"She's a woman": "Fact" or ... ?
Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2010
"She's a woman": "Fact" or ... ?
- Are "woman" and "man" well-defined discrete categories?
- Should we try and make them so?
- Is biology relevant to such a discussion?
- What does biology have to say? How should it contribute?
Some thoughts from last session
Doctors, who are in a very competitive field, have more formal training than any other service provider, including supervised practical training because they need so much knowledge to do their job well. Doctors are known to be part of a medical community that shares knowledge and those who are not in good stead with their peers are excluded. All of this is common knowledge and engenders respect for their learning and trust follows ... Colette
Is the only reason that western medicine has become so widely accepted, and alternative medicines so criticized, the fact that it comes nicely packaged, tied with a pretty bow? As a society, can we afford to remain so apathetic, or is it our duty to question what we’ve been told, if only to reaffirm that the current healthcare system is truly the best one for society as a whole? ... smaley
Conventional western medicine is not the best in all cases. The crack explains why multiple systems of medicine exist ... mlhodges
I thought an interesting part of Thursday's discussion was when we talked about the idea of normalcy ... the concept of what is normal depends on the individual, not society as a whole. I think this is a good way of thinking about what is normal in general. Just every individual has a unique body, everyone has a different way of forming his/her idea of normalcy. Experience/ culture/ ect. lead people to form opinions of what of what is typical and what is not. Normalcy is also subjective ... lbonnell
Scientific discoveries help define something concrete and something that already exists ... If there does exist some fairly objective explanation of how the body fights disease, does that mean that my body abides by that objective explanation even though I personally am unfamiliar with the explanation? ... dfishervan
scientists have not spent years gaining expertise in ethics; they've spent years gaining expertise in acquiring and interpreting data. As such, scientists should not be expected to question their every move, to determine if the data they acquire could one day be used for nefarious purposes ... Crystal Leonard
The “crack” allows for infinite solutions to the same question. I think this translates up to the field of medicine with regards to the skepticism, adaptability and creativity mentioned before that I believe is so crucial to being a good physician. So, I think that the crack is one of the most important components of science. Without it, we might struggle to be innovative and unable to present new understandings of the same old situation. Even though i find it frustrating that answers are infinite, it is clearly helpful to the development of science and medicine ... adowton
Some one once told me that "too much 'eye open' is 'eye close'!" And I think I agree wholeheartedly with that assertion. As scientists, doctors, biologists and people in general, it is important to listen to other people's rationales for doing things, and learn to accept them without judgment. But there does come a point in time where without judgment, somebody has to draw a line somewhere ... Kwarlizzie
A related set of social/cultural issues:
"I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman, and I think we ought to codify that one way or the other." ... George Bush, press conference, Wednesday, 30 July, 2003
"In the 1950s, a team of medical specialists at Johns Hopkins University developed what has come to be called the “optimum gender of rearing” system for treating children with intersex. The notion was that the main thing you had to do in cases of intersex was to get the gender assignment settled early, so kids would grow up to be good (believable and straight) girls and boys." ... Intersex Society of America (see also video about John Money and David Reimer)
"Semenya returned to competition last month after receiving confirmation from track and field’s governing body, the I.A.A.F., that she could compete as a woman ... When the I.A.A.F. cleared Semenya to compete as a woman in July, it did not release test results or provide details of its methodology." ... NYTimes, 22 August 2010
"In the last year, transgender students have won accommodations from four East Coast colleges, including Wesleyan, Sarah Lawrence and Smith." ... NYTimes, 7 March 2004
"Women’s colleges are supportive of all women, regardless of whether they are straight, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered." ... NYTimes on line comment, 6 November 2009
"today many students who identify as trans are seeking not simply to change their sex but to create an identity outside or between established genders — they may refuse to use any gender pronouns whatsoever or take a gender-neutral name but never modify their bodies chemically or surgically" ... NYTimes Magazine, 16 March 2008
"I didn't want to be different. I longed to be everything grownups wanted, so they would love me. I followed all their rules, tried to please. But there was something about me that made them knit their eyebrows and frown ... "Is that a boy or a girl?" ... I'm not a gay man ... I'm a butch, a he-she" ... Leslie Steinberg, Stone Butch Blues, 1993
- I'm a woman with male chromosomes
- Human embryology: organogenesis: genital system
- Formation of the external genitalia (female, male)
- Variations in genital development (including 5-alpha reductase deficiency)
- What makes a woman a woman? NYTimes Magazine, 11 September 2009
There is no single externally observable "objective" characteristic that would reliably sort all individuals into two discrete categories of woman and man, nor any fixed set of fully correlated characteristics of this sort that would do so.
