Bioethics Blogs

What Re-Makes a Woman

Jamie Lindemann Nelson provides a philosophical perspective on Burkett’s discussion of womanhood.


Elinor Burkett’s June 7thNew York Times editorial, “What Makes a Woman?” has generated a good share of attention—not surprising, perhaps, given how hot transgender is just now and how perennially prominent the Times is as a publication venue. I think, though, the treatment as well as the topic accounts for a good bit of the buzz.

Burkett’s opening move is rhetorically striking. She notes how then-Harvard President Lawrence Sumner was pilloried for suggesting that women’s underrepresentation in the sciences may have something to do with how their brains work, and contrasts that with the sympathetic reception Caitlyn Jenner got for her neuroanatomical take on her own gender identity. With this contrast, Burkett succeeds in issuing an almost irresistible invitation to puzzle out analogies and disanalogies, and a powerful prompt to read on.

Reading on as prompted, what struck me hardest was the internal tension in Burkett’s essay. On the one hand, Burkett rejects neurologically based essentialism about gender—any nontrivial differences as there may be between how the brains of male and female human beings are structured don’t explain differences in how people subjectively and socially experience themselves as gendered. The explanation goes in the other direction—the subjective and the neuroanatomical are structured by the social. On the other hand, despite the prominent place she assigns to socially structured experiences as providing the distinctive content of gender identity, she seemingly clings as hard to physical essentialism as the most enthusiastic proponent of gendered brains—only for Burkett, it’s genitals, not neurons, that do the work.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.