My Problem with “Women”

I have no trouble with being a woman, any more than I have trouble with being a human in general. I do dislike some parts of that, to be fair: continuous sensory experiences I can’t turn off, a body that needs ongoing maintenance, and the nonexistence of any owner’s manual for the whole system. But these would be the same if I were a man instead, and so short of being uploaded, there’s not a lot I can do about it.

However, being called a “woman” – being referred to as such in any social context – is uncomfortable. I’m aware that the biological definition of the word “woman” does apply to me: so far as I know, I can bear children. But if all people meant by the word “woman” was “an adult human of the type which ovulates and can bear children”, I wouldn’t be uncomfortable with being called that. (I also have no clue why anyone would bother, outside the context of asking to have children with me.)

Humans love to sneak things into definitions that are not actually present in the best definition. We basically never use “woman” to mean what it should actually mean: a set of commonly co-occurring biological traits. Instead, it conveys a whole host of mostly inaccurate, often outdated, sometimes demeaning, stereotypes that have been thrust upon us childbearing-capable humans by various cultures throughout history.

What about ovulating produces poor driving skills? What about a uterus produces a lack of self-confidence? Does a vagina induce a desire to cook, clean, and take care of children? Does chromosome set XX create gracefulness, thinness, or a preference for dresses?

But, of course, these are only stereotypes. While they are annoying, it shouldn’t make me uncomfortable with being called a “woman” just because some idiot thinks women can’t drive.

The problem is, it isn’t only the stereotypes. As social psychologists learn to better isolate relevant variables, studies have been published about the differences between the sexes. Evidently, women are more likely to prioritize work flexibility and job stability over earnings growth. They prefer socially interesting, rather than mechanically interesting, jobs. They’re physically weaker than men.

The inherent trouble with this is segmenting an entire population into two groups, and having the definitions of those groups be any more complex than a single trait. If you assume all women are graceful housewives with poor driving skills and self-confidence issues, or if you assume all women are family-focused social butterflies with a chronic avoidance of lifting anything heavy, then you’ll be wrong no matter whether your sources are stereotypes or science.

Nobody is an average. There is no such thing as “the average woman” or “the average man”. These aren’t people; they don’t exist. When a social psychologist says “the average woman prefers work flexibility to higher salary, prefers socially interesting over mechanically interesting work, and is weaker than the average man”, they aren’t saying that every woman is like this, or that there even is a single woman who is all these things. They are merely pointing out a pattern.

The trouble pointing out patterns is that, in any sufficiently large population, there are always patterns. It is always possible to find traits that are more likely to occur in one group than another, even with statistically significance. If I analyzed a large enough population, I’m sure I could find statistically significant correlations between someone’s personality and their hair color, skin tone, or preference for window coverings.

And even if the patterns do reflect real differences, they still don’t tell you anything about any specific individual. There are statistical differences between age of mortality, for example – women tend to live longer than men – but that doesn’t mean that any given woman will certainly outlive any same-aged man.

The implications of all this pattern-finding, though, is that people who are outside the pattern often don’t get to do outside-the-pattern things they enjoy. For example, I like helping people by doing physically-demanding tasks for them (lifting or carrying heavy objects, opening tight jar lids, etc), but nobody ever asks me to do this because they don’t think of me as the sort of person who would enjoy that type of thing.

And then everyone – especially intellectual and “progressive” folks – decides to bring my womanhood into every conversation. I can’t just be strong, I have to be a “strong woman”. I can’t just be an engineer, I have to be a “woman engineer”. I can’t just be primarily attracted to women, I have to be a “lesbian”.

Keep in mind: I wouldn’t feel any less strongly about any of this if I had been born a man. I could write a whole list of arguments rebutting the stereotypes and tendencies associated with men that I don’t follow, if those stereotypes and tendencies had been the ones to shape my social life.

None of this has anything to do with womanhood; it has to do with gender.

I can understand why gender would be a useful thing to consider, in the primitive societies where language was being developed. I can understand why it would continue to be useful throughout the majority of human history to have gendered words like “woman” and “man” used more frequently than “person”: when your gender determines everything from your clothing choices to your career options, differentiating between genders while talking is sensible, perhaps even necessary. But in modern society, where we’re trying to do away with gender roles, I cannot imagine a reason to continue using gendered words.

It isn’t only the fact that everyone’s gender doesn’t necessarily match their birth sex, although this is true. It isn’t only the fact that not everyone’s gender fits into the Western binary system, although this is true also. It isn’t even about the fact that, if you assume someone’s gender and you’re wrong, it can be anywhere from a minor inconvenience to an immensely traumatizing experience, and you have no idea which.

It’s about the fact that assuming peoples’ gender based on their gender presentation actively entrenches gender roles and stereotypes.

If, in trying to accept transgender people, we go from an attitude of “anyone with breasts is a woman and should be called by she/her pronouns” to one of “anyone wearing stereotypically feminine clothing is a woman and should be called by she/her pronouns”, that isn’t progress. It’s moving backwards. Because, in the act of moving from the one to the other, we get the worst possible mix of both. In order to “pass” as a woman, a trans woman needs to embrace every bit of stereotypical femininity she can. She puts on makeup. She shaves her legs. She paints her nails. Even her actions aren’t free from scrutiny: if she doesn’t keep her knees together while sitting down, speak in a high-pitched quiet vocal register, and apologize constantly, how will people know she’s a woman?

The appropriate thing to do here is definitely not to get upset with transgender people. Passing is necessary for their survival in a cisgender-dominated world: it isn’t their fault that this necessity perpetuates gender roles. The best thing to do, instead, is to abolish gendered words altogether.

This might seem daunting, but you can implement it yourself easily. Just refer to anybody whose gender you don’t know – including hypothetical people and strangers – with they/them pronouns. When describing someone, say “person” instead of “woman” or “man”.

Of course, in the modern world, some conversations are explicitly about gender, in which case, gendered words are inevitable. You can’t restate phrases like “women tend to make less money than men” into gender-neutral words and have them still make sense. But the majority of conversations, containing phrases like “I saw a lady at the bus stop today, she was wearing this gorgeous purple suit”, or “when I was driving home yesterday this old guy was tailgating me the whole time”, can be restated with gender-neutral words easily.

In conclusion: I don’t want to be called a woman because gendered words carry uncomfortable stereotypes and then perpetuate them by their continued use. Instead, I prefer to be referred to with they/them pronouns and gender-neutral words.

In the interest of moving society past the pervasiveness of gender, I invite you to consider the same.