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Re-visiting the question, What is a Woman?


Let me state at the onset that I do not consider myself a metaphysician nor I have illusions of becoming an analytical philosopher.  I am a feminist yes.  Nonetheless I observe that feminist theorizing has moved beyond descriptions of women’s oppression.  That women are oppressed is a fact that cannot be denied nor swept under the rug with the hope that it would go away.  What is evident now is that feminist theorizing has given us new lens with which to view the world, our bodies and ourselves.  In this particular undertaking, feminism necessarily engages with metaphysics; it has taken on a metaphysical project without losing sight of its original intention which is describing how women are oppressed with the goal of ending it.

Feminism may sound to those who are unfamiliar or un-initiated as entirely political and thus has no relation whatsoever with a very traditional philosophical subject metaphysics.  But the basic feminist pronouncements one of which is eternally captured by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex: “One is not born a woman but becomes one” is a classic metaphysical claim that needs investigation. What constitutes “is” or “being” is a metaphysical concern and Western philosophical constructs are largely preoccupied with the search and investigation of that which “is.”  To claim then that a woman “is not” born but “becomes” one is highly provocative.   Sally Haslanger, herself a prominent feminist philosopher, offers key questions which are useful to guide any attempt to map out and forward a possible feminist metaphysics.  These are the following: How have metaphysical claims about what there is (and what there is not) supported sexism?  Are there metaphysical assumptions or patterns of inference that feminists should challenge? What assumptions or patterns of inference should feminists endorse?

This reflection is divided into two parts: first, it is a survey of some positions forwarded by feminist theorists on contentious metaphysical issues that are directly affecting women and second, it supports a realist stance that upholds the feminist project of ending sexism particularly in finding new metaphysical assumptions and inferences to establish new ways of understanding women without abandoning the notion that there is something fundamental and thus objective that binds women together either as a class or a kind, and that this something is also that which women share with other classes or kinds in the world.  Contemporary metaphysics as well as feminist theorizing are concerned with entities that are considered to be “natural kinds” and “social kinds” and whether such (either natural or social”) corresponds to our understanding of reality as largely objective. What constitutes reality is an on-going debate between the so-called “realists” and the “nonrealists”.  The realists basically hold that reality is objective, that is, it exists independent of the self or human observer; it is knowable and predictable insofar as it works through and is governed by physical laws.  Nonrealists on the other hand hold that what we know as “objective” reality is created or constructed as negotiated complex structures.  As such, there is no reality that exists outside these social constructions.  Moreover, the language of “kinds” or “class” or “types” smacks so loudly of essentialism which most feminists reject.  As we will see later on, feminist metaphysics also problematizes this tension between two camps in contemporary metaphysics.

Is there a Natural Woman?


Are transgendered women women?

“Man is not a female, barbarian, animal.”  At first glance this definition, albeit, in the negative, seems self-evident.  I often ask my students how they define a woman and I always get the answer, “one who does not have a penis.”  It is amazing that being either male or female is defined by a lack.  Nonetheless what these pronouncements hold is that there is something “objective,” in this case, genitalia, which is the basis for defining being male or female.  What makes them also seemingly self-evident is that this biological basis is purported to be natural and therefore shouldn’t be questioned.  Moreover, this basis serves as well the view that what is natural is real.  We rarely doubt the veracity of our sense-experience.  Either you have a penis, and in this case you are seen and regarded as male, or you do not have it, and in this case you are considered female. Or, to put it in simplest way, a male refer to a range of human beings with primary and secondary characteristics that include the penis, and a female refers to a range of human being with primary and secondary characteristics that include vagina and/or uterus. What sort of acts like a monkey wrench here is the fact that biologically, there are people who are considered intersexes.  Intersexuality as a term was adopted by medicine during the 20th century, and applied to human beings whose biological sex cannot be classified as clearly male or female.  In other words, our belief that biology has so neatly and simply provides the marker for sexual difference is deeply challenged by the aforementioned phenomenon.  And this brings about these questions:  Why are our conceptual frameworks that define male or female silent when it comes to intersexed and transgendered people?  Do we need to construct new frameworks so as to acknowledge their existence and subjectivity?


