A hot dog with mustard

Define ‘Woman’


Last week, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak caused a stir in Parliament by accusing Opposition Leader Keir Starmer of U-turning on “defining a woman, although, in fairness, that was only 99 per cent of a U-turn.” This was a reference to Starmer’s remark that “99 percent of women don’t have a penis”. This was widely regarded as insensitive because the mother of murdered trans teenager Brianna Ghey was in attendance.

For their parts, Sunak and Kemi Badenoch have responded with the DARVO that is so typical of the Tory “Blame Everyone Else For Our Own Decisions” Party, trying to claim that Sunak’s dehumanising insensitivity was actually Keir Starmer’s fault for calling it out. In particular, Badenoch accused Starmer of “political point-scoring” as if that wasn’t precisely what Sunak was trying to do, and implied that he was inflaming the debate as if that, too, wasn’t precisely what Sunak was doing (not to mention what the lying bigot herself does repeatedly, despite her claims that “she’s trying to take the heat out of the debate”, as if ignoring the fact that the murder was a hate crime and pretending it’s just like any other is not inflammatory).

Some, like Nicola Sturgeon, as well as some in the trans community, have suggested that Starmer only called it out because Brianna’s mother was in attendance, and would have found it acceptable otherwise. There’s certainly merit to investigating that angle. The attitude that the issue with Sunak’s words was not what he said but who he said it in front of is more than slightly deluded when words spoken in Parliament are effectively, as a matter of course, said in front of everyone anyway. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

What I want to talk about how ludicrous the whole concept of “define woman” is in the first place.

Let’s start with the common question that tripped Starmer up, to which Sunak was alluding: “Can a woman have a penis?” This is subject to a psychological phenomenon known as the “framing effect,” to which allistic people are actually more susceptible than normal autistic people. The framing effect demonstrates that a person’s choice in response to a question will be influenced by how the question is worded. The question that’s asked might be “Can a woman have a penis?” but the question that’s meant is, “Can someone with a penis be a woman?” and the question that’s implied is, “Is trans identity legitimate?” All three of these questions mean the same thing, but, knowing that the only reason to ask that last one would be naked, unvarnished hate, bigots put on a transparent veil of civility and use the wording of the first one to pose the exact same question. And honestly, it’s the fact that they audaciously pretend we can’t see through it that’s the most offensive.

Define ‘Define’

The first problem is that there are many different kinds of definition. To put it another way, the word ‘definition’ itself has multiple meanings.

  • Reportive definitions are of the kind found in the dictionary. These are general definitions, but are often too general to be much use in actual arguments. If you’re getting into the complex details of an issue, you often need a better description than a mere handful of words.
  • Precising definitions are definitions created for a specific purpose to specify precisely what one is referring to. These are the kinds of definitions you see in law and contracts, or in maths. We could say that their concern is not so much with what the word means as with delimiting sets of what is and isn’t included. Because they’re created for a specific purpose, they are useful primarily in the context for which they were created, and even there it is always valid to ask why one has chosen this particular definition.
  • Stipulative definitions are also created for a specific purpose, but the specific purpose is “this argument.” When you use a stipulative definition, you are essentially saying, “please bear in mind that this is what I mean when I use this word.” This type of definition is common in academic writing, where different authors in the field might have different-but-equally-valid meanings for the same word. Having a background in narrative, I can’t tell you how many different accepted definitions I’ve seen of the word ‘plot.’ So if I write about plot, I need to be clear what I mean by that term. Likewise, Chris Drew uses the example that Marx and Sartre mean very different things by the word ‘power’. If you’re going to talk about power, you’d better be clear about whose definition of power you’re using, and, preferably, why.
  • Ostensive definitions are definition-by-similarity, or definition-by-example. An ostensive definition of ‘shellfish’ might be “things like crabs, lobsters, oysters and mussels.” That’s not an exhaustive list of shellfish, but you can extrapolate that they all live in the sea, all have shells, and none of them are technically fish (although, as Stephen Jay Gould famously expressed, “technically fish” is itself a fraught concept under a phylogenetic-cladistic approach to taxonomy), so anything else that fits those criteria might also be a shellfish. Or might not — a sea turtle is not a shellfish! Ostensive definitions are a bit rough-and-ready as definitions go: It’s not always clear how similar to the example is similar enough.
  • Operational definitions are related to measurements. A joule can be defined as the energy transferred by a force of one newton displacing an object by one metre in the direction of force applied. Operational definitions are pretty general — a joule is always a joule, a newton is always a newton, and a metre is always a metre — but what degree of precision matters will be a question of context. When I was a kid, my mum sent me to the shop for a pint of milk. I came back apologising that I was only able to buy a half litre (note: in Britain, unlike in the US, a pint is more than half a litre). My mum told me that was fine, because although the operational definition of a British pint is constant, we had different expectations for tolerance to imprecision.

