No one knows what a woman is — the conversation around abortion proves it

In 1972, the year before Roe v. Wade was decided, Helen Reddy sang, “I am woman, hear me roar.” The second wave feminist movement for which the song became an anthem presumed a “woman” to be “one born with female genitalia and XX chromosomes.” There was no distinction between “woman” and “female,” for either the feminists of the 1970s or their conservative antagonists. The dispute between a feminist icon like Gloria Steinem and an antifeminist antagonist like Phyllis Schlafly was over what women should do, not what women are. 

But with gender identity increasingly considered separate from biological sex among those who exert influence in our popular culture, the term “woman” has become difficult for today’s progressives to define. When now-Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson was asked by the Senate Judiciary Committee to define the word “woman,” she demurred. Of course, conservatives pounced on that evasion

Yet, more interesting than Jackson’s refusal to answer the question is the fact that, had the judge given Senate conservatives the answer they sought, she would have been echoing the feminist icons of the 1970s. That is, conservatives claim they have now come around, essentially, to the erstwhile radical feminist view that the term “woman” means no more and no less in relation to the human female than the term “mare” means in relation to the female horse. It’s a biologically self-evident term, not a culturally evocative one.

Which means that the two sides seem to have switched places since the 1970s. 

For conservatives (all average differences between groups of men and women aside), on the individual level, genital and chromosomal make up (not any way of thinking, or feeling or being) is all that makes people women or men. Meanwhile, for progressives, there are certain ways of thinking, feeling or being that render one a woman, regardless of genital and chromosomal make up. 

Or so they each say. The discussions around the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade in each camp should make it clear to all of us that there is a great deal more ambivalence – I won’t call it dishonesty – on each side than meets the eye. 

The conservatives, who ostensibly have taken over where the radical feminists left off and believe only in biological womanhood, are highly invested in the idea that women are naturally nurturing and maternal, and thus that the availability of abortion harms women as well as unborn children — a position that can be substantiated only by anecdote, not by data, which (at least from a secular, material perspective) overwhelmingly shows the opposite. Whatever your position on abortion (I’m pro-life — though not into heartbeat bills or bounty-hunting), there are strong echoes here of the kind of paternalism that comes up with patronizing, faux-empowering sayings such as “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world” to make clear that all women belong in the home. So for conservatives, when it comes to abortion, Helen Reddy is out and Phyllis Schlafly is back in. 

Meanwhile, progressives – who ostensibly have adopted the formerly conservative position that women are in fact people who think, believe or are a certain way that exists in a realm beyond biology – are rather invested in the idea that the reversal of Roe v. Wade would be “men” telling “women” what to do with their bodies. That’s a position that cannot be squared with the notion that sex is assigned at birth, that “birthing bodies” carry pregnancies or any of the rest of it. So, for progressives, when it comes to abortion, the biologically male patriarchy has returned to oppress people with uteruses, who are once again called women. 

For what it’s worth, I agree with the erstwhile progressive, now allegedly conservative, position. But far more importantly, it should be crystal clear to anyone paying attention that neither the progressives nor the conservatives are broadly in agreement with their own new positions.

Thus, when the political chaos hits the fan, each camp remains viscerally much closer to where it was 50 years ago than not. Which means that each group is too enamored with its own ideology to honestly represent the interests of most women, which are – like the interests of any other large group of adults – a complex and competing mix of biological, cultural and economic imperatives. 

Perhaps, sometimes, the more things change the more they really do stay the same. 

Elizabeth Grace Matthew writes about culture, politics and religion for various publications, including America magazine and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter @ElizabethGMat.

Tags Feminism Gloria Steinem Ketanji Brown Jackson Roe v. Wade US Supreme Court Women's rights

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