What is a man? What is a woman?

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By Graham Healey.

For me it is conspicuous that no attempts are made to define what one means that a woman or man are, other than that it is a penis or a vagina should not be part of the definision. How do you define man or woman without refering to genitals?


This articles was originally published as Hva er en mann? Hva er en kvinne?


I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s in England and Norway, and there were four movements that framed my adolescence and early adulthood.

Student rebellions and far left political movements.

The hippie movement which discarded all the social conventions that defined what men and women should wear, how long their hair should be, who could wear makeup and who couldn’t. Heterosexual men could have long hair, they could wear a skirt, they could wear makeup, without that being a signal that they were not heterosexual men. Likewise heterosexual women could have short hair or shave their heads, go without makeup, in “footshaped” shoes and boiler suits without it being a signal that they were not heterosexual women. Of course homosexual men and women could do the same things. It doesn’t mean that it was commonly accepted, and long haired men were often attacked by gangs, often skinheads, (I was myself). The gangs called it queerbashing and they considered longhaired men to be homo, or at least homo-like.

The feminist movement – womens’ liberation. This movement fought to end the situation that women could only do things that society defined as womanly. There were very many jobs and careers that were not only male dominated, they excluded woman more or less all together. It was everything from bus- lorry- and, train drivers, all kinds of engineers, mechanics, firemen etc. etc. along with all higher positions from formen in factories to directors. (It was unthinkable that men could work in preschools or be nurses). Also in addition to choice of jobs there were clear definisions as to what women could wear (this was also true of men) particularly at work. Women had to wear dresses or skirts, they should wear makeup (but not too much), have female hairstyles and wear bras, irrespective of breast size. Often they should wear high heeled shoes. On the home front it was clear that women should be at home with the children and do all housework. Women could not even buy beer in pint glasses (0.5l)!

The forth movement was homosexualliberation. At that time homosexuality was forbidden by law. To repeal those laws and develop common acceptance for homosexuals right to wear what they liked, behave as they liked and love who they liked (that would love them) was a struggle that largely took place in fellowship with the other three movements and their struggle.

Not all radicals wanted to join their struggle with feminists or homosexuals. Nevertheless there was much common ground and in general a common struggle.

Perhaps the hippie movements greatest contribution to both the womens’ movement and homosexual liberation was to help to breakdown the social conventions.

Womens’ liberation wanted to remove all of the limitations and expections to women that I have listed above, and they largely succeded. The goal of womens liberation was that there should be nothing that people do that could only be done by one of the sexes. Not only that, nothing should be regarded as “manly” or “womanly”. To define something as manly or womanly was regarded as only a cultural construction or habit. Through history men have worn dresses (priests still do), women have worn trousers, men have had long hair and used makeup and worn high heeled shoes. None of these things are “womanly”. Irrespective of penis or vagina, people should be able to do what they want, dress how they want, and love who they want (that will love them back).

If women and men can have long hair, use makeup, wear high heels, wash clothes, look after children, drive bulldozers, be directors etc. etc. If there is nothing to limit a man or womans’ appearance or activity, what then divides and distinguishes them? With this as a starting point the only thing that distinguishes women from men is if they have a penis or vagina, testicles or ovaries and breasts.

There are other physical characteristics that I do not have a full overview of but which may include for example positioning of organs, body build, hormones, predisposition to certain illnesses. These things may not necessarily be regarded as important but can be very important when it comes to diagnosing illness and sport.

I would like to hear suggestions for what else distinguishes a man from a worman. That is anything that is not body. What makes someone a man or a woman?

What is it that can be in the head of a child which says to them that they are a “man” or a “woman”? When does this inner signal appear? Is it before birth? Is it before the child has contact with its mother or father or other male or female persons? When does a child become aware of what a man, woman, boy or girl are? Is it when they see that they are given different toys? When to they discover that they have different clothes? Does a small child discover that a sister or brother is treated differently, and not least that the expectations to boys and girls are different? What about when girls are told that they cannot climb in trees but must sit nicely in their dress? What if the boy picks up his sister’s doll and is told that boys do not play with dolls?

Is it perhaps so that some children wished they had toys, clothes or kinds of play that are kept for or expected only of the other sex? Perhaps they want to “be something” careerwise that is still seen as mainly appropriate for the other sex?

Girls and boys are raised differently. This is something the womens’ movement wanted to do something about but didn’t get that far. It isn’t something that can be regulated by law, that girls and boys have the right to the same upbringing. What if we did have a law for standard clothing and a standard package of toys for all children? What if we could close the mouths of everyone who says “girls/boys do not do that”.

What is missing in the debate, (a debate we are hardly allowd to have), are just these questions. If women and men are allowed to wear whatever they like, have whatever hairstyle, and makeup they like. If they can have access to all jobs, professions and positions in society, and meet the same demands and expectations regarding housework and childcare. What is it then that is manly and womanly? What is it that distinguishes them?

About my background as regards LGBT. I have several very good and close homosexual friends. I am very fond of them. I hang out with them at gay clubs in the mid ’70s. In my experience gay people and transpeople are generally fine people and I have never met any that are not. I am absolutely not transphobic (a word which means that you are scared of or hate transpeople, but is misused as a label for anyone who does not completely agree with all transpolitics). I am in favour of transpeoples right to dress as they like, love who they like (who will love them back) and live how they like, free from discrimination and harassment. I am for the same rights for all homosexual and heterosexual people also. I have homosexual friends and would have nothing against having transpeople as friends.

The goal of this article is to open the discusion about what a man and a woman are, and attempt to illustrate that some of what is regarded as manly or womanly may be delusional or predjudice.

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