You will be pleased to know that there is a simple method for answering the question asked in the title of this book. We define what a woman is, and then see if a transgender woman matches that definition.
But you might not be so pleased when you find out that defining ‘woman’ immediately gets us in a debate which involves both the philosophy of language and science.
On one hand we have conservatives who claim that the word ‘woman’ refers to a set of rigid, biologically defined characteristics involving chromosomes, genitalia and anatomy, and that this definition cannot be changed. They see the definition of the word as set in stone and defined by nature – immutable and unchanging. For them, a transgender woman clearly does not comply with this definition and thus it is incorrect to use the word ‘woman’ to refer to her.
While liberals agree that the word ‘woman’ refers to an organism with the characteristics listed by conservatives, they believe that it can be broadened to include intersex people and transgender women.
The debate comes down, therefore, to a bigger question about the nature of human language: can the meaning of a word change? While the meaning of words such as ‘gay’ (which used to mean ‘happy’) is clear proof that the meanings of words can change over time, it is less clear whether scientific terms pertaining to the most basic things in the universe can change. A cow is a cow and a baby is a baby and water is water, so surely the meaning of a word like ‘woman’ cannot be changed.
However, we only have to look at the related term ‘mother’ – one of the most fundamental words in human biology and consciousness – to see that the meaning of a word can move beyond a strict biological definition. As my regular readers will know, I was adopted, and the woman who raised me did not produce the egg which made me and she did not carry me in her belly and she did not give birth. What right has she got to use the term mother? She has every right because she adopted and raised me and society has broadened the term ‘mother’ to include women who adopt children.
Furthermore, it is also clear that even the most fundamental scientific words can change if we discover something fundamentally new about the thing or process or state of mind they refer to. For example, there have been particles which have been mistakenly defined as waves, and waves mistakenly defined as particles and then the discovery that some particles can behave both like particles and waves.
It’s clear to me, therefore, and I hope it’s clear to you, that while conservatives can argue that they don’t think the meaning of ‘woman’ should be broadened to include transgender women, they cannot say that prima facie…the meaning of the word is set in stone and defined by nature and that’s it. As we have seen, words with biological origins can change for two reasons.
1. Social utility: Realising that some children without parents needed a mother we broadened the meaning of the word to include adoptive mothers.
2. Scientific: we discover some new property or characteristic of something, and this changes the meaning of the longstanding word that refers to that thing.
To conclude, the human race is constantly evolving socially and scientifically and our language reflects that. God, marriage, citizen, star, atom are all words that continue to morph through time and there are none that are immune to change. Without exception! Well, actually, that’s not true because there is one word that will never change: conservative.
Conservative will be synonymous with the word ‘cunt’ until the end of time.
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“[…] Well, actually, that’s not true because there is one word that will never change: conservative.
Conservative will be synonymous with the word ‘cunt’ until the end of time.”
I need to disagree with this, since this word (like Liberal) has changed meaning immensely.
I think you refer to the meaning of Neo-Con, or Crony Capitalist, or perhaps the theocratic “Conservative” type – all Capital C, all quite simply blatantly NOT conservative (small c). A small c conservative is akin to a Classical Liberal – who actually has nothing in relation to the strong state, strong central government Liberal (Neo-Communist, or Progressive). In fact, the Liberal and Conservative have more in common with each other. Both favor strong, large, government, who will tell EVERYONE what to do, and how, and when. Nanny State is good, it’s just a question of who is controlling the neo-feudal slave plantation, under cover of a make-believe choice (vote).
So, since you used both the small c and Large C versions of the word, I need to quibble. Libertarian, conservative, Classical Liberal, these I get. Neo-Con, Neo-Com, Neo-Lib, Progressive – all of these I understand, but they all wish to infringe on my right to just BE, without some “authority” deciding how and why I should be permitted to exist.
That violates my fundamental humanity, and must be opposed. By any means necessary…
Which I think fits pretty well with the overall self-determination I’ve been reading about here. 🙂
Hello…thanks so much for commenting. I’m amazed how many people have made comments about my use of the term conservative. Jack, for example, gave the example of a conservative politician who embraced transgender rights. To me, though, if he embraces transgender rights he is no longer, by definition, a conservative…although he may be a member of the conservative party. ‘Conservative’ has many meanings but in this article I mean it purely with respect to the transgender debate. In other words…’transphobes’.
And of course, I was being metaphorical…obviously the word conservative has changed many times. It was just a quirky way to end the article…