We all know what makes a (wo)man a (wo)man, right? Make a list of the things that differentiate men from women. What are the clues you look for when you meet someone for the first time?
Here’s our list, which is not in any way exhaustive:
An anthropologist will tell you that evolution over thousands of years is responsible for many of these differences and a biologist will tell you that the hormones bathing the brain are responsible for the others. But that cannot be the whole story as one look at your list will tell you that for every trait you put down you know a man or woman who does not conform to the stereotype, and it doesn’t make them feel or appear less manly or womanly.
There are many, many men who work in artistic or caring professions; who have hobbies that do not correspond to the stereotypical man; who enjoy talking; who take responsibility for their children and for making a home; and, who show/share their emotions willingly. But they still feel like men. Equally, there are many women who work in tough, hostile environments; who are capable of fixing an engine; who enjoy their own company; who don’t get broody at the sight of a pushchair; and, who are not in touch with their emotions. But they still feel like women.
So, maybe there is no universal checklist that we can use to say that is a man and this is a woman. But we know what a man is and what a woman is, don’t we? We use that definition every day without thinking about it. So, is there a default within all of us as to what defines a man or a woman? We believe we can get closer to an answer by agreeing that there is no universal set of criteria. Our education, experiences, and society shape our definition of men and women, and it is subtly different for each individual. We know that is a man and this is a woman because a lifetime of influences has taught us that, when we receive those particular signals from the people we meet, it means man or woman. We only think about it when we come into contact with someone who blurs the gender divide. And, even then, we don’t think about it too hard.
Within a single culture, both sender and receiver will know “the rules”, ie. the accepted gender presentation for a man or a woman. This means that a sender can consciously elect to blur their gender. Done successfully, the receiver will not be aware that they are meeting someone whose biological sex is not aligned with their presented gender. But this also means that the receiver can get it wrong if their experience is not the same as the sender’s. Receivers from another culture may be particularly bad a guessing the right gender based on appearance.
Can you guess the gender of the following people? It’s not so easy when you don’t know the cultural gender clues and begs the question of why society gets so steamed up when individuals digress gender boundaries. Visit another culture and you won’t have a clue whether the person you are meeting is genderqueer.
Answers: Mursi woman (Ethiopia), Tharaka woman (Kenya), Maori woman (New Zealand), Maasai men (Kenya/Tanzania)
One thought on “What makes a (wo)man a (wo)man?”
I am a transgender woman and people have strange notions about what makes a woman a woman and what makes a guy a guy.