Anyone with a female gender identity is female: she is a woman or girl. Women are a very diverse group, and many assumptions about the definitive characteristics of womanhood are not held in common by all women. Having the ability or desire to give birth are not what makes someone a woman, because many women and girls can't or don't want to do that, due to health conditions, age, or personal choice. Looking like a woman in other people's judgment does not make someone a woman, because others can misjudge that, and there are women who look masculine, and other people who look feminine, whether by choice or by nature. Only identifying as a woman makes someone a woman. Any woman's womanhood is valid no matter what kind of body parts she has, or what gender she was assigned at birth. Cisgender women, transgender women, and intersex women are equally women. Because gender isn't the same thing as sexual orientation, women are still women whether they feel sexual attraction to men (heterosexual), or to women (lesbian), or to people of any gender (bisexual or pansexual), or none (asexual).
In the Western colonialist gender binary system, "woman" is considered to be one of the only two genders that exist, one of the binary genders. For all of written history, cultures all over the world have acknowledged people who were gender-variant or who transitioned to a different gender role than the one assigned to them at birth. Ancient cultures that thought of there being a specific number of genders did not always say there were just two. In ancient Egyptian writings, woman was one of three genders, and in classical Jewish literature, woman was one of six genders. The gender binary is an artificial and relatively new concept to humanity. Gender is not inherently binary. Therefore, "woman" is not inherently a binary gender. Rather, "woman" is one of many genders that people have. Throughout the history of the world, there have been many people who do not identify with being only female or male, who are therefore nonbinary. There are also people who identify partly as a woman, and yet do not feel they completely fit into that category, so they call themselves nonbinary women. Although the gender binary system is coercive and limiting, "woman" is a valid identity. Womanhood can be better understood as an identity in its own right, rather than as an opposite pole in a binary system.
Etymology and terminology[edit | edit source]
The spelling of "woman" in English has progressed over the past millennium from wīfmann to wīmmann to wumman, and finally, the modern spelling woman. In Old English, wīfmann meant "female human", whereas wēr meant "male human". Mann or monn had a gender-neutral meaning of "human", corresponding to Modern English "person" or "someone"; however, subsequent to the Norman Conquest, man began to be used more in reference to "male human", and by the late 13th century had begun to eclipse usage of the older term wēr. The medial labial consonants f and m in wīfmann coalesced into the modern form "woman", while the initial element wīf, which meant "female", underwent semantic narrowing to the sense of a married woman ("wife").
It is a popular misconception that the term "woman" is etymologically connected to "womb". "Womb" derives from the Old English word wamb meaning "belly, bowels, heart, uterus" (modern German retains the colloquial term "wamme" from Old High German wamba for "belly, paunch, lap").
The word girl originally meant "young person of either sex" in English; it was only around the beginning of the 16th century that it came to mean specifically a female child. The term girl is sometimes used colloquially to refer to a young or unmarried woman; however, during the early 1970s, feminists challenged such use because the use of the word to refer to a fully grown woman may cause offence. In particular, previously common terms such as office girl are no longer widely used. Conversely, in certain cultures which link family honor with female virginity, the word girl (or its equivalent in other languages) is still used to refer to a never-married woman; in this sense it is used in a fashion roughly analogous to the more-or-less obsolete English maid or maiden.
There are various words used to refer to the quality of being a woman. The term "womanhood" merely means the state of being a woman. "Femininity" is used to refer to a set of typical female qualities associated with a certain attitude to gender roles; "womanliness" is like "femininity", but is usually associated with a different view of gender roles. "Distaff" is an archaic adjective derived from women's conventional role as a spinner, now used only as a deliberate archaism.
Symbol[edit | edit source]
The glyph (♀) for the planet and Roman goddess Venus, or Aphrodite in Greek, is the symbol used in biology, geneaology, and some restroom signs for female. In ancient alchemy, the Venus symbol stood for copper, and was associated with femininity.
