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What is a Woman?

You must know what it means to be a woman—chromosomes, feminine intuition, and all.

An elderly lady and her dog watch the world go by on the Lower East Side, New York City, circa 1955. (Photo by Erika Stone/Getty Images)

A woman, as it turns out, is actually a very difficult thing to define. Contra savvy conservative pundits, the meaning doesn’t just evade gender studies majors at Harvard but also straight white men, middle class women, and backwoods hillbillies. And not simply because such people hesitate to give the crass answer.

What progressives have identified—whether or not they recognize it—is that to be a woman means something more than mere chromosomes, and more than just the color pink. A woman is no less than her biology, certainly; but she is just as certainly more. Some of her differences are physical, but many are social, emotional, and psychological. Discovering them has been the subject of some of the greatest art, poetry, music, and novels of the last two thousand years, and still many verses remain to be teased out.


While conservatives are right to ask what makes a woman, they have failed to provide a complete answer. Even intelligent Christians have left the answer at the feet of such authorities as science textbooks, as though defining male and female were no more important a task than defining a mitochondria, with no more serious implications for men’s souls. When we leave the definition writing to such supposedly disinterested parties, what we get is not a lack of bias, but a lack of any meaningful definition. Especially as doctors discover new ways to diminish the physical differences between men and women, the biological definition is increasingly threatened. 

What now? For starters, the Associated Press is issuing new guidance on how to refer to men and women who believe they are of the opposite sex: For the sake of greater clarity, they say, a man dressed like a woman should simply be called a woman, and vice versa. Terms like “biological sex” are extremist wrongthink; “transgender” is only an adjective, never a noun; and it’s just far too clunky to include said adjective unless transgender issues are the focus of the story. To say someone is a woman is just neater than to say he identifies as a woman. 

Of course, this is only the next logical step for the secularists whose religious texts include “I think I am a woman, therefore I am.” If feeling intrinsically that you must be a woman makes you a woman, no questions asked, then we should follow through and call you a woman, no qualifications needed. It is perfectly coherent. For the rest of us, meanwhile, it presents a real problem. One can imagine a slate of scenarios in which not knowing the true sex of a person would have serious consequences (such as criminal investigations, to which the transgender community contributes an unfortunate quotient).

We know how we got here, and it is not merely because the left’s best and brightest are not the sharpest tools in the toolbox. We surrendered the serious task of raising men and women to secular sex-ed and science classrooms, and it shows. High school students learned that men have one form of sexual organ and women have another—nothing more. It’s no wonder they swallow their dislike for the changing definition, since they were provided no clear alternative with which to refute it. It’s no wonder men are dressing up in makeup and young women are afraid of their own femininity in unprecedented levels. Who was there to teach them the beauty of womanhood, to see the strength in being different from the masculine? Certainly not biology textbooks.

It should go without saying that the AP has achieved not more clarity, but less. To communicate means to “share”; it is the same word from which we get “communion,” the bonding of the Church through the shared body and blood of Christ. What happens when journalists say a man is a woman, but your backwards uncle and his whole small town say he is not? Rather than serving as a bond between people, our words are sowing division. We appear to use the same word, but we do not mean the same thing. Our language has become a lie. 

It is not enough for language merely to be shared, of course. Words correspond to an objective reality, something intrinsic and eternal in each created thing that the words we use only recognize. Language does not create, but names creation, and in order to name creation rightly, you must know what each creature is. You must know what it means to be a woman—chromosomes, feminine intuition, and all. 

So here we are, disagreeing not only on what it means to be a woman but also on who gets to define it: something, or Someone eternal? Democracy? Or those who Think Rightly? It’s amusing, in a dark sort of way, that after so many years of progress, such advancements in technology and unprecedented levels of global communication, we have lost the pieces that formed the very foundation on which progress was built. Who cares if we have microchips and semiconductors if we don’t know what it means to be women, and to be men, and why our differences are both inherent and absolutely vital? Of what worth are our human rights crusades if being human is nothing more than an X or a Y on your birth certificate, changeable or not? It’s as though we reached the top of the tower, and before God could curse our tongues, we found everyone around us was already babbling.


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