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Austin Cline

What is a Woman?

By April 30, 2005

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Much of the social agenda of the Christian Right turns on particular ideas about what men & women are and what sorts of social roles they are expected to have. It stands to reason, then, that one way to oppose their agenda is to be diligent in countering their efforts to define humanity.

Big Brass Blog writes about the definition of "woman" in a bill making its way through Congress:

WOMAN- The term `woman' means a female human being who is capable of becoming pregnant, whether or not she has reached the age of majority.

Both the House and the Senate thought this definition was OK. But what are the implications of it?

A. A female human being who is not capable of becoming pregnant does not qualify as a woman under this definition.

B. This definition implies that a woman is not, as any dictionary will tell you, an 'adult female human.' A thirteen-year-old female child is a woman if she has reached puberty. Fertility is the sole measure of womanhood, not maturity and the capacity to make one's own decisions.

Now, it's true that laws can use definitions of words which are narrower than standard usage that's not typically a problem. As BBB notes, though, this definition could end up being used elsewhere in laws that aren't appropriate. More important, perhaps, is the apparently lack of any good reason to define "woman" so narrowly. The definition may specify only those people that the law will end up affecting, but so what?

The bill in question deals with abortion, so the only people being affected are pregnant women and girls but the definition of "woman" includes non-pregnant, but fertile women and girls. If it really were necessary to have a definition, why not say something like "pregnant females of any age"? Why define "woman" according to their ability to reproduce?

BBB points out that in Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale, infertile women were labeled Unwomen. This sort of thing cannot reasonably be read independent of how the Christian Right has traditionally defined the social role of women as reproduction. Ann at Feministing writes about how anti-abortion women are defining themselves as "real" women, thus implying that "real" women don't support abortion:

A cadre of anti-choice women are descending upon Washington today for "REAL Women's Voices," a lobby day against abortion rights. ... I'll be writing my legislators today to let them know that I am a REAL woman who is PRO-CHOICE and opposed to the so-called Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act.

Women who don't reproduce according to God's schedule are attempting to thwart God's will, according to Christian Right doctrines.

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June 10, 2008 at 12:33 pm
(1) Akinnibosun Olalekan says:

I read through the definition of a woman by big brass blog and the definition has been a bone of contention between me and my roomates at the University of Lagos, Nigeria. I would like to throw this question to as many people that would read this. An infertile female would be called what? And can the definition of a woman be based on virginity.

May 17, 2013 at 6:29 am
(2) lydia yisa says:

i dont agree with the definition of a woman that focuses on reproduction. a human being with the complete and natural femine body structure both internally and externally is a woman.

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