Tag Archives: Gender

Being a woman

One of the great joys of studying philosophy is that from time to time, you find, through your own work or through the work of other scholars, a conceptual tool that helps you to make sense of the world, to understand the world as it is, and as it ought to be. Some years ago, I heard a seminar talk and read a paper by Dr Natalie Stoljar, “Essence, Identity, and the Concept of Woman.”* I know the paper is sometimes discussed and often referenced in academic feminist philosophy and women’s studies, but it may not be well known beyond the academy. Yet it has an analysis of the nature of being woman that could be extraordinarily useful, far beyond the academy. What follows is my understanding of one of the key points that Dr Stoljar makes in her paper, about the nature of woman.

Anyone with half an ear for contemporary feminist thinking will already be a little wary, given that phrase, “the nature of woman.” It suggests that maybe we are looking for some essential, never changing, ever present, quality or characteristic, or set of qualities or characteristics, which all women must have, and only women may have. Anyone who has this characteristic is a woman; anyone who does not, is not a woman. Full stop. Period. End of story. Nothing to see here move along please.

But Dr Stoljar rejects that idea. She works through some issues in essentialism, showing why they are false. And then she proposes an alternative way of thinking about women, which I think is both plausible, and powerful, and useful. (NB: this is my take on Dr Stoljar’s concept, not just a summary of her paper. She would no doubt present this in quite different fashion – I’m a journeywoman and she’s an expert.)

To get to her way of thinking about women, we have to start with Wittgenstein‘s ideas about cluster concepts.

What do tiddlywinks, solitaire, hide and seek, and rugby have in common? They are all games. As it turns out, it’s hard to tell what they all have in common, but they are all quite legitimately called games. We can compile a list of characteristics of games: competitive, way of passing time, social, result is ultimately meaningless, fun, involves physical skill, involves intellectual skill, there must be a winner, children’s activity, use apparatus, and so on. (Suggestions for other characteristics gratefully received, and will be added to the list, provided they are seemly.)

As it turns out, there seems to be no one characteristic that defines a game. But we are all capable of recognising a game when we see one. What we see is a sufficient collection of characteristics to say that x, whatever x is, is a game. But none of those characteristics is necessary by itself. This is how both rugby and solitaire can be games. Even if they have no characteristics in common, if they each have sufficient of the characteristics of the set of characteristics that we recognise as being indicative of games, then we say they are games.

That’s a cluster concept. It’s a cluster of characteristics, and something that has enough of those characteristics qualifies to be considered as part of the group. Hide and seek, for example. And it could be that some other thing, that has absolutely no characteristics in common with the first thing, also has enough of the characteristics of the overall cluster to also be considered as part of the group. Rugby union football, for example.

What say the concept “woman” is a cluster concept? What say there are a number of characteristics or features in our idea of woman, and for an individual to be a woman, she must have a sufficient number of these characteristics. Dr Stoljar suggests four general areas in which we can specify characteristics of “woman”:

  • female sex (including XX chromosomes, and other bodily characteristics;
  • what it feels like to be a woman (phenomenological features), based on physical characteristics, such as the lived experience of child birth and breastfeeding;
  • what it feels like to be a woman, based on social factors, such as the lived experience of fear of rape, and wearing female dress and performing female roles;
  • identifying as, and being identified as, a woman.

Very crudely, we can come up with a list of characteristics of “woman”, in these four general areas. Anyone who has enough of these characteristics fits into the group marked out by the concept, “woman.” You don’t need to have all the characteristics, you don’t need to have any particular characteristics, you don’t even need to have characteristics from each of the general areas. All you need is enough, whatever enough might be.

Dr Stoljar says that conceiving of “woman” as a cluster concept has several advantages.

  • We can deal with “hard” cases, such as transwomen. Obviously female sex can be a major indicator of womanhood. But it is not necessary to being a woman, because a person who experiences life as a woman, and who identifies as a woman, will have many of the characteristics of womanness.
  • It means that we can sensibly say that gender is a matter of degree. A person can exhibit all, or many, or just some, of the characteristics of being a woman, and still be equally a woman, provided she has enough of the characteristics. A transwoman might not exhibit womanness to the greatest possible degree, but if she has enough of the characteristics, she is nevertheless a woman.
  • It means that we are not required to describe gender either in purely physical terms, or in purely social terms. We can recognise that there is something to the physical account of gender, and the end to which the social aspects of gender can depend on physical factors, but that’s by no means all there is to gender, and the physical aspects of gender are not essential to gender. And we can give due weight to our understanding that gender is social rather than just physical.
  • It means that we give credence to the idea that recognition of who is, and who isn’t, a woman is a real experience. There is something to saying that I am a woman because I identify as one, and that I am a woman because people recognise me as a woman, and we ought not to deny the validity of these recognitions.
  • It means that the process of being a woman is revisable. It is not fixed forever, but something that can be reevaluated and revised in the light of experience. In particular, we can pick out people who exemplify womanness, and through our resemblances to them, confirm that we too are women. So perhaps we might identify some of the women listed in the Wiki page about transwomen as exemplars of woman, just as we might for example, identify Cherie Blair as an exemplar of woman. We can reevaluate and revise our understanding of woman by thinking about people who exemplify women. And we can reevaluate and revise the list of features that women may have, increasing our understanding of woman.

