What is a woman?

In the distant days when mums and dads didn’t know the sex of their foetus until it became a baby on birth it was often the midwife’s task to give the news. “It’s a boy Mrs Briggs” she said as I emerged into the light that cold November day in 1946.

Now that identification didn’t require too much examination. The telegram was sent to my Grandma “Arrived safely with tassel” it said. And that was that.

The vast majority of us settle without too much difficulty or thought into the biological sex that is apparent as soon as we are born and is obvious from physical and physiological features including chromosomes, gene expression, hormone levels and function, and reproductive/sexual anatomy.” [Canadian Institute of Health Research] (CIHR). We are not “assigned” a sex as some put it, we are a sex and that doesn’t change.

Whilst sex is predetermined that does not mean it is comfortable for all of us. That the vast majority of us accept our biological sex does not mean that we all do. This is where the idea of “gender” as separate from biological sex becomes useful. Gender “…refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, expressions and identities of girls, women, boys, men, and gender diverse people. It influences how people perceive themselves and each other, how they act and interact…” (CIHR)

None of us can change our biological sex but we can change or modify the gender we attach to ourselves or wish to be perceived as. Jan Morris described this feeling as follows: “I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl. I remember the moment well, and it is the earliest memory of my life.” Morris began transitioning to life as a woman in 1964 at the age of 38.

Morris, who I had the pleasure of meeting back in 1988, had some surgery to underpin her gender choice but neither she nor anyone else claimed that this or her gender choice changed her biological sex. When I met her she was perfectly credible and identifiable as a woman. She had adopted the female “social construct” and it was not controversial in any way, She was a woman.

So why is the subject of sex and gender so controversial and why is there so much heat around it? My view is that it is necessary to accept that biological sex is a given at birth but that gender is a personal choice. If I or someone close to me or a complete stranger for that matter wishes to transition from one gender to the other gender that’s almost entirely their affair and society should not only allow it but recognise it formally.

When I say “almost entirely” it is important to identify what this means. Sport is a good place to start. The only sports that are not divided into separate male and female competitions are those where the physical advantages that a man has over a woman, mainly to do with characteristics like strength and speed and height, don’t count. Showjumping and other equestrian events are the obvious example. But most other sports should not permit women whose biological sex is male to compete. This is common-sense.

That we accept women who were previously men as women (and vice versa) is humane and decent. But there is a sensitivity here in certain environments like changing rooms and bathrooms which needs sensible handling. This is something that transgender people are generally aware of I expect.

There are no stigma attached to being transgender. But equally the “physical and physiological features” of a trans person are different from those of the same gender who have chosen the gender that equates to their sex. If we all accept this fact and act accordingly surely that will take the heat out of the subject ?

One thought on “What is a woman?

  1. Excellent piece and one I completely agree with. One human does not have the right to tell another human who they are or how they should live their brief existence. For some, acceptance and tolerance of difference seem to be the most challenging lesson to learn. Diversity matters.
    In an inward-looking society, such as post-Brexit Britain, bigotry thrives aided by the political right.


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