Most relevant characteristics are continuous rather than discrete variables and result from different developmental processes that may or may not yield correlated outcomes. The relevant developmental processes act on most parts of the body, including the brain, and involve both internal influences (eg hormones) and external ones (individual experience/culture). They include as well personal choices by individuals.
There is no biological reason to think that a sharp division of humans (or any other organisms) is in any general sense "normal" though such a division may be useful in particular narrow contexts. In general terms, a more or less continuous diversity along multiple somewhat independent axes seems to be the biological "norm."
A sharp distinction between "woman" and "man" is a social construct?
As a social construct, it is subject to alteration by social processes ("co-constructive inquiry"?)
By reinscribing the idea of transgressing or transversing gender within a traditional gender binary—man in a woman’s body, woman in a man’s body—it contradicts goals shared by many transgendered and transsexual people: to live their lives as they desire, free of the gender binary ... my struggle was illuminating and productive, as it provided me with firsthand experience of something I'd long believed: that the gender categories to which we so strongly cling are in fact little more than the result of years of socialization. Undoing at least some of that socialization can have only positive benefits for societal gender relations, not to mention personal wellbeing ... Gender identity and the brain
But with this novel I planted a flag ... I wrote it not as an expression of individual "high art" but as a working-class organizer mimeographs a leaflet - a call to action ... Our inexorable grass roots movement has won so much in the decades this novel spans ... Yet there is still so much activist work to be done ... I don't know what it would take to realy change the world. But couldn't we get together and try and figure it out? ... Isn't there a way we could help fight each other's battles so that we're not always alone ... Leslie Steinberg, Stone Butch Blues, 1993
What role should biology play in social/political discourse re
who can get married?
sex assignment surgery of infants?
arrangements in competitive athletics
single sex education?
other related issues?
Links to relevant earlier sets of notes/discussions
- Does biology have anything to contribute to thinking about sex and gender? (FemGenderCoreCourse, October 2004))
- The birds, the bees, and 5-alpha reductase deficiency (EvolStory, March 2005)
- What biology has to offer to thinking about sex and gender (CriticalFeministStudies, September 2008
- What biology has to offer to thinking about sex and gender (GenderSexCoreCourse, September 2009
- Senior seminar in biology and society (Fall, 2009)
Summary of class session discussion (Leah)
Monday’s discussion began with going over comments from last week. We talked more about the ‘tree in the forest’ scenario and reached the consensus that a tree falling in a forest will create pressures disturbances, but these pressure disturbances don’t translate into sound unless someone is there to hear them. The class also continued to discuss ethical standards in science. We realized that scientists are not trained in ethics and that there are no ethical standards in place currently. We debated whether ethical decisions and training in ethics should be part of a scientist’s career. We discussed situations, like the atomic bomb, where scientists were aware of the potential to harm, but continued research, as well as situations where the scientists stopped research. Professor Grobstein told the class about the group of scientists who first manipulated genetic information. The scientists decided to suspend further research until they were able to estimate the potential hazard of their work. This topic lead to a discussion of whether data is or isn’t neutral. We remembered that certain types of data isn't collected, like research on fetal development. From here we discussed the nature of federal funding in the U.S. We talked about how the ability to receive federal research funding automatically prioritizes some forms of research over others. Professor Grobstein asked the class if a research project that measures the intellectual capabilities of different races was ethical and deserved funding. Several classmates offered their opinions and we were unable to reach a consensus.
