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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Who Makes a Woman?

Author Elinor Burkett asks if women and men have different brains in her quest to assert “What Makes a Woman?”

The greater question she wishes to attend to is whether trans women are women. To Burkett, they are not.

She asserts that many self defined Progressives are adopting an idea that differentiation within the brain causes differences in life paths taken and hard wires our gender within us all.

That may or may not be true, these notions or ideas about brain differences.  It is a straw man argument. Proffering such seeks not to discuss the greater issue, but to obfuscate it.  We do not need to debate such notions, because the outcome changes nothing with respect to Burkett’s real claim, “that being a woman means having accrued certain experiences, endured certain indignities and relished certain courtesies in a culture that reacted to you as one.” Burkett further claims that “female is a social construct that has subordinated [women].”

We can agree that Woman is a social construct and that it most certainly has subordinated women, however, her vague “certainties” are lacking. What precise experiences, what certain indignities, and which certain courtesies is Burkett professing? Besides not being fully articulated in her piece, Burkett’s Rules of Womanhood are, so far as I am aware, not articulated elsewhere.  If one discounts trans women for failing to possess some or all of Burkett’s Rules, what becomes of cisgender women without all of the dynamics Burkett asserts are necessities, not just sufficiencies? Do people like Burkett have the privilege of asserting qualification upon womanhood?

Arizona State University Professor James Paul Gee is vested in the study of linguistics and discourse communities. Gee’s work is well documented and his understandings of literacy, learning and acquisition are nearly unparalleled.  For Gee acquisition is “a process of acquiring somethingsubconsciously by exposure to models and a process of trial and error, withouta process of formal teaching.” We find Burkett presenting a notion of acquisition.

Social constructs rely upon acquisition. It is a process by which enculturation transpires. Burkett accepts Woman is a social construct. She asserts acquisition is a mechanism which bestows membership. Since acquisition requires exposure, and such exposure alone, without a process of trial and error is insufficient to acquisition, such memberships change over time. The greater the exposure, the more frequent the process of trial and error, the stronger the acquisition. So if one is to accept Burkett’s ideas of membership into womanhood, all women are not equal members. Some have less exposure to models (constructs) and fewer sequences of trials and error. Are they less of a woman? Burkett believes so.

The issue is not “What Makes a Woman?” as Burkett entitles, however it is “Who Makes a Woman?” as her argument reinforces. Burkett believes she makes that determination.


Setting aside diversionary theories, we can see Burkett offers nothing new under the sun. This form of Essentialism is premised on there being only two qualifying attributes of a woman; the assignment of female at birth for that individual; and progressing entirely through one’s lived experience within that socialized group as reacted upon by society. Consistent to this, Burkett argues those “who haven’t lived their whole lives as women… shouldn’t get to define us.” She manages this while simultaneously defining transgender women, without to this author’s knowledge, having lived ANY of her life as a trans woman.

So what of those individuals who were assigned female at birth, but didn’t have the same certain experiences Burkett ascribes are necessary for membership within the construct of womanhood, namely being reacted to as one?

Sojourner’s Truth is filling this discussion faster than the Republican Presidential race is filling with hopefuls.

“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman?”

Sojourner Truth’s lived experiences are that of not being seen as a woman by a culture that devalued her very existence. Burkett’s arguments would deny Sojourner membership for not “having accrued certain experiences, endured certain indignities and relished certain courtesies in a culture that reacted to [her] as one.” So membership may consist of assignment at birth, or it may include lived experiences, yet possession of both are not necessities.  Given this, the social construct of Woman is open to all women, of all experiences, regardless of sex assigned at birth or Elinor Burkett.

“…and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Jenna,
Now, you picked my curiosity... so i'll add that book to my to do list.
Great to see you are blogging here again.

xoxo

Arianne