Hale “Are Lesbians Women?” and Anderson “Sex and Gender Identity”

Let’s start with Hale. He is interested in the question “Are lesbians women?” This seems to be a silly question. Why is he worried about it? He is responding to a view defended by Monique Wittig (namely – that lesbians are NOT women). Hale is going to argue against Wittig. He is going to end up saying this: Some lesbians are women, some are NOT women, and for some “there is no fact of the matter.”

So let’s turn to Wittig. Why does she think that lesbians are NOT women? You might worry that she is a homophobe and that she is arguing like this:

(1)   Women are “naturally” (i.e., “supposed to be”) straight.

(2)   So Lesbians are not “natural” – they don’t do what women do “naturally”

(3)   So lesbians are not “natural” or “real” women.

This is NOT Wittig’s argument. Wittig doesn’t think that “woman” is a natural category or that women are “naturally” straight. Rather, she thinks that “woman” is a social category. And (at least according to Hale) she thinks that lesbians don’t count as “women” according to the prevailing social rules.

Here is the first argument that Hale attributes to Wittig:

(1)   It is sometimes said that lesbians are not “real” women.

(2)   Society does not view lesbians as women.

But this doesn’t follow (argues Hale). Rather, this claim seems to say that lesbians are not “good” women, that they are not behaving in ways that women are “supposed to” behave. Similarly, one might say “Get me a REAL knife, this one sucks.”

Second Argument (that Hale attributes to Wittig):

(1)               The categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are opposites (i.e., men are from Mars, women are from Venus) and complementary (insert tab A into slot B).

(2)               So: The categories are mutually inter-defined in terms of a heterosexual framework.

(3)               So: To be a woman requires a binary (i.e., heterosexual) relation to a man.

(4)               Lesbians do not have the relation.   

(5)               So: Lesbians are not women.


Hale’s Objection to this Argument: It is not at all clear what this binary, heterosexual relation is supposed to be. Consider, for example, that nuns are celibate (and so, in a sense, do not have a binary relation to a man). But this does not mean they are not women.  Hale argues that there are different ways of participating in heterosexuality (including by being a nun). And that Wittig’s position is too simple – it does not recognize the many complex ways in which one might count as a woman.

So the question of the day: What is a woman?

We turn now to Anderson’s article to begin to discuss this issue in greater depth.

Anderson discusses the following: I: Sex; II: Gender (taken as behavior and attitudes – masculinity and femininity); III: Gender Identity (seeing yourself as masculine or feminine); IV Gender Roles (e.g. mother, professor, etc.)

For the most part we will take about I: Sex. But I do have a concern about Anderson’s discussion of III: Gender Identity. “Gender Identity” – particularly in the context of transsexuality – does not concern whether one sees oneself as masculine or feminine. Rather, it concerns whether one sees oneself as a woman or man. Notice the difference: One can see oneself as masculine AND a woman (if one sees oneself as a masculine woman). Another important part of gender identity is also one’s identification as belonging to a particular sex. One can see oneself as male or female, etc. And this is also part of one’s identity.

I: Sex

“Biological Essentialism” – “Sex is a biological feature that can be studied.”  The Biological Essentialist tends to think that sex is invariant (cannot be changed). The essentialist thinks that sex is a real property (“out there” in the world).

 With this in mind, Anderson considers the following (essentialist) definitions of man and woman:

M1: A man is a human with a penis and testes.

W1: A woman is a human with ovaries and a uterus.

Anderson Critiques these definitions (in the spirit of Socrates J ) The problem, she says, is that one can be a man even if one has lost penis and testes. Similarly, one can be a woman even if one has lost ovaries and uterus. These definitions mention “sex traits” rather than the centrally defining features.

So she considers THESE essentialist definitions:

M2: A man is a human with XY chromosomes.

W2: A woman is a human with XX chromosomes.

Anderson critiques these definitions. First, she worries that intersexuals are not included. So she proposes the addition of the following definition.

I: An intersexed person is a human with a karyotype other than XX/XY

But there are still problems (she argues). First, if these definitions are correct then most of us do not know what sex we belong to (see we haven’t had our chromosomes tested). But, it also seems that some individuals who do not have the “appropriate” chromosomes (say XX) can have a bodily morphology (as a woman) and view herself as a woman and be viewed by others as a woman.  It would be strange, thinks Anderson, to say that if such individuals suddenly learn that they have a different karyotype, that they should stop viewing themselves as women.  

Here are some examples (not mentioned by Anderson, but useful for her purposes). First, consider a person who has XO karyotype. She will have a bodily morphology that is female. Question: Is she a woman? It seems that most would agree that she is. Second, consider a person who has XY karyotype and is morphologically female (due to Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome). Is that person a woman? If she is a woman, then the preceding definition must be rejected.

In light of these worries, Anderson considers the following definitions:

M3: A man is a person who sees himself as a man and who is regarded by others as a man

W3: A woman is a person who sees herself as a woman and who is regarded by other as a woman.