We began discussion on the topic of gender/sex with an excerpt from Marie Claire about a Haverford student with androgen insensitivity syndrome. After going over our initial reactions Professor Grobstein asked the class for facts about being a man or woman, continuing our discussion on the nature of facts. The class struggled to define such facts in light of the article we had just read. We realized that gender does not exist as a binary in nature; there were not two outcomes in development, but a spectrum.
Next we began to discuss the relationship between biology and society. We started off by clarifying that female/male and woman/ man have different connotations. The terms female and male are more directly related to biology, while man and woman have are words chosen by individuals in society. We began to question where the binary of woman and man came from, since it is not rooted in biology. We realized that the concepts of man/woman were much order than biology.
We talked about the case of track star Caster Semenya who was allowed to race again after a panel decided she was female, without releasing the basis of their decision to the public. This information was not released due to HIPAA rules. However, Professor Grobstein pointed out that the decision not to release the results may have a greater significance- that there are no clear guidelines to follow in determining sex. The discussion of Semenya made the class question how “anomalies” like Semenya should be taken account for in science. This raised questions like- should we focus on the majority and ignore the anomalies and why are some cases considered anomalies to begin with? We reached the consensus that “anomaly” is the wrong word to use in this case because it has a negative connotation.
We also discussed further implications of gender/sex in gay marriage, sports, and women’s colleges. In relation to sports, we discussed how sports should be divided based on perhaps ability and not gender. In relation to women’s colleges, we discussed the policy at Bryn Mawr to consider transgender students on a case-by-case basis.
At the end of class, we talked about research done on the differences between men and women. We questioned the validity of this research because it essentially depends on men and women participants. We realized that dividing participants into men and women was artificial at some level.
Conversation and implications to date (PG, 20 September)
Before our discussion, I had always thought that biology was the factor responsible in society for categorizing males as men and females as women. It seems that biology is actually trying to blur these distinctions and point out that no one is really what they actually are. Society categorizes people as it believes is acceptable and its rules are often based on unfair categorizations. It needs to do better ... Collette
While I have often heard phrases in the past such as “gender is just a construct of society”, I have never really stopped to think about the amount of truth that lies behind this idea. As we established in class, biology does not at all support the idea of bimodal categorization for humans. In fact, biology actually suggests that there is enormous diversity amongst people ... adowton
I understand that it is useful to simplify the huge array of diversity in nature into discrete categories for academic purposes, but I am beginning to question if discrete categories can accurately represent nature. Evolution doesn't occur in categories and I am starting to think that in general, nature does not occur in categories. Diversity is an inherent quality of nature ... lbonnell
It is encouraging that modern science is finally demonstrating what I have believed all along: that there is no sexual dichotomy, and so there is no biological basis for gender. Hopefully, once people start accepting this notion, we can get rid of the notion of gender for good ... Crystal Leonard
I do not believe that all male and female differences are biological, psychological, or chemical but there are some differences that are not due to society ... Kendra
During today’s discussion, I found myself thinking about a recent controversy that arose at a local elementary school. Parents were informed that a third grader who was raised as a boy was now to be referred to as a girl ... I commend the parents of this third grade boy for accepting their child and for going to great lengths to help their child feel comfortable in her skin and the classroom. However, I am unsure about their decision to publicly announce their child’s sexual identity at such an early age ... dfishervan
I'm not sure how many US insurance companies cover sex reassignment surgery, but I don't think it's very many ... Riki
with technological advances, all a individual needs to do is have a gender reassignment surgery, and take hormones, and they can very easily pass as the gender that they identify as ... How will the future change our perspectives on gender, and will society ever be able to catch up, so that such questions can be answered definitively? ... smaley
- Biologists should make it clearer that biological observations to date do not support the notion of a sharp woman/man, female/male dichotomy
- Biologists should examine their tendency to make use of such a dichotomy in their own research
- Biologists should emphasize the value of diversity in biological systems and encourage a greater appreciation of diversity in social/cultural systems