What is a woman?
Until quite recently, an article on this subject would have been deemed unnecessary at best, perhaps even a little absurd. Not anymore. In our increasingly post-Christian culture, confusion abounds, so much so that the Oxford English Dictionary recently altered dozens of definitions after a gender diversity review, among them ‘woman’ and ‘man’.1,2 So, how are we to define what a woman is? A simple question you may think, but for some it now causes a lot of problems. Some religious and political leaders are caught in the transgender controversy, between tradition on the one hand, and modern sensibilities that desire to accommodate various ideological pressure groups.
In terms of religious confusion, the Rt Rev Robert Innes, the Anglican Bishop in Europe, was reported to have said, “There is no official definition [of a woman], which reflects the fact that until fairly recently definitions of this kind were thought to be self-evident, as reflected in the marriage liturgy.”3 Innes commented further that the church “has begun to explore the complexities associated with gender identity.” Politicians have also struggled; for example, the UK’s Labour leader Keir Starmer, addressing his party’s annual conference, said that it was wrong to claim that only a woman can have a cervix.4 Along with this comes pressure to use preferred pronouns for transgender people so as not to cause offence.5
There are also legitimate fears that women are being cancelled; and not just among some conservative Christians, but feminists as well.6 In some instances, women or their interests are under threat as language itself is being changed; for example, in some UK governmental health trusts, the term ‘breast-feeding’ is now being dismissed in favour of ‘chest-feeding’.7 The made-up word ‘womxn’ has also been used by some activists instead of woman.8 In sport, a few genetic males have been allowed to compete in women’s events, and as you might expect, often win the prize. While this clearly places women at a disadvantage, more seriously it can become dangerous when it involves contact sports. A strong case can be made that it is a form of misogyny.9
All of this leads to confusion over the question of identity, especially when set against definitions that have been held for millennia. While some male activists wish to be identified as women, at the same time there is the claim that the concept of woman cannot be properly defined. One may ask, how can a person identify with something that cannot be defined? This confusion stems from the lack of coherence in liberalism when taken to extremes.
Defining a woman
So how are Christian believers, who take the Bible literally, to define what a woman is? One definition of a woman is ‘adult human female’,2 but this then requires that we have a definition of female. The creation account in Genesis tells us:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. … So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26–28).
“But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman [Hebrew ishshah אִשָּׁה], because she was taken out of Man [ish אִישׁ]” (Genesis 2:20-23).
“The man called his wife’s name Eve [Chavvah חַוָּה], because she was the mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20).
The Hebrew text identifies the woman as ishshah because she was taken out of ish (the man). She was called by the proper name Eve (or Chavvah); the mother of all the living. The separateness, but with complementarity, is clear in this binary structure to human society.
Similar differences arise in the English language, although there is disagreement over how the word woman derived from the Old English. The favoured idea is that the Anglo-Saxon noun was wíf-mann, meaning a female person, later mutating into wumman and woman (the wíf part later also gave rise to the English word wife). The word mann was applied to an adult human person, and the male term was wer-mann.10 On the other hand, the feminist Elizabeth Stanton suggested the word woman derives from womb-man,11 where the Old English word for womb was wamb, meaning belly or uterus.12 Whether or not we can resolve the dispute over the origin of the word here, the possession of a womb, and other reproductive organs, may be a useful term in reality to help resolve the question of how to define a woman. We can think of a woman as a ‘wombed man.’
With the discovery of the genetic code, it has been found that men generally have XY chromosomes, while women have XX chromosomes. The Y chromosome generally confers maleness, while the X chromosome leads to female anatomical features. And yet, further genetic research has complicated the picture. It is now known that the SRY gene, which normally is located on the Y chromosome, plays a major role in determining the sex of an individual (although on its own it is insufficient). Those with the rare Swyer syndrome have a Y chromosome but, due to a mutation on the SRY gene, develop as females. Normally, such people do not go through puberty, being infertile. Should they be identified as male because they have a Y chromosome, or as female because they lack a functioning SRY gene? Before knowledge of genetics arose, such people would have been identified as women, albeit infertile. Don Batten points out that important functionality of the Y chromosome that confer maleness is missing on the Y chromosome of those with Swyer syndrome.13
The reverse occurs with the De La Chapelle syndrome. In the majority of cases the individual has XX chromosomes, but the SRY gene has been transposed from the Y chromosome of the father to an X chromosome during reproduction. Such people develop male characteristics, despite possessing the XX chromosomes, although again do not experience puberty.
