Gender-bending made easy

Apparently if women take birth control pills that eliminate menstruation, that’s a step toward blurring the boundary between the genders. Or so says the photo caption on this article by Susan Donaldson James at ABC. Who knew it could be so easy? (Fun, though, to reflect on which theories of gender would have this result. My vote at the moment is “none”, though I haven’t actually devoted much time to thinking about it.)

9 thoughts on “Gender-bending made easy

  1. Wow, what a fluff article. The thing that I would’ve found “reassuring” about regular periods back when I was on the pill wasn’t any sense of “naturalness” or whatnot but the fact that a period is a pretty good indication that you’re not pregnant. And that’s the main concern I have with this pill – in the case of failure, you might have more women discovering their pregnancies much later, when abortion is more complicated more difficult to obtain.

    Additionally, I find it a little suspect that the women studied who don’t menstruate often are in West Africa – an area of the world sadly not known for nutritional abundance (although I guess the west may be doing better than some other regions of the continent).

    Still, both the biological definition and the one they put in there to counter/balance it (the “appreciation of nurturing” definition) are assinine.

  2. Would Natalie Stoljar’s view – gender as a cluster concept – be one which would fit with the claim that not menstruating blurs gender(or at least, leaves you with one less of the cluster of properties)?
    I can’t now find the reference to check this… any help?

  3. Well, my opinion of ABC news just got knocked down a couple of pegs. My opinion of U.S. journalism in general has about bottomed out, and sadly can’t sink much lower.

    The piece is pure fluff, and clearly positioned and captioned to press people’s buttons. This kind of hyperbolic noise is what passes for journalism in a country that previously made it a constitutionally protected right. Tragic.

    On a more philosophic note, it does raise an interesting question of what characteristics are essentially female? Clearly the (I shudder to use the word “author”) -ahem- “author” of this item believes that menstruation is an essential quality of the female gender, the removal of which somehow blurs the line between female and male.

    I see gender identity as more of a blurry continuum, but I’m willing to entertain that there may be distinct qualities that define “male” and “female” as physical genders.

    Question: is menstruation really one of them? Older women, the soapbox is yours… :)

  4. Saul 2006 argues that ordinary speakers may not mark any distinction between gender and sex. So consider the following sex-based (toy) hypothesis about the current use of ‘woman’—similar to what seems plausible for “paradigm-based” concepts. (I am sure there is a lot of literature and discussion about things like this which I don’t know, any pointers very welcome!)

    There are paradigmatic cases of women. They all exhibit all of what can be called, for lack of a better term, female-sex traits, these comprising certain genotypic structure as well as characteristic phenotypic manifestations (genitalia, kinds of anatomic configuration, types of metabolic processes, perhaps some psychological properties,…). (The nature and extent of these will be of course subject to empirical investigation, and need not be easy to settle in practice. A familiar enough situation in related cases.) Now the current concept expressed by ‘woman’ may be captured, the view would have it, along the following lines:

    (*) Someone is a woman iff she exhibits enough female-sex traits.

    Exhibiting enough female-sex traits would of course provide ‘woman’ with the contextual flexibility, vagueness, and indeterminacy familiar from similar cases of “paradigm-based” concepts—which seems to be a virtue of this sex-based approach, as opposed to others. Thus, according to such a view, menstruation might be held to be one of these many female-sex traits, without the absurd consequence of it being essential for somebody to be a woman that she menstruates.

    (Of course, this view would be one about the way ‘woman’ is currently used by ordinary speakers. Thus it is by itself compatible with adopting an “ameliorative,” revisionary strategy recommending to use ‘woman’ differently, see inter alia Haslanger 2006.)

  5. That seems completely plausible. Both this proposal and the Stoljar one that Stoat mentions would allow some role for menstruation without making it a defining one. Though I guess there’d be room on this proposal for it to be a defining role for some speakers! (Don’t know if that’s good or bad,)

  6. Hi Jender! Thanks for feedback.

    According to the proposal of (*), there would be room for the possibility you mention only if no context would count somebody as exhibiting enough female-sex features unless she menstruates. But I took it that implicit in the discussion in this thread there is precisely the contention that there are plenty of contexts like this, isn’t it right?

  7. Here’s what I was thinking. There could be a context C in which all female sex traits are required. Assume that menstruation is a female sex trait. In C, then, mensutration is a defining feature of womanhood. Similarly, there could be speakers who take all contexts to be like C. For these speakers, it seems fair to say that menstruation is a defining feature of womanhood.

  8. Oh I see, I think you’re totally right. I guess one could imagine one such super-strict context. And indeed if someone believed that all contexts were such, she would then take menstruation (and all the others “female-sex traits”) to be essential for womanhood (although, I’d argue, she would be wrong in so doing).

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