Andy Lewis’ Gendered Gotcha

I rarely do this outside of classrooms, but I’m going to give folks here some definitions that are in common use among people that seriously study gender. Why? In part because Andy Lewis seems to think that there is no coherent definition of gender generally and woman specifically because gender is an inherently incoherent concept while sex is an inherently coherent concept and that to the extent that we use the words gender or woman or man we should use them only in reference to underlying, coherent categories of sex. The Andy Lewises of the world appear to believe that this definitional challenge – and the poor response most people give when asked to meet it – proves the fundamental rightness of an anti-trans*, pro-TERF feminist philosophical position.

Some people respond by problematizing sex: hey, look, developmental pathways are complex! Not all humans either produce sperm or produce eggs, and in a few vanishingly rare cases one might even produce both – though without the fuller configuration of reproductive organs necessary to both inseminate and to carry a pregnancy to term. The Andy Lewis response is that this is irrelevant since each person who IDs as transgender does fall into one of the two familiar sexes. This oversimplifies things, and pointing out that this is not true in every case does appear to falsify the AL position, but it makes little headway.

Why does it make little headway? Well, in part from the intransigence of AL et al. who wish to make categorical statements while denying responsibility for the manifest examples of violations of those definitions. But part of why AL et al. can be so successful is that most people really don’t think about gender enough to have a coherent viewpoint. By continuously pushing back at others and ignoring their own inconsistencies and incoherences, people like AL can eventually force almost anyone into a corner from which they cannot take another logical, rational step in their defense of current trans* inclusive ideas of gender and intersex inclusive ideas of sex. The fact is that this is true even of those who spend a great deal of time thinking about and discussing these ideas, not least because human lives are messy as hell, so our categorizations also end up being messy. Defending the boundaries we draw is not actually very easy. Yet it becomes easier if we take advantage of the anthropological, sociological, and psychological insights of the past few dozen years.

The first and most important insight is that gender is not one thing. Rather, gender itself can refer to multiple different things just as “vehicle” can refer to a Vespa, to an initial argument made to open up the possibility of argument on other issues, or even just one half of a metaphor. Let’s deal here with only those aspects of gender that relate more-or-less directly with human beings – definitions of, say, linguistic gender can be set aside as not currently under discussion. Thus focussed we can say that there are several categories of gendered social structure, gendered activity, and gendered experience that are  important here:

Gender Assignment: this is the act of assigning someone to a gender, typically at or near birth and typically on the basis of the external appearance of an infant’s genitalia. There is rarely any investigation into karyotype or factors that relate to actual reproductive fertility. Assignment as practiced is forced categorization of a child by an adult based on stereotypical expectations of gender associated with persons sharing at least somewhat similar genital appearance.

Gender Role: this is a prescribed set of expectations, highly culture specific, for the individual and group behaviors of persons deemed to belong to a particular gender. The gender role is more a set of related archetypes than it is a stereotype. In this sense it is seen as something society should encourage persons of each gender to match, rather than something that would be shocking if persons of that gender did not match. Thus girls are encouraged to be listeners and nurturers and receive explicit training towards fulfilling the archetype upon adulthood, where if this was a stereotype it would be more typical to assume that no such encouragement or training is needed.

Gender Rules, Gender Morés, and Gender Punishments: The first two are often seen as a single concept, but you can find the concept discussed using both of these names so you should be familiar with each. The last is sometimes seen as inherent in the concept of “rule” or “moré” (without punishment something may more appropriately be described as a mere expectation, role or stereotype), but there are reasons to call out that gender is something enforced by society and so the phenomenon of gender punishment may at times need to be discussed in a manner somewhat abstracted from the specific rule breaking that precedes gender punishment. Gender punishment is also sometimes discussed separately to aid in understanding that what is punishment for boys or men is not always punishment for girls or women. It’s also possible that an individual boy or girl, man or woman views something he or she is currently experiencing as a punishment while others have the external expectation that the imposed experience is not a punishment. In these cases too discussing an event or experience may require separating the concept of punishment from any specific rule or rule breaking.