We intuitively grasp the deficiency of dictionary definitions when we ask, “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” By most dictionary definitions of the word ‘sandwich’, no, a hot dog is not a sandwich (other dictionaries leave room for doubt by including the word ‘usually’ somewhere in their definition). But regardless of whether the dictionary agrees with our position or not, we find that answer unsatisfying, and still — for some reason — think the question is worth arguing.


When you lose marks on a middle-school essay for arguing from a dictionary definition, it is, in theory, because the issue is often too complex to be neatly summarised in the few words a dictionary provides, but, more practically, it just looks like you haven’t done the reading. When entire books have been written on a topic, if you want to be taken seriously in a discussion on said topic, you have to read at least some of those books. A dictionary definition is not a magic shortcut that allows you to ignore the prior discussion on the topic.

This is a hallmark of many transphobic pundits in the press, who want to participate in the discussion without putting in the effort of catching up on what’s already been discussed; who think their unawareness of the debates that have already been had make them a Very Special Intellect for suggesting debate; who think the prior discussion irrelevant because it didn’t involve them, the Main Character of the Universe; who demand applause for being “level-headed” enough to make us repeat ourselves and endlessly relitigate our trauma for their own personal satisfaction. Because they lack competence in the discussion, they Dunning-Kruger themselves into carelessly trampling roughshod over the sustained and ongoing trauma of a marginalised group, arrogantly mistaking their ignorance for balance.

I’ve written before — and am far from the first feminist to do so — about how arguing from the dictionary is an appeal to authority, and worse, an appeal to an authority that ostensibly does not consider itself authoritative. The reason dictionary definitions are called ‘reportive’ is that dictionaries report how a word is used — they rarely make judgements about how a word should be used. This is not only an appeal to authority, but a naturalistic fallacy — if society is transphobic, and the dictionary records society being transphobic, then appealing to the dictionary as an authority boils down to “society should be transphobic because society is transphobic.”

Besides which, TERFs can’t even get the reportive definition right! They insist the dictionary definition of ‘woman’ is “adult human female.” It’s not; it’s actually “adult female human,” a distinction that is important because ‘female’ as an adjective and ‘female’ as a noun themselves have different dictionary definitions. The noun is often not used for people — or if it is, usually by misogynists — and is more commonly applied to livestock.


But another problem with the definition argument is that TERFs are really asking for a precising definition. What they want is a definition of who is and isn’t included, more than a definition of what the word means. And they want who isn’t included to be trans women.

The problem with that is, as I said, precising definitions are created for a specific purpose. And whether or not to include trans women is part of that purpose. So a precising definition can’t ‘prove’ whether trans women are women or not because it uses the answer to that question as a premise. If your conclusion is the same as one of your premises, that is circular reasoning.


In some discussions, such as reproductive justice, it often makes sense to categorise people by their reproductive organs. For this we need stipulative definitions. But with stipulative definitions, there are three questions we always need to ask.

