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Scientists Claim There Is Not a ‘Simple’ Answer to Define ‘Woman’

This article was originally published at StateOfUnion.org. Publications approved for syndication have permission to republish this article, such as Microsoft News, Yahoo News, Newsbreak, UltimateNewswire and others. To learn more about syndication opportunities, visit About Us.
Ketanji Brown Jackson

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson faced a challenging question during her Supreme Court confirmation hearing when Senator Marsha Blackburn inquired about the definition of a “woman.” Jackson’s response to this question was contentious, sparking a broader debate on the definition of womanhood.

Blackburn's query

The confirmation hearing itself was arduous, lasting over 13 hours and involving intense questioning, with Blackburn’s query standing out as particularly demanding. “Not in this context, I’m not a biologist,” Judge Jackson responded. “In my work as a judge, what I do is I address disputes. If there’s a dispute about a definition, people make arguments, and I look at the law, and I decide.”

Complexity

However, these markers do not always align neatly and may not be entirely distinct or opposite. This complexity makes it challenging for biologists to establish a definitive definition of a woman based solely on biology.

Dissatisfaction

Blackburn expressed her dissatisfaction with Jackson’s response by promptly reprimanding her. “The fact that you can’t give me a straight answer about something as fundamental as what a woman is underscores the dangers of the kind of progressive education that we are hearing about.” Blackburn stated in the hearing.

Defining a woman

Jackson’s response to the question about defining a woman holds significance due to her potential role as a Supreme Court Judge presiding over cases involving transgender rights and gender issues. Gender politics is a prominent and contentious topic in the current American landscape, with ongoing debates on trans rights. Senators from both sides have used Jackson’s answer to further their own arguments in this debate.

Science and biology

While some experts appreciate Jackson’s response, acknowledging its complexity and nuance, they also recognize the limitations of using science and biology alone to define womanhood.

Diversity

The diversity among billions of women globally, both socially and biologically, makes it challenging to arrive at a definitive scientific definition. Rebecca Jordan-Young, a scientist and gender studies scholar, emphasizes the interplay between biology and social aspects in defining gender, highlighting that biology alone cannot offer a comprehensive definition of what constitutes a woman.

Address disputes

“I don’t want to see this question punted to biology as if science can offer a simple, definitive answer,” she said. “The rest of her answer was more interesting and important. She said ‘as a judge, what I do is I address disputes. If there’s a dispute about a definition, people make arguments, and I look at the law, and I decide.’ In other words, she said context matters – which is true in both biology and society. I think that’s a pretty good answer for a judge.”

Raised concerns

Following the hearing, Blackburn took to Twitter to express her view that the question of defining the word “woman” was a straightforward one, and Jackson’s inability to provide a clear answer raised concerns for her.

Binary classification

Contrary to the notion of a simple binary classification based on genitalia at birth, gender identity and the concept of being a woman are far more intricate and multifaceted, as highlighted by gender experts. From a biological perspective, there are multiple markers that contribute to determining sex, including genitals, gonads, chromosomes, internal reproductive organs, hormones, and secondary sex characteristics.

Biological markers

While biological markers play a role in determining sex, it is essential to consider both the biological and social aspects in defining gender within the legal and judicial framework. Each case involving this debate should take into account the interplay between biology and social context.

Social questions

“As is so often the case, science cannot settle what are really social questions,” said Sarah Richardson, a Harvard scholar, historian and philosopher of biology who focuses on the sciences of sex and gender and their policy dimensions. “In any particular case of sex categorization, whether in law or in science, it is necessary to build a definition of sex particular to context.”

Gender studies

According to gender studies professor Kate Mason, judges often need to acknowledge that gender is not a rigid binary concept but rather fluid and diverse. Individuals have unique perspectives on gender identity and how they choose to define and express their gender.

Reality

“I do think that judges and justices sometimes have to make determinations about who is meant by ‘man’ or ‘woman’ in written statutes – and they may have to acknowledge the reality that sex and gender are not binary,” Mason said. “I think Blackburn would prefer a world in which reality was much simpler.”

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