What is a woman?

This seems to be the question for April. Ketanji Brown Jackson was asked, and I don’t think she gave a good answer: she basically punted. She told Marsha Blackburn that she was unable to answer the question because she is “not a biologist.” The problem isn’t that she’s not a biologist, it’s that the question is so complex and involves so many interacting perspectives that it is silly to expect a one sentence answer. It’s not a true/false question. It demands a full thesis paper to even begin to touch the subject, and it’s going to involve biology, genetics, endocrinology, psychology, sociology, and history to give an adequate answer. Good biologists know that, too, and so please, don’t expect us to deliver a definitive, complete definition. It’s also not going to lead you to the simple binary that Blackburn wants.

Would you believe Answers in Genesis tried to answer the question? They’re stuck on the biology, too — and I tell you what, if you’re expecting a bunch of young earth creationists to give a reliable answer on a biology question, you’re boned.

The biological differences between men and women go far beyond the reproductive system and secondary sexual characteristics. Women’s bones are, on average, less dense than men’s. Women have less muscle and more fat on their frames. Research suggests that women have better language skills and men are better at some types of math, though some of this has been attributed to differences in brain function, learning styles, and perhaps cultural expectations. (And while this may be true on a population level, it says nothing about the relative abilities of any particular man or woman.) Women’s biology is so different from men’s that doctors are now realizing they have distinctive heart attack symptoms and sometimes have different reactions to medication. Women’s lifespans are, on average, a few years longer than men’s. That the sexes are different regarding their bodies, their interests, abilities, and even their medical needs should not be surprising, nor should it be a boasting point for those of either sex.

Statistical epiphenomena are not particularly useful mechanisms for identifying the differences. They are even vaguely aware of the problem, as you may notice with that parenthetical comment that it says nothing about the relative abilities of any particular man or woman. Yes, there are differences in the averages, but there is significant overlap, and they are shaped by cultural expectations, as even AiG is able to notice. There are real biological differences, and the variants do tend to cluster into a bimodal distribution, but the properties of a population don’t necessarily apply to the individual. Many of those aren’t at all diagnostically useful — do we have to wait for someone to have a heart attack, die, and then use their symptoms and age at death to determine sex? Boy, those are going to be some depressing gender reveal parties.

Tellingly, they don’t answer the question, either. Their final definition relies on the pathetic trope of looking it up in a dictionary, and saying that everyone just knows what a woman is.

Merriam-Webster has, as of the date of writing, the primary definition of woman as “an adult female person.” The Oxford English Dictionary has the definition as “an adult female human being,” as does the Cambridge Dictionary. Every English dictionary has had a similar definition of the word woman, and up until very recently, everyone everywhere understood that men and women are the two biological sexes that comprise humanity. From ancient times, it is simply assumed that a person is either a man or a woman.

Great. Define “adult”. Define “female”. Define “person”. Every word of that definition has been historically and culturally fluid. Can you at least learn to recognize that these properties that you think are so rigid and definitive are and have always been weebly wobbly culturally defined conventions rather than inviolable biological absolutes?

Oh well, I thought Answers in Genesis would be the absolute rock bottom of the well being dug to haul up buckets of stupidity, but there’s always someone willing to dive a little deeper for that delicious, precious inanity, and here comes Madison Cawthorn.

His definition:

XX chromosomes, no tallywacker.

There are people who identify as women who only have one X chromosome, and other people who identify as men who lack a “tallywacker”. This is a bad definition. It’s simple-minded and trivializing, exactly what you might expect from a Madison Cawthorn.

Let’s turn it around and ask a different question.

What then is a man?

Books as empty as Madison Cawthorn’s cranium

I know. It’s just possession of a penis. Which means that a gigantic literary genre has been an epic waste of time. We can short circuit all the breast beating of Ernest Hemingway and Arthur Miller — just have their protagonists pull their pants down in the opening paragraph, done. Rip SE Hinton out of school libraries, since we can just replace her with a pantsing scene. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? We already know what manhood and masculinity are, good riddance. Homer and the Epic of Gilgamesh? Now superfluous.

It seems to me that all these self-involved authors have been writing an awful lot about what it means to be a man, and we can clear out a lot of library shelf space if we replace it all with the collected works of Madison Cawthorn, which would be a one-page pamphlet with a single line, XX chromosomes, no tallywacker. We can keep all the biology textbooks until the day that someone actually reads one, unlike self-righteous defender of biology Cawthorn, and discovers that they all say that sex is more complex and diverse than the prudes can imagine.

Man, a heck of a lot of famous literature is just guys looking for their tallywacker.


  1. Akira MacKenzie says


    GASP! I bet his fellows at Patrick Henry College were scandalized by Cawthorn’s filthy language… certainly more so than his record of sexual harassment.

  2. René says

    Books as empty as Madison Cawthorn’s cranium

    Such a book is called a dummy for a reason.
    I could tell PZ was really p*ssed when he wrote the op.

  3. cartomancer says

    I don’t know who this Madison Cawthorn is. He has not exactly made me keen to find out.

