George Tarr

Woman: A New Cambridge Definition

The Cambridge Dictionary has added a new definition of “woman”. There are now two:

  • Woman (1st usage): “An adult human female.”
  • Woman (2nd usage): “An adult who lives and identifies as female though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth”.

This new, second definition is controversial. Opponents of gender identity theory are not pleased. But at a closer look, this definition does not track neatly with usage in gender identity theory at all.

In this article, I’d like to point out some interesting features of this definition. Ultimately, I’d also like to encourage those who support gender identity theory, in any form, to use this definition.

Here are some reasons why.

1. It preserves the first definition

The new definition leaves the other definition of “woman” – namely “adult human female” – in-tact. A second has been added. The goal, rightly, is to reflect usage. Since some English-speaking humans use “woman” to refer to adult human females and others use the term more broadly, the Cambridge Dictionary must work to capture both uses of the word.

If one is a gender identity advocate, these two senses are both worth acknowledging: “Woman” has been used to describe “adult human females” for a long time, and it is simply not possible to expel this usage by force. For now, it is a reality of the linguistic terrain.

Moreover, it is not a good idea to problematize the first usage without context. By arguing that the first usage is inherently problematic, you do two three things.

  1. You essentially force people to use the term “biologically female” for everything they were going to say anyway. You relocate the word, because you cannot destroy the intended referent.
  2. You gratuitously disturb people who have spent years identifying with the term “woman” in a way that is – to them – synonymous with being observably and involuntarily an adult human female.
  3. You problematize a bunch of stuff that isn’t actually problematic, such as an African feminist in the DRC decrying that she was targeted by rebels because she is a “woman”, and meaning – correctly – that she was targeted for being an adult human female. Problematizing her for using the word in that sense is counter-productive at very, very best.

It is worth noting: I have not said that no first usages of the term “woman” are ever harmful. You need not believe that. Rather, it cannot be inherently and universally problematic to speak a sentence that uses the term “woman” synonymously with the term “female”.

In other words, the first Cambridge definition cannot be considered transphobic in every use case. Acknowledging this should only be of benefit to gender identity advocates. Why? Because it is true. It is true that not every instance of the term being used in this way has been an instance of transphobia.

2. It avoids circularity

The definition avoids circularity – a feat that seems often to elude public-facing gender identity advocates. Instead of defining “a woman” as anyone who refers to themselves as a woman, the Cambridge Dictionary gives the second usage some meaning. On the second usage, Cambridge argues, a “woman” is someone who lives or feels as if they are an adult human female.

This avoids the kind of circularity that sometimes gets gender identity advocates in a bind: Namely, defining a woman as “anyone who believes they are a woman”. Cambridge was not able to use this definition, because it is not in fact a definition:

  • It instantly begs the question, “What then is a woman, this thing which women identify as?” This is a reasonable question for all circular definitions, not least definitions of a term which describes roughly half of the human population.
  • It seems not to account for the fact that someone could define the word “woman” incorrectly. For example, if someone assigned everything attached to being an adult human male to the term “woman”, and identified as a woman on account of this understanding, they would presumably be using the word incorrectly. No incorrect usage is accounted for by the circular definition.

Avoiding such pitfalls, Cambridge locked down the usage as referring to an adult who wants to live as if they are an adult human female, or who expresses that they experience themselves as an adult human female. So long as “adult human female” preserves its biological meaning, this definition is not circular.

Notably, there is still room here for the notion of a gender construct. The possibility is left open that one might associate adult human females with certain stereotypes, and thus frame “living as an adult human female” as – at least partly – conformity with those stereotypes. However, the notion of constructed gender is not inherent to this definition. Here, “a woman” is first and foremost someone who wishes to live as if they meet certain biological criteria, even if they do not.

Gone should be the days of awkward TV interviews, where someone is asked “What is a woman?” and suddenly flounders, thinking:

“My only options here are: 1) Make a circular and meaningless remark, 2) Define womanhood as a set of social stereotypes that I neither know nor approve of, or, 3) Be accused of transphobia.”

If you would like to refer to trans women as “women”, and someone asks you “What is a woman?” then you might simply say this:

“Some individuals use the term woman to describe ‘adult human females’, while others – including myself – use the term more broadly, to include all individuals who wish to live as though adult human females”.

If that alone is too difficult to say, there may be further thought required. In particular, it is likely that your aim is not to separate “gender” and “sex”, but rather to supplant the notion of “sex” with the notion of gender altogether. This is a very different view and significantly more vulnerable idea.

3. It is construct-free, so more inclusive

Third, the Cambridge Dictionary avoids defining “woman” as necessarily a social construct. Instead, it has elected to say: “Some use this term to describe those who live as if an adult human female”.

The definition is therefore much more inclusive than definitions which necessitate that “womanhood” be understood as a socially-constructed basket of stereotypes.

Why is this inclusive? Simply, many women do not report their identification with the term “woman” to be anything of this sort. Rather, many report their womanhood to be something that both they and society can, unavoidably, observe: the inalienable condition of being an adult human female. Their experience of womanhood is inextricable from their experience of actually being an adult human female and cannot be captured by the notion that they identify with any constructs at all. To require every woman to understand their womanhood as an identification with a construct – as a gender identification – is to require many of them to lie.

Another way to say this is that the second usage should be inclusive of the first usage. The second usage should be synonymous with the following:

  • Women (2nd usage): “Adult human females, plus those who wish to live as if they are adult human females, subtracting those who do not wish to live as if they are adult human females”.

The second definition then includes women who do not believe their gender identity has any meaningful impact on their womanhood. These women are included simply by being adult human females.

By defining womanhood instead as – exclusively – a set of constructed stereotypes, you actually exclude many cisgender adult human females from your definition of what a woman is. The only way to avoid doing this is to use biology as a starting point and build from there.

4. It is honest about dysphoria

The Cambridge definition is more honest. By consequence, it gives more appropriate credit to those who experience dysphoria. Rather than floating limply among slogans that “a woman is just a woman”, it engages with a difficult reality that underpins many dysphoric experiences: a trans woman seeks to live as ifthey are an adult human female, even if they were born male. In other words, a trans woman seeks, in part, a different material reality. This is the very root of dysphoria: it is not simply a strong desire to present a certain way, or the trivial condition of being what one already is, but a sense of alienation with many of the realities of one’s own physical body, realities that – often – cannot be altered to the extent sought. This is especially true, for example, if one is poor.

By considering “a woman is a woman” to be a sufficient definition, many gender identity advocates do a disservice to the reality of the problem, namely, that it is sincere challenge to be born into a body with which you do not identify. As the now famous trans activist Dylan Mulvaney recently noted: “I wish I was born in your body”. That is a fundamental challenge presented by dysphoria and a major reason why empathizing with and protecting trans individuals is so important. The Cambridge definition seems to capture this reality better.

Whatever the impact of this discourse on your own life, I hope you find these thoughts useful. Words are meant to enable discourse, not to determine discourse. Hopefully, we can learn to use them better.

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