Questions Like “What is a woman?” Work to Divide the Left


If you have been activated by the fall of Roe v. Wade but have failed to notice the endless onslaught of anti-trans sentiment and legislation that’s been sweeping the country, you have fallen into a well-laid trap to divide natural allies in the fight for gender justice and liberation. While the left has spent the last few years embroiled in a battle over the contours of womanhood, the right has capitalized on our willingness to fight each other to advance legislation that will curtail bodily autonomy for all of us.  

Just last week, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a national leader in the fight against abortion access and trans health care, made strategic use of our internal divisions by announcing his support for a “Women’s Bill of Rights to Affirm Basic Bio­log­i­cal Truths and Fight Back Against the Left’s Attempts to Rede­fine the Term ‘Woman.’”

Though he claims to be taking a stand against “the Left,” the anti-trans rhetoric he endorses was actually developed by the center-left. For at least seven years, we have been subjected to a disingenuous and, unfortunately, very destructive discourse that purports to ask, “What is a woman?”—but ultimately seeks to question the legitimacy of trans existence.

And it’s worked: The fear-mongering and concern-trolling has not only further propelled the far-right into power but has also caused some advocates for trans inclusivity in existing feminist and LGBTQ+ spaces to abandon their support for transgender people.

…the right has capitalized on our willingness to fight each other to advance legislation that will curtail bodily autonomy for all of us.  

Back in 2015, the New York Times published an op-ed from Elinor Burkett asking “What Makes a Woman?”, tied to Caitlyn Jenner coming out as trans. Burkett wrote, “I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women—our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods—into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes.” Somehow, looking at all the different ways sex stereotypes are deployed and weaponized in the world, Burkett points the finger, not at right-wing campaigns, not Victoria’s Secret catalogs, not dress codes or sex-separated learning, but at trans people. 

More recently, we saw the “What is a woman?” dog whistle invoked during the Senate confirmation hearings for Justice Brown Jackson, in Senate hearings on abortion access and maternal health, and again in a New York Times column by Pamela Paul decrying “The Far Right and Far Left Agree on One Thing: Women Don’t Count” just days after the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs overturned Roe.

This type of rhetoric cultivates the conditions that allow for conservative activists like Matt Walsh to release his 2022 anti-trans documentary of the same name: What is a Woman? (It’s been praised by British fantasy author turned anti-trans advocate J.K. Rowling.) The more the left entertains the idea that “women” are threatened by the inclusion of trans people, the more people like Walsh and Paxton will capitalize on the precarity of gender justice solidarity to drive an SB8-sized hole in our collective rights to bodily autonomy and self-determination. 

And when trans inclusion and the overturning of Roe are seen as two sides of the same coin, “erasing women,” we all but ensure that government actors succeed in their longstanding plan to curtail all our health. At this point, it is on us—those of us who are truly committed to the fight for gender justice and liberation—to get it together. Womanhood is not a zero-sum game where one person’s inclusion limits another person’s.

What if, instead, we just accepted that our sexed bodies are more complicated and dynamic than we’ve been told—full of beautiful possibility and desire—and break down all the reductive tropes about gender that hold everyone back? 

Imagine what it would mean for our collective fight for health care, bodily autonomy, and liberation if, instead of spending our time casting people out of the categories of manhood and womanhood, we challenged the very idea that the state should get to decide who we are, what we need, and how we work together.

Chase Strangio is a lawyer and trans rights activist who lives in New York City.