Definition and Meaning of Woman

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The definition of what a woman truly is has been debated by philosophers for quite some time. In hindsight, the definition would appear to be quite simple, but in reality, it has millions of different interpretations. Not to mention the abundance of reasoning behind why each definition is different. The human experience and what the body is capable of is undeniably the most crucial part of these philosophers’ definitions.

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“Definition and Meaning of Woman”

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Simone de Beauvoir’s idea of “what is a woman?” is complex. Her definition is defined and warped due to previous perceptions of the concept and how society builds off of it. She first delved into the actual word “woman,” where she explained the origin. The word means “not man.” “Man” carries both the positive and the neutral, while “woman” carries the negative. With this, women fall into the category of the “other.” In other words, “he is the subject, he is the absolute. She is the other.” (6) Beauvoir then goes on to talk about being a woman and how that brings countless limitations on what they can say or do. She hit heavy on the idea of immanence and transcendence, which helps to ground her own definition of what being a woman truly is. Immanence is the idea of moving from concrete bodily existence to more of an idea of abstract possibilities and freedom. Transcendence is the idea of going beyond the normal bodily existence. That being said, both transcendence and immanence are directly connected, and both work together is some respects. Looking at the basic definition that Beauvoir stated, immanence is the default. It’s the basic idea that woman take on the negative because of men taking the positive and the neutral. That definition of what a woman truly is then becomes broader due to the effects of transcendence but is then limited by immanence. Beauvoir claims that this limit of woman not being able to transcend is due to the “system” of fertility, like pregnancy and menstruation. The focus on the physicality of the body is what makes her definition critical and what has opened the door for other philosophers to critique her work.

Iris Marion Young was interested in how women move their bodies and the forces behind that to define “what is a woman?” Her use of feminine bodily comportment and the three modalities of said bodily movement help to explain and ground what her definition of “what is a woman?” would be like. The three modalities of feminine bodily movement were a major point the article; ambiguous transcendence, inhibited intentionality, and discontinuous transcendence. Next is ambiguous transcendence is a transcendence that is overlaid with immanence. It is the passive movement of the women’s body that is made ambiguous on its path to transcendence. Inhibited intentionality is the idea of “I can” but “I won’t.” It’s the mental process of self-limitation by saying “I can do that, but someone else can do it better.” Finally, discontinuous unity is where motion is only located in certain parts of the body. It when a woman only moves certain parts of the body while leaving other parts immobile. These three things all describe a woman’s familiarity with her body and how she chooses to perform based on the limits that are placed on her. “Feminine bodily existence is also self-referred to the extent that a woman is uncertain of her body’s capacities and does not feel that its motions are entirely under her control.” (39) If a woman feels as if she doesn’t have full control over her body, then she is not going to use it to its full potential. The role of a woman’s body is crucial for her potential definition. The transcendence of the world’s possibilities help defines the immanence that remains and defines a woman due to her bodily movements. Society really deems what a woman’s abilities are, which leads her to believe that was she is being told is in fact true.

Judith Butler’s definition turns to the idea of acting by repetition of certain acts. Butler draws her definition of the performance of gender from two things; a theatrical and social role within society. The theatrical role in society is met with heavier political censorship while the social role is regulation by social conventions. The performance of gender is when a person performs within the role that has been assigned to them by society. That person then can choose to perform outside of that role, but with the strict belief in the gender binary within society, they are then corrected. As Butler states, “Gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed.” (527) Even under these roles, people can perform them differently. The “act” itself is an “outline” of behavior to be performed. Butler also highlights the social construction of gender and how that construction coincides heavily with performativity. The heavy existence of gender is what determines how bodies are “acted,” which in turn, created the idea of “natural gender,” which enforces the gender binary. These become the norm throughout society that become very difficult to stray away from. The social construction of gender has proven to be very problematic and has enforced the idea of strict performance of these roles that women are placed in. This then makes the woman’s actions immanent, which halts their ability to transcend.

Young was very critical of Beauvoir and her outlook on what defines a woman. She heavily critiqued Beauvoir’s limitation of a woman’s body. Young found that limiting the woman’s body to its physical bodily functions ignores the surroundings and experiences that a women’s body will be placed in. “By largely ignoring the situatedness of the woman’s actual bodily movement and orientation to its surroundings and its world, Beauvoir tends to create the impression that it is woman’s anatomy and physiology as such that at least in part determine her unfree status.” (29) Butler also critiqued Beauvoir and her outlook on women in society with her view on “cultural interpretation.” Both Young and Butler didn’t like how Beauvoir’s conclusion of woman painted them not being a natural part of society and how being a woman has no real meaning. Butler states, “When Beauvoir claims that ‘woman’ is a historical idea and not a natural fact, she clearly underscores the distinction between sex, as biological facticity, and gender, as the cultural interpretation or signification of that facticity.” (522) All authors relied heavily on each other’s works to draw their own conclusions on “what is a woman?” and how they perform within societal norms. All three philosophers focused on the physicality of a woman’s body with each turning to different reasoning behind why a woman’s body sets that definition. For example, both Beauvoir and Young talked about the idea of immanence, while Butler focused on the performance of a body under that preset. Focusing on the physical makes the explanation easy to understand for the average person.

All three authors provided amazing insight into how a woman’s true potential is defined by other extenuating factors. Even though two of the three philosophers didn’t give a proper definition as to what they think a woman is, they all gave backing and legitimacy to their thinking by bringing in different philosophical concepts. Connecting the physicality of the woman’s body to the ideas of immanence and transcendence gave a different outlook on something that the average person may feel is easy to define. As these philosophers proved, “what is a woman?” is a complex ideal and is one that cannot be defined by the simple concept of being able to create and produce a child.

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Definition and Meaning of Woman. (2021, Mar 20). Retrieved November 28, 2022 , from

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