  1. Is this the most appropriate definition in the context of this discussion?
  2. Can this discussion be had without using exclusionary language?
  3. Are the categorisation criteria that are relevant for this discussion also relevant for other discussions?

To the first question, in this case, the answer would be “usually yes.” Not always, I don’t think, but usually when we’re talking about reproductive justice it’s important what the people we’re talking about have going on down there. But to the second question, we have proven that it can, and TERFs hate that. They complain loudly and often that discussions of reproductive justice don’t afford them an excuse to be cruel, because one can simply use other language. And to the third question, the answer would be “usually no.” Data from the Human Rights Campaign in the US, for example, suggests that trans women earn just 60% of the average wage. Quite clearly in that context (as in so very many contexts) their reproductive anatomy does not confer upon them the same privilege as cis men, and this is an inequality that TERFs would rather wilfully ignore in favour of yelling about how trans women are “really men.”

Stipulative definitions are context-dependent, and on the topic of context, I want to talk about the common phrase, “words mean things,” because for practical purposes, this is untrue, and actually a fallacy of division. Sentences mean things, and because sentences are composed of words, the fallacious assumption is made that words must also mean things. But that’s not how it works. Words may suggest meaning, but context confirms it.

This is how it is possible for words to have multiple meanings. So much transphobic rhetoric (especially but not exclusively the sound and fury over the definition of ‘woman’) relies on the presumption that words have exactly one meaning, and so, for the second piece in a row, I am going to have to quote George Orwell when he said, “stripping such words as remained [after the elimination of ‘undesirable’ terms] of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever” is characteristic of Newspeak.

The term “context collapse” mainly discusses what happens when content intended for different audiences gets flattened into one audience (especially on the internet), but I would suggest it also has use when the audience is the same but the discussions are different. TERFs frequently note (and present as a problem) that the definitions of ‘transgender’ are different between hate crime law, gender recognition law, and anti-discrimination law. But the definitions are different because these are different issues each with its own attendant context. It speaks to the characteristic reductiveness of bigotry to imagine that this can be flattened to a singular issue — ‘trans’ — as opposed to a plurality of issues relating to trans people.


One of the major critiques of first- and a lot of (but not all) second-wave feminism is that they defined ‘woman’ ostensively and somewhat egocentrically. Broadly, these movements ignored the question of how to define woman by assuming, “a woman is someone who is like me.”

The nineteenth century American suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton objected to the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which gave men the right to vote regardless of race, arguing that women should have the right to vote at the same time as or before “the lower orders of Chinese, Africans, Germans and Irish.” In later life, to be fair, she insisted that the suffragist movement should be open to and considerate of women of all races and creeds (and extend beyond suffrage — she was really setting the ground for the second wave, there), but in earlier life, she was quite happy to play on racial prejudices and, when she spoke about ‘women’, she really meant people who were, like her, white, wealthy, educated women.

And we see this with TERFs. As I suggested in my last piece, objection to the word ‘cis’ can be seen as the unhinged complaint: “These people want to say I’m different from trans women, when actually I’m different from trans women!” It is not enough to acknowledge the difference; they are offended that they are not treated as the essential template for womanhood.

In her 1988 book Inessential Women: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought, Elizabeth V. Spelman interrogates this assumption at length, and asks the common feminist question: How can the feminist movement maintain political unity for organising while also acknowledging and respecting the broad diversity of womanhood? This is a question TERFs have asked too, albeit more with the intent of favouring exclusion than warning about it, but in her book, Spelman dedicates all of two paragraphs to talking about trans women. This is clearly a problem that exists in feminism with or without trans women, and thus to blame trans women for it is, at best, naked scapegoating.


We can’t really talk about operational definitions because ‘woman’ is not a unit of measurement, though I am sympathetic to feminist complaints that ‘woman’ is not a unit of measurement while ‘man’ is, e.g. in ‘man-hours’. However, this is a case where the definition of ‘woman’ would be the same as the definition of ‘man’, and the real problem there is using generic male language.