Note: These definitions involve rejecting “biological essentialism.” Now, sex is defined in terms of social factors (such as how one views oneself and is viewed by others).

Anderson critiques these on the grounds that the definitions are “circular”  (that is, ‘man’ is defined in terms of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ is defined in terms of ‘woman.’).

She concludes that sex cannot be easily defined (leaving us confused, much in the way that Socrates might leave us confused J).


Before we continue on  - I want to critique Anderson a little bit.

Let’s consider the initial definitions Anderson proposes:

M1: A man is a human with a penis and testes.

W1: A woman is a human with ovaries and a uterus.

If have two worries. First, a little baby boy is NOT a man (despite that fact that he is a human with a penis and testes). Second, I think that we should just say ‘male’ (rather than actually defining the term). That way we can say this:  

M4: A man is an adult, male human

W4: A woman is an adult, female human.

Perhaps it will turn out to be very difficult to define ‘male’ and ‘female.’ But – as it stands – these definitions of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ seem very good.

(There is a third problem – consider Superman (Kal El) or Spock. It seems that non-human individuals can count as men and women. Thus, we might speak of Men from Mars, Venusian Women, and so forth. Perhaps, then, we should replace ‘human’ with ‘humanoid’).

A more serious problem, is that while these definitions seem pretty good – they leave out the “cultural” aspects connected with ‘man’ and ‘woman.’  Here are two arguments trying to show that cultural aspects need to somehow be connected to our definitions.

Argument 1: Consider the adjectives “manly”, “womanly”, and “girly”. There seems to be “cultural content” that has to do with masculinity/femininity. We wouldn’t describe needle-point as “manly.” Or suppose somebody says, “Act like a man!” He doesn’t mean “Act like an adult, male human.” He means “Act tough. etc.” And this suggests that masculinity and femininity are somehow involved in the definitions of ‘man’ and ‘woman.’

Argument 2: Imagine the following “inversion” case. In this social world, males are feminine (fill women’s social roles, etc.) and females are masculine (dress in men’s attire, fill men’s “social roles”, etc.). Obviously, the inversion won’t work perfectly since there are gender related norms around reproduction, etc. But we can be creative. Anyway – this is the Question: Who are the men and who are the women? Are the feminine males the women? Or are the masculine females the women?

And here’s the argument:

(1)               In this “inversion” case, it is not obvious who the men are who the women are. We COULD say that the females are the men and the males are the women, or else we COULD say that the males are still men and the females are still women. It isn’t obvious.

(2)               If the definitions above (man = adult, male human; woman= adult, female human) are correct, then it SHOULD BE OBVIOUS which is right (namely – the males are still the men, the females are still the women).

(3)               SO: The definitions aren’t correct.


Ok. So while the definitions seem nice, they don’t work. They seem to leave out relevant cultural aspects.

Let’s go back to another problem. How do we define ‘male’ and ‘female’? How do we define sex? In terms of chromosomes? Genitals? Gonads? Hormone levels?  How do we decide?

Problem: In intersex individuals these features are not in alignment. SO we can have an individual who is chromosomally male and genitally female. How do we decide which features are definitive?  

Famous Philosopher (20th C): Ludwig Wittgenstein: Many of our concepts cannot be defined in the way that Plato had hoped. We cannot specify the feature (or set of features) that all things under that concept have in common. (Remember: Plato’s Socrates wants the one feature or set of features that ALL pious actions have in common).

In Wittgenstein’s view: There are things under a shared concept that do not have one feature (or set of features) in common. Rather, they have OVERLAPPING features. They are like “family resemblances” (brother may have mother’s nose and father’s eyes, sister may have mother’s eyes and father’s nose).

I would argument that sex terms such as “male” and “female” are family-resemblance concepts.

Consider the following table:

Male 1 XY

Male 2 male genitalia, testes,

Male 3 XY, hormone levels “within range”

Male 4 testes, hormone levels ”within range”

Male 5  XY, testes

In this case males 1-5 do not have any one feature (or set of features) in common. Rather, some males have some features in common, other males have other features in common. In this case, it is impossible to define ‘male’ by providing THE feature that determines sex. Instead, one merely lists the various features involved in the concept ‘male.’

What this analysis helps show is that for some intersexuals, there may be not fact of the matter whether they are male or female (that is – there may be no right answer to the question "Are you male or female?"). If this is true, then the biological essentialist is wrong. If sex is a real property out there in the world, then somebody either has that property or not.

In conclusion, let’s return to Hale; The main point of Hale’s essay is to argue that “woman” is a family-resemblance concept. He lists a thirteen features that are involved in the concept “woman” but he provides no definition. Note that Hale’s analysis includes cultural aspects as well as biological ones.  He concludes that some lesbians are women, some aren’t, and for some there is no right answer whether they are.