In an article published in USA Today on Thursday, “Marsha Blackburn asked Ketanji Brown Jackson to define ‘woman.' Science says there's no simple answer,” reporter Alia E. Dastagir stated that even scientists don't have a “sufficient way to clearly define” a woman.
“Scientists, gender law scholars, and philosophers of biology said Jackson's response was commendable, though perhaps misleading,” Dastagir writes. “It's useful, they say, that Jackson suggested science could help answer Blackburn's question, but they note that a competent biologist would not be able to offer a definitive answer either… Scientists agree there is no sufficient way to clearly define what makes someone a woman, and with billions of women on the planet, there is much variation.”
The piece includes Rebecca Jordan-Young, a self-described “feminist scientist” at Barnard College focusing specifically on “gender, sexuality, class, and race,” who discusses the complex nature of defining woman. “There isn't one single ‘biological' answer to the definition of a woman,” she asserts. “There's not even a singular biological answer to the question of ‘what is a female.'”
Jordan-Young also argues that there was no reason for Judge Jackson to “engage” Senator Marsha Blackburn's (R.TN) questions, accusing Blackburn, as a Tennessee senator, of not doing enough to protect women's rights.
“When Blackburn and the rest of her caucus support women's full reproductive justice, when they aggressively try to solve the inequality of investment in girls' and women's sports–still true 50 years after Title IX made it illegal–when they take meaningful action on the persistent wage discrimination against women, especially women of color, then maybe it will make sense to engage their questions about who can count as a woman,” Jordan-Young states.
The essay also contains quotes from Harvard researcher Sarah Richardson, who concentrates on science’s past as well as “studies of women, gender, and sexuality” and who acknowledges that science is unable to give a definitive answer as to what makes a woman a woman. “As is so often the case, science cannot settle what are really social questions,” Richardson declares. “In any particular case of sex categorization, whether in law or in science, it is necessary to build a definition of sex particular to context.”
Juliet Williams, a professor of gender studies at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), is mentioned as saying that what constitutes a “woman” has been controversial for centuries, noting that the “longstanding view of white supremacy” was the reason for society having “denied recognition as women to Black women and women of color” in the past.
The article continues by highlighting transgender athlete Lia Thomas, who has almost broken Ivy League records set by biological women in collegiate athletics, and quotes Wheaton college gender studies professor Kate Mason attacking critics for destroying Thomas’s achievements. “Lots of people are assigned male at birth, have higher testosterone levels…and could never make a Division I swimming team,” Mason explains. “Why do we attribute her current success to her assigned sex, rather than to her long record as an elite swimmer?”
While acknowledging the need for a legally enforceable sex classification, Mason contends that the reality is still a bit ambiguous. “I do think that judges and justices sometimes have to make determinations about who is meant by ‘man' or ‘woman' in written statutes–and they may have to acknowledge the reality that sex and gender are not binary,” she adds. “I think Blackburn would prefer a world in which reality was much simpler.”
This article follows in the wake of Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn asking Jackson whether she would be able to explain the term woman in light of the current national debate on transgender athletes and male athletes who play in female sports. Jackson, whom Biden chose due to her being black, did not answer Blackburn’s question.
Blackburn asked, “Can you provide a definition for the word woman?”
“Can I provide a definition? No, I can't,” Jackson responded.
“You can't?” Blackburn repeated the question.
“Not in this context; I'm not a biologist,” Jackson declared.