Definitions Have Purpose

“If a tree falls in the forest, and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

“Which came first: the chicken or the egg?”

“Are videogames art?”

These questions are all, contrary to popular belief, answerable, but the answer is inevitably: “It depends how you define ‘sound’, ‘egg’, and ‘art’.”

If you define sound as vibrations in the air then yes; if you define sound as vibrations in the air detected by the ear, then no. If you define a chicken egg as an egg laid by a chicken, then the chicken; if you define a chicken egg as an egg from which a chicken hatches, then the egg. If you define art in a strictly Kantian sense, then no; if, on the other hand, you elect not to ignore the entire twentieth century of art criticism in your definition, then yes.

Point is, these questions aren’t particularly meaningful, because their answer depends on the definition you choose, and there’s really nothing to stop you just choosing the definition that gives you the answer you want.

I pointed out above that precising and stipulative definitions are created for a specific purpose, but really, in more or less subtle ways, all definitions are created for a purpose.

This is illustrated by what I call Nietzsche’s Camel. In his essay On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, Nietzsche presented this problem:-

If I make up the definition of a mammal, and then, after inspecting a camel, declare “look, a mammal” I have indeed brought a truth to light in this way, but it is a truth of limited value. That is to say, it is a thoroughly anthropomorphic truth which contains not a single point which would be “true in itself” or really and universally valid apart from man.

Nietzsche’s point here is that a camel is a mammal because we say it is. We might have reasons for saying it is — it grows fur, lactates, and gives birth to live young (although famously not all mammals do that) — but in the end we are the ones who have decided those reasons are important.

Biological definitions are the way they are most often not because they illuminate some Universal Truth, but more pragmatically because they are Useful To Biologists. In the field of biological inquiry, biological definitions are the proverbial “right tool for the right job.” But in the spirit of “right tool for the right job,” it is then not in any way “anti-science” to point out that tools with a specialised purpose do not have general applicability.

And it is no exaggeration to say that an insistence on overgeneralising from biology is some Proper Nazi Shit. As Roy Schwarzman writes in Nazified Science: The Shifting Relations between
Scientific and Political Discourse

Hans Schemm, a member of the Bavarian cabinet, claimed: “national socialism is applied biology,” a quote also attributed to Rudolf Hess during a 1934 Party meeting.

Nazi scientists, prone to understand reality in scientific terms, were often receptive, if not enthusiastic toward, a political biocracy. A Nazi physician admitted: “We wanted to put into effect the laws of life, which are biological laws.” University faculty, medical doctors, and other highly educated Germans recognized the persistence of biological thinking in German culture and extended “the natural laws discovered for plants and animals” to human heredity and consequently, racial thought. Dr. Heinz Müller, editor of a series of books titled “Political Biology,” contended that “National Socialist politics ought to be only biological, i.e., that which takes into account the laws of life. Everything else in German life ought to be subordinated to this principle.”

To put a point on what I was saying about “the right tool for the right job,” Schwarzman concludes his paper thus:-

[A]s scientific discourse becomes appropriated for audiences and purposes beyond the arena of technical scientific disputes, the nature of scientific activity alters to accommodate these changes. More generally, when the discourse of specialists is employed in political contexts and finds a broader audience than other specialists, rhetorically induced methodological consequences ensue which alter the nature of the specialized field.

Between science and the political appropriation of science is a gulf of motive and intent. Science, in its truest form, is motivated by curiosity. The political (mis)use of science is motivated by a stubborn incuriosity and a desire to leverage the cultural cachet of science as “smart-brain knowy-things” to present one’s position as incontrovertibly right.

The upshot of this is that, in science, if your observations don’t fit your model, the model is wrong. In the fascist abuse of science, if your observations don’t fit your model, your observations are wrong, because a lot of entrenched power and moral justification relies on the model being right. This is why the indisputable observation that being transgender is an existent phenomenon is met with such furious denial. Our existence is not an “affront to nature” nor a “denial of science”; it is a sign that the world is not as the bigots thought it was, something to which, in their narcissistic need to be right, they react with violent petulance.

