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Scientists Claim There Is Not a ‘Simple’ Answer to Define ‘Woman’

What is a woman? Or rather, what defines someone as a woman? Ask 100 women, and you might get 100 different answers. This is because there are a variety of contexts in which you could define a woman, and within each of these contexts, there will still not be one straight answer. Socially or biologically, there is still so much variation. This is the problem Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson ran into in her Supreme Court Confirmation hearing this past Tuesday. Senator Marsha Blackburn asked her to define the word woman. Jackson’s response was rather controversial and has sparked a debate on how to define a woman.

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Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson Struggles To Define A Woman

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing Tuesday was a long, grueling affair. It lasted more than 13 hours and was full of extremely tough and at times harsh questions. One of the toughest, however, was when Senator Marsha Blackburn asked the judge to define the word “woman”. (1)

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“Not in this context, I’m not a biologist,” Judge Jackson responded. “In my work as a judge, what I do is I address disputes. If there’s a dispute about a definition, people make arguments, and I look at the law, and I decide.”

Blackburn was not at all impressed with the answer. She chastised Jackson immediately.

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“the fact that you can’t give me a straight answer about something as fundamental as what a woman is underscores the dangers of the kind of progressive education that we are hearing about.” Blackburn stated in the hearing.

The Grand Debate: What Defines A Woman?

You may be wondering why Jackson’s answer and why learning how a potential supreme court judge defines a woman is so important. It is because, as a Supreme Court Judge, Jackson will most definitely preside over cases involving trans rights and gender politics. Gender politics in the United States of America is a hot topic currently. This is especially so with several trans rights issues currently in debate. Senators on both sides have since used Jackson’s response to talk about their own issues with the debate. (2)

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Scientists Can’t Define “Woman” Either

Many scientists, biologists, and gender law scholars have commended Jackson for her response. They agree that her response might be slightly misleading, but still it wasn’t a bad one. This is because while they agree that science and biology could help create a definition for the word, it can’t create a conclusive answer, either.

There are billions of women on the planet. Each woman is unique and different, both in a social context and a biological one. Most scientists agree that there is too much variation to be able to clearly, scientifically, define what is a woman.

Rebecca Jordan-Young is a scientists and gender studies scholar. In her work, she explores the relationship between science and the social side of gender and sexuality. She says that while biology is a part of what makes a woman a woman and a man a man, it cannot offer a complete definition.

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“I don’t want to see this question punted to biology as if science can offer a simple, definitive answer,” she said.  “The rest of her answer was more interesting and important. She said ‘as a judge, what I do is I address disputes. If there’s a dispute about a definition, people make arguments, and I look at the law, and I decide.’ In other words, she said context matters – which is true in both biology and society. I think that’s a pretty good answer for a judge.”

Read: Midwives told to say ‘chestfeeding’ instead of ‘breastfeeding’ in gender-inclusive move

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Not A Simple Question

After the hearing, Blackburn tweeted that her question to define the word “woman” was a simple one. She said that the fact that Jackson couldn’t answer it was a major red flag. Many scientists, however, say that it’s true: It really is not a simple question.

The answer is not as binary as we once used to say. It used to be “If you are born with a penis, you are a boy and identify as one. If you are born with a vagina, you are a woman and identify as one.”. As gender experts point out, however, it is much more complex than that.

In terms of biology, there are at least six different markers for “sex”. This includes genitals, gonads, chromosomes, internal reproductive organs, hormones, and their levels, and secondary sex characteristics. These markers don’t always align, however, and aren’t necessarily opposite or completely different. Therefore, according to biologists, it is nearly impossible to define a woman based on biology alone.

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It Is A Social Question and Needs To Be Answered On A Contextual Basis

While there are biological markers that exist for sex, we can’t completely hinge the definition of male or female in science. In the terms of the law and the judicial system, each case involving this debate needs to take into account both the biological and the social context of the debate.

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“As is so often the case, science cannot settle what are really social questions,” said Sarah Richardson, a Harvard scholar, historian and philosopher of biology who focuses on the sciences of sex and gender and their policy dimensions. “In any particular case of sex categorization, whether in law or in science, it is necessary to build a definition of sex particular to context.”

Gender studies professor Kate Mason says that in many cases, judges have to recognize that gender is not a binary thing. It is fluid. Many people will have their own idea of what gender, or a gender, is, and with what and how they identify.

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“I do think that judges and justices sometimes have to make determinations about who is meant by ‘man’ or ‘woman’ in written statutes – and they may have to acknowledge the reality that sex and gender are not binary,” Mason said. “I think Blackburn would prefer a world in which reality was much simpler.”

Keep Reading: Mom sparks war of words after spotting ‘exaggerated’ lips on Black doll

Sources

  1. Scientists Claim There Is Not a ‘Simple’ Answer to Define ‘Woman’.” IJR. Bradley Cortright. March 25, 2022.
  2. Marsha Blackburn asked Ketanji Brown Jackson to define ‘woman.’ Science says there’s no simple answer..” USA Today. Alia E. Dastagir. March 24, 2022.
Julie Hambleton
Freelance Writer
Julie Hambleton has a BSc in Food and Nutrition from the Western University, Canada, is a former certified personal trainer and a competitive runner. Julie loves food, culture, and health, and enjoys sharing her knowledge to help others make positive changes and live healthier lives.
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