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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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Greer's Syndrome - One for DSM VI?
This ought to be a proper post, festooned with links, but I'm too lazy to do that; and also, I've not really thought the subject through to the extent that I'd like to present this as some kind of finished position, rather than (what it is) an invitation to others' thoughts. Suffice it to say, I could produce the links if I were arsed - but then, so could Professor Google.

Anyway, I was thinking about the primacy given by some self-described radical feminists to chromosomes when it comes to determining sex. For example, Gia Milinovich defines sex wholly in chromosomal terms, and Germaine Greer (an early adopter) does much the same in The Whole Woman. I was reminded of this habit most recently while listening to Midweek (17:40) the other day, where I heard Libby Purves quote the old feminist slogan "biology is destiny" [shurely some mistake? Ed.] to put actor Ed Zephyr in their place and remind them that "in chromosome terms there are male and there are female and you can't quite get round that".

Zephyr responded by pointing out that there are many variations even on that basis. And that is a good answer, as far as it goes - intersex erasure is a real problem. (For that matter I've never had my chromosomes tested - have you, dear reader?) But it left me wondering why it is that in many people's minds chromosomes trump gender identity; trump socialisation; trump hormones; trump phenotype. Only chromosomes, it seems, really count as "scientific". Is it because the only way to find out someone's chromosomal make-up is by looking down a microscope? How phallocentric!

While we're at it, why must there be one answer, one sure-fire, all-or-nothing test? Doesn't that speak to a far more brittle insecurity, to say nothing of an empathetic and intellectual sclerosis? I think so; and propose the name Greer's Syndrome for the condition, after its most eminent sufferer.

So what, therefore, makes a woman a woman? If it isn't chromosomes or physical appearance and behaviour? Why is one person a woman and another isn't?

Personally I don't regard "woman" as an important part of my identity, except where it comes to biology. Having periods, bearing children, experiencing the menopause and how my genes gave me a smaller, weaker body than the average man all had an impact on my life. But what is more important to me in terms of my identity are things that I do. I'm a mother because I do mothering. I'm a photographer because I take photographs. I'm a Welsh speaker because I speak Welsh. But when it comes to being a woman, what, exactly, is "womaning"?

I don't necessarily have things in common with people just because they're a woman. There is no "woman club" that you can join and be accepted as a woman in the abstract. I can feel very uncomfortable and out of place in some all female groups whilst perfectly at home in others.

If someone feels that behaving in a typically female way and following typical feminine pursuits feels more natural to them, then that's the nearest a person can come to "doing womaning" -- and they'll probably be accepted by people as woman. But if someone is "giving visual and aural man cues, but also assuming male social space, and male dominance in the flow of conversation" (and I have met transwomen who do that), how can that be said to be being a woman? What is "womanly" about them?

I don't know. The only answer I can come up with is, if someone feels her identity is 'woman' then she must be one.

I agree it's pointless trying to look for some "essence" that defines womanhood (or anything else comparably complex - e.g. being "British"). Chromosomes certainly don't do that job, and I doubt that any one measure could though I suppose I could imagine some amorphous and negotiable range of measures that might in combination do so for most practical purposes - always allowing that there are bound to be outliers and borderline cases. Whether this matters depends on why one is trying to define the border in the first place - but any rule is bound to be arbitrary to some degree. ("Assuming male dominance" is no doubt done by some trans women, just as it is by some cis ones.)

That said, I do think that for many (not all) people, identity - as opposed to stuff they do - does matter. Sometimes they realise this only when that their identity is denied them - perhaps after a lifetime of taking it for granted.

A case in point might be women with AIS, who often learn of their condition only when seeking medical treatment for fertility problems. Perhaps they ought not to mind that in Germaine Greer's opinion they are deformed men, despite being phenotypically female and thinking of themselves as women all their lives. After all, fertility issues aside, they can carry on "womaning". But I don't find it surprising or unreasonable that they do mind, for all that.