Activism, Philosophy, Women

She Who Must Not Be Named

I’m writing a book about gender-identity ideology (if I scribble fast, it should be out in the middle of next year). And by chance, last week I was wrestling with the bit where I explain that across swathes of academia, and on the political Left, it’s become an article of faith that the word “woman” is fiendishly tricky to define. Indeed, I’d go further: In such circles the word is rapidly becoming taboo. And then J.K. Rowling shared an article on Twitter, entitled “Creating a more equal post-Covid-19 world for people who menstruate.” That clearly pushed the world’s most famous author past breaking point. “‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for these people,” she tweeted. “Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”

Cue oceans of commentary, much of it indignantly denying that the word “woman” is becoming unsayable. So I thought I’d collect the evidence. On June 16th, I asked my Twitter followers for the best (non) definitions of “woman” they’d seen on their travels. Here are some of them, followed in each case by my commentary. (There are more on my website.)

A woman, for me, is someone who feels that they are a woman.

     — Sally Hines, British sociology professor

You can’t define something in terms of itself—that’s an absolutely basic error. The whole point is to explain what the word “woman” means, and you can’t use the word you’re defining in that explanation. (If you’re not seeing the problem, it’s because you actually ­do­ know what a woman is, and you’re implicitly substituting your definition into the bit about “women in her social context” without noticing. Try this: “A squawm is someone who feels like a squawm.” Now, are you any the wiser as to what a squawm is?)

An adult human who identifies as female

Anonymous Twitter account

Marks for cunning, I suppose. Using “female” instead of “woman” is clearly an attempt to avoid circularity. The problem is that “female” is not something you can identify as. It’s a word with an objective definition that holds right across all of biology, and hardly any of the things it refers to are capable of identifying as anything. It means: “of or denoting the sex class that produces large gametes,” and so it refers to peahens (not peacocks), fish eggs (not fish sperm), kangaroo pouches (only the females carry joeys), the pistil of a flower (not its stamens), and so on.

Anyone who identifies as a woman

     — Australian Academy of Science

The same problems as identified above, except it seems to be striving for some faux-objectivity with “identifies” rather than “feels,” and it’s from an Academy of Science, which might be expected to know better.

Someone who “experiences the norms that are associated with women in her social context as relevant to her”

Katharine Jenkins, British philosopher

I suppose we could assume that Jenkins has a starting idea of what a woman is—an adult human female—and wants to add in other people who feel that the norms for women’s behaviour apply to them. But what about women who don’t regard those norms as “relevant to” them? And how do any of the rest of us know whether someone does experience those norms as relevant to them? So it’s entirely subjective.

People who want to be so defined. I think people should be able to be who they want to be

     — John Nicolson, British member of parliament

The intention here is to be “inclusive.” But inclusive definitions miss the point. The way you define something is to state criteria that enable you to distinguish between things that qualify and things that don’t. A prime number, for example, is “a number that has no divisors but itself and one.” That excludes really rather a lot of numbers: six (two times three), say, and 71,417,010 (12,785 times 5,586). It’s not those numbers’ fault, and it doesn’t mean that they’re not nice numbers. They’re very nice. They’re just not prime.

A useful shorthand for the entanglement of femininity and social status regardless of biology—not as an identity, but as the name for an imagined community that honors the female, enacts the feminine and exceeds the limitations of a sexist society.

     — Susan Stryker, American transwoman writing in TIME magazine

This one starts with stereotypes (“femininity”), and then degenerates into word salad. What has “social status” got to do with anything? Can you be too posh, or too powerful, to be a woman? Or does it mean something else? Why is the community of women “imagined”? Who is “honouring the female”—the woman we’re defining, or someone else? What if whoever’s supposed to be doing the honouring doesn’t? If “women” are people who “enact the feminine,” what about female people who aren’t at all feminine?