And it’s not a position that stands up to scrutiny. When we use terms like “pregnant person” or “person with a uterus” we are, in fact, directly talking about biology. Such is the incoherent ranting of transphobic rhetoric that they have to pretend that directly talking about biology is somehow a denial of biology. Real biology, they insist, is when you use coded, indirect language overburdened with the baggage of connotative assumptions. “Sex matters,” they seem to say, “but don’t you fucking dare talk about it.”

As an aside, meanwhile, Helen Joyce notes in her book that terms like “person with a penis” are less common, but the conclusion she is trying to insinuate from that — that this language is an attack on “real” women — relies on the categorically and obviously absurd premise that “trans women don’t mind being called men.” Seriously: In order to present consideration for trans people as some kind of attack on womanhood, the absolute fantasist has to resort to pretending that trans women are not vocal enough about not wanting to be called men. I just can’t even with this.

The map is not the territory, and as with science, so with definitions. If our definitions are not flexible enough to capture the complexities of the world in which we live, it is the definitions that are insufficient, not the world. The retreat to general definitions is simply because, by their very nature, they elide those complexities. The use of specific definitions is more pernicious: By asserting the pre-discursive primacy of definition, by pretending that purpose follows definition, rather than — as is the actual case — the other way round, transphobes can choose a definition that suits their purpose, and smugly insist that their purpose is vindicated by that.

But all it really proves is that you can come up with a definition to suit your purpose. Which, as I’ve been saying, is just how definitions work. It is, as Nietzche would put it, “a truth of limited value.” The aforementioned Elizabeth Spelman, as summarised by Maya J. Goldenberg, “brings attention to the fact that the act of categorising is the act of deciding what distinctions matter and is therefore itself a political act (as it reflects the interests and positions of the categoriser).”

Goldenberg goes on to say that “sexist constructions have been cleverly masked as natural or biological, and therefore non-political,” and this is absolutely a problem that has been replicated by both Nazi and modern transphobic rhetoric. Fascists often seek to shield their politics from interrogation and argument by casting them as ‘objective’.

When transphobes try to argue from the dictionary, they are trying to apply a general definition to a specialised purpose. Conversely, when transphobes try to argue from biology, they are trying to apply a specialised definition to a general purpose, from which they try to apply it to a different specialised purpose. But the same word in two different specialisations can have different or even contradictory meanings.

Take the word ‘identity.’ I may be simplifying a bit, but when a psychologist talks about ‘identity,’ they mean that which makes you unique; when a sociologist talks about ‘identity,’ they mean that which you have in common with other people; when a mathematician talks about ‘identity,’ they mean two things being exactly the same. All of these meanings are useful within their respective fields, but they all contradict each other, and trying to use a meaning from one field in another will only cause confusion.

The general definition, meanwhile, encompasses both the psychological and sociological meanings, along with, more rarely, the mathematical meaning. This contradiction is tolerated because in situations where the need for technical accuracy is less pressing (and therefore a general definition is more appropriate), context can do a lot of the heavy lifting to narrow down the meaning.

Though I will say the tired observation that Hot Topic kids (is that a dated reference?) dress like everyone else in order to be unique is not so much highlighting a contradiction in that particular scene as it is highlighting a contradiction in the very meaning of ‘identity.’

Definitions are Binary

The main thrust of Goldenberg’s paper is that the definition of woman is hindered by its reliance on “monologic” — that is to say, categorisation by necessary and sufficient conditions — which will inevitably exclude some women. Instead, she proposes a different kind of metaphysics: a pluralist logic whereby categorisation can be achieved not by a unique set of conditions but by multiple related sets of conditions.

