Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson made waves last week with her refusal to provide a definition for the word woman. Responding to Senator Marsha Blackburn, Jackson sidestepped the question, stating, “I’m not a biologist.” Senator Ted Cruz returned to the line of inquiry by asking who Jackson would include in a gender-based discrimination lawsuit. Jackson again deferred, citing the fact that such cases are currently making their way through the lower courts.
Conservatives quickly memed Jackson, portraying her refusal to answer the question as clear indication of progressive nonsense. After all, anyone should be able to define what a woman is. The only problem with this, of course, is that we’ve struggled to define what a woman is for thousands of years.
Whether it was the ancient Greeks who saw woman as a “mutilated male” or church fathers who did not believe women were made in the image of God as men were, the record of history shows people not quite knowing what to make of women. Even within our own country’s past, women have struggled to gain those “inalienable rights” that are ostensibly the birthright of every human being and “endowed by their Creator.”
In her 1947 essay “The Human-Not-Quite-Human,” Christian apologist and scholar Dorothy Sayers reflects on the inadequacy of our working definitions of woman:
The first task, when undertaking the study of any phenomenon, is to observe its most obvious feature. … It is here that most students of the “Woman Question” have failed, and the Church more lamentably than most, and with less excuse. … No matter what arguments are used, the discussion is vitiated from the start, because Man is always dealt with as both Homo [human] and Vir [male], but Woman only as Femina [female].
For Sayers, an accurate definition of the word woman must include both her femaleness and her humanity, with human acting as the noun and female, the adjective. After all, many things are female—cats, birds, even some trees—but a woman’s rights and responsibilities stem from her common humanity, not her sex. Female cats do not have civil rights. Female trees do not have civil rights. Female humans do.
In other words, unless we have a working definition of women as image bearers in their own right—and not simply as whatever is the opposite of men—we can end up failing the question too.
Admittedly, it may appear that Sayers is highlighting a different dilemma from the one our society is currently facing. After all, the question behind Senator Blackburn’s inquiry is whether transgender female athletes can participate in women’s sports.
Can transgender women legally claim to be “women”? Are they part of the class protected from gender-based discrimination? Unlike Sayers, who is arguing for the individual personhood of women, we are struggling to define who can claim membership in the class of woman.
But I believe Sayers’s underlying formulation is still relevant because by failing to protect women’s human rights, we unwittingly created a context that requires the concept of female to take on political dimensions. Lacking a category for woman as Homo [human], Femina [female] must do all the work.
Indeed for the last century, women have had to rally around their femaleness to fight for their human rights so that in this current moment—and to Judge Brown Jackson’s point—the question of “Who is a woman?” has profound legal and political ramifications.
But this is where that question “Who is a woman?” gets especially dicey for conservatives: Insofar as we have leaned hard on definitions of womanhood that emphasize femaleness and deemphasize our shared humanity with men, we’ve minimized the very category that is the source of civil rights.
In other words, conservatives will struggle to argue convincingly that they are fighting to protect women’s rights in the current debates if their working definitions of woman do not include the assumption of rights to begin with. This is especially true of those who have resisted reform movements, who minimize sexual harassment and abuse as “locker room talk,” and who have historically opposed legal categories that protect women on the basis of sex.
I can’t help but wonder how today’s conversation would be different had we spent the last 100 years establishing legal precedent for defining woman—not as a special-interest group based in gender but as a biological human reality. How would today’s conversation unfold had we spent the last century seeing women as the image bearers they are?
But what-ifs are no match for what is. And as a society, we are now struggling to agree on something as fundamental as what makes us who we are. How should we respond to the chaos of the current moment?
First, I think we must acknowledge the flaws in our own working definitions of woman—how often they are not based in the imago Dei and instead amount to “whatever is not a man.” We do not need to exchange female for human, as these categories are different and one cannot replace the other. We need both. But we must develop a robust understanding of women as being made in God’s image because it is from this space that we derive corresponding rights and responsibilities.
Instead of beginning our theories of male and female in Genesis 2 or Ephesians 5, we must root them in Genesis 1, affirming our shared humanity as the context in which our differences play out. Our differences are real and true, but sexual differentiation cannot answer what makes us human. And insofar as maleness has become the default definition of what it means to be human in our subcultures, we must repent.
Second, we need to recognize the vulnerability of this moment. How people conceive of gender and even biological sex is rapidly changing. So rapidly, in fact, that many experience it as an escalation that must be checked before it overwhelms them. And while this moment certainly has cultural power, I’d argue that we’re actually seeing the weakness of modern categories on display—not just about gender but about personhood and the limitations of self-creation.
The conversation is changing rapidly in the same way a wave changes rapidly when it is about to crest and break. Sayers addressed this phenomenon in her 1942 essay “Why Work?,” noting that society has built-in cycles of self-correction that often end in cataclysmic ways:
People who would not revise their ideas voluntarily find themselves compelled to do so by the sheer pressure of the events which these very ideas have served to bring about. … The root causes of conflict are usually to be found in some wrong way of life in which all parties have acquiesced, and for which everybody must, to some extent, bear the blame.
If this is the case, principled leaders need to carefully consider how they respond to this moment. They must identify the true loci of the debate and avoid perpetuating the conditions that created it—including our failure to honor the humanity of women.
And finally, we must pursue a process of questioning and inquiry that honors the humanity of our interlocutors as well as our own. While you may think the answer to “Who is a woman?” is a simple one, your neighbor increasingly does not. Living at peace with all people means learning to navigate such differences with grace and truth, affirming the humanity not simply of those who agree with us but also of those who disagree.
In the current moment, this may seem impossible. And if you’re taking your cues from politicians, it is improbable. But for those who are being actively transformed into the likeness of Christ, whose very humanity is being redeemed and fulfilled through union with him, such a posture will be the most natural thing in the world.
Hannah Anderson is the author of Made for More, All That’s Good, and Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul.