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  • Gender Concepts and Intuitions
  • Mari Mikkola (bio)


This paper has two goals: it takes issue with a revisionary analysis of the concept woman and it defends certain linguistic intuitions about the use of the term ‘woman.’ A number of contemporary feminists have been concerned with how to best define the concept woman: how best to cash out under which conditions someone counts as a woman.1 This concern strikes non-feminist philosophers and ordinary language users as surprising since (ordinarily) cashing out the said conditions doesn’t [End Page 559] appear to be problematic: aren’t women simply human females? Most feminists disagree. They standardly understand woman as a gender concept and gender ascriptions are taken to depend on some social traits (like one’s social role or position). These are distinct from sex ascriptions that are thought to depend on anatomical traits (like chromosomes and genitalia). Further, ‘woman’ and ‘man’ are used as gender terms, ‘female’ and ‘male’ as sex terms.2 For feminist philosophers, then, being a human female doesn’t make one a woman. Instead, in order to satisfy the gender concept woman some social, not biological, conditions must be met.

However, cashing out these social conditions is a major feminist controversy. For a start, feminists disagree amongst themselves over what constitutes them: for example, some argue that those with a specifically feminine personality satisfy woman (Chodorow, 1995), others that those who are sexually objectified count as women (MacKinnon, 1989). One need not be a female in order to be a woman: a male who has a feminine personality or is sexually objectified, could count as a woman. Saying that, social and cultural diversity imply that no shared social conditions for satisfying woman exist to begin with. How to best define woman isn’t simply a matter of disagreement; rather, the whole project is undermined if we look at the ways in which women (qua women) differ socially and culturally (Butler, 1999; Frye, 1996; Heyes, 2000; Spelman, 1988; Stoljar, 1995; Young, 1997). This problem doesn’t disappear when feminists limit themselves to single cultures or societies either. For instance, ordinary English speakers appear to apply the term ‘woman’ on a number of different grounds: they do so on the basis of female sex, behavioural traits, social roles, psychological dispositions and gender attribution or ‘calling oneself a woman, being called a woman’ (Stoljar, 1995, 283–4). As these conditions (and perhaps many others) are involved in our applications of ‘woman,’ it’s not possible to say precisely which social condition (or set of conditions) makes one a woman. Bluntly put: woman is a difficult concept to cash out and it is far from obvious how it should be understood.

This has created apparently insurmountable difficulties for defining woman. But these difficulties are not merely semantic; they are also said to generate a serious political concern (Frye, 1996; Haslanger, 2000; Heyes, 2000; Stoljar, 1995; Stone, 2004; Tanesini, 1996; Young, 1997). The concept woman supposedly marks off the relevant social kind or [End Page 560] type feminist politics should be organised around.3 Eradicating women’s oppression is feminism’s political goal and achieving this goal is thought to require that feminist politics be organised around those who satisfy woman. That is, those who meet the social conditions constitutive of womanhood will be members of the social kind feminism ought to be organised around. Now, not knowing these conditions makes it unclear which individuals feminism ought to be organized around. And not being able to pick out women’s social kind means that feminism cannot effectively respond to difficulties members of this kind (qua women) face — something that is said to politically undermine and paralyse feminism (Young, 1997, 16; Tanesini, 1996, 353). For instance, women as a social kind suffer more sexual violence than men. But if feminists cannot mark off this kind, it is unclear how they can respond to the violence its members face. Providing a definition of woman would seem to be the appropriate first step. But, given the problems mentioned, how can it be best defined?

Some feminists have taken a pragmatic stance. In particular, I have in mind here Sally Haslanger’s interesting and...


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