The classification of ‘woman’ did not always follow sex organs as tightly as it does today. In the European past, gender was closely related to sex organs, but was not a direct consequence of them. Under a humeral model of the body, women were people who were cold and wet, men were hot and dry. It was men’s greater body heat that expelled the sex organs from the body. Some people with female sex organs, however, were otherwise very manly (they contained considerable heat); they just didn’t have enough heat to expel their sex organs. This could allow ‘hot’ women (no not like that!) to take on many of the functions and status of men. Similarly some men were colder than normal and so more effeminate. It was even possible for women, who got too hot, to transition to full men if they managed to expel their genitals (and there are recorded instances of this happening).
In other cultures, gender is assigned based on social role. In certain tribes in New Guinea, women are people who grow crops; men are people who hunt and fight. Most people born with female sex organs tend to grow crops, but some have a desire or an aptitude for hunting and fighting and are accepted into ‘male’ society as full members, and vice-versa. When members of particular gender are on the low side (perhaps because of not enough male-sexed children being born), this fluidity becomes even more common as female-sexed people make up for a shortage of men, and vice versa. Female-sexed western anthropologists who visit these areas are often assumed to be male due to their lack of knowledge about rice and crop-growing. In Albania, as a recent study shows, a shortage of male-sexed people allowed for female-sexed people to become men and take on many of the rights and responsibilities of men. In some societies, gender is not, or has not been, so closely linked to sex organs and, in some, ‘transitioning’ between different genders at least had a generally accepted conceptual framework (or cultural explanation) to make it easier. (As does our own, by equating gender with sex organs and so allowing people who change sex organs to change gender).
But back to the question at hand, if we all agree that ‘woman’ is a category (not a reality), then what is to stop anybody declaring that they are a ‘woman’. What makes someone a ‘woman’? Some people argue that it takes a life-time of socialisation to be a woman and that sex organs or desire are not enough. Yet, even those of us who were born with the female sex and have a lifetime of socialisation that taught us what it is to be ‘woman’ are often not very ‘good’ women. Agent of Desire recently proposed an experiment where feminists should:
Instead of putting on make-up, styling your hair, wearing 'feminine' shoes or clothes that emphasise your figure, leave the house with none of the paraphernalia of objectification. Instead, don't put in contact lenses if you wear them, go for glasses instead, wear a loose coat that is not tailored to the waist, wear no make up or distracting jewelery, wear straight-cut trousers, tie your hair up or put it under a hat, and don't clutch a dainty handbag - put your keys, phone and money in your pockets. If you have manicured and polished long nails, wear gloves. This may be very difficult to do, because you are constantly told by the media that being sexually desireable is the most important thing about you, and that your sexual desireability depends on this paraphernalia, which is not true.
So, what does this mean? Does this tell us that being a woman is all about sex, and nothing to do with socialisation in our society? And, yet (like it or not), much of society will not accept male-sexed people who have ‘gender reassignment surgery’ as women, even if they are much better at performing femininity than me. Is it simply our classification on birth that makes us women?
The category of woman is a fiction. As it is a fiction, there are no women. There are people who are designated women and others who desire to have that designation (and not always because they think there is such a thing as woman). People accept or reject that designation to different degrees. There are characteristics that are associated with ‘woman’ and some people (regardless of their sex organs) have or perform those characteristics better than others. In the same manner, there are no men.
At this point, it is easy to say that the experience of being designated women from birth ensures that we can never be men (no matter at what age we choose to transition?). And it may certainly be true that no one who was designated female at birth will have identical experiences to someone designated male. But, the truth is that there are very few people designated woman that have the same experiences as other people designated woman. Other designations such as race and class ensure that all women are not alike. Furthermore, there is no universally agreed, model of ‘woman’ that we are trying to achieve and which the rest of us fail to live up to (although some models may have more power than others). Women have a vast range of experiences, desires, backgrounds, upbringings, levels of power and privilege and outlooks. Similarly, men are raised with different levels of privilege and power. Some are even raised in feminist households and taught to critique their privilege and the naturalness of their gender. Some are better or worse at being men than others. In some cultures, people born with male sex organs are raised as women. We are all individuals with different experiences, even as we share others. Why, as feminists, are we holding on to ‘born with female sex organs and socialised because of them to be women’ as so central to our identity when we all agree that no one is born a woman, when we all know that being male or female is a construction and we are all socialised differently, when in our own lives we recognise that it is impossible to be an ideal woman because she doesn’t exist?