What is a woman?

To state the question is, to me, to suggest, at once, a preliminary answer. The fact that I ask it is in itself significant. A man would never get the notion of writing a book on the peculiar situation of the human male. But if I wish to define myself, I must first of all say: “I am a woman”; on this truth must be based all further discussion. A man never begins by presenting himself as an individual of a certain sex; it goes without saying that he is a man. The terms masculine and feminine are used symmetrically only as a matter of form, as on legal papers. In actuality the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the comon us of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity. In the midst of an abstract discussion it is vexing to hear a man say: “You think thus and so because you are a woman”; but I know that my only defense is to reply: “I think thus and so because it is true,” thereby removing my subjective self from the argument. It would be out of the question to reply: “And you think the contrary because you are a man,” for it is understood that the fact of being a man is no peculiarity. A man is in the right in being a man; it is the woman who is in the wrong. It amounts to this: just as for the ancients there was an absolute vertical with reference to which the oblique was defined, so there is an absolute human type, the masculine. Woman has ovaries, a uterus; these peculiarities imprison her in her subjectivity, circumscribe her within the limits of her own nature. It is often said that she thinks with her glands. Man superbly ignores the fact that his anatomy also includes glands, such as the testicles, and that they secrete hormones. He thinks of his body as a direct and normal connection with the world, which he believes he apprehends objectively, whereas he regards the body of woman as a hindrance, a prison, weighed down by everything peculiar to it. “The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities,” said Aristotle; “we should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness.” And St. Thomas for his part pronounced woman to be an “imperfect man,” an “incidental” being. This is symbolized in Genesis where Eve is depicted as made from what Bossuet called “a supernumerary bone” of Adam.

Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex

Why Eve was made from Adam’s rib

It was right for the woman to be made from a rib of man. First, to signify the social union of man and woman, for the woman should neither use authority over man, and so she was not made from his head; nor was it right for her to be subject to man’s contempt as his slave, and so she was not made from his feet. Secondly, for the sacramental signification; for from the side of Christ sleeping on the Cross the Sacraments flowed — namely, the blood and water — on which the Church was established.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, P. 1, Q. 92, A. 3

Feminist theory

I find feminist theory, especially as it relates to international relations, to be a fascinating and promising subject, but also a troubling one simultaneously. I think it is fascinating and promising because it adds an important new dimension to any field of research; it calls much-needed attention to the subject of gender and how gender has shaped international relations. Importantly, it also calls attention to the plight of women who are more often than not trapped in “a man’s world” in which they feel terrified and powerless. Particularly poignant in this regard is, for example, Saba Gul Khattak’s article “The U.S. Bombing of Afghanistan: A Women-Centered Perspective.”1

I find feminist theory troubling, however, because of certain of underlying assumptions. For example, there is the obvious assumption that “if we were in charge, things would be different.” On the contrary, as the biographies of female leaders of the 20th century such as Indira Gandhi in India and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom readily testify, women in positions of power rarely did things very different from how the boys would do them in the same situation. I do not think there is any denying that men and women think differently, but feminists forget that we all, regardless of gender, share in a common human nature and also must make individual choices.

1 Saba Gul Khattak, “The U.S. Bombing of Afghanistan: A Women-Centered Perspective,” in Marc A. Genest, Conflict and Cooperation: Evolving Theories of International Relations, Second Edition (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2004), 367-70.