Women scholars discuss danger of redefining women

Notre Dame Panel Libresco, Favle and Bachiochi during the “The Dignity of the Sexed Body: Asymmetry, Equality, and Real Reproductive Justice” panel Nov. 13. | Steve Toepp / University of Notre Dame

Efforts to redefine women undermine their feminine dignity and unjustly pressure them to resort to abortions to keep pace with men in the workforce, a panel of women scholars said earlier this month in a discussion that highlighted the harmful consequences of de-sexing society.

Titled “The Dignity of the Sexed Body: Asymmetry, Equality, and Real Reproductive Justice,” the Nov. 13 discussion took place at the 21st annual fall conference of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame, and featured presentations by English professor Abigail Favale, legal scholar Erika Bachiochi, and writer Leah Libresco Sargeant.

Favale, the dean of the College of Humanities at George Fox University, in Newberg, Ore., spoke about the dangers of divorcing the terms “woman” and “female.”

Currently, she noted, “defining a woman as an adult human female is considered hate speech” by some, and use of the terms “pregnant woman” or “breastfeeding” can be labeled discriminatory. Yet “appropriating the identity of a woman is considered laudatory, liberating, the next frontier of civil rights,” she said.

“[I]f woman no longer names the billions of persons who are female, how do we speak about them?” Favale asked.

Apparently, the answer is not so easy. Favale cited three failed definitions as proof.

One, from the Australian Academy of Sciences, defines a woman as “anyone who identifies as a woman.” A second definition, offered by British philosopher Katherine Jenkins, is someone who “experiences the norms that are associated with women in her social context as relevant to her.”

A third definition comes from trans-identified person Susan Striker, who says a woman is “useful shorthand for the entanglement of femininity and social status regardless of biology — not as an identity, but as the name for an imagined community that honors the female, enacts the feminine and exceeds the limitations of a sexist society.”

Favale says these definitions unseat the dignity of women in a deeply disquieting manner.

Libresco, Favle and Bachiochi during the “The Dignity of the Sexed Body: Asymmetry, Equality, and Real Reproductive Justice” panel Nov. 13. Steve Toepp / University of Notre Dame
Libresco, Favle and Bachiochi during the “The Dignity of the Sexed Body: Asymmetry, Equality, and Real Reproductive Justice” panel Nov. 13. Steve Toepp / University of Notre Dame

“The most stunning aspect of this linguistic insurrection is the unnaming of female humans,” she said. “To quote Helen Joyce: The quest for the liberation of people with female bodies has arrived at an extraordinary position: that they do not even constitute a group that merits a name.”

The divorce between woman and adult human female also puts women in physical danger, Favale argued.

Women are the primary beneficiaries of the “few sex segregated spaces that continue to exist in western, liberal democracies — bathrooms, locker rooms, prisons, shelters, sports teams — [and] all of those exist for the benefit of women who are more vulnerable to sexual assault and harrasment,” she said.

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