What is a woman? A not-so-innocent question

One question, two books, two worlds.

Last week I watched the documentary “What is a woman?” by Matt Walsh, who asked this question to different people: politicians, therapists, scholars and random people in the street. As a concerned father, he pretended that he wanted to understand if a boy can become a girl, and the other way round, and what consequences it would have for the child. Under the pretext of caring for children (a common trick used by anti-abortion but pro-gun conservatives), the documentary tries to show that gender theory is not only nonsensical and unscientific, but also dangerous and inhumane. Children are brainwashed by the radical left and preyed on by Big Farma.

Walsh: What is a woman?
Russian Orthodox Church: A woman is an incubator for Russian soldiers.

The documentary also creates an impression that the experts in gender theory are incompetent idiots because are unable to give Walsh a short and simple definition of a woman. He acts desperate and confused. After many fruitless journeys and interviews, he finally asks his spouse at home. As a good conservative wife, she is busy in the kitchen. She looks at him incredulously, gives him a jar and says, “A woman is an adult human female, who needs your help opening this”. Healthy instincts and common sense thus triumph over years of education and training. God bless America.

Are the gender experts and people in the street stupid? Or perhaps too intimidated to say what they really think? I don’t think so. In my view, it is actually impossible to provide a short and simple answer to the question “What is a woman?”. It is also asked in a manipulative way, which presupposes a certain kind of answer. That does not exactly help to improve communication between Walsh and his interviewees.

The truth is, most categories in human language are difficult to define. If you ask people in the street what a common object like a chair or a cup is, I strongly doubt that they can come up quickly with a clear and concise definition.

One reason can be the lack of common criteria that fit all instances of a category. An Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953) wrote about the everyday category “game”. What do different games have in common? Many games are played by competing players (like football or Monopoly), but not all. For example, patience usually has only one player. Many games have pre-defined rules, but children often make rules as they go. Many games are for fun, but some are not. For example, wargames are used by a military for training or research. It is impossible, according to Wittgenstein, to find the set of criteria which would apply to all and every game. Games are more like family members. They share overlapping and criss-crossing features, like shape of the nose, colour of eyes, temperament and gait, without any particular feature being present in all of them.

Secondly, categories have fuzzy boundaries. A famous American sociolinguist William Labov (1973) showed speakers of American English drawings of different vessels like cups, mugs, bowls and vases, and asked them to name the objects. The speakers agreed on the names for some objects only. For example, if the object had a handle, its shape was tapered towards the bottom and its maximum width was equal to the depth, it was unanimously called a cup. As the ratio of width to depth increased, more and more subjects called the object a bowl. But there was no cut-off where cups ended and bowls started.

Defining a woman is even more difficult than defining a cup or a bowl. First of all, this word means different things to people in different political camps. For American and other conservatives, a woman is defined by the biological sex and the traditional role of childbearing. For progressives, a woman is a gender, which is a social category with two crucial aspects. On the one hand, a person is assigned to a certain social class based on their sex by the society. On the other hand, the same person can identify themselves as a member of a certain gender-as-a-class, even if their sex is different (Jenkins 2016). For many feminists, self-identification serves as the core criterion, which ensures that different categories of trans women are included.

The choice of the structure in the present tense “What is an X?” also implies that the concept the speaker is asking about is stable, possibly even timeless. Perhaps this assumption could be justified for the Maasai tribe, with whom Walsh speaks in the documentary, and other traditional societies, but it is very difficult to define a concept undergoing a social and linguistic change, as it is happening in the USA and many other countries.

Moreover, there can be different approaches to defining the word “woman”. On the one hand, one can simply describe how the word is used in a particular community. On the other hand, many feminists pursue an “ameliorative” approach, which creates and promotes the concept that helps to achieve gender equality (Haslanger 2000).

When asking “What is a woman?”, Walsh expects a short and simple answer, which anyone can produce on the spot. But this expectation is only valid for people with conservative views, for whom a woman is a biological sex. It is a trap for people with other views. When pretending he wants to find the “truth”, Walsh frames the concept as a natural kind, which exists in “objective reality”, rather than being a dynamic and negotiable social category. He nudges his interviewees towards his preferred definition. The way he asks is similar to saying, “Have you stopped beating your partner? Yes or no? Why can’t you answer this simple question?”. No wonder many interviewees feel manipulated by Walsh and even refuse to continue the conversation.

Finally, it is very telling that Walsh doesn’t go around asking, “What is a man”? As a male, he would be more qualified to answer this question, after all. The reason is that for conservatives the man is the default human being, who does not need a definition. It is the woman who is non-default, marked, “abnormal”. We see it in human languages, as well. Masculine forms are often formally unmarked and serve as “generic” forms, whereas feminine ones are marked, like Russian student “male or generic student” vs. studentka “female student” (see more on male bias in this blog post). Considering all this, it would be delightfully subversive to travel around the world asking “What is a man?”.


Haslanger, Sally. 2000. Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be? Noûs 34(1): 31–55.

Jenkins, Katharine. 2016. Amelioration and Inclusion: Gender Identity and the Concept of Woman. Ethics 126: 394–421.

Labov, William. 1973. The boundaries of words and their meanings. In Charles-James N. Bailey & Roger W. Shuy (eds.), New Ways of Analyzing Variation in English, 340–373. Washington: Georgetown University Press.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell.

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