Contemporary feminism needs a broader definition of “woman”

What is a woman, anyway? This question has been asked time and again, and still we don’t have a definitive answer. Why would that be? I have a theory: because under a system – patriarchy – which is invested in dehumanising females, the obvious response – “a female human” – would give the game away. Conscious of their own humanity, women might get uppity and stop letting men objectify their bodies, exploit their labour and generally piss about being violent. This would never do. Hence “woman”, unlike “man”, has to be really, really hard to define (so hard that you need a super-clever brain – the kind of brain that shares a body with a penis – to get it just right).

Mount Holyoke’s cancellation of its yearly production of The Vagina Monologues has given rise to a great deal of pseudo-philosophical babble regarding “reductive” and “exclusive” definitions of womanhood. According to a student spokesperson:

At its core, the show offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman. Gender is a wide and varied experience, one that cannot simply be reduced to biological or anatomical distinctions, and many of us who have participated in the show have grown increasingly uncomfortable presenting material that is inherently reductionist and exclusive.

Oh dear! According to Jezebel this is all part of an “ugly battle” regarding “the expansion of the definition of ‘woman’ on college campuses”. Clearly, women are not walking vaginas (they are, as previously stated, human beings). But it seems to me that all the current “let’s make womanhood more inclusive” statements are rather missing the point.

What, for instance, is the alternative definition being proposed? “Anyone who identifies as a woman is a woman” is not a broad, inclusive definition of womanhood (obviously I’m open to a better one, but none are forthcoming). It excludes every female person who experiences womanhood but does not “identify” with her subordinate status. It omits the broad, varied range of experiences related to having a female body and thereby being subjected to female socialisation. It renders the default body non-female (as patriarchy always has done). It rules out an intersectional analysis of the ways in which sex-based oppression interacts with class, race and culture. It positions female gender non-conformity as “not being a woman” rather than “being a woman who is also a human being”. Ultimately, “anyone who identifies as a woman is a woman” makes womanhood nothing more than a male person’s external perception of what women and girls feel. It makes womanhood a photographic negative; nothing of substance, no stories to tell, no memories to share, nothing that is not instantly accessible to someone male. It is the narrowest, most reactionary definition possible masquerading as the most progressive. It is not new; it is the same crappy definition patriarchy has always imposed on us.

By contrast, it is surely a reductive view of female experience that leads people claim that “women are adult human females” is a reductive or exclusive definition. Contrary to popular (male) belief, people with female bodies form as diverse a group as people without them – if we allow them to. For instance, the definition “adult human female” can include:

  • women who are fertile and women who aren’t
  • women who have children and women who don’t
  • women who despise femininity and women who embrace it
  • women who have any sexual orientation or none
  • women who give a shit about your feelings and women who don’t
  • women who present in a “masculine” way and women who don’t
  • women who try to look like Barbie dolls and women who grow, age, get wrinkles, have body hair, and generally behave as human organisms do
  • women who think the Shania Twain song Man, I Feel Like A Woman defines their relationship with gender and most women, who don’t (but who nevertheless benefit from men’s shirts short skirts privilege)
  • women who have ideas, thoughts, passions, feelings and memories that are theirs alone and – actually, that’s all women. How terrifying!

That women should not be defined by their absence of a penis is self-evident. But under patriarchy that is what exactly happens to all female human beings – to have a female body is to be regarded as sub-human, unworthy of self-definition, at the service of others.  And to allow male human beings to deny this and reiterate the old patriarchal idea that womanhood is whatever male human beings perceive it to be – a Renaissance-style not-manhood – is obscene. It stops women from being seen as all that they are and can be.

Clearly it’s not just feminists who have some work to do regarding inclusivity. Indeed, men have far more work ahead of them if they wish to broaden and redefine maleness, creating an inclusive space for all, especially those who feel they don’t belong. Alas, most “feminist” men can’t be bothered to do this, having decided that creating a space for others is women’s – sorry, non-penised people’s – work. Feminism has, until recently, challenged this, pointing out that adult human males can be many, many things:

  • men who are intelligent enough to realise male bodies are not “the default” and men who aren’t
  • men who don’t “feel like” patriarchy’s idea of a man and men who do (hint: patriarchy isn’t the gospel – or rather it is, but feminism is about rejecting that shit)
  • men who present in a “feminine” manner and men who don’t
  • men who are caring, non-violent and nurturing and men who are not
  • men who behave like “real men” (i.e. tossers) and men who don’t
  • men who make time and space for men who differ from them – and most men, who don’t

The definition “man” is not set in stone – and what a threat to male power admitting that could be.

Gender non-conforming males are essential to feminism; they are our best allies (without males who are willing to defy toxic masculinity, perhaps the only way to defeat it would be to #killallmen and we’re too damn nice for that). But here’s the thing: self-styled “real” men (yes, we know you prefer the word “cis” but it’s clear what you mean), you need to welcome, support and learn from GNC males instead of ostentatiously wringing your hands over their tragic lives before dismissing them as “a problem for the ladies to deal with”. You need to broaden your definition of manhood instead of demanding that women reduce their definition of themselves to meet your privileged requirements. For once in your life, you need to take a turn at caring for others at the expense of your own self-perception. Why should females, who’ve spent centuries resisting your attempts to define them, be the only ones to do it? Because that’s what, ultimately, you think anyone with a female reproductive system is there for? Caring, nurturing, solving everyone’s problems? Essentialism, much? And then you wonder why younger women, such as those at Mount Holyoke, are saying yes to this and older women, who tend to have a far greater build-up of actual unpaid caring responsibilities, are saying no?

Everyone always wants to blame a certain group of people when others feel excluded. That group of people are the ones who are “meant” to look after others and supress their own needs. Reading this, you will know exactly which group of people I mean, regardless of what you call them. That being the case, don’t you think your definition of them needs to broaden a little?