March is Women’s History Month, dedicated to celebrate the accomplishments of women and the progress towards gender equality. International Women’s Day is March 8th, and this year’s theme is “#ChooseToChallenge”. Their website states:
“A challenged world is an alert world. Individually, we’re all responsible for our own thoughts and actions – all day, every day. We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world. From challenge comes change, so let’s all choose to challenge.”
In celebration of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, this article participates in this year’s theme by choosing to challenge and ask the question: What does it mean to be a woman?
First, it is of utmost importance that the difference between gender and sex is clearly defined. These words are often used interchangeably, which leads to discriminatory legislation and even inaccurate science(!). According to the World Health Organization: “‘Gender’ describes those characteristics of women and men that are largely socially created, while ‘sex’ encompasses those that are biologically determined.”
Another way to think about gender is to refer to gender as a “gender role”, given the social element of one’s gender identity. This terminology implies that gender isn’t inherent; rather it is the role or an identity that people portray which is shaped by their society and culture.
Gender has never been exclusively binary, though modern western cultures tend to view gender as such. Numerous cultures around the world recognize more than two genders and have done so for centuries or even millenia. For example, many Native American tribes have members that identify as “Two Spirit”; those neither considered man or woman, but a third gender altogether. Other cultures around the world recognize more than two genders as well, including the Hijras of India, the Muxes of Mexico, the Xaniths of Oman, the Bugis and Warias of Indonesia, the Guevedoce of the Dominican Republic and Classical Judaism. These cultures reinforce the concept that gender as a binary is a more recent structure, and gender fluidity is much more a part of humanity than many realize.
Biological sex is used to divide individuals into the “male” or “female” binary at birth. This classification is based on external physical characteristics or by sex chromosome composition via karyotyping, classifying individuals with X and Y chromosomes (XY) as males, and those with two X chromosomes (XX) as females. However, even biological sex fails to fall into a binary, as some people are intersex. Intersex individuals are those who have external genitalia that do not distinctly fit into the “male” or “female” category, or those that have external genitalia of one sex and internal reproductive organs of the other.
Sex chromosome variability is fairly common. Two of the most common sex chromosome compositions other than XX females or XY males include Klinefelter’s Syndrome, where individuals have XXY or XX chromosomes, and Turner Syndrome, where individuals have only one X chromosome (XO). External physical features or karyotypes at birth cannot predict the growth of sexual organs or secondary characteristics. For example, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome affects individuals with XY chromosomes, resulting in underdeveloped or a complete failure to develop male reproductive organs, and the appearance of “female” physical characteristics. These syndromes reflect the diversity of humans and reinforce notion that physical features can’t predict one’s chromosomes and that chromosomes can’t predict physical features.
Gender and biological sex are complex. One does not equate the other, nor do either of them wholly capture what constitutes a “man” or a “woman”, male or female. Even nature fails to support the supposed dichotomy of male versus female. In seahorses, it is the females that deposit eggs to the males, and the males that carry offspring until birth. In the plains of Africa, lionesses hunt to provide food AND carry and raise offspring. Roundworms can be hermaphrodites, having both male and female reproductive organs. Therefore, it’s inappropriate and incorrect to assume that in order to be female or male, one must fit within narrow definitions of reproductive capacities, such as being able to carry young. So, given that gender identities remain fluid and culturally specific in today’s world, what does it mean to be a woman?
What does it mean to be a Woman?
Nature is diverse, as are human beings. We can see it in our interests, perspectives, languages, religions, and cultures. It is not surprising, then, that we are also complex in our physical characteristics, internal personas, and how we present ourselves to the world. Defining what it means to be a woman shouldn’t, and most importantly, can’t, be done by a checklist of biological features, gender roles, abilities, or any other guidelines.
So, then, what does it mean to be a woman? Being a woman simply means a woman is a woman. If someone says they are a woman, then they are a woman. And there are infinite ways to be a woman – no two women are the same.
During Women’s History Month, we celebrate all women, and every day of every year, we must continue to support and respect people’s autonomy and identity. This year, this day, and every day forward, let’s choose to challenge. Let’s challenge what it means to “be a woman”. Let’s find inclusive language to encapsulate the multitudes of women and the diversity of how women express their womanhood. Let’s respect women by validating their unique, individual identities. Let’s challenge to change.
Peer reviewed by Annelise Long