The Identity of a Woman

Anthony S. Layne

As if identity politics weren’t bad enough, it’s taken a turn for the bizarre. In New Yorker magazine, Michelle Goldberg tells us of an ongoing struggle between radical feminists and the “transgendered” — a term that includes not only pre-op and post-op transsexuals, but also men and women who for their own reasons wish to identify as the other or neither sex. The problem for radical feminists is that men who claim to be women, even those who undergo “gender-reassignment surgery”, aren’t really women.

Not because the transgendered don’t have the right parts, or because the parts have been artificially implanted; oh no, that would simply be common sense, and who wants that? (“Common sense,” Stuart Chase once sniffed, “is that which tells us the earth is flat.”) No, the radical feminist objection is that the transgendered haven’t been raised with the suffering and victimization inherent in a paternalist society, and that transgenderism represents a kind of male-imperialist encroachment on uniquely female territory.

To make matters worse (?), radical feminists seem to be losing the fight. The universities and PACs, which once hosted — or at least suffered — their message of male oppression, are now starting to push back wherever that message conflicts with transgender rights. Says Rachel Ivey, “If I were to say in a typical women’s-studies class today, ‘Female people are oppressed on the basis of reproduction,’ I would get called out.” Other students, she adds, would ask, “What about women who are male?”

Women who are male. In four words, the surreality of the transgender Weltanschauung is encapsulated. This is the apotheosis of strong social constructionism, which “proposes that the notions of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ are themselves social constructs, so that the question of whether anything is ‘real’ is just a matter of social convention. … It reasons that all reality is thought, all thought is in a language, all language is a convention, and that all convention is socially acceptable[;] hence, it uses language to socially program.”

Woman Is Equal Yet Different

This is where the Catholic Church starts from: Men and women are inherently, intrinsically equal, because they are both created in the image of God: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

Man and woman have been created, which is to say, willed by God: on the one hand, in perfect equality as human persons; on the other, in their respective beings as man and woman. “Being man” or “being woman” is a reality which is good and willed by God: man and woman possess an inalienable dignity which comes to them immediately from God their Creator. Man and woman are both with one and the same dignity “in the image of God”. In their “being-man” and “being-woman”, they reflect the Creator’s wisdom and goodness. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 369)

Equal, however, does not mean identical. Women are genetically different from men; that difference manifests both physically and to an as-yet-undetermined degree behaviorally. Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge, writes, “We don’t want to revert to the 1960s view that human behaviour is purely culturally determined, since we now know that view was profoundly mistaken [bold type mine.—ASL]. No one disputes that culture is important in explaining sex differences, but it can’t be the whole story.”

Radical feminists are reluctant to admit to different mental makeups. As Pelle Billing explains, “… if there are biological differences in the brains of men and women, isn’t that then an argument to preserve stereotypes?” However, this doesn’t stop them from doing and saying things that pay implicit homage to an intrinsic difference. As an example, the founder of the “womyn-born womyn only” event Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, Lisa Vogel, describes the “governing ethos” of Michfest as, “How would a town look if we [women] got to decide what was important?”

Sexual Identity Is Intrinsic

Here’s the crux of the matter: If there’s an intrinsic difference in the way women think, feel and behave from the way of men, then that difference is rooted in our genotypes, not in our cultural models. Moreover, to the extent that it is rooted in our different biologies, then that difference makes the feminine way of thinking/feeling/behaving to some extent inaccessible to men.

People with intersex genetic disorders provide us with some validation of this impassable barrier. Consider Natalie, a person born with Swyer syndrome:

Natalie’s genotype is XY. However, her testes never developed, which meant that the process that would ordinarily have turned the Müllerian ducts into a penis and vasa deferenses instead developed into a vagina, uterus and fallopian tubes. Also, because of the undeveloped testes (“streak gonads”), she has the body of “a prepubescent girl who grew to adult size, but didn’t go through puberty”. Like many intersex people, Natalie’s condition means she will never bear or beget children.

“She’s been brought up as female,” said Zoe, another intersexed person who explained Natalie’s condition, “looks mostly female … but doesn’t ‘get’ being female any more than a 6 y[ea]r old girl ‘gets’ what she will feel like at age 16. She’s not male though[;] she doesn’t ‘get’ that either.”

Nor is sexual bifurcation merely a theoretical model, or the whim of God/Nature: we are split into male and female, because that’s how we reproduce. True asexual species have no need for sexual differentiation; wherever species are split into sexes, some behavioral differences appear along with physical differences, differences which bear on the way the species bears children (and, in animals, the way children are reared).

There Really Is a Reality

At the end of the day, reality is more than a word-game, or a set of social conventions; we deal every day with objective realities both episodic and continual from holding babies to stepping in dog poo to dying of cancer. We may quarrel and quibble about the shape of that reality. However, there is an is, and that “is” is knowable; to maintain any faith in the intellectual disciplines, we must hold that axiom to be not only self-evidently true, but foundational to all knowledge, and reject all those who seek to deny it, no matter how “good” their intentions are.

Empathy enables us to share, to a certain degree, in the feelings and desires of others, including the other sex and other animals. However, Nagel’s Bat reminds us that biology will affect our perceptions of reality in ways that other beings can’t access even through imagination. It simply isn’t enough for a man to want to be a woman, or to think of himself as a woman, or to enjoy those things that our culture attributes to femininity, in order to give him the identity of a woman.

When we tell children that “they can be anything they want to be”, we use a seemingly innocent hyperbole to fend off explaining a messy reality “until they’re old enough to understand” — i.e., until they’re old enough to figure out for themselves that it’s not really true. From the day we’re born to the day we die, combinations of our own decisions and outside forces foreclose future possibilities even as they open others.

Biology is not the most powerful of those forces, but it’s still significant. Surgery and hormones can’t always give us what we weren’t born with. By being born men, the identity of a woman is forever moved beyond our grasp … whether we like it or not.

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5 thoughts on “The Identity of a Woman”

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