This comes from a set of symbols that were first used to denote the effective sex of plants (i.e. sex of individual in a given crossbreed, since most plants are hermaphroditic) by naturalist Carl Linnaeus in 1751. The male and female symbols are still used in scientific publications to indicate the sex of an individual, for example of a patient. Joseph Justus Scaliger speculated that the male symbol is associated with the Mars, god of war because it resembles a shield and spear; and that the female symbol is associated with Venus, goddess of beauty because it resembles a bronze mirror with a handle. Later scholars dismiss this as fanciful,The visual equivalent of a backronym, preferring "the conclusion of the French classical scholar Claude de Saumaise (Salmasius, 1588-1683) that these symbols [...] are derived from contractions in Greek script of the Greek names of the planets".Thouros (Mars) was abbreviated as θρ, and Phosphoros (Venus) by Φ, in handwriting.
Cisgender women[edit | edit source]
Cisgender women are women who were assigned female at birth (or were born with certain intersex conditions), and who have a female gender identity. Cisgender (from Latin cis "same side of" + "gender", this word was "coined in 1995 by a transsexual man named Carl Buijs") means "not transgender," as they don't transition to female from some other gender.
A few of the physical characteristics of a cisgender woman often include:
- A uterus, ovaries, and vagina, unless if she was born without one or another of them (agenesis), or had them taken out (hysterectomy, oophorectomy, or vaginectomy, respectively) to treat or prevent disease
- The ability to give birth, unless if sterile, or without some of the anatomy listed above, or past childbearing years
- Breasts (a secondary sexual characteristic), unless if they never developed, or they had them removed (mastectomy) to treat or prevent breast cancer
- Has a hormone balance with estrogen higher than testosterone, and the presence of progesterone
- Chromosomes that are XX (textbook example), XY (androgen insensitivity syndrome), XXX (triple X syndrome), XXXX, X (Turner syndrome), or others. People rarely take a test to find out what these are, unless if they think it might explain another physical challenge.
It is possible for a cisgender woman to have a body with few of the above physical characteristics that are usually used to describe a typical cisgender female body. For example, cisgender women who have had hysterectomies and mastectomies to survive cancer are nonetheless real women, as much as they ever were. Furthermore, having the above characteristics do not make someone a cisgender woman. For example, some people who were assigned female at birth but identify as a different gender have these characteristics. Some people with intersex conditions have these physical characteristics, but don't consider themselves cisgender women. Some do.
The ability to give birth creates a physical vulnerability that is exploited by patriarchy. Patriarchy began as a system based around the control of the part of the population who generally can give birth, by the part that generally can't. Women and people who can give birth are not completely synonymous groups. (There are infertile women, fertile trans men, and so on.) Still, these two groups have the most overlap. Patriarchy means that, as a group, men control women. They exert this control in every part of society, through the systems that are built into that society. Some of the many forms of how patriarchy controls, oppresses, and abuses women include:
- Violence. Patriarchy tells women that they need a man close to them at all times, if for no other reason than to protect them from violence from other men. However, domestic violence is a very common cause of women's deaths.
- The idea of rape as normal (rape culture). Rape culture includes the idea that women are the ones who should take responsibility for preventing themselves from being raped (victim blaming), and defending rapists as not responsible for their actions, without educating men to not rape. Rape is specifically a significant part of the oppression of cisgender women due to the risk of unwanted pregnancy. Much of patriarchy is based around this.
- The idea of women as being less human (dehumanization). Dehumanization of women means that society assumes that women's minds are more like animals' minds (sometimes said in ways that seem positive, like "intuitive" or "closer to nature"), and are thought to be less able to do what men's can do, and therefore won't let women have educations, work most kinds of jobs, or drive. Without these things, it's difficult for women to free themselves from oppression.
- Ownership of women. Patriarchy often makes cisgender women have the legal status not of people, but of possessions (chattel) owned by men (their husbands or fathers). As chattel, women have no say in what happens to their bodies, can legally own no possessions, and can't vote.
All of these things oppress women. The system of patriarchy maintains itself by making it difficult for women to get the power to challenge or escape the oppression.
Feminism is activism against patriarchy, and it begins with activism to give women the legal status of people. The outward signs of that legal status are the right to choose what happens to their own bodies (legal access to birth control), the right to own property, the right to vote (suffrage), and the right to work. These can only be done by those who are legally recognized as persons. Feminism is a movement that can make equal rights for people of all genders by liberating them all from patriarchy, but feminism has its main focus on fulfilling the needs of cisgender women, because patriarchy has its main focus on oppressing them.
