No true Scotswoman — defining womanhood

Rachel Saunders
5 min readJan 23, 2023

One of the significant arguments thrown back in the face of transwomen is that women equals: “adult human female”, as if that has any extrinsic value other than to reduce women to their biology and the semantic meaning of the English language. English is both binary with respects to gender (male/female), yet linguistically does not assign gender to anything other than living beings (and ships). A chair is a chair, not ascribed an intrinsic gender, like in German or French, so when English speakers talk of sex they automatically think of personhood. Men are men, women are women, and to conflated and hedge either is, well, conceptually wrong. Or so gender purists would like you to believe.

List all the attributes of womanhood:

· Adult over the age of 18 (or 16 or 21 or 25 depending on your nation and culture of choice)

· Human

· XX chromosomes

· Able to biologically carry a child to full term and birth that child

· A externally pleasing gender presentation that matches up to the culturally accepted gender normativity of the culture and society that person lives in

· An appropriate girlhood and teenage years according to the culture and society the person lives in

· Sexual desires (or chastity) that match up with the culturally expected attractions women should have as defined by the society they live in

· Have the right physical appearance, voice pitch, waist line, hormone balance, body hair, head of hair, and other standards set by the culture and society the person lives in

· A womanly attitude as defined by the society the person lives in

I could go one. The upshot of this is that there are very few women who actually would pass the strict definitions and boundaries that society sets for womanhood. And that just goes for the society you happen to live. Cross cultural boarders, actual boarders, go back to any period and society in history and the very concept of adult human female suddenly becomes cloud and semantically problematic. No true Scotswoman can exist because there will always be additional caveats to womanhood that cannot be parsed by every woman.

What about the biology? If the central argument is biological, namely that to be a woman you must bleed once a month, be able to bear and birth children, and have XX chromosomes then essentially you are both a) reducing womanhood to chattel breeders and b) assuming that all XX people can give birth, that all people who have had hysterectomies or physically cannot have periods are not women by this definition, and that motherhood and womanhood are synonymous. This is as reductive an argument as you can have about womanhood, as it reduces women to something other than holistic personhood. No person is rote biology, no woman is ever a brood mare. Motherhood is aspirational for many women, but for plenty of others they reject with fierce aversion.

The cultural boundaries we set around women assume that they are somehow lesser, somehow weaker, in need of protection from both themselves and the male patriarchal wolves at the door. As if Red Riding was a cautionary tale about what not to do as it was about taking fate into ones own hands. The power dynamic clearly sits with those who seek to define womanhood in their own image, to police those who belong in the real women club, yet in seeking the splinter in others eyes they patently fail to see the plank in their own. For women to point and cry “false!” is doing the jobs of those who wish to oppress all women. A hijab should be a choice, not a collar. To be a woman is a conscious understanding of self, an act of being that all women intrinsically make as they grow and live and develop.

Men are never held to the same standards. The list of male attributes is equally reductive, but the clarion call is never adult human male. It is usually a shrug, a pint, and banter. Yes, I am being glib, and many men and trans men struggle with the societal burdens placed on men. Yet, the point stands that to define yourself as a man is never treated as an inherent threat to other men, masculinity is not invalidated by transmen and trans masculine folk simply existing. Manhood is secure because to be a man is to be seen as power.

This is why trans women are inherently a threat to this boxing in and bounding of womanhood. Trans women’s innate womanhood comes through introspection and self-understanding. Policing of womanhood comes from other women, men, the media, the law, religion, and every other societal influence. Even amongst trans groups womanhood is defined in whatever the cisnormative version of womanhood happens to be at the time. Gender identity clinics enforce a version of womanhood that is outdated, where the concept of jeans and a hoodie is suddenly all too masculine if you want to get hormones or surgery.

This is more than a trans issue. It impacts all women. By stating that women are this or that, by imposing a hierarchy of womanhood on all women it is all women who suffer. For if you fall outside the normative standards of your culture and society you run the risk of ridicule, mockery, arrest, beatings, torture or murder. The experiences of trans women are the tip of the iceberg for how society treats women in general. By reducing womanhood down to adult human female you strip away the panoply of women’s experiences the world over. It fundamentally misunderstands that to be a women, to innately understand your own womanhood, goes far beyond an arbitrary check list. Womanhood, to intrinsically know yourself as a woman, is a deep wellspring of self, and how you appear or what your biology is does not change that self-understanding.

Women are women because they understand themselves to be women. To say any different is to treat women as something lesser than men, as children incapable of fully comprehending their own innate selves. Trans women are women because they have this innate understanding, cis women the same. No amount of what-ifery will change that. If you really believe that the wolves at the door come in trans women’s clothing then take a look at the misogynistic and patriarchal culture that we have built around us, not the women standing in front of you.