF, I wonder how much of that is because men in general don't spend a lot of time thinking about why society is as it is (I mean why would they, it works perfectly fine for them in general), and so if you don't have the years of experience of feminists having done that kind of thinking for you, I can see how "not man" becomes "woman", because there aren't any other options you can see.

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