Transgender women[edit | edit source]
Transgender women are women who were assigned male at birth (or had certain intersex conditions), and who have a female gender identity. Like any women, they usually use "she" pronouns, and their sexual orientation can be lesbian, heterosexual, or otherwise. This is the male-to-female transgender spectrum. Older psychological and medical writings wrongly call trans women "male transsexuals" or "male transvestites", and call them by unwanted "he" pronouns. Trans women are women, not feminine men or gay men.
Many transgender women transition to address gender dysphoria, and some also consider themselves to be transsexual women. Any transgender person's transition path is very individual. Common features in a transgender woman's transition path include hormone therapy to create a balance with estrogen higher than testosterone, and a wide variety of kinds of surgery to choose from.
Patriarchy oppresses and devalues all forms of womanhood and femininity, not only of cisgender women, but also of trans women, called transmisogyny. Julia Serano coined this word for her trans-feminist book, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (2007). Patriarchy sees trans women as a threat that could undermine its power and rigidity. One feature of a trans-misogynistic culture is that by far, the most kinds of hate speech and slurs used against trans people are those used specifically against trans women. Violence against and murder of trans people also, by far, most commonly targets trans women, especially trans women of colour. The Transgender Day of Remembrance gives a memorial to the many trans people who are murdered each year around the world. These are nearly all trans women of colour.
In the transgender community, "gatekeeper" is slang for the system of health providers that decide whether to allow a transgender person to get gender-validating health care. Medical gatekeepers, as well as the serious risks of living in trans-misogynistic culture, both put pressure on trans women to conform to society's behavioral and physical ideals for feminine cisgender women. One form of this pressure is that gatekeepers told trans women not to interact with other trans women outside of gender centers, saying that this would invalidate their womanhood. Keeping trans women isolated from one another in this way made it so that trans women couldn't organize among themselves to do activism for their own rights.
Some cultures that recognize(d) male-to-female spectrum gender roles include the Ethiopian Maale people (Ashtime), the Madagascaran Sakalava (Sekrata), the Lakota (Winkte), the Navajo (Nadleehi), the Zapotec (Muxe), many south Asian countries (Hijra), Oman (Xanith), Nepal (Metis), Turkey (Köçek), Italy (Femminello) Myanmar (Acault), Samoa (Fa'afafine), Maori (Whakawahine), much of ancient Europe (Gallae), and many others. Historically, these male-to-female spectrum roles have been made of some people who were analogous to modern, Western ideas of trans women, as well as some people who are not so analogous to that, such as feminine gay men, or nonbinary people who were AMAB.
Nonbinary women[edit | edit source]
Some people identify as nonbinary and as a binary gender such as woman. They may see themselves as almost but not quite fitting into the category of womanhood, feel an association with being a woman or femininity, or not mind being seen as women. Depending on how the individual defines their identity, they may consider themself to be nonbinary women if they also consider themself to be partly female (demigirl), femme, a gender nonconforming queer masculine woman (butch), someone who only wants to be in the active role of sex without being touched (stone), androgynous, having a gender identity that often changes (genderfluid), having more than one gender (bigender), having a form of womanhood that is itself queer (genderqueer), or other kinds of identities.
In the 2019 Gender Census, 1,416 of the respondents (12.6%) identified as a woman or girl, even as many of them also identified as nonbinary.
Notable nonbinary women[edit | edit source]
Some notable people who identify as nonbinary who also use female, girl, or woman in the description of their gender identity include:
- American comedian, writer, and nurse Kelli Dunham describes herself as a genderqueer woman/nonbinary transmasc butch.
- Actor and activist Shakina Nayfack (she/her, b. 1980) - nonbinary and gender non-conforming trans woman
- Activist and actor Ianne Fields Stewart (she/her, they/them) - transfeminine nonbinary woman
- Writer and animation artist Rebecca Sugar (she/her or they/them, b. 1987) - nonbinary woman
- Musician and TV writer Our Lady J (she/her, b. 1978) - GNC genderfluid trans woman/ woman-aligned nonbinary person
See also[edit | edit source]
- Gender binary
- Binary gender
- List of nonbinary identities
- Glossary of English gender and sex terminology
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The origin of these symbols has long been of interest to scholars. Probably none now accepts the interpretation of Scaliger that Template:Char represents the shield and spear of Mars and Template:Char Venus's looking glass.
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