I don’t necessarily believe that a spectrum is the best analogy for gender, because I don’t believe one occupies a stable, discrete, or even singular point on a sort of gender continuum, but rather that one’s gender is a product of a complex system of many moving gendered parts. But a spectrum is an often-useful simplification, so we’ll start with that.

And on a spectrum, there will obviously be people who are closer to ‘woman’ and people who are further away. I am comfortable using the simplification because this remains true in a more complex model, but it is easier to explain with a spectrum. It is not particularly illuminating to flatten those people down to “not-woman,” such that we categorise someone woman-adjacent and someone nowhere-near-woman the same.

This is where I come back to Aristotle, despite Goldenberg’s complaints, because he made an important distinction between ‘other’ and ‘different’. In Metaphysics X, Aristotle wrote: “that which is ‘other’ than something need not be other in a particular respect, since everything which is existent is either ‘other’ or ‘the same’. But that which is different from something is different in some particular respect […].”

Definitions, by their very nature, deal in ‘otherness’: Something either is this thing or it is other. The 6th century Buddhist scholar Dignāga expressed this in a principle he called apoha, which was a sort of definition-by-exclusion. A cow, Dignāga argued, is anything that is not not a cow. There were some well-founded objections to this (particularly from Hindu scholars) in the circularity of negative definitions — you can’t define a cow as “not a not-cow” when the definition of “not-cow” relies on the definition of cow in the first place — but my objection today would be that it hits this problem of “sameness and otherness.”

Something can be ‘different’, on the other hand, by degrees. It makes sense to call something more or less different; it does not make sense to call something more or less other, since it is either other or the same. Difference exists on a continuum with similarity, whereas otherness and sameness are binary poles.

And, certainly for me, gender is a matter of difference and similarity, not otherness and sameness. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but it seems to me a reasonable logical extension of binary-smashing objection to rigid gender roles.

Where the spectrum analogy falls apart, however — and what I think Goldenberg was getting at — is that wherever you draw the line for ‘woman’ on this continuum, there will inevitably be someone beyond the line who arguably should be included, and someone within the limits who arguably should not be.

And I think it follows that, difference and similarity being matters of degree, the liminalities of gender categories should be fuzzy grey areas, and not distinct lines. Again, this is not something that the typical concept of definitions respects.

In summary, the demand to “define woman” presupposes a rigid concept of gender where everyone within a category is ‘same’ and everyone outwith the category is ‘other’. This reductive and oversimplified view is not only, as Goldenberg says, an active impedance to creating a feminist politics, but is also a breeding ground for contradictions, edge-cases and outliers, all of which transphobes would like to violently ignore.

The Problem of Universals

All of this is creeping towards the age-old metaphysical “Problem of Universals.” So called ‘Realist’ metaphysics (which doesn’t mean being realistic) believes that there are categorical universals (what Plato called ‘Forms’) that exist in nature, and that instances of a category are expressions of that form (sometimes a distinction is made between “Extreme Realists” like Plato and “Moderate Realists” like Aristotle, but we don’t need to go into that here). Conceptualist metaphysics also believes in universals, but believes that they do not exist in nature, but in the mind. Nominalist metaphysics believes that categories are just names that we give to things that share some similarity, and that there are no universals (or as John Stuart Mill put it, “there is nothing general except names”). Nietzche was arguably expressing a Nominalist position when he talked about his camel.

Being aware that wanting to believe something doesn’t make it true, I’d like to think Nominalism is the better idea, here. To be sure, Conceptualism lines up with what we know from social psychology about how the human brain operates with regard to stereotypes, but while we can’t choose how the world or the mind work, we can choose how to respond to that, and Nominalism acknowledges that categorisation is a political act.

This is especially true when it comes to people. Fundamentally, I think Realism and Conceptualism are assimilationist, rather than what I’d like to call accommodationist. Assimilation and accommodation are terms from social psychology literature on stereotypes. Specifically, when one is confronted with new information that doesn’t fit their stereotyped preconception, one can either distort the new information to fit the preconception (assimilation) or change the preconception to fit the new information (accommodation). But since assimilation has a broader social meaning, I think it makes sense that accommodation also should.