Many people identify as women. However, what this means varies a great deal depending on their other intersecting attributes. It is important not to assume, for example, that being a woman necessarily involves being able to bear children, or having XX sex chromosomes, or breasts. Being a woman in a British cultural context often means adhering to social norms of femininity, such as being nurturing, caring, social, emotional, vulnerable, and concerned with appearance. However, of course not all women adhere to all these things. For example some neurodiverse women (on the autistic/aspergic/ADHD spectrums) may struggle to express emotions, or with social situations. In some northern working-class contexts femininity is associated with strength and aggression. As always an intersectional understanding is vital and we need to be mindful that what is culturally regarded as the epitome of femininity is white, middle class, youthful, non-disabled, heterosexual, cisgender, and thin. This strongly shapes all women’s experiences of womanhood

     — British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

Listing all the ways this is offensively wrongheaded would take weeks. So I’ll just mention one. Imagine that your brain has been so rotted by gender studies and queer theory that you genuinely think it reasonable to offer this collection of tired sex stereotypes as a definition of woman. Now suppose you decide that you really had better nod to the fact that they are not a perfect fit for every single woman—and the first example that comes to your mind is… women with autistic disorders. Seriously?

Every woman is a woman. Women are multifaceted, intergenerational, international. They are limitless, formless… women are the world

     — UN Women, quoting Aaron Philip, transwoman and model

Read many of these, and you can’t help noticing that words such as “limitless” come up a lot. That comes partly from a desire to sound profound and inclusive (see above). But it also has to do with the postmodernist mania for “deconstructing binaries.” A binary is a pair with an inbuilt hierarchy, like man/woman (to choose a non-random example) and to deconstruct it you must demonstrate that the second, supposedly subordinate, category in fact dominates the first. This is meant to be liberating, but in a destroy-the-village-to-save-it kind of way, since it means stealthily redefining that second category to include the first—in other words, blowing it wide open.

You will generally notice that the category “man” keeps its meaning. I wonder why?


Helen Joyce is a London-based journalist who is writing a book about gender-identity ideology. She tweets at @HJoyceGender.

Featured image: A fragment of ‘Eve,’ by Pantaleon Szyndler, 1889.


  1. Well, quite a few of the radical feminists are certainly formless.

  2. I found the article well written overall. But this was my favorite paragraph that really made my day:

    @quillette: A prime number, for example, is “a number that has no divisors but itself and one.” That excludes really rather a lot of numbers: six (two times three), say, and 71,417,010 (12,785 times 5,586). It’s not those numbers’ fault, and it doesn’t mean that they’re not nice numbers. They’re very nice. They’re just not prime.

    Excellent example, beautifully phrased! :slight_smile:

    @quillette: You will generally notice that the category “man” keeps its meaning. I wonder why?

    That’s an easy one (answer may contain traces of sarcasm): The term ‘man’ is simply too evil to be ennobled and enhanced by the application of postmodern deconstructivist approaches. After all, progressive research has clearly proven that this group is responsible for the outdated and highly problematic concepts of logic, rationality and reason with which no upright progressive intersectionalist wants to have anything to do.

  3. I wonder if these people truly believe themselves or know they are posturing. The funniest I think is the one from the British Association of ‘keep on losing our credibility’, if only because they seem to think they have their bases covered… like this: “of course not all women adhere to these things” (i.e. see, we are not all about stereotypes). By the way, I’m not autistic but I often struggle with social situations; am i a still a woman? Such a complex question. Then this: “some nothern working-class contexts femininity is associated with strenght and agression”. But wouldn’t masculinity too? With what is masculinity associated with then in these contexts? I wonder how we can distinguish the men from the women there. I guess we would need to ask a transman.

  4. Whenever I see a trans-woman, i.e. a biological male who wants to be a woman, there’s always something tragic about them, because all but a handful look like sad imitations of the real thing. In my, albeit limited, experience with them, I also noticed the prevalence of mental illness. I believe the statistics bear this out. I feel bad for them, generally, but we mustn’t forget that this movement is driven by people who are desperately trying to accomplish the impossible. As they will always fail in their efforts, their fanaticism will never abate.
    People who want to reshape reality always start by changing the meaning of words; cue George Orwell.
    That’s why I refuse to call a man a woman, or silence violence or any other fashionable nonsense.