    But okay, let us assume that our entire approach to gender is going to be based on chromosomes and crotch-furniture. What that means is we simply can’t know the gender of an individual unless we have both a DNA test result and a look down their trousers. If you haven’t analysed a saliva sample in the lab and stared at them naked, you can’t say. Most people have seen themselves naked, but the vast majority have not seen a DNA test result. I certainly haven’t. By this revolutionary new schema I don’t know my own gender, and nor do most of humanity.

    Which means that we really ought to do away with all these old-fashioned, stifling gender conventions our societies still labour under, eh? The dress and presentation expectations, the career expectations, the pronouns, the lot. All that has nothing to do with gender, so clearly it’s all up for grabs. Even if you are one of those miserable few who does know their own gender, you’re not bound by any of the archaic stipulations that burden us right now anymore – let everyone rejoice in the new, queered age of joyous genderless abandon!

  4. Ada Christine says

    everybody’s asking “what is a woman” but not “how is a woman” -_-

  5. christoph says

    Still, it is fun to watch Madison Cawthorn jam his foot into his mouth once again.

  6. GMBigKev says

    What is a man? Well, a certain Dr. Acula would describe a man as “a miserable little pile of secrets.”

  7. says

    cartomancer@3 Cawthorn is a first term Republican US Congressman for North Carolina. He’s in a wheelchair because of a car crash where he was tjhe passenger. He’s been accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault. He was briefly married to a woman some people think was a Russian asset, despite the fact she’s an American.

    Now you know too much about him.

  8. Snarki, child of Loki says

    “Madison” is a girls name, isn’t it?
    Makes as much sense as the crap being spewed by Cawthorn.

  9. Akira MacKenzie says

    I don’t know who this Madison Cawthorn is. He has not exactly made me keen to find out.

    The CliffNotes version of his resume:

    Paraplegic Far-right-wing Congress-brat (he’s 26) from North Carolina. Lied about being accepted to West Point. Lied about the accident that confined him to a wheelchair. Likely sexually harassed the female students of fundamentalist Christian diploma mill he attended. Recently got in trouble with the fuddy-duddies in his own party when he accused them of inviting him to a coke orgy.

    In short, a real Christo-Fascist puss-bucket.

  10. says

    He says “Science is not Burger King,” but apparently “hold the pickle” will suffice to define a woman.
    I would take him more seriously if he would use the accepted scientific terms for anatomical parts. Which I think in this case would be “winkywomper.”
    As for the chromosomes, he obviously never watched House.

  11. StevoR says

    @ ^ feralboy12 :: Pretty sure sex-negative Chritianists like Madison Cawthorn don’t approve of holding one’s pickle either. Let alone holding anyone else’s pickles..

    To say nothing of eggplants..

  12. StevoR says

    @9. Snarki, child of Loki : Thought Maddison was a unisex name.. could that mean its um,, non-binary or rather both binary?

  13. says

    I can’t imagine why he would be either surprised or appalled when he got an invitation to an orgy. In my experience, the kind of people transphobes associate with generally insist I’m not a man, despite my preinstalled tallywhacker, because I’m the sort of person to decline an invitation to an orgy.

  14. says

    Interesting how the question, “What is a man?” is explored in books, plays, movies, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night… Like mentioned above, this could be a never defined question.

    But, the question, “What is a woman?”, is supposed to be a sound byte size clip?

    If I was asked that question, they would have regretted asking me, as I would have gone on and on about roles, society, burdens, expectations, that Madonna song….

  15. Becca Stareyes says

    Something just occurred to me. Chromosomes weren’t seen until the latter half of the 19th century (or So Sayeth Wikipedia). However ‘woman’ as a word can be traced back to the 8th century. Clearly speakers of Old English folks weren’t using it to mean ‘two X chromosomes’ since they didn’t know what that meant.

    That means Madison Cawthorn is saying that words like ‘woman’ change meaning with time and new information. (Not to mention that, par for the course, Madison Cawthorn apparently thinks ‘intersex’ is what happens when you and your date are in the backseat of a car going down I-40, and thus does not need to worry about it here.)

  16. Loree says

    @16 Bronze Dog In my experience, there are two kinds of orgies, the kind you wouldn’t be invited to would most likely be heteronormative and consist primarily of men in positions of influence and power and paid (or otherwise coerced) female participants. Then there are the pansexual (often explicitly pagan) type of orgies where everyone is welcome and everyone is there because they want to be and consent isn’t just a buzzword but a part of the culture. In my corporate days I was invited to the first kind and never went, after my transition I was invited to the second kind quite often and really enjoyed myself.

  17. Pierce R. Butler says

    Snarki… @ # 9: “Madison” is a girls name, isn’t it?

    Can somebody please explain to me why anybody, in a culture which assigns and insists on strict gender roles, would give names like “Madison” and “Alison” to their daughters?

  18. JoeBuddha says

    I thought her answer was just fine. The question wasn’t a question, but an attempt to trap her into the Trans “debate” so they could beat her up over her answer. I think punting was the appropriate move here.

  19. whywhywhy says

    Maybe I need to readjust my expectations, but I was expecting the AIG definition of a woman to be much worse than it was. The fact they admitted some fuzziness around the definition gives me some hope for this world. Then Madison’s trolling in Congress put my expectations for conservatives right back where they started when I began reading this post.

