Wittig argues that in order to be one, it is necessary to belong to the real one, and given the fact that lesbians do not belong to the categorization of real women, then they are not real women. Hale (1996) attacks this assertion arguing that Wittig commits a basic error in her understanding and use of the word real and “not real”. While the word real may be used to express commendation to imply good, but the phrase “not real” may be employ to express disapproval. The word and phrase do not negate womanhood but suggest that lesbians are actually not good women. The accusation stems from the fact that lesbians pose a threat to the biological determinism that establishes male authority over women. The straight mind seeks to exclude lesbians from the categorization of womanhood, which is characterized by passivity, virtue, docility and other factors that are symbolically helpful in promoting the male hegemony over women. Lesbians are simply incompatible with the construction of women that gives men control over them, and thus the assertion that they are not real women forces them into a closet of queerness.
The binary conceptualizations of men and women, as well as the connection between sex and the heterosexual political regime, form the basis of Wittig’s second argument. Since women are incompatible with the definition of women relative to men, they fail to meet the criteria to be included in the class of women. According to Wittig, “women” is a concept that is socially constructed and that both sexual and gender identities are unstable, but are defined in the context of the heterosexual norm. By these categorizations, lesbians not only incompatible with what women should be, but also lack a phallus (that will make them men) and thus they are neither men nor women. However, according to Hale (1996), the binary relationship between men and women cannot be solely defined by a sexual relationship, nor is there any implication that the heterosexual marriages are the only relationships in which manhood and womanhood is defined. Marriage is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for defining genders. Hale asserts that Wittig’s argument is simplistic in the manner in which is conceives the varied ways in which human beings are gendered, since her definition rests on only one defining characteristic.
Hale builds on Bornstein’s reformulation of Garfinkel’s case by asserting that only two, unchanging genders symbolized by genitals do exist. Exceptions to these genders are unserious, transfers are impossible, and the male/female dichotomy is natural, in the same way, membership to any gender is (Hale 102-3). Normal people consider the gender binary a natural, factual matter and perceive scientific views about gender as suspicious. Specialized gender discourses are in disagreement with the natural attitude towards gender, but the natural attitude must change their attitudes to changing claims about gender, but still driven by the need to maintain as much of the natural attitude as possible. This requires a measure of desperation including forced gender assignments at birth for children born ambiguous genitals and concerted efforts to maintain secrecy about such practices. This serves to protect the normal attitudes from possible threats. Further, the nature of the heterosexual oppression puts women in a double bind situation. In part, this is because the conception of womanhood is internally incoherent since women are defined according to their difference from a certain arbitrary norm, while on the other hand, the concept of woman is essentially a normative one (Hale 104). There exist multiple paradigms of womanhood, and there are also multiple culturally-recognized ways to be a real/good or bad/unreal woman.
In Hale’s own reconstruction of the dominant cultural concept of woman, multiple defining characteristics emerge, except none of them comprises a necessary or sufficient condition. Conceptions of “woman” must include all the 13 attributes that fall into several clusters. These clusters include sex characteristics drawn from sex/gender-based distinctions, which include the absence of a phallus, presence of breasts, presence of reproductive organs, presence of oestrogen or progesterone and presence of XX chromosomes (Hale 107-8). The presence of a phallus includes the absence of tissue that may develop into a functional penis (Hale 107), with breasts being heavily valued as providing a sense of identity for women. Womanhood is also defined by the existence of reproductive organs that can allow the occurrence of pregnancy, proper female hormonal balance and chromosomes that define females.
Other defining characteristics of what it means to be a woman include whether or not an individual feel themselves to be, despite the fact that this characteristic is culturally undermined. A cluster of attributes derived from traditional gender roles follows this characteristic. These include having occupations that are feminine, engaging in leisurely pursuits that are considered to be suitable for women and carrying on a sexual/affectional relationship with a heterosexual man. Further, achievement and maintenance of physical gender self-presentation aspects that collectively produce gender assignments of woman to a person’s social circle e.g. using feminine make-up, jewellery, absence of facial hair and overall facial morphology that is characteristic of the feminine gender. Hale’s also considers behaviour that is considered consistent with the behaviour that would generally produce female gender assignment in one’s social circle as an equally important attribute that defines gender. Tomboy behaviour or aggressiveness and certain styles of assertive (even rude) verbal expression are thought to be unwomanly (Hale 111). Further, Hale considers giving textual cues that collectively produce gender assignment of a woman among those with whom one interacts with including citation of continuous and unambiguous history as a woman also sets one apart as a woman. Lastly, Hale (1996, p.113) considers it significant for individuals who are women to have histories that are consistent with the respective gender assignment, effectively providing an unbroken line of descent from a female infancy through to womanhood.
Hale (1996) clearly exposes the logical and literal flaws in Wittig’s assertion that lesbians are not women, especially because her understanding of real and gender assignments ignores the cultural context. Hale tries to untangle the definition of womanhood that is dependent on the heterosexual hegemony over women, while at once avoiding the internally incoherent definition of womanhood that forces women into predefined boxes of what is normal and what is not. The paper points out that the concept of womanhood has multiple meanings not only on social, economic, political and cultural levels, but also on psychological and biological levels. In the Garfinkel case and other cases of gender reassignments, the subjects’ gender identification is heavily weighted compared to their sexual orientation. Effectively, Hale (1996) shows that limiting the definition of woman to a heterosexual category erroneously oversimplifies the varied ways in which human beings are gendered, including the subject’s own internal motivation. Effectively, by assessing lesbians against the 13 characteristics of women, Hale concludes that some lesbians may be women, and some may not be (hale 115). Even with a defined criteria, it is still impossible to tell with certainty, whether one satisfies those conditions or not or what weight should be attached to every attribute of cluster of attributes.
Hale, Jacob. "Are Lesbians Women?" Hypatia, Vol. 11, No. 2 (1996): 94-121.