Monday, February 20, 2023

The original "What is a woman?"

The American political commentator Matt Walsh released a documentary recently titled "What is a woman?" It showed the difficulty many moderns have in answering an apparently simple question.

The question was posed, however, much earlier by the woman credited with kickstarting second wave feminism, Simone de Beauvoir, back in 1949 in her book The Second Sex. Her discussion of the question is interesting because it deals with the metaphysical origins of modernity. 

She opens her argument with this:
But first we must ask: what is a woman? 
She acknowledges that some people would answer that there is a feminine quality that women embody and express, an "essence", that is part of the definition of womanhood. However, she rejects the existence of such a quality of femininity:
It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity. Is this attribute something secreted by the ovaries? Or is it a Platonic essence, a product of the philosophic imagination? Is a rustling petticoat enough to bring it down to earth? Although some women try zealously to incarnate this essence, it is hardly patentable. It is frequently described in vague and dazzling terms that seem to have been borrowed from the vocabulary of the seers, and indeed in the times of St Thomas it was considered an essence as certainly defined as the somniferous virtue of the poppy

But conceptualism has lost ground. The biological and social sciences no longer admit the existence of unchangeably fixed entities that determine given characteristics, such as those ascribed to woman...Science regards any characteristic as a reaction dependent in part upon a situation. If today femininity no longer exists, then it never existed. 

She claims that there are no innate qualities, and notes that in her time the sciences held character to depend on the social environment. But if there is no such thing as femininity, and we are simply products of our environment, then what does it mean to be a woman?:

But does the word woman, then, have no specific content? This is stoutly affirmed by those who hold to the philosophy of the enlightenment, of rationalism, of nominalism; women, to them, are merely the human beings arbitrarily designated by the word woman. Many American women particularly are prepared to think that there is no longer any place for woman as such; if a backward individual still takes herself for a woman, her friends advise her to be psychoanalysed and thus get rid of this obsession. In regard to a work, Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, which in other respects has its irritating features, Dorothy Parker has written: ‘I cannot be just to books which treat of woman as woman ... My idea is that all of us, men as well as women, should be regarded as human beings.’
This is interesting for several reasons. First, it shows that at the end of the long first wave of feminism, the same result occurred that we are seeing today. The term "woman" lost all meaning. Today, if you ask a progressive what the term means, they will simply say "whatever a woman wants it to mean". If you follow up by asking "can it mean anything then?" they will answer "yes". In 1949, the category was also thought to lack any signifying substance - it was held by progressives to be an arbitrary category that should be jettisoned.

Simone de Beauvoir

Second, Simone de Beauvoir is aware that this attitude has its origins in certain philosophical positions, including that of nominalism. Nominalism is the belief that there are only individual instances of things and that universals have no real existence but are only names. In this view, the feminine is not a really existing quality or essence that gives a distinct nature to women.

Simone de Beauvoir's position on nominalism is complex. On the one hand, she thinks it inadequate because she believes the categories of man and woman to be real - unlike certain later feminists she rejects the idea that there is liberation in escaping the category of woman. However, she also rejects the idea of the masculine and the feminine as being innate qualities that men and women embody and express:
But nominalism is a rather inadequate doctrine, and the antifeminists have had no trouble in showing that women simply are not men. Surely woman is, like man, a human being; but such a declaration is abstract. The fact is that every concrete human being is always a singular, separate individual. To decline to accept such notions as the eternal feminine, the black soul, the Jewish character, is not to deny that Jews, Negroes, women exist today – this denial does not represent a liberation for those concerned, but rather a flight from reality. 
Her defence of the distinction between men and women is not exactly encouraging:
In truth, to go for a walk with one’s eyes open is enough to demonstrate that humanity is divided into two classes of individuals whose clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, gaits, interests, and occupations are manifestly different. Perhaps these differences are superficial, perhaps they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that they do most obviously exist.
Which leads her back to the question her book is intended to answer:
If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through ‘the eternal feminine’, and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question “what is a woman”?
I have not read all of the remainder of her book. Part of her answer is that women have been defined only in relation to men, as "the Other". She wants, in line with modernity, for women to be autonomous. She has the following negative take on traditional womanhood:
Humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself; she is not an autonomous being
Her solution is the familiar feminist one of claiming that the differences that have existed between men and women are not the product of an innate masculinity or femininity but are due to socialisation:
One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female acquires in society; it is civilization as a whole that develops this product, intermediate between female and eunuch, which one calls feminine.

I'm sorry to disappoint, but I'm not really sure what her answer is to the question "What is a woman?". She seems to focus on the idea that women are not by nature feminine (which she takes to be a negative thing) and should be autonomous in the sense of living for themselves. She writes of her dislike for marriage, motherhood and family and promotes free love, abortion and careers.

She lived to see her preferences realised in Western society. But we do not live in a culture that can answer the question she raised back in 1949. Our culture still does not know what a woman is.


  1. the devil is annihilated by The Blessed Virgin Mary, and demons have a seething horror at the presence of Holy women because they are particularly lethal to demons in general.

    as for ms simone here, she got her start as a prostitute and “girlfriend” of jean paul sartre. simone would go out and seduce teen boys with promises of sex, then drag them back to her crummy apartment she shared with her “boyfriend,” lock the door with the kids inside, and sartre himself would come out of the other room and rape the boys.

    And so what a woman is, is defined by God, and the answer is so obvious and implicit it needs no definition.

    The real question is “what is a feminist?” and that answer is “a slave and tool to evil men.”

    Love always,

    (By the way, my twitter account “current resident @definiteanswer” that you follow just got banned).

  2. Sounds like another case of perish envy. She was nothing more than a genetic dead end, the equivalent of a homosexual male. A woman who doesn't give birth is a waste. Woman who claim to be wonderful aunts are also a waste as Chelsea handler made clear.

  3. To be fair, Matt Walsh doesn't have much of an answer either. His "adult human female" definition isn't too far off from the definition of womanhood offered by TERFs. In one of the trailers for his documentary, he says "I want women to realize their full potential," which makes it seem like transgenderism is an obstacle to women's empowerment.

    1. Interesting. I haven't watched enough of Matt Walsh to have a clear sense of where he stands on this. But you're right to point out that the basic dictionary definition of "adult human female" is not enough to stop TERFs emptying the term "woman" of all real meaning.