  5. I don’t see it possible that this scourge upon Western society will end through reasoned discourse. These people thrive on contradictions; in fact, their metaphysics depend on them. Redefining language is the first step towards compelling people’s speech and controlling their thoughts. Heterodox opinions must be extricated; genuflection at the Altar of the Woke Deity will be mandated.

    It is impossible to have a debate with someone when the two parties can’t even agree on the definition of such a fundamental word as “woman.” It is important to remember that insanity generally implies an absence of the self-awareness of one’s condition.

  6. I think this is unfair. Trans activists comprise a tiny (but obnoxious and vindictive) part of the Trans community; the vast majority of Trans people simply want to live their lives in peace. Unless you regard being Trans as a mental illness in and of itself, I don’t think the evidence shows that rates of mental illness are significantly higher within the Trans community – with the exception of depression and suicidal ideation. Depression is an understandable response to the circumstances that Trans people encounter.

    I feel a great deal of compassion and admiration for ordinary Trans people who struggle to make sense of who they are and live with integrity, but I despise the extremist Trans activists who are provoking a backlash against the community and making life even more difficult for the people whom they claim to represent.

  7. Are you sure this is true? From what I can see, trans have always been a very small minority. They say it’s 0.03% don’t they? You think the trans activists are just a tiny slice of that tiny slice, even though they need not be trans themselves?

    Anecdotal, but of all the people I personally know, I can think of way more who can rightfully be described as trans activists than transgendered.

  8. I have a nephew who is a trans man. And, he identifies himself as such, not as just a “man,” but as a trans man, because he realizes that there is a difference. He realizes that on some level his body retains female characteristics, but he does operate better in this world as a man. So I respect his willingness to avoid the “I am a real man!” narrative that many trans people and their allies insist on.

  9. I hate to break it to you, but your “nephew” is actually your niece. Your niece is suffering right now, and the best thing you can do for her is tell her the truth. She needs therapy, not affirmation of her delusions, hormones, or surgery.

  10. I can see two sides to this issue that aren’t necessarily irreconcilable, provided we apply evolutionary reasoning.

    The core of the conflict seems to revolve around the question of what constitutes the category of “female” or “male”, and whether those categories are what philosophers call “natural kinds”. This is a perennial philosophic conundrum: are things separate because of essential characteristics, or are such distinctions merely semantic? Consider the distinction between a bush and a tree, or a hill and a mountain, or a pebble and a stone- at one point does one become the other? How do we make a taxonomy if things morph into one another?

    Many such distinctions are arbitrary, and we make distinctions on grounds of practicality. There are no moral implications, so the issue is not fraught.

    But categories involving humans are automatically problematic, particularly when they are used to discriminate. People fighting racism pointed out, quite correctly, that race is a mater of arbitrary definition- one “race” morphs into another based on geography, so racial discrimination is scientifically absurd.

    The transgender problem began, I think, when feminists decided to adopt the race approach: if race is arbitrary, then why not gender? If gender too is a social construct, then it is as arbitrary as racial distinctions. So feminists devised a strategy: define gender in terms that ignore biology, emphasizing gender roles and performativity, so gender also becomes arbitrary. Human beings, in the words of O’Brien, the sadistic interrogator in 1984, are infinitely malleable, and therefore subject to the dictates of the intelligentsia, the Inner Party.

    But this is already problematic, based on an implicit blank slate theory of human nature. From this perspective, human beings adopt the beliefs and expectations of their culture only, as if evolution had stopped at the neck. The problem is that since Darwin, such blank slate notions are simply obsolete. If humans are at root animals, then one would expect that sex would precondition gender if gender is considered to have biological roots based on mating strategies being different between the genders. This make both sex and gender natural kinds, not arbitrary distinctions.