  20. Reginald Selkirk says

    “Science is not Burger King” says Cawthorn, as he tells a string of whoppers.

  21. microraptor says

    JoeBuddha @21: Agreed, the question was a blatant and stupid gotcha attempt and her response to it was the correct one. It had no bearing or merit in being there and wasn’t worth the time to give a detailed answer.

  22. Akira MacKenzie says

    A guy who denies both evolution (Cawthorn attended Patrick Henry which is explicitly YEC) and climate change has NO business lecturing me about science.

  23. says

    The “correct” answer to “What is a woman?” is “What is a planet?”. (Though that is way deeper than any thought Cawthorn or Blackburn has ever had in their life.)

  24. nomdeplume says

    As Professor Higgins said “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Perhaps this uneducated fool hasn’t seen “My Fair Lady”…

  25. rrhain says

    I’ve posted this elsewhere, but it fits here, too. How I would have responded to Blackburn:

    I know that many people think the question of what it means to be a “woman” is easy, but it has been my experience that what it means to be a “woman,” or a “man,” for that matter, is actually quite complex.

    To some, it boils down to body parts and chromosomes. They’ll say that a “woman” is defined by her ability to bear children. But then I have to ask, Senator Blackburn, as a woman who is in her 60s and thus presumably long past menopause, does that mean you aren’t a woman anymore? The only thing that makes a person a woman is the menstrual cycle?

    What about my mother, who underwent a hysterectomy for medical reasons? Was she no longer a woman because her uterus was removed? She then had the further indignity of coming down with breast cancer and underwent radical mastectomy to remove it. Did that mean she was no longer a woman? It is my understanding that that is one of the hardest things a woman facing breast cancer has to manage: The feeling of no longer being a woman because of the loss of a breast. Their self-esteem is destroyed. Their understanding of who they are is connected to their body and to have it altered in such a radical way, even though it is done to save their lives, is such a tremendous ask of them that it is no wonder that they question what it means to be a woman if those physical signs are taken away.

    But I would never presume to tell someone that has had a hysterectomy and/or mastectomy, like my mother who had both, that they weren’t a woman. That doesn’t mean that the body has nothing to do with it. But it is so much more than just that. It would be the height of arrogance and temerity to look at survivors of cancer and polyps and fibroids and tell them that they are no longer “women” simply because their bodies no longer fit into the regimented stereotype of what it is somebody else thinks it ought to be.

    Was the Senator referring to something else?

  26. Ada Christine says

    @StevoR #14

    when? well i know the answer for me on that question. but the one that really gnaws at my mind and keeps me awake at night is “why is a woman?”

  27. Allison says

    Ada Christine @30

    …. “why is a woman?”

    I’m going to interpret that to mean “what does it matter whether someone is a ‘woman’?”

    My shorter answer is: so there can be patriarchy, i.e., so there can be a class of people to oppress. If they weren’t oppressing ‘women,’ there would be no reason to make a big deal about whether a particular person is or is not a ‘woman.’

    For Patriarchy to work, humanity has to be divided into two immutable groups, to which people are assigned at birth, so you can oppress one group and keep the other one in line by making them afraid that they could end up in the oppressed class. For whatever reasons, they decided to classify people based on whether (at birth) they looked like they might bear children or sire children, but it doesn’t really depend upon whether a particular member of the child-bearing class will ever bear children or of the child-siring class will ever sire a child.

    In order for people to buy into this division and not notice that it is really artificial and created by the boss class, you have to convince them that it is a law of nature (or of God) and thus not something humans can do anything about. And if someone’s designation is done by a law of nature, then you can’t have people switching classes, or even discovering there was a mistake. It’s kind of an emperor’s new clothes thing — if people ever notice how artificial it all is, the whole system collapses.

    And since Republicans are now about maintaining or increasing all the oppressions in society (not limited to oppression of women), anything that threatens that power structure is their enemy.

    BTW, this is why TERFs find themselves joining forces with other groups that are doing their best to maintain the Patriarchy and thus women’s oppression. They say they are trying to protect “women,” but what they’re actually protecting is the system on which the oppression of women is based.
    (Which kinda makes me wonder how anyone can still call them feminists, but that’s another story.)

    tl;dr: the question of who is (really) a woman is a political one, not a scientific one.

  28. StevoR says

    @ ^ Allison : yes and cultural I guess too.

    @15. Marcus Ranum :

    If she says she’s a woman (and tells me her pronouns are “she/her”) then who am I to argue? Seems simple enough.

    Quoting for Truth and seconding here. Yes.

    @18. Becca Stareyes : Good point.

  29. makarman says

    “Silicone Valley”?!?
    The junior roller nazi needs a time out.
    He must have won with the pity vote in his district. But DAMN! There is just no “there” there!

  30. Ada Christine says

    Allison @31

    i understand and agree with all of that. the tone i intended to convey, however, was more joking about the existential dread of being a trans woman, i.e. “why am i a woman?”

  31. erik333 says

    @31 Allison
    Genders would exist in any free society for mating purposes. You’re describing gender roles.