By presenting a universal form, Realism and Conceptualism encourage comparison to that form, and judgement and punishment of deviation from that form. It is in the medium of the universal that stereotypes are grown, as well as the pressure to perform identity to a particular expectation. Moreover, the practical matter of identification of the universal is often politically motivated, leading to privileged classes being incorrectly presumed to be the unmarked ‘default’, and those who hove less closely to the presumed universal being othered and alienated (see my last post for more discussion on markedness).

None of this says very much academically about the various merits of the metaphysical schools themselves, but it’s important when it comes to the reality of how they are used in our everyday lives. The universal becomes a prescriptive stricture into which people are expected to fit. Much like our earlier discussion of models and observations in science, the universal is deployed in such a way as to privilege the model over the observation, to insist that if one-size-fits-all thinking doesn’t actually fit all, then it’s the people it doesn’t fit who are the problem.

An accommodationist view (and I consider radical accommodation the only sensible way to deal with a plural society like the one we live in), on the other hand, takes things (and people!) as they exist, and if they don’t fit within the categorical structure, we damn well make room for them. It is about finding solutions that fit the people, rather than demanding people that fit the solutions.

Karl Popper’s oft-shared Paradox of Tolerance serves as a rebuttal to the right-wing nuisance phrase, “So much for the tolerant Left.” Popper warned that if you tolerate intolerance, then intolerance will take over. But I think it’s a mistake to frame the argument as being about tolerance in the first place. “If you tolerate this, your children will be next,” made famous as the title of a 1998 Manic Street Preachers song, was literally a Leftist slogan in the Spanish Civil War. So much for the tolerant Left? But my guiding light is not tolerance; it is accommodation — rather than merely ‘allowing’ people to exist in society, I would rather that society make room for them — and it is a far more obvious paradox to accommodate those who oppose accommodation.

And this is where the demand to “define woman” takes us. It is a demand to create a mould into which people are supposed to fit, rather than considering the people first and trying to create something that fits them. And that’s a demand to which I am — to put it lightly — unlikely to be receptive.

Self and Other

In many ways, when a transphobe taunts me with, “You can’t define woman,” the reasonable response is, “Not can’t; won’t.” Partly, unlike transphobes, I am intellectually honest enough to admit that categorisation is a political act, and therefore any definition I give will be motivated and coloured by my own position. But more importantly, I am happy to call myself a woman. I am not happy to unilaterally do the same for others because I know that, even with the best of intentions, any definition I give may incorrectly exclude some people and incorrectly include others, and I am unwilling to cause other people that kind of hurt. From that perspective, the demand to “define woman” becomes the singularly deranged question: “If you don’t want to aggressively police the boundaries of other people’s identity, why don’t you do it?”

And, in contrast to that, when a transphobe crows that they can define ‘woman’, they exhibit the genuinely psychopathic belief that their position is more correct solely because of their willingness — whether inadvertently or, more likely, intentionally — to hurt other people.

While we have highlighted the deficiencies of categorisation by ‘same’ and ‘other’, the difference between ‘self‘ and ‘other’ is far more grounded — it’s something that actual toddlers can understand, but transphobes cannot. This can be seen in the language around reproductive justice I alluded to earlier. When we say, for example, “Don’t call other people women if they don’t want to be called women,” TERFs respond with, “How dare you say I can’t call myself a woman?” Do you see what happened there? Such is their contempt for the very concept of “other people,” they quite literally replaced the term “other people” with ‘myself’.

This is where the ostensive definition creeps back in — “a woman is someone who is like me.” This is all over TERF rhetoric, starting with their insistence that they speak for all women, objectifyingly denying the agency and subjectivity of the women who say, “Actually no you don’t.”

