What Re-Makes a Woman

Jamie Lindemann Nelson provides a philosophical perspective on Burkett’s discussion of womanhood.


Elinor Burkett’s June 7th New York Times editorial, “What Makes a Woman?” has generated a good share of attention—not surprising, perhaps, given how hot transgender is just now and how perennially prominent the Times is as a publication venue. I think, though, the treatment as well as the topic accounts for a good bit of the buzz.

Burkett’s opening move is rhetorically striking. She notes how then-Harvard President Lawrence Sumner was pilloried for suggesting that women’s underrepresentation in the sciences may have something to do with how their brains work, and contrasts that with the sympathetic reception Caitlyn Jenner got for her neuroanatomical take on her own gender identity. With this contrast, Burkett succeeds in issuing an almost irresistible invitation to puzzle out analogies and disanalogies, and a powerful prompt to read on.

Reading on as prompted, what struck me hardest was the internal tension in Burkett’s essay. On the one hand, Burkett rejects neurologically based essentialism about gender—any nontrivial differences as there may be between how the brains of male and female human beings are structured don’t explain differences in how people subjectively and socially experience themselves as gendered. The explanation goes in the other direction—the subjective and the neuroanatomical are structured by the social. On the other hand, despite the prominent place she assigns to socially structured experiences as providing the distinctive content of gender identity, she seemingly clings as hard to physical essentialism as the most enthusiastic proponent of gendered brains—only for Burkett, it’s genitals, not neurons, that do the work. She’s decidedly affronted by transpeople who question the centrality of her vagina to her sense of who she is as a woman.

Pablo Picasso, Girl in front of Mirror (1932)

Pablo Picasso, Girl in front of Mirror (1932)

This sense of affront reveals another tension in the piece that seems to me to run even deeper than her ambivalence about essentialism. Burkett is not aligning herself with those who reject the legitimacy of gender crossing. Yet at the same time, and more vividly, she insinuates that transwomen’s claims to be women are not only potentially politically retrograde—as witness Jenner’s damaging neural naiveté—but disingenuously erode the identities of all those who came into the world physically equipped to be recognized as females and socialized into women.

As is so often the case, the insistence on difference carries with it an evaluative message, although, as is also common, just what that message is can be tricky to specify. It’s not hard to read Burkett as implying that, for Jenner and her ilk, what it is to be a woman is to be free to wear nail polish, whereas what it is for most (for real?) women is to worry about unwanted pregnancies, unexpected periods, inequitable pay, and male violence.

Yet there is a way of reading Burkett that is less demeaning to transwomen than the idea that their lives are at most superficial simulacra of those of women. On this reading, Burkett is not disparaging transwomen as such; rather, she is cautioning them that their own experiences of what it is to be a woman may start out as a bit jejune, and at the same time making them aware of the challenge their way of becoming women poses to other women’s self-understanding. For me, this reading pivots on the following claim: “After all, the trans movement isn’t simply imitating African Americans, Chicanos, gays or women by demanding an end to the violence and discrimination and to be treated with a full measure of respect. It’s demanding that women reconceptualize ourselves.”

I’m perfectly prepared to read the first sentence as whole-heartedly expressing opposition to violence and discrimination directed to transpeople (although what constitutes a “full measure of respect” may need further attention on her part). The second sentence, though, makes me think that, in attempting to get to the bottom of what strikes her as different—and as disturbing—about “the trans movement,” she’s forgotten what she surely must know about liberation movements in general: they typically demand reconceptualization of how both oppressed and oppressors make sense of themselves, as well as of each other.

Women who opposed suffrage, for example. sometimes argued that exercising franchise would force women to change from domestic beings, focused on home and hearth, to political agents, whose attention would need to be wider in scope. Conceptually, the critics may have been right; morally, the question of women’s suffrage is tight shut, not something that could now be so much as raised without grave disrespect.

I think that questions about the validity of transpeople’s experience, and of the respect-worthiness of their claim to be recognized as women and men, or as both, or neither, are closing too; a similar suspicion may account for some of the pressure under which Burkett’s thought labors. But before those questions slam shut altogether, all of us who will be changed—ciswomen and transwomen, the gender conforming and the gender questioning in general—might do well to engage sympathetically with each other’s anxieties about our new selves in our new world.


Jamie Lindemann Nelson is Professor of Philosophy and Faculty Associate, Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences, at Michigan State University.

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