We recognise that in rare instances the demarcation between men and women is blurred because of the Fall. It is known for instance that, rarely, a few people are born as hermaphrodites, or as eunuchs (Matthew 19:12), which means that there is an inability to consummate marriage. Such people need to be treated with dignity and respect.
Despite these very rare cases, overwhelmingly, there is an obvious biological and genetic distinction between men and women, which makes definitions clear. In Scripture it is clearly taught that God has created mankind male and female (Genesis 1:27)—Adam and Eve. This is for companionship, but also in large part for the purpose of procreation. In the first instance a woman has been designed, with various biological organs for bearing and nurturing children (e.g., fallopian tubes and a uterus), while the man not only lacks the latter, but has different sexual organs. The man and the woman complement one another in this regard when the two ‘become one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24).
There is simply no justification for ‘cancelling Eve’, whether biblically or scientifically—from genetics, anatomy, or physiology. Ironically, in a society that claims to prize equality, moves in this direction are arguably a form of misogyny.
References and notes
- See Coleman, L., Oxford English Dictionary changes definition of ‘woman’ after complaints that it was ‘sexist’, independent.co.uk, 7 Nov 2020. Return to text.
- For the definition of ‘woman’ in an older edition of OED (1989) see: oed.com/oed2/00286737. Return to text.
- Beckford, M., There are complexities associated with gender identity: Church of England admits it doesn’t have a definition of ‘woman’, dailymail.co.uk, 10 July 2022. Return to text.
- BBC, Labour conference: Not right to say only women have a cervix, says Starmer, bbc.co.uk, 26 September 2021. Return to text.
- It is now claimed by transgender proponents that people have both a sex, which is male or female, and a gender, which may or may not align with their sex. If it does not align then a person is said to be either a transgender man or a transgender woman; if it does align then a person is said to be cis-gendered. The fact that the term cis-gender is offensive to some non-transgender people is apparently not so important. Return to text.
- Cates, M., The cancellation of women is bigger than a ‘culture war’, telegraph.co.uk, 11 October 2021; and Rowling, J.K., J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues, jkrowling.com, 10 June 2020. Return to text.
- Williams, T., Midwives told to say chestfeeding instead of breast feeding to be more inclusive, metro.co.uk, 10 February 2021. Return to text.
- Boyd, C., Fury as CPS hires transgender activist in new £31,000 working from home diversity job who has backed using the derogatory term ‘womxn’ instead of ‘woman’, dailymail.co.uk, 2 June 2022. Return to text.
- In a mixed martial art fight the woman Tamikka Brents suffered concussion and a broken eye socket in a bout against the transgender fighter Fallon Fox. Fox later said it was enjoyable to beat up certain women. In a Twitter post (now deleted) Fox said; “For the record, I knocked two out. One woman’s skull was fractured, the other not. And just so you know, I enjoyed it. See, I love smacking up Terfs [trans-exclusionary radical feminist] in the cage who talk transphobic nonsense. It’s bliss!” See: Beckford, M., Radio 4 host Justin Webb admits he had ‘no idea’ transgender athlete he interviewed about sport rule changes once BOASTED about knocking out women – as listeners compare it to ‘asking what Jack the Ripper thinks about street safety,’ dailymail.co.uk, 21 June 2022. Return to text.
- Bosworth, J., An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, edited by Northcote Toller, T., Sean, C., and Tichy, O., Faculty of Arts, Charles University, Prague, 2014, see: bosworthtoller.com/35615. Return to text.
- Stanton, E.C., The Woman’s Bible: A classic feminist perspective, Dover Publications, Mineola, New York, pp. 21–22, 2002. Return to text.
- Ref. 10., see: bosworthtoller.com/34605. Return to text.
- Batten, D., Sex abnormalities and transgender, creation.com/sex-abnormal, 25 June 2022. Return to text.