Poll after poll has shown that women are much more likely to be in favour of trans inclusion than men, and TERFs respond to this with the outrageously misogynistic claim that women’s feeble ladybrains can’t be trusted to make their own decisions. They accuse their detractors of being influenced by men, while themselves espousing a viewpoint that is far more likely to be held by men than by women. In a contradiction of narcissism, TERFs consider themselves to be the template and speakers for womanhood, but exclude themselves from this characterisation of women because they are, presumably, “special” or something.

A similar thing happens at the intersection of trans womanhood and lesbianism. TERFs whine, “I get called transphobic just because I don’t want to sleep with trans women,” expecting us to ignore that they were really complaining about other people sleeping with trans women, which, yes, is transphobic.

I’ve remarked often before that the “trans women are coercing lesbians into sex” conspiracy theory (propounded by, among others, the BBC) is predicated on the self-contradictory premise that trans women both do and don’t want to sleep with people who think we are men: If we did want to sleep with women who think we are men, we would simply sleep with straight women, but since we don’t want to sleep with women who think we are men, there is no advantage to trying to convince women who think we are men to sleep with us. So quick are they to monster and dehumanise us, they excuse themselves from attributing to us motives that even make any sense.

The real issue is that trans-accepting cis lesbians do exist in relatively significant numbers, and TERFs assert that they must be being coerced because they have made a decision a TERF personally would not make. The fact that other women have autonomous agency undermines the TERF’s self-appointed role as template and speaker for all womanhood, and out of ressentiment they then deny those women’s agency and blame trans people. It is, in effect, what Umberto Eco called “selective populism”:-

Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view — one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. To have a good instance of qualitative populism we no longer need the Piazza Venezia in Rome or the Nuremberg Stadium. There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.

I think Eco is oversimplifying his description of democracy. As Ed Davey said when discussing the repeal of the notorious Section 28 in England, on which the Tories wanted a referendum:-

In a liberal democracy, the need to protect minorities properly sometimes means that protection cannot be achieved through the ballot box and that some things are not appropriate for a vote.

The “decisions of the majority” are suspect when the majority has been misinformed. Like I pointed out in my last piece, people are fully twice as likely to be a trans ally if they personally know a trans person, which is to say if their understanding of trans people is unmediated by the rumour, myth, assumption, stereotype, prejudice, and scapegoating spewed by the press.

Nonetheless, what Eco says about selective populism is the more important part. When people like Joanna Cherry insist that they are “fighting for women’s rights”, they are never explicit about specifically which rights are under threat by trans people (because there are none), nor why, in doing so, they make common cause with right-wing interests that actually do threaten women’s rights, nor why their nonspecific rights are more important than trans people’s rights (in particular — since I will be specific — the human right to privacy). They give only vague insistences that they are expressing the Common Will of womanhood, which conveniently aligns with their own personal will.

And all of this — the objectifying attitude that any other woman is essentially interchangeable with a TERF to the point that TERFs can safely ignore other women and, in so many words, make it all about themselves — begins with the ostensive definition. “A woman is someone who is like me.”

Define or Discuss

Ultimately, that TERFs reduce women to themselves is a specificity of TERFs. But more broadly, any definition of ‘woman’ is reductive. By (ahem) definition: If it weren’t reductive it would cease to be a definition and become a discussion.

And the insistence on definitions is a way to avoid discussion. Transphobes, like all fascists, have no substance; only rhetoric, so they know that discussion is unlikely to go their way. And so they paint the complexities of the discussion as invalidating of the discussion, as opposed to — as they actually are — the very reason for the discussion. They scoff at the idea that human diversity can’t be reduced to a soundbite, and then pretend that the assumptions inherent in making reduction the point are ‘natural’ or “common sense” rather than — as they actually are — “intensely fucking political.”

Because, like all fascists, their politics is privileged by a reductive view, and because, like all fascists, they don’t want their politics to be opposed, they insist that a reductive view is the only valid one.