Define ‘woman’

In the recent debate, if you can truly call it a debate with outrageous interruptions and misleading questions, Senator Blackburn asked Supreme Court candidate Ketanji Brown Jackson to define “woman”. While she was circling the topic of gender, the Senator appeared to try to nail a firm, non-bending definition of woman. 

Just the thought of this question with an impossible answer angered me. As questioning continued, I felt shock and shame at the way some have decided to behave in what should be formal, official duties. I cannot imagine holding myself together during such a line of interrogation, especially when not being allowed to answer. How did we become so intolerant? So merciless? So attack-driven? So lacking in civility?

I am not asking you to agree with Blackburn or Jackson, but rather to think of the question and how you might respond, knowing that every potential angle probably leads to a minefield? To begin, as a woman, I find the question totally out of line. It’s as if we could combine the entire package of females everywhere and stamp them with an all-inclusive characterization. Don’t you think we are a bit more complex than that? Anatomically we come in infinite sizes and shapes, with a variety of predispositions and traits. Spiritually, we approach beliefs differently. Socially, we behave according to the rules of family, community, and our society. Educationally, we have received diverse instruction and even if we all sat in the same class hearing the same lecture, we would interpret according to our norms and principles. Mentally, our actions and reactions arrive via nature and nurture – how could we ever all be wrapped up in a single bundle?

I have wondered if others took offense to this question. Many women who have had breast cancer have had follow-up mastectomy surgery. As this changes the body, does that make this woman any less of a woman? Absolutely not. Other women have cancer of the uterus with forced removal. Does that change one’s sex? What about ovaries that do not release eggs? Does that require a new definition of woman? I think not. In fact, if anything, there should be empathy for the decisions these women have been compelled to make.

The same is true of defining “man”. Every man, just like every woman, varies. The fact that we are such a mixture makes the excitement of life greater – better. If a man has a necessary procedure, does that change who is? How about the ancient tradition of castrating young boys making them eunuchs? Because of this operation, these boys did not fully develop – voices remained high-pitched and many male manifestations did not appear. They were useful to those in control as soprano singers and for frivolous entertainment. No choice was allowed; no argument prevented this gruesome undertaking. They became a tool for the powerful. But they had been born male.

Have you ever been forced into a group where everyone is expected to think and react in exactly the same way? If you took Freshman English in college, often the sole explanation of any text forcibly matched that of the instructor. I recall speaking out even as a reserved student, then being stopped after class by a friend who said, “Do you want to pass? Then nod and agree regardless of your personal viewpoint.” The stifling remainder of the semester proved disappointing and unenlightening. I learned two things: keep my mouth silent; keep my ideas quiet. Neither provides intellectual growth.

What happens if we all fall into a lockstep pattern, forcing one definition on everyone, dissing any variant opinion? Who do we become when we no longer reflect and think but rather bobblehead along. The line of questioning for defining a woman aimed at putting Judge Brown into a box. No answer regardless of its intensity and thoroughness would satisfy the questioner. In fact almost any response would have been rejected, divided, taken out of context to then make another blast at an intelligent, well-educated individual.

Sharing my thoughts on the topic in my Friday writing class, someone recommended this quote by William Butler Yeats, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” This fire means igniting curiosity, awakening provocative ideas, and kindling new thought pathways. The vastness of possibility enhances the power of critical thinking and thoughtful reflection. If at the end of research one’s opinion remains steadfast, so be it; at least now it is well informed, not intellectually deprived.

Gini Cunningham can be reached at