What makes someone a woman?
Is it her face? Not really, since every woman has a different one. She can have a big nose or a small one. She can have a strong jaw or a soft one. There isn’t one “female face.”
Maybe it’s her breasts. But we can’t really say that either. Some women have flat chests, and others have had mastectomies. Men can also experience gynecomastia, which causes an increase in breast gland tissue.
Is it because she can have children? No – not every woman can get pregnant. Post-menopausal women don’t suddenly become men once they can’t bear children anymore.
So what is it?
Lawmakers as of late have been trying to codify the vague separation of “man” and “woman” into law. Florida outlawed entering bathrooms that don’t align with your sex assigned at birth. The House of Representatives approved a bill that would ban transgender women and girls from competing in women’s sports. The Olympics’ governing body penalizes women with high natural testosterone levels.
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What all of these add up to is a worrying trend of continually policing women’s bodies. Any woman who does not fit into the platonic ideal of femininity, whether they’re cisgender or transgender, is increasingly subject to being forced away from the places and people they love. And – big surprise – a lot of these policies will negatively impact non-white women the most.
Women’s sports are a big focus for policing. World Athletics, the governing body of the Olympics, has banned multiple women from competing in track events due to their testosterone levels, including Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, two Nigerian sprinters who hoped to compete in the Tokyo Olympics. Four other runners were also barred from their preferred events in previous Olympics.
The throughline? All of these women are African.
The science behind these bans is contentious at best. And even if testosterone gave athletes the upper hand 100% of the time, natural advantages are usually allowed and encouraged in sports. Just look at Michael Phelps, whose large lung capacity and long arms make him perfect for swimming. Yet we don’t see any lung capacity tests for him.
In their scramble to disqualify supposed transgender women, World Athletics brought the hammer down on cisgender women who just have different biology than others. Humans control when testosterone testing is used, which means biases can be enforced. World Athletics is content to codify that African women are too masculine to compete against the other, more “fragile” female athletes.
Going further, Florida’s recent bathroom ban disallows people from using bathrooms that don’t align with their sex assigned at birth – even if they’ve legally changed their gender identifier. Those accused of being trans can be forced to undergo invasive DNA tests and genital exams.
These laws can and will be leveled against all women who don’t align with gender norms, no matter their sex assigned at birth. It’s another way of controlling women’s self-expression. Being a woman who presents less femininely already makes you subject to enough harassment – but now it’s inscribed in law.
There is no one way of being a woman. Even if you’re cisgender, these policies enforce misogynist ideals of what “makes” someone a woman. The goal of feminism is to allow women to be whoever they want – a mother, an executive, masculine, feminine, all of the above or none of it. So many of these laws take the stance of protecting women – despite the fact that they harm them inordinately.
So let me make it simple for you. What makes you a woman is knowing that you are a woman. What makes you a man is knowing that you are a man. Trying to whittle down the factors of gender is like trying to shove toothpaste back into a tube. It’s useless, and it’ll just make a bigger mess than you started with.
Danny William (they/them) is a sophomore studying media.