Of course, this wasn’t a biology test, it was a culture war test, and the conservatives were only too happy to inform Jackson that he had failed. “The meaning of the word woman is so confusing and controversial that you can’t give me a definition?” Blackburn marveled, stirring up waves of complaints about awakened liberals and activist judges, and gifting Tucker Carlson with Christmas in March.
All of that set the stage for this week, when several Republican lawmakers who had previously scoffed at Jackson’s response set out to show just how simple and incontrovertible defining “woman” could be.
“I’m going to tell you right now what a woman is,” said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) informed the audience at a republican event after verifying Jackson’s name. “This is an easy answer. We are a creation of God. We come from Adam’s rib. God created us with his hands. We may be the weaker sex, we are are the weaker sex, but we are our partner, we are the wife of our husband”.
Meanwhile, Rep. Madison Cawthorn (RN.C.), already on the news cycle for implying that cocaine and orgies were par for the course on Capitol Hill, decided to extend her moment in the sun by lecturing Nancy Pelosi from the House floor. “Science is not Burger King; you can’t just ‘do it your way’”. he said. “Take notes, Madam Speaker. I am about to define what a woman is to you,” she said. “X chromosomes, no tallywhacker. It’s so simple.”
And this is where I got the poor OED editor involved, just to make sure he understood exactly what Cawthorn was talking about. He explained that “tallywhacker” is probably an Americanism, a variant of the word “tallywag”, which means “the testicles; male genitalia”, although the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “an Atlantic sea bass”.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) was asked by a HuffPost reporter to define woman, and replied: “Someone who can give birth to a child, a mother, is a woman. Someone who has a uterus is a woman. It doesn’t seem that complicated to me.” Asked by the reporter if a woman who had her uterus removed by hysterectomy was still a woman, he seemed unsure: “Yes. Well, I don’t know, right?
So, to review, here’s the GOP tip sheet: If you want to know if someone is a woman, you just walk up to them and say, “Excuse me, are you from Adam’s rib?” Alternatively, it could demand to see a womb or tallywhacker.
These attempts to define femininity are not only bizarre (“the weaker sex” is retrograde even by the standards of Republican gender politics), they are also pointless.
Let’s assume some basic things: that Marjorie Taylor Greene believes that all humans, not just women, are “God’s creations”; and that Greene considered herself a woman long before she became her “husband’s wife.” Presumably she is not suggesting that a woman who is not married is in fact a man.
Greene is known for her vigorous workouts and sculpted biceps. Such a strong woman would no doubt recognize that the “weaker sex” often depends on the category in question (mental, physical, emotional) and the individual specimen. Does Greene believe that she is inherently weaker, in any of these dimensions, than, say, Senator Chuck Schumer (DN.Y.)? How about President Biden?
That leaves us with the “Adam’s rib” part, an allusion to the biblical story of the origin of women. which, fine. But I’m not sure how much closer this brings any of us to a definition of womanhood that we can actually use in The Year of Our Lord 2022. How is a women’s college or women’s athletic team supposed to incorporate the rib test of Adam in your eligibility policies? Is there a swab for ancestral rib residue?
Once again, this definition was the best thing Greene came up with two full weeks after gloating on Twitter that Judge Jackson “can’t define ‘woman,’ so can’t say for sure if his own two daughters are women.” “.
Cawthorn’s definition (XX chromosomes, no tallywhacker) made me wonder what the congressman would think of former gymnastics champion Melissa Marlowe, or the millions of other women with Turner syndrome, a genetic disorder defined by the lack of an X chromosome. I wonder how you would determine the gender of an intersex individual who had reproductive characteristics of both sexes? Through a coin toss? A rule?
As for Josh Hawley, I’ll just say that I can’t wait to let my mom know that since having her uterus removed at age 35 via a medically necessary hysterectomy, she hasn’t been a woman in 26 years. He might take solace in adding that the senator sounded like he hadn’t given it much thought: In the same exchange reported by HuffPost, he seemed to change his definition of woman to require not a uterus but a vagina: “I mean, a woman has a cunt, right?
(Note that under Hawley’s new definition, he would be forced to accept trans women, after gender-affirming surgery, as women as well.)
I’m not trying to piss off Greene, Cawthorn or Hawley for fun. They had suggested that defining “woman” was simple, and I am here to say that it is not. Not when you take the question seriously and look for answers outside of your own immediate experiences and intuitions. That’s why when these lawmakers tried to show how much smarter they were on gender science than a judge who takes things seriously for a living, what came out was gibberish.
These legislators are known for their inflammatory rhetoric. (For example, Greene is now accusing everyone who votes to confirm Jackson of supporting pedophiles.) But I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and say that I really don’t think Greene, Hawley, and Cawthorn were trying to be deliberately inflammatory in offering their definitions. I think they were going all out and fell short. I think they were demonstrating that providing a definition of woman is not a task that can be determined through a checklist, no matter how hard the creator of the list tries to make it so.
I think what they were expressing was not a knowledge of biology, but rather a fear of living in a world that they couldn’t easily categorize based on what they already think they know. One where women may not look, sound, or behave exactly as they think women should, so the best way to define “woman” is to ask the woman in question. Does she live as a woman? Does she go through the trials, tribulations and joys of a woman? She does her Do you think it’s a woman?
“Provide a definition for the word ‘woman,’” Blackburn challenged the Biden Supreme Court nominee.
Ketanji Brown Jackson couldn’t do it. And neither do the people who said it should be easy.