The Sun & Moon as Male and Female

The key gendered distinctions between reason/nature, mind/body and reason/emotion stem from the Greek Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle and many of the associations and separations were consolidated and developed during the Enlightenment.  Rosemary Radford Ruether (1975, 14) traces Aristotle’s legacy from Ancient Greek and Hebrew culture, which exalted social hierarchy founded on slavery.  ‘Women,’ ‘barbarians,’ and animals are seen as being without rational capacity and hence fitted only to be slave or servile instruments of Greek masculine sovereignty.  This in turn effectively divides the “reason people” with the “body people.” The implication of this is that women are treated not only as passive incubators of the formative male seed, but they are defined as biologically and morally defective.

Dualism pervades Western thought that results in the moral neglect of certain human and nonhuman beings by dividing the world into opposed pair of concepts: Mind is split from body, spirit from matter, male from female, culture from nature. One concept in each pair is deemed superior to the other. This ‘other’ is sometimes demonized and always discriminated against. In this dualism, beings and bodies identified with nonhuman nature, persons of color, women and poor are conceived as an inferior “others” in contrast to beings identified with reason and rationality. Hierarchical thinking also generates normative dualisms—views in which the disjunctive terms are seen as exclusive rather than inclusive, and oppositions conflicting rather than complementary.  The identification of females with inferior bodies and nature, identification of males with superior reason and spirit, are social constructs that have reinforced negative stereotyping of women. Dualist thinking that pits reason versus nature is entrenched firmly in a conceptual framework that is oppressive in a sense identified by Karen Warren as it explains, justifies, and maintains relationships of domination and subordination.  Moreover, an oppressive conceptual framework is patriarchal when it explains, justifies, and maintains the subordination of women by men.

It is important to note that there are many “dualisms” and they mutually support each other and are involved in highly complex interconnections. Australian ecofeminist Val Plumwood provides an extensive list, which echoes with Warren’s: the oppositions of human to non-human; mind to body; self to other; reason to emotion.  However, she expands this list, which includes: culture to nature; master to slave; rationality and animality; freedom to necessity; universal to particular; public to private; subject to object (1993, 43).

There is no Natural Woman


The statement in Mlle Simone de Beauvoir’s book, The second sex (1989), “one is not born but becomes a woman,” is a very strong rejection of the notion that there is a “natural” woman.  It rallies women’s experience of emancipation. As a slave in Albert Camus’ The rebel (1951) sensed that what his master asked of him violated his fundamental dignity as a person, there occurred in him a feeling that was so basal, so crucial and so gut wrenching, it enable him to say no, which led him to fight for the end of slavery itself! Women’s struggle for emancipation rests on this awareness of unfreedom too, and the allusion to slavery is not at all circumstantial—it is as every bit as complex and as painful.  While slaves declare their humanity with cries of “I am free!” women mark this crucial encounter of liberation with an affirmation, “I am a woman.” But there ends the comparison because women’s unique situation in human society demands a new praxis; a new way of seeing, thinking, feeling, and doing that will articulate their liberation and establish their identity. That is why the pronouncement, “I am a woman” made all the difference in the way de Beauvoir motivated herself to write what would become a landmark book on feminism. In other words, while de Beauvoir’s pronouncement is a metaphysical claim, she in fact upholding

Beauvoir begins her search for a definition from the data of biology.  “Woman is womb” and this description becomes the source of women’s unfreedom, oppression, and otherness.  That she is interpreted merely as “body” because of this biological fact makes her repressive situation inescapable and therefore, her lot and her destiny.  These “irreconcilable differences” between men and women had been brought about by biology, which legitimizes women’s place in history, or their lack of it.  On the other hand, some biological facts also establish that being male and female is no way fixed.  She declares, “It is not nature that defines woman; it is she who defines herself.” With great pains and remarkable lucidity, attempts to break, what she calls as the Myth of femininity, with data from biology itself.  Thus, stereotypes of women as weak, fragile, delicate, and the like are not natural.  Biology is not Destiny.  This proclamation affirms that women can now deconstruct those images that define them and begin the process of reconstructing newer images that are not solely defined by biology.  The implication is that whatever apparent differences there are between men and women are framed by a normative basis and non-substantive.

Part 2 of the essay will be published soon.