Transmissions: What is a woman?

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday July 13, 2022
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Illustration: Christine Smith
Illustration: Christine Smith

Conservative commentator and provocateur Matt Walsh recently released a movie titled, "What Is A Woman?" Many within the transgender community have come out in the wake of the documentary's release, alleging that they were invited to be a part of the film under false pretenses.

The question, of what makes a woman, is used as a sort of ambush throughout the film or, as Walsh himself put it, "most of the people we talked to either didn't want to talk about it or they appeared to be confused about something as simple as what a woman is."

The point of the film, of course, is to paint transgender people and those who support us as deluded, foolish, or both.

The idea was not new to Walsh. A particular sort of bigot known as a transgender-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF, has been focusing heavily on defining woman in as restrictive a fashion as possible, to exclude trans women and others from the word.

As an aside, I personally do not prefer to use the term TERF. Not because those same people have declared it a slur, but because I don't consider them radical or feminists, and they seem to want something more than mere exclusion of transgender people. Also, well, the word bigot is already in existence.

You will also note that you typically only hear the question asked as what is a woman, rather than what is a man? The notion is, I assume, that trans women are far easier to frame a controversy around, while otherwise erasing trans men from the discussion entirely — but I digress.

This question of how to define a woman is treated as little more than reciting a simplified definition from the Merriam-Webster Children's Dictionary. What makes such a definition so difficult, however, isn't in what a woman is, but in realizing what one is not. That is, any time you try to declare a definite, specific example of what a woman is, it can quickly break down on examination.

Consider the most obvious and simplistic example, now all the more painfully relevant in a post-Roe v. Wade world: A woman bears young. It seems cut and dried, but very quickly falls apart. When someone goes through menopause, are they suddenly not a woman anymore? How about a woman who simply cannot bear children, or has taken other measures to avoid childbirth?

You could try to pin it down to anatomy, but then not everyone who may have been assigned female at birth may have the same anatomy, and that anatomy can and does change throughout our lives.

It is probably worth noting that a fetus initially has proto-genitals that are not sexually dimorphic, and will need the presence of androgens to differentiate into what is typically considered male genitalia.

Of course, the one most often pointed to is one's chromosomes, usually simplified to XX for female and XY for male. Yet even this fails even the slightest scrutiny: with some carrying XX or XY chromosomes, yet otherwise having the physical appearance of a different gender, or those with chromosomal pairs that do not fit the XX and XY dichotomy.

In none of the above was I specifically referring to transgender people, either. There is enough variation beyond transgender identities to render a simple definition as nothing but a quaint rule of thumb, at best, with dozens of natural variations.

So let's talk about transgender people specifically. Those who take hormones alter their bodies in large and small ways, triggering puberty effects in line with their true selves. These changes can be as powerful as they are for any other person.

Even though such treatments will affect one's genitals, too, they won't wholly transform the average vagina into a penis, even with the aforementioned analogous pre-birth parts. Ergo, many will undergo surgical interventions to clear up their own dysphoria with their primary or secondary sexual characteristics. These changes, by and large, will produce genitalia — and chest topography, in many cases — that work largely like their non-surgical counterparts.

On top of the more medical changes one can experience, a transgender person will also adopt a different physical appearance through clothing, hair styles, identity documents, and so on. Each of these may make their gender clear.

In the end, I find the only good, solid way of determining if someone is a woman — or, frankly, any gender — is to simply ask a person.

You may wish to reject that, claiming that explaining identity as nothing more than "the feels" isn't enough to declare someone a woman. You'll see people mocking the notion, claiming that they identify as "attack helicopters" or whatnot.

But how many of these "attack helicopters" have considered having a rotor attached, have taken to daily injections of Jet-A aviation turbine fuel. They're not living on an Air Force base, and their driver's license — as if an attack helicopter would need one — doesn't picture a Sikorsky UH-60.

I suspect that most who wish to claim that the definition of a woman is so utterly simple have never considered how they would define it for themselves. They might just say that they are a woman because, well, they just are. They may feel no need for any deeper introspection than that.

Those of us who may be trans women have as deep an identity with our gender. It is truly a core part of our identity.

Perhaps more: we have had to fight for that identity in a world where people like Walsh want to paint us as monsters rather than people.

Gwen Smith is a woman. You'll find her at

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