EducationO.O.P.S.Sex & Gender

What Is A Woman?

This post is part of the Bodies, Gender, and Domination OOPS Series.

I thought it would be cheeky to start this response with the question present in all the readings for this course — “What is a woman?” — but, feeling unsure, I decided to do what any sophisticated academic might do and did some research first: so, I went to Google and typed in my question. I thought I would get some quotations by feminist theorists, maybe a think piece or two, but I did not need even to scroll down before I received what may be the most telling response of all — the definition of “woman” that appears from the Google search using “what is a woman”:

wom·an [ˈwo͝omən/]

noun

  1. an adult human female.

Synonyms: lady, girl, female

  1. a female worker or employee.
  2. a wife, girlfriend, or lover.

“he wondered whether Billy had his woman with him”

synonyms: girlfriend, sweetheart, partner, significant other, inamorata, lover, mistress

Here we have, intentionally or otherwise, a hierarchy of characteristics for what qualifies, in the cultural setting of Google searches, as a woman: biology, labor, sex. As Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí insightfully points out in her introduction to The Invention of Women (1997), Western society is deeply infatuated with the body, and biology, as the source of its cultural logic — something she terms a “bio-logic.” This obsession with biology creates social categories founded in bodily characteristics, producing gender and sex where there is none, not only in Western societies but with an eye to the universal. Gender, as both a social construction and “a historical and cultural phenomenon,” is seen by scholars and non-scholars alike as being omnipresent, naturally derived, and pre-existing.

A continuation of both coloniality, as Mariá Lugones defines it in “The Coloniality of Gender,” and rational, scientific thought (which is presumed to be male), gender and sex are expressed through “essential characteristics” that are founded in biological binary divisions. Similar to the use of culture/nature, public/private, and mind/body (in which the former are all constituted as male and the latter as female), Lugones and, subsequently, Johanna Oksala in “The Neoliberal Subject of Feminism” note how this binary was used in colonial thought and state disciplinary tactics. However, now, in the current neoliberal, economic-focused (Western) society, it is being used to define what a woman should be and what she should resemble.

We see this shift in emphasis in Google’s provided definition of woman. Woman, first, as a biological adult human female, reflects the “bio-logic” of Western social thought. Second, as worker (and thus economically motivated subject), woman reflects the neoliberal drive based on self-interest and promotion — women are encouraged to “lean in,” and Oksala adds, those who don’t succeed have only themselves to blame. Third, woman is defined as sexual object (“Billy’s woman”).

Put in dialogue, the articles by Oksala and by Lugones can bring Lugones’s important points about intersectionality to bear further on the concept of the neoliberal subject: to which women (racially, socioeconomically, nationally, etc.) is this self-interested drive available? For which “women” does woman as bio-logic, then worker, then sexual object pertain? Does the hierarchy of this definition apply to trans women as well, for example? To intersex people? To gender-queer but previously sexed-as-female persons? Does the order of these descriptors not rely on the intersection of a multitude of other factors that go beyond the inherited and naturalized concept of gender?

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Sarah Chant

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