What is a ‘Woman?’ — a personal journey

Created by Dick A Tiel

I’ve asked this question before. Idly passing time with friends. As a sounding board for non-binary loved ones trying to understood where they fit in the crazy thing we call ‘gender.’ A philosophical question in classes. A discussion in biology.

But I ask the question now in confusion and loss. And yet I am afraid to ask it.

All my life I have called myself a woman. All my life, until the last year. Sometime in the last year, ‘woman’ stopped feeling like the right answer. For a while I put ‘female.’ And in the last few months when the question comes up, I just stare. Not sure how to answer.

And slowly, I realized, I don’t know how to answer. I don’t know if I am a woman. How can I say I am a woman, when I don’t know what a woman is?

But isn’t this just cis tears? What right do I, with 34 years of cis privilege behind me, have to bother the world with my mid-life identity crisis? My closest friends and links are trans or non-binary. Surely they would wonder why I’m making such a thing about my gender. It’s not like I stopped being cis, right?

I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to any of it. I just know I need to find my way through this sudden morass that once was a clear trail.

So I need to ask, what is a woman? And can I still call myself one?


Biology is useless. Anyone whose willing to actually do some basic research with an open mind at this point understands that ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are more than genitals, more than XX or XY chromosomes. Neurology might eventually provide some useful information. Might.

My limited understanding of the research is:

  • cis women’s brains usually look something like this range of development
  • cis men’s brains usually look something like that range of development
  • trans people’s brains usually are somewhere in the middle with trans women being closer to cis women and trans men being closer to cis mental
If anyone has looked specifically at non-binary folks I haven’t heard of it.

So I suppose theoretically, one day, we will be able to define gender based on brain structure. Not sure I like that idea, but it’s kind of irrelevant right now. Even if ‘woman’ could be defined by falling within a certain spectrum of brain structures, it’s not like I can afford to get my head scanned just to see if I meet the criteria.

Culture is… I mean, I know I’m not femme. But I don’t really see myself as masc either. And neither of those equals ‘woman.’ Sure, women are more likely to be femme and men are more likely to be masc. But there are plenty of femme men and masc women out there. Plus all the non-binary folk who are both, either, or neither depending on the person and the situation.

And I’ve never really known where I fit in the cultural male-female dichotomy. I’ve lost track of the number of times I read something or was talking with someone about “women usually think like this, men usually think like that,” and gone, “huh, I guess I’m more like a man than a woman.”

That’s kind of getting into psychology which is… look, psychology is an absolutely fascinating field of study that has done a lot to help people with mental illness — and done a lot of harm when it enshrines cultural stigmas. Way back when, a psychologist saved me life. And I can still see him looking at me today with that quirked smile. I could dump all this out on him and he’d raise his eyebrows… “And? What do want me to say?” he’d ask, with that infuriating serious-humor of his.

“I want you to tell me I am over-thinking this! Tell me it’s simple. Tell me I don’t need to rethink my understanding of who I am and how I fit in this crazy world!”

And he’d lean back, purse his lips. A minute or so later he’s sit back up and go, “No.”

“I’m not here to give you the easier answers,” he’d say, “I’m here to give you someone to rail at until you’re ready to admit what you already know.”

What I already know is that there are a dozen definitions of ‘woman,’ from my friend’s ‘an external label that shapes how people treat me,’ to the bigot’s ‘a person with a vulva,’ to long involved definitions by feminist thinkers I honestly can’t wrap my head around.


What I already know is that none of these definitions help me. That no definition will help me.

I’m not ready to take that next step. I need someone to rail and rant at until I’m ready to face the truth. The reason that for my current turmoil, it doesn’t matter how ‘woman’ is defined.

Because right now, I really wish it did.