There seems to me to be a further advantage of Dr Stoljar’s account, in that it makes room for intersex people, gives them space to be intersex, not forcibly assigned into womanness or man-ness. Perhaps an intersex person will have a range of characteristics that fall into both woman and man, in all four of Dr Stojar’s areas (genotype and phenotype, physical experience, lived social experience, identity). Or perhaps an intersex person will choose to move towards either man-ness or womanness, based on their own preferences, and their own understandings of themselves. Whatever. Dr Stoljar’s understanding of, “woman”, and by implication, “man”, creates a conceptual space for intersex gender.

Of course, and perhaps most importantly, Dr Stoljar’s account helps us to see transwomen simply as women. That to me is its greatest achievement.

Alas, the paper isn’t available on-line, even if you have access to the modern miracle of Jstor, or some other academic journal database. However if you are nearby a university library, and that library takes Philosophical Topics, then it would be worth your time to read her paper for yourself. The first three sections rely on a fair amount of philosophical knowledge, but sections 3 and 4 are quite accessible. It is academic philosophy, so I recommend reading slowly, with a handy pen, and a large cup of coffee.

* Stoljar, Natalie, “Essence, Identity, and the Concept of Woman”, Philosophical Topics 23 (2), 1995, pp. 261 – 293

Look out! Incoming brain-fart!!

Equality for women in war is sheer lunacy

You just know that Greg Sheridan is going to be on a sexist roll when the highlighted sentence from his column is…

The wilder shores of feminism have never been inhabited by normal people.

(Headline and quote from the print edition: the subbing of the on-line edition is slightly different.)

Hmm… well… the wilder shores of opinion writing in The Australian have clearly never been bedeviled by logical argument. Sheridan takes as his target the idea that women should be able to fight in all front-line combat units of the Australian army, if they (i.e. the individual women concerned) meet the physical requirements to do so. Sheridan doesn’t like it, and he says so, in several silly arguments, after saying that it’s the single stupidest idea he’s ever heard in his lifetime.

Warning: I might just be a little sarcastic in my responses to his arguments.

(1) It will denature women.

Because women are soft and cuddly and it would just be wrong for them to be anything else. And we certainly wouldn’t let individual women choose for themselves! No, they had better all be soft and cuddly, all the time, and never do anything that implies that they capable of strong, physical action.

Later in the piece, Sheridan suggests that one day, science may enable men to have artificial wombs, asks, “Would we want to do that?” and says, “No – of course not!” So it becomes clear what he has in mind: women are for making babies, and men are for fighting. Whoa! The gender essentialism is amazing. Memo to Sheridan: if you look around, you know, like, outside your office window, you will see that women can do lots and lots and lots of things, other than making babies.

(2) The Israeli army doesn’t let women serve in the front-line.

Since when has the Israeli army been an example of good practice? And just maybe, the Israeli army might be prone to the same mistaken ideals about what women are and aren’t capable of doing as Sheridan?

(3) Women aren’t strong enough to lift 45 kilo shells. In fact, they’re just not strong enough to be front-line soldiers fullstop.

Some women aren’t, just as some men aren’t. Some women can lift 45 kilo shells, just as some men can. The ability to lift 45 kilo shells is not predicated on having a penis. If the individual can complete the task, then there is no reason for her not to have the chance to perform it.

Sheridan suggests that in order to accomodate women, standards will drop and that’s a reason not to have women at the front-line. But, surely the other possible conclusion is that care should be taken to ensure that standards don’t drop.

(4) The men will try to protect the women. This is a bad thing which will interfere with their operational effectiveness.

You know, in every single damn war movie I’ve watched, there’s a heartbreaking moment where a fit, uninjured man goes back to help his wounded buddy. This is seen as a good thing. They all look after each other, and no man is left behind.

So it’s a good thing when men protect and look after other men, but a bad thing when men protect and look after the female comrades?

(5) The blokes won’t be able to bond with each other.

D’uh! The units will still be able to bond with each other, because they will bond as a fighting unit, not as a group of men. Or is he suggesting that in order to be able to bond, men need to exclude women, and treat women like sh*t? If that’s the case, then just maybe there’s something horribly wrong with the whole process of male-bonding, and it needs to be changed, rather than encouraged.

(6) War requires warriors and everyone knows that warriors are men and have always been men.

