Comment: ‘Gotcha’ question about defining ‘woman’ backfires

Republicans who thought they’d tripped up Katanji Brown Jackson struggled with their own definitions.

By Monica Hesse / The Washington Post\

Before we get to the fact that I spent my lunch hour emailing with an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary to find out whether “tallywhacker” was an officially recognized euphemism for “penis,” a brief recap of how we got here:

Last month Republican lawmakers went fishing for a “gotcha” at Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and thought they’d found one when Jackson declined a request from Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., to “provide a definition for the word ‘woman.’” Jackson replied that she was “not a biologist.”

Of course, this wasn’t a biology test, it was a culture-war test, and conservatives were more than willing to inform Jackson she had failed. “The meaning of the word woman is so unclear and controversial that you can’t give me a definition?” Blackburn marveled, setting off waves of complaints about woke liberals and activist judges, and presenting Tucker Carlson with Christmas in March.

All that set the stage for this week, when several Republican lawmakers who had previously mocked Jackson’s answer set out to show just how simple and uncontroversial defining “woman” could be.

“I’m going to tell you right now what is a woman,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., informed the audience at a GOP event after namechecking Jackson. “This is an easy answer. We’re a creation of God. We came from Adam’s rib. God created us with his hands. We may be the weaker sex — we are the weaker sex — but we are our partner; we are our husband’s wife.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., already in the news cycle for implying that cocaine and orgies were par for the course on Capitol Hill, decided to extend his moment in the sun by lecturing Nancy Pelosi from the House floor. “Science isn’t Burger King; you can’t just ‘have it your way,’” he said. “Take notes, Madame Speaker. I’m about to define what a woman is for you,” he said. “X chromosomes, no tallywhacker. It’s so simple.”

And this is where I got the poor OED editor involved, just to make sure I understood exactly what Cawthorn was talking about. She explained that “tallywhacker” is likely an Americanism, a variant of the word “tallywag,” which means “the testicles; the male genitals,” though Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “a sea bass of the Atlantic Coast.”

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., was asked by a HuffPost reporter to define woman, and replied, “Someone who can give birth to a child, a mother, is a woman. Someone who has a uterus is a woman. It doesn’t seem that complicated to me.” When the reporter asked him whether a woman whose uterus was removed via hysterectomy was still a woman, he appeared uncertain: “Yeah. Well, I don’t know, would they?”

So, to review, here’s the GOP tip sheet: If you want to know whether someone is a woman, you should simply walk up to them and say, “Pardon, are you of Adam’s rib?” Alternatively, you could demand to see either a uterus or a “tallywhacker.”

These attempts at defining womanhood are not only weird (“weaker sex” is retrograde even by the standards of Republican gender politics), they are also unhelpful.

Let’s assume some basic things: that Marjorie Taylor Greene believes that all humans, not just women, are “creations of God”; and that Greene considered herself a woman long before she became her “husband’s wife.” Presumably she is not suggesting that a woman who is unmarried is in fact a man.

Greene is known for her vigorous workouts and her sculpted biceps. Such a strong woman would certainly acknowledge that “weaker sex” often depends on the category in question (mental, physical, emotional) and on the individual specimen. Does Greene believe she is inherently weaker, on any of these dimensions, than, say, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.? How about President Biden?

That leaves us with the “Adam’s rib” bit, an allusion to the biblical origin story of women. Which, fine. But I’m not sure how much closer this gets any of us to a definition of womanhood that we can actually use in The Year of Our Lord 2022. How is a women’s college or women’s athletic team supposed to incorporate the Adam’s rib test into their eligibility policies? Is there a swab for ancestral rib residue?

Again, this definition was the very best that Greene could come up with two full weeks after gloating on Twitter that Judge Jackson “can’t define ‘woman’ so can’t say for sure whether her own two daughters are women.”

Cawthorn’s definition (XX chromosomes, tallywhacker-free) made me wonder what the congressman would make of former gymnastics champion Melissa Marlowe; or the other millions of women with Turner syndrome, a genetic disorder defined by a missing X chromosome. I wonder how he would determine the gender of an intersex individual who had reproductive characteristics of both sexes. Via a coin flip? A ruler?

As for Josh Hawley, I’ll say only that I can’t wait to inform my mother that since her uterus was removed when she was 35 via a medically necessary hysterectomy, she hasn’t been a woman in 26 years. Perhaps she will be consoled if I add that the senator sounded like he hadn’t really thought very hard about it: In the same exchange reported by HuffPost, he seemed to change his definition of woman to require not a uterus but a vagina: “I mean, a woman has a vagina, right?”

(Please note that by Hawley’s new definition he would be forced to accept trans women, post-gender affirming surgery, as women too.)

I’m not trying to pick at Greene, Cawthorn or Hawley for the fun of it. They had suggested that defining “woman” was simple, and I’m here to say that it’s not. Not when you take the question seriously, and look for answers outside your own immediate experiences and intuitions. Which is why when these lawmakers attempted to show how much smarter they were on gender science than a judge who takes things seriously for a living, what came out was gobbledygook.

These lawmakers are known for incendiary rhetoric. (Case in point, Greene is now accusing everyone who votes to confirm Jackson of supporting pedophiles.) But I’m going to give them the benefit of doubt and say that I don’t actually think Greene, Hawley and Cawthorn were trying to be deliberately inflammatory when offering their definitions. I think they were trying their best and falling short. I think they were showing that providing a definition for woman isn’t a task that can be determined via checklist, no matter how hard the list maker tries to make it so.

I think what they were expressing was not a knowledge of biology, but rather a fear of living in a world they could not easily categorize based on what they already think they know. One in which women might not look or sound or behave exactly as they believe women should, and so the best way to define “woman” is to ask the woman in question. Does she live as a woman? Does she undergo the trials and tribulations and joys of a woman? Does she believe she is a woman?

“Provide a definition for the word ‘woman,’” Blackburn dared Biden’s Supreme Court nominee.

Ketanji Brown Jackson could not do so. And neither could the people who said it should be easy.

Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section, who frequently writes about gender and its impact on society. She’s the author of several novels, most recently, “They Went Left.”

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