The Definition of “Woman”

For those who don’t know, PantheaCon happened in February, over President’s Day weekend. The theme was “Unity and Diversity”. As with any Pagan gathering of this type (that I’ve ever heard of anyway!), various rituals were held.

Including one led by Z Budapest, called “Sacred Body of a Woman”.

This seemingly innocuous ritual has caused tons of controversy because it was specifically limited to “Genetic Women Only”. Most of the criticism inspired by this has been from transwomen or on behalf of transwomen.

While I agree with the criticism, I wanted to tackle the issue from a different angle.

To begin, Z Budapest has been a leading light of the Dianic movement for decades. Her work has touched the hearts of many, allowing healing and introducing a strong vein of feminism into modern Paganism. I respect her work and accomplishments, and have no desire to take those away from her.

However. I find her perspective on this issue… limiting.

The debate at PantheaCon exists because Z Budapest identifies women strictly biologically, genetically. Gender doesn’t seem to figure into it.

Biological sex seems to be a pretty basic distinction. Until you realize that up to 2% of the children born in the US have some sort of physical deviation from the typical classification. These “intersex” kids have physical signs of both sexes, so it’s hard to determine their sex based on a physical exam. Would any of these intersexed individuals – even those who personally identify as female – be considered genetically “woman” enough for Budapest?

That doesn’t even consider the many other physical issues that might detract from the definition of the biological female. This has been a problem for me personally for quite some time.

I look female, and have the requisite parts. It’s just that the parts don’t work. I have poly-cystic ovarian syndrome. I never release eggs from my ovaries – they form cysts instead. I am incapable of bearing children. I never even have a period – no “moon time” for me! Since eggs never release, I never release progesterone. That means that nothing is present to counteract all the estrogen in my body, so the excess estrogen turns into androgyns – one of the guy hormones. My testosterone is also elevated. I have various physical side effects from all of this that are much more male than female. Hormonally at least, it could be argued that I’m more intersexed than strictly female. While I consider myself a woman by gender, Budapest doesn’t consider gender relevant to her definition.

My PCOS is all natural to me and my body, genetic in origin. Am I physically female enough for Z Budapest’s rituals? How high is the bar set to meet the physical definition of “woman”?

This type of perspective isn’t exclusive to Budapest, either. Traditionally, Paganism in general has gone with a biological definition of womanhood. The Three-Fold Goddess – the whole “Maiden/Mother/Crone” thing – is based solely on stages of life related to childbearing. The Maiden hasn’t had kids yet, the Mother is raising them, and the Crone has finished parenting and is now a grandma.

This doesn’t relate to me at all. Where do I, as an hormonally imbalanced infertile female, figure into that system? What about women who want kids, but can’t bear them? What about the childfree, who could bear children but have clearly decided not to? I decided I was childfree long before I found out about the PCOS. Hell, the dread of possibly becoming fertile has led to me resisting treatment for it! And what about women who have XY chromosomes? Would they be genetically female enough?

And if all of these women are genetically female enough for a Z Budapest ritual, if being considered a woman is not based solely on childbearing or lack thereof, then how can excluding transwomen possibly be justified?

The entire women’s rights movement was predicated on the idea that we are more than our wombs, that we have more to offer than our ability to bear and raise children, that we should not be limited or defined by our biology.

After all the fighting and struggle, it’s bad enough when politicians try to limit a woman’s legal and lifestyle choices because of her ability to breed. It is appalling when we’re getting the same kind of drivel from our spiritual leaders.

I find myself actually grateful to Budapest for holding this ritual in such a fashion. It gives us a focus point, a chance to pull these issues out and thoroughly examine them. This was more than an attack against transwomen. It was an attack on our rights of self-determination in a Pagan context. This cannot be allowed or condoned if Paganism is to flourish.

Our faith has to reflect our world, or it loses relevance and dies. We can no longer cling to binaries like “male” and “female” when they no longer adequately address our needs, our lives, and our experiences.