Bingo! The naturalistic fallacy. I knew it would come out soon or later. Sheridan indulges in both versions of it, the is-ought problem, and assuming that if it’s natural, it must be good.

The is-ought problem: using “is” claims in your premises, or claims about the way the world is (eg. only men are warriors), but putting an “ought” claim, or a claim about the way the world ought to be in your conclusion (e.g only men ought to be warriors). As a matter of philosophical logic, you can’t have something in your conclusion that is not in your premises. it’s a little like algebra, and indeed all mathematics: you can’t have something in your answer that isn’t in the mathematical arguments to start with. Sheridan has used only “is” claims, but then he concludes with an “ought” statement.

But more that than, he assumes throughout the piece that because men are naturally fighters, and women are naturally soft cuddly baby machines, this is good. It’s natural, therefore it’s the way the world ought to be. Leaving aside whether or not it’s natural, there are many, many things that are “natural” and not good. I’m sure you can come up with half a dozen examples by lunchtime. Here’s an analogous argument.

- All the world’s societies have been slave-holding societies.
- This is natural.
- Therefore, slave holding is good.

I’m sure you can see the problem. Sheridan can’t.

(7) And the real doozy:

Our society is awash with violence. Just walk through the centre of Melbourne about 1am any Saturday night if you don’t believe me. Much of that violence is directed at women. To remove any notion that women are special, that men have an absolute obligation to protect women, is to coarsen and infantilise our society.

Because we’ve really noticed how our society is ssssoooooooo concerned about eliminating violence against women. That’s why when a woman is pack-raped by a rugby league team, it’s her fault. That’s why women who are victims of domestic violence were “asking for it.” That’s why it’s okay to assault and humiliate and demean women, because they are special.

I’ll believe that Sheridan and his cohorts are really concerned about protecting women when they devote just a little time to worrying about the violence that ordinary women suffer every day.

Having said all that, I loathe wars, and warmaking, and violence, and I tend to pacifism, ‘though not absolutely. But if we are going to have roles for trained killers in our society, then the question of who should be able to fill those roles should be based on who can perform the required tasks, not on outdated notions of gender essentialism and social custom.

Cross posted

Flashing women

Dubious subbing, and the article has rather too many double-entendres, but what do you think of actual event?

Flashing women to be a traffic stopper

The “green man” on traffic lights is going to be turned into a “green woman”, at intersections around New Zealand’s parliament, to mark New Zealand being the first country in the world to give women the vote (‘though of course, women in Wyoming got the vote earlier, and as a self-governing colony / territory / wev, their political organisation was about the same as New Zealand’s at the time – but why let the facts get in the way of a good story).

I would far rather that the government concentrated its gender equity efforts on something of real substance, like say, pay equity. On the other hand, I’m rather bored with the constant positioning of maleness as the “real” gender, and everyone else being “other”. This is a tiny, tiny change in the direction of maleness not being normative.

If they can do it for a few sets of traffic lights, why not for lots of them. Like say, about half.

Shining a light

Our local shopping centre (quite large, well supermarketed and fashion boutiqued, bookshops, pharmacies, wine cellars and all that) has a lighting scheme for its underground carparks. Each park has a light above it, which shows green if the space is available, and red if it is taken. So you can drive in and spot where there’s an empty space without too much trouble (unless of course, you have a different colour perception range than the norm). Miss Ten delights in spotting both false negatives and false positives. It’s called “smart” parking.

But there are different coloured lights for some car parks. The lights always show red if the park is occupied (except for the false negative problem) but the parks for people with disabilities who use an access parking card show blue when they are not occupied. Blue seems to be a recognised colour for signalling accessibility parking, ‘though I couldn’t find any regulations to that effect.

But guess what colour they used to signal a vacant “Parents with prams and buggies and babies and toddlers” park? Go on! Take a wild guess, right now, before reading on.

Okay. Made your guess?

The answer is below the fold, and a few spaces down (to give people using feed readers a chance to make an unbiased (hah!) guess).

Continue reading

The Age gets it right (mostly)

Take a look at this article in The Age: Transsexual takes to the footy field. The language is perfect, uniformly, throughout. The photo – meh. Gotta have the physical evidence, eh.

And huge props to the the Victorian Country Football League Officials:

Will, who does not want to give his full name, recently met Victorian Country Football League officials to ask if he was eligible to play for one of their clubs. He also wanted to ensure he would be protected from abuse on the field.

At the meeting last month, VCFL chief executive Glenn Scott told him he could play, but for insurance purposes he would have to legally change the gender on his birth certificate to male. Scott has promised to educate players on transgender issues in a bid to ensure Will is not vilified.

NB: This is all Aussie Rules. The football code which seems to be full of gang-rape “group sex” is rugby league. See the latest Down Under Feminists Carnival for links relating to the women-hating horror that is professional rugby league.