What Is a Woman?

Women, made by God to know and love Him, can be co-authors with Him in His Creation

A recent documentary by cultural commentator Matt Walsh asks the question of the age in its title: “What Is a Woman?” In the documentary [link to trailer here], Walsh poses this question to a range of people, from gender activists and self-styled gender experts to average men and women. It will come as no surprise to find that those who advocate for the transgenderism fad cannot answer what would seem to be the most basic question of all. “What is a woman?” The transgenderists do not know. They haven’t got a clue.

Of course, many of us hear “What is a woman?” and laugh. Who could be confused about such a thing? There are two sexes, and the differences are pretty glaring. Has the “What is a woman?” crowd never been to a crowded swimming pool? It’s along those lines that I was initially inclined to answer. That is, my first response to the question Walsh poses is biological. Women have two X chromosomes and also have bodies to match.

I also have a whole array of traits I could offer as an indirect answer to the “What is a woman?” challenge. Women are soft. They smell nice. They have intuition. They comfort. They cry. But there is nothing preventing those impressionistic answers from being boiled down to biology, too. Being nurturing and attractive and highly-tuned-in emotionally could be classified as genetic traits, beneficial for the survival of the species. Biology as a rebuttal to the transgenderists is, it must be admitted, a pretty solid first try.

The more I think about it, though, the less satisfied I am with the biological answer to “What is a woman?” The reason is that biology can be just as shallow as transgenderism. Biology isn’t an answer to a question, but a cop-out, an excuse not to discuss bigger truths. What we have today in the United States, then, is basically two kinds of materialism warring for primacy over the human person. And neither of these materialisms is remotely convincing.

Our materialist sex wars are along the following lines. On the one side there are the transgenderists, who say that gender identity is divorced from bodily equipage. “Gender identity is real,” these people say. If you think you’re a woman, then you’re a woman. Never mind the illogical whiplash of feminists — who ten minutes ago hated men — saying that men can now be women. What’s more important is the transgenderists would have us believe that gender identity is independent of the body. That, at least, is the premise upon which their ideology rests.

However, the business end of transgenderism is that the body is putty for the disordered mind. So-called “doctors,” a whole gaggle of them, are standing by to do Frankenstein surgery on you as soon as you start to think that maybe you were born in the wrong body. Biology, in other words, is malleable. Gender ideology doesn’t deny the body at all. It just sees it in a Manichean way, as in need of liberation via scalpels and twine. The material of the self, the flesh and the organs, can be pruned, bonsai-like, to fit a human design. Gender identity may be a mental construct, but the engineering required to establish gender identity as ruler of the physical realm requires a great deal of very material rearranging.

Walsh makes this point nicely in a talk he gave at Stanford University (link here). It is the gender ideologues, he says, who collapsed the distinction between sex and gender. The transgenderists’ argument is self-defeating. If gender is in the mind, then why is the body required to play along?

On the other side of the transgender divide, by contrast, one finds the biologists. The biologists glibly assert that women are women because of the parts they have and the genes they carry.

This is not a bad argument as far as it goes. Walsh makes this point in the Stanford talk, too. It’s basically a Thomistic-Aristotelian one. Women are of the nature to become pregnant, Walsh says. Some women are not pregnant, and some women, for various reasons, cannot become pregnant. Being pregnant now is not the index of whether a human being is a woman or not. But the existence of exceptions does not invalidate the core truth. Womanhood is not contingent on an individual’s being able to realize the potentialities that make one a woman. Womanhood is inherent. Womanhood is, as the biologists argue more basically, natural, a question of what a body is and can do.

And yet, on more careful reflection, I must admit that the biological argument, however true, is not really the answer to the question “What is a woman?” It is a subtle difference, but by using biology to respond to this prompt, we are saying not what a woman is but what a woman does, or what she is made of. Is and does, and is and composed of, are not the same things. These are Aristotelian truths, too—as in the Four Causes, for example. A ship may be made of wood, and it may float, but wooden and floating are not the definition of what a ship is. Driftwood is wooden and floats. But one does not play shuffleboard on driftwood’s decks or engage in ballroom dancing in driftwood’s staterooms. Nor does one load mail or coal or crude oil into driftwood’s hull. Nor does one outfit many pieces of driftwood with guns and call it a navy. There is more to being a ship than its material or final causes.

A woman, on this analogy, is not just what she is made of, or what she can do. It seems to me that both sides of the “What is a woman?” question are iterations of the modern disease of answering questions with things, brute material or biological facts. Such answers don’t get to the heart of the matter, and never can. We need to go much deeper. As the human person falls to pieces and the devil runs wild mocking God’s creation, we must respond to “What is a woman?” with a much more forceful truth. We must add the other two causes, namely formal and efficient. Who makes a woman, and according to what design?

Let us begin at the beginning. God made the universe. Why? Because God is love. Love is giving, communicative. Love overflows into the Other. God so overflows with love that He is three Persons, a tripartite molten reactor core of self-emptying love that animates nothing into something, emptiness into material presence. Why are there stars and planets? Because God so loved the world that He created it out of utter void. God’s love is so powerful that it makes the no-thing spring into being, makes the pitch blackness come alive as primordial rain forest, teeming with life.

But though the love of God is so strong that nothingness harmonizes into somethingness along its chords, still there is something more to be done. For stars and stones do not love in return, and do not love one another as God has loved them. Nor do the beasts love as God loves. Angels are pure spirit, God’s love in kenotic echoes. They may love—and hate—as humans do. But only humans are made of matter and soul. Only we, among all else in God’s creation, alone among everything and everyone, can love, in the flesh, in imitation of almighty God.

What is a woman, then? We Catholics have the best, the only, answer. Mary is a woman. When the angel knelt before the Virgin, he reverenced not her chromosomes, not her gender identity, but the fact that she had been made in the image and likeness of God. Mary, whom God made, was chosen—woman from woman—to bear God’s only Son. The angel asked Mary to bear God’s Child. He did not insist, did not demand. It was Mary’s dignity, her holy integrity, the imprint upon her of the Most High, that commanded respect, even the respect of the angels. A woman is made by God, for God, to know and love God, on a blueprint which is God Himself.

That is who women are. Women, so loved by God, can be co-authors with Him in His Creation. Biology is merely a physical condition of this love. Mary was not her material makeup. Mary was loved into being, and then loved again into being God’s Mother, and then loved once more into being in Heaven with the Son whom she bore, the Son Whose holiness sanctified the womb in which He was knitted together. This is not “gender identity.” This is the destiny God has planned for us if only we will look above the horizons of our bodies and minds and fix our gaze on Him instead. For God created the world out of love, but also created it to be overcome by that same love. Our time here is short, and the bodies we have are subordinate to the good that God has done and will yet do to reclaim us.

What is a woman? A woman is Mary of Nazareth, whom God loved, and who loved God and trusted Him. From that came our salvation. This is a truth that biology and gender identity cannot possibly tell.

One question remains: What is a man? A man is Jesus, and Joseph, His stepfather. Jesus traded His Body for our salvation. Joseph traded his will for the good of his wife and for the glory of the God Who made both her and him. All of this was made possible by Mary, who, in the mystery of God’s incomprehensible love, cooperated with God.

What is a woman? What is a man? These are not abstract questions. These are questions about our true human belonging and about those on whom we model ourselves in this fleeting existence. Neither identity nor biology suffice. Mary is a woman, Jesus and Joseph are men.

Answer the questions any other way, and you have failed to answer the questions at all.


Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.

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