Gender Attribution: this is the act of categorization of someone to a gender, at any time of life and by any person, using any gender inflected clues. When wheeling ourselves around the sidewalks of NY Times’ Square in a chair, we might attribute gender to a hundred or more people in a single minute, which each of those hundred people is making a hundred attributions as minute as well. Inevitably many of these attributions are in conflict. When we seek the “real” gender of someone, we don’t typically use gender attributions to determine it, but stable patterns of gender attribution over a long time can sometimes be said to be determinative of “real” or “true” gender in and of themselves – or if not exactly by virtue of the pattern alone, then by virtue of the social consequences of that pattern. For instance, if people perceive you as a woman and react to you as a woman (given that all current human societies have gendered rules and roles), then they will expect you to obey woman-specific gender morés and may frequently inflict gender punishments for behaviors that would not violate morés if others attributed to you the gender man. One expected aspect of a person occupying a particular gender role is the acceptance of the rules that define the boundaries of that role. If one has accepted (tacitly or otherwise) a particular pattern of gender attribution over a long time, this can be used as evidence that one has accepted a particular gender role, and that gender role can then be sometimes used to assume or prove “real” or “true” gender. So individual gender attributions are generally of little consequence to determining “true” gender. Merely because one taps you on the shoulder from behind and attracts your attention by saying, “Ma’am?” does not mean that a person has become a woman in that instant. Nor does being sir‘d make one a man for an instant. But little consequence is not zero consequence, and attributions can collectively take on great importance.

Gender Stereotype: any specific stereotype defined as specific to a gender. A CEO stereotype may or may not be a gender stereotype, but tomboy is always a gender stereotype. Gender Roles often frequently include contradictory characteristics. The existence of gender stereotypes can function to effectively excuse certain gender violations so long as they only occur in the context of adherence of other important aspects of a specific gender stereotype. For instance, a man might wear eye shadow while performing original music or poetry on stage, but not while working an assembly line job. A woman might act quite assertively as a CEO, but not while wearing diaphanous gowns and flowers in her hair. The line between stereotype and archetype (i.e. between Gender Stereotype and Gender Role) is not always clear, but roles tend to be universal and aspirational – a goal that anyone of that gender should aspire to meet – while stereotypes tend to be describe a subset of persons belonging to a specific gender and also typically function as minimum standards. To fall outside a stereotype rarely happens without breaking gender rules and thus to fall outside a stereotype carries with it the expectation of gender punishments.

Gender Identity: how one describes one’s own gender to oneself, especially but not only how a person internally answers the question, “What gender am I?” Although grammatically in certain circumstances we may refer to an individual’s gender identity as that person’s gender identification, this should be considered distinct from gender identification when used to refer to official documentation of the official gender assignment determined by one’s government. A birth certificate may be, among other things, a form of gender identification. This is not meant to imply that the birth certificate reflects or is intentionally designed to reflect how the person described by that birth certificate self-identifies.

Gender Socialization: this is a combination of gender assignment, gender morés, and gender punishments, as filtered through the gender attributions of those in social relationship to a person, in combination with the passive socialization as filtered through an individual’s gender identity. It may also be used to describe the net effects that this combination has on a person’s or group’s behavior and psychology.

With all this having been said, Gender, otherwise unqualified, might refer to any of these. When one asks about the gender a person a speaker described, what is being asked is that speaker’s attribution of gender: there’s typically no expectation that the speaker has seen a birth certificate or has observed years of interaction sufficient to describe socialization or telepathically determined the subject’s internal gender identity. Other times one might be interested in the gender in which a person was raised, specifically because we are interested in how one is being and has been socialized. Sometimes accepting the aspirational aspects of gender role is considered legitimate (this is almost always true for cis-folks) while at other times (nearly always for trans* folks) accepting aspirational aspects of a gender role is considered endorsement of the legitimacy of sexism and more generally of compulsory gender. For feminists who believe someone’s acceptance of aspirational aspects of a gender role demonstrates endorsement of compulsory gender (a whacky view when applied to trans* folks, but a common one), such acceptance is considered illegitimate. In feminist discussions, especially but not only discussions of performative gender, defining or enforcing rules and morés can be seen as doing gender, and thus in shorthand you’ll see some people in some situations use gender in an unqualified way with the expectation that people understand it is specifically gender rules and punishments that are being discussed.

None of this is contradictory, and all of it relates to the human production and experience of gender.

However, having arrived at all this, it makes definitions of subsidiary terms like man highly dependent on which aspects of gender are being discussed at any given moment. If gender rules and punishments are being discussed, man may be defined by rules against behaviors like crying or rules prohibiting expression of certain emotions (like sympathy) while encouraging, at least in a relative sense, the expression of other emotions (like anger). Men, in the context of this discussion, are most reasonably described as the persons that society binds by these specific rules. These men may or may not have penises, and may or may not have vaginas. This is in direct conflict with definitions such as Andy Lewis’, but it is also in direct conflict with definitions based on Gender Assignment. If our definitions are based on gender assignment, then we would expect that the priority given to anatomical morphology would lead to a category of Men who, whatever the current state of their anatomy, at least possessed a penis – or something very like a penis – at birth. Many societies give power to certain medical providers to perform Gender ReAssignment. This is not merely the medical and especially surgical interventions that reshape a body, but also the power to cause a government to change an official gender assignment based on the medical provider’s testimony. This power was once most frequently used with intersex children, but surgery on the genitals of intersex children may be declining while medical intervention for trans* persons is certainly on the rise. It may be that it has already become much more common to empty this power on behalf of trans* persons than on behalf of intersex children, but the data that would prove this are not available. Nonetheless, traditional (and the most common) gender assignment is a birth assignment using genital shape as the primary if not the only criterion. This definition is not at all consistent with the gender rules/punishments definition above.

