When I see videos like the one below with Charlie Kirk persistently asking college students one question, "What is a woman?" and students stumbling to answer or seemingly not able to give him an answer that would satisfy his inquisitive mind, as a teacher I'm baffled.
Charlie's "What is a woman?" is obviously a request for a definition of a woman, and I am perplexed that people are stumbling to give it. But then I remember that we often take concepts and things for granted so much that we are caught off guard and wonder why we are even asked a "simple" question like that. In those situations, I usually tell my students, "I know it seems self-evident, obvious, and simple to the extent that you'd doubt my sanity even for asking, but please explain it to me like I am a 5-year-old who genuinely may not know."
Definitions matter. They help us develop the common language, come to conclusions and agreements and live peacefully together. In today's post-modern, post-truth, polysemic and polyvalent world, we find it more and more difficult to agree upon even the most basic definitions. For example, the words "liberal" and "conservative" mean quite different things to people from the opposing camps. Definitions matter even more if we don't want to live in a society that uses the same words but speaks a totally different language in terms of meanings. So, here I will digress a little into how we define things.
There are several ways to create shared definitions. The most common way, used by dictionaries, is descriptive. One way to describe something is to start from a broader, more general class of the known objects. For example, if you want to define "dove" you'd classify it within a broader class of birds: "Dove is a bird." Then add specifics that make that particular bird unique: "Dove is a mid-sized stocky bird with white feathers, a small head and a small pink beak." This is the denotative (direct and most accepted or agreed upon) meaning of the word, the first on the list in a dictionary.
The word "dove" will have other, less common connotative meanings. Something like, "Due to its pure whiteness and gentleness, dove is often used as a symbol of purity and cleanliness (Dove Co. logo) or peace and innocence (ancient Greeks started depicting it with a laurel branch in the beak and we are still doing it)," or "a person who favors diplomacy and peaceful negotiations over military action and hard lines in foreign policy." Connotative meanings are more culturally nuanced, are brought about by shared experiences of a particular group of language carriers and may not be the same across all cultures. That's why we have such a wide variety of proverbs and sayings that do not translate well into other languages.
Another common way to define things descriptively is through similarity to other things of the same class that may be known better. For example, "doves are similar to pigeons, but generally smaller and more delicate, and usually white, while pigeons are mostly grey." In dictionaries, you would often see that such definitions reference each other, e.g. "dove, see also pigeon."
Yet another common way to define things is through their opposites: "black is the opposite of white" or "dove is not a hawk" when referencing people's approaches to foreign policy. We do that a lot with the binary concepts: good-bad, light-dark, noisy-quiet, etc.
Going back to the definition of "a woman": I've watched enough of Charlie Kirk's "What is a woman?" videos to make an intelligent guess that he would probably accept the definition of "a woman is not a man."
I have recently asked this question in my Gender and Communication class. We've been talking about gender, gender roles and how gender is performed for the whole semester and I thought my students would have no trouble with it. Well, they did. One even asked if I wanted them to give a definition. When I said yes, the student said "somebody who has a uterus and a vagina." Then I asked if elephants are somebodies and if some of them have uteri and vaginas. When they said yes, I said, "So, an elephant is a woman?" That sent some of my students into a laughing fit.
Then I asked the students what class of beings both men and women belonged to. Human, they said. Through a series of other leading questions, we finally arrived to the common biological dictionary definition: "A woman is a female person/human being."
Where Charlie Kirk has students stumble is how our ideas of gender, i.e. what we think is feminine and masculine, are associated with the biological category of sex, i.e. female and male. To most conservatives, both gender and sex are binary and completely overlapping categories: If you are a woman, you must be feminine (gentle, soft, comforting, smooth, caring, devoted, building and maintaining connections in the community, etc.) and perform feminine roles in the society of a mother, sister, daughter and wife; if you are a man, you must be masculine (strong, enduring, competitive, leading, motivated for achievement and success, etc.) and perform masculine roles of a father, brother, son and husband who is a bread-winning head of household.
The world, however, is changing. On the biological front, we have finally stopped forcing the parents of intersex children (the third category on the biological sex dimension that throws off our neat binary male-female system, when babies are born with both female and male biological traits) to make a decision about "fixing their parts" to fit one of the two sex categories better. Because such babies are not rare and are made by nature, they cannot be discarded as "not normal," thus creating the need to redefine even the stable binary sex category.
It is even more complicated with the gender category, as both men and women can have features and characteristics of the "other" gender. Besides, there are more and more people who perform androgynous roles of both genders (think single mothers or single fathers) or who refuse to be constrained by the binary gender roles altogether and define themselves as non-binary "they" in the singular form. And that is what muddies the waters of clear-cut binary definitions, thus making people stumble at formulating them.
If you are curious about where you are on the gender dimension, I highly recommend to take an online sex-role inventory test that will be most probably surprising for you in terms of your gender personality. At least for many people who have taken it (including myself, and I take it every 2 years to see the change) it is quite revealing.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
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