    The problem is compounded, however, when we realize that biology is also behind diversity. Although sex is (almost) completely binary, because females are XX in the 23rd chromosome, while males are XY, gender might not be, even though it is innate. Although sex is binary, gender and sexual orientation are not, because both depend on the effects of sex hormones in the prenatal environment, and that allows for a spectrum. Some people can get too much, or not enough androgens or estrogens, leading to a brain which is not “normal” or typical given their sex.

    So trans men and women, like gays, can be born, not made. That means that trans men, for example, might very well feel as if they are females, with female predilections and desires. They may suffer stigma, and mental illness, as a result, but it doesn’t follow that being trans is in itself a form of mental illness.

    Of course feminists are now caught in a trap of their own making. If they defend being gay as innate, then they are logically forced to accept that gender is also innate- in which case they must abandon blank-slatism, which is fundamental to their ideology. But if they don’t accept gender as innate, then they have no grounds for arguing that trans men can’t be women, since being female is only a “social construct”.

    The debates going on around this issue would be furthered by forcing the participants to define their terms more clearly: when you use the word “gender”, are you referring to biological or social constructs? If gender is innate, then what consequences does this have for feminist ideology?

    Alas, it is unlikely that feminists will ever take up this challenge, because either way, it undermines their credibility. And so the debate roils on, with the participants on both sides resembling the blind men trying to define an elephant.

  11. Generally that could not be answered without a decent definition of what “Trans” means.

    Someone who generally prefers things that often appeal to the opposite gender are not considered Trans. Likewise people who may wish they were the opposite biological sex also are not Trans.

    Trans is usually applied to people who have a pressing psychological need to be referred to and seen as the opposite “sex” than they actually are. Along with that they also usually adopt the gendered norms associated with that sex.

    If you have a deep psychological need to be something that you objectively are not, I think its fair to call that a mental illness. In my opinion the problem is that there is still an abiding stigma that people with mental illness are “making it up”, and that its not “real”.

    Rather than push back against that stigma for the ignorance it is, Trans-activists instead went the other direction with “Just because I cannot stand the fact I was born with a male body and it causes me deep unhappiness that can only be alleviated by surgery, hormones, and makeup, doesn’t means I am mentally ill.

    Trans-activists have bought into the idea that “mentally ill” is equal to “morally turbulent” and “fake”. I feel that’s a real shame for those suffering from mental illness.

  12. Being attracted to the same sex is physically measurable. Being a man or a woman is physically measurable. Believing you are (as opposed to desiring to be) something you are not and can never be is a form of mental illness.

    But what do I know – I’m Annette Funicello.

  13. Well yes I in fact am “claiming something else”. Nice of you to notice! :slight_smile: Try and pay attention here. I specifically spelled out the definition of Trans I was using so as not to cause the confusion you are are manufacturing.

    “Trans is usually applied to people who have a pressing psychological need to be referred to and seen as the opposite “sex” than they actually are. Along with that they also usually adopt the gendered norms associated with that sex.”

    You will note I used the words “opposite sex” not “female”. Well, YOU obviously will not note this. You can only note what you think the straw-man you are arguing with is saying. You even agree with me that “sex” is something that can be measured objectively. Just nutty…

    Anyway, thanks for the chuckle. :slight_smile:

  14. I fail to see why a man who “identifies as” a woman is any more sane than a man who “identifies as” Napoleon.

  15. As a therapist, I find the politicization of the issue extremely damaging to patients.
    I have very rarely worked with someone whose real underlying issue was the symptom they first turned to help for- the kid with social trouble had emotional issues, the girl who came to cope with her parents’ divorce had social skills problems, the woman who came for her marriage hated herself, the guy who came to work on confidence needed to work on his marriage. (Of course people are an amalgamation of a whole lot of things and everything can be interconnected. But it’s usually possible to find a primary issue).
    I can think off the top of my head of about fifteen different scenarios for someone presenting with “I feel like I’m in the wrong body”. Instead of working on an individual basis to explore what’s going on, we’re being told to immediately affirm gender dysphoria and push transition.
    In my opinion, only very few, generally speaking, those whose identity is so completely entrenched in the idea of an opposite gender can benefit from living their lives in that way.

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