So doesn’t that mean that gender is, as Andy Lewis insists, an incoherent concept?

No. It means that like many other concepts it has multiple, related aspects. We are now prepared to answer AL’s challenge for a definition of woman, though it requires multiple definitions and the acknowledgement that in different conversations we might employ one (or more) without employing the others.

Woman can thus mean adults who have been assigned as women through an official act.

Woman can mean someone perceived as a woman by a specific person at a specific time.

Woman can mean someone who adheres to the gender role woman, either by choice, as a result of social forces, or from some internal motivation that is not perceived as a free choice.

Woman can mean someone whose behavior is governed by the rules, morés and punishments pertaining to women.

Woman can mean someone whose life is prescribed and constrained by a particular woman-stereotype. While this seems unlikely, it’s easier to see that this is indeed the case when someone that might otherwise be considered a woman is cast out of womanhood and demeaned for breaking stereotypes. Janet Reno, Michelle Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton come to mind as three women who are commonly perceived as not-women because they fail to conform to stereotype. This in turn validates the idea that many persons are defining women by their adherence to stereotype.

Woman can mean someone who thinks of herself as a woman, who answers the question, “What gender am I?” with the response, “A woman.”

And woman can mean someone who experienced the socialization of girlhood and early womanhood. One can see this definition frequently in anti-trans* feminist thought (when certain feminists wish to exclude trans* women from the concerns of feminism and do so by asserting that trans* women don’t really know what “being a woman” is like, and therefore trans* women’s self-identifications cannot be trusted, because trans* women weren’t socialized as girls and young women), but it crops up in other places as well.

One particularly problematic aspect of the socialization definition is that active socialization and passive socialization are different concepts describing equally important aspects of personality and identity formation. If I watch Strawberry Shortcake and want to be Blueberry Muffin when I grow up, I am internalizing socialization through a passive process: no one is specifically telling me what qualities I must or should possess when I grow up. I am absorbing those messages without conscious decisions being made (by me or by anyone) on the basis of my sympathetic identity response to certain persons and my lack of the same in relation to other persons. But of course, we each also receive direct messages when someone tells us things such as, “Crip Dyke, you should smile more. You’d be much more attractive if you just didn’t seem so angry.” For trans* persons, active socialization and passive socialization are often pushing the same person in quite different directions, with the amount of force dependent not only on the strength and consistency of one’s identifications but also on the frequency and level of social pressures brought to bear from outside.

Given all this, it should be obvious that there will be many people who meet some definitions of the word woman while not meeting others. To AL et al. this appears to be incoherence, but in fact it is the direct and desirable consequence of the great richness and specificity of our human knowledge of gender.

P.S. It’s true that sex also is a multi-faceted word with several components, and I’ll likely put up a post soon about the various definitions of that word (though there are fewer in common use than their are for gender). But I think it’s more important to understand why we believe what we believe, and to be able to articulate that, than it is to be able to deconstruct what others believe, so I’ve prioritized defining and defending gender concepts here rather than attacking Andy Lewis’ sex-based thinking.


  1. John Morales says


    But part of why AL et al. can be so successful is that most people really don’t think about gender enough to have a coherent viewpoint. By continuously pushing back at others and ignoring their own inconsistencies and incoherences, people like AL can eventually force almost anyone into a corner from which they cannot take another logical, rational step in their defense of current trans* inclusive ideas of gender and intersex inclusive ideas of sex.

    I know this is only part of your preamble, but, heh.

    They came in with an attitude and it was clear they thought they could actually argue their case cogently. DKSIMO.

    Could only happen like that in Pharyngula, that’s why that place is still special.

  2. says

    But of course, we each also receive direct messages when someone tells us things such as, “Crip Dyke, you should smile more. You’d be much more attractive if you just didn’t seem so angry.”

    Reminds me of an old joke: “Smile,” they said. “It could be worse,” they said.

    I did. It was.

    Hey, I never said it was a funny joke 😕

  3. Knabb says


    Exactly. Which, in the context of dealing with a violent fascist movement emboldened specifically by the idea of their impunity from others not being willing to hit them even as said movement tries indirectly to kill them is a valuable message to send. “Bring on violent conflict, we’ve got all the will to fight” is a growing idea in the right, and instilling in them knowledge that we’re prepared to hit them helps squash that.

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