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


4 responses to “Being a woman

  1. While I mull over the woman stuff, isn’t it a major characteristic of games that they are teleological? Someone wins, someone loses, the solitaire comes out, you get a new high score, you finish the jigsaw, someone buys all the hotels. Etc.

    Although this doesn’t apply to many of the unstructured things that kids do (dress-ups, role-play, play-dough and so on) that tend to peter out into entropy, otherwise distraction, boredom or frustration. But that sort of illustrates your point, really.

  2. Thanks for this, very thought-provoking, especially in the light of recent houha re sportswomen [or not].

  3. This feels so intuitively obvious to me (your clear elucidation of the position, I mean – can’t claim to have read the paper itself) that I almost find myself wondering why it needs to be written.

    I don’t mean that in a dismissive way, it’s just that when someone nails something so well, it always feels like that.

    It’s not that men are from Mars and women from venus, it’s that women are games and men are sport. 🙂

  4. Explains it so clearly, esp for people like me who never “get” academic writing very well…