On August 1, 2023, Governor Stitt of Oklahoma signed Executive Order 2023-20 defining the words female, male, and a few others.
At first, I thought I might not exist under Oklahoma law.
A few moments after reading the Executive Order (EO), I suddenly felt that perhaps I had ceased to exist under Oklahoma law. I remembered from high school biology class that a biological female is born with all the eggs she will ever have. Which would mean that her reproductive system is not designed to produce eggs (they come preloaded on the typical base model). So when the EO defined “female” as a “person whose biological reproductive system is designed to produce ova,” the EO seemingly erased biological females from existence.
If females were erased from existence, so too were males by EO definition. The EO defined “male” as “a person whose biological reproductive system is designed to fertilize the ova of a female.” No females equals no ova of a female, which equals no person whose biological reproductive system is designed to fertilize the ova of a female.
The EO further defined some terms based on its own female/male definitions, effectively erasing “woman”, “girl”, “man”, “boy”, “mother”, and “father”. Intentionally or not, it seemed to me, Governor Stitt essentially eradicated biological gender for purposes of state government.
A few people more trained in biology than 10th grade informed me that an ovum (singular of ova) is a mature egg. Biological females are born with all the oocytes (egg cells) they will ever have. The oocytes stay dormant until puberty. Then the reproductive system matures the oocyte to an ovum. Perhaps it is fair to say that a female reproductive system is designed to produce ova.
Just when I thought my existence was safe, I remembered that my reproductive system is not designed to produce ova today.
When deciding whether a person is female, do we ask whether the reproductive system is designed to produce ova at some point in the life of the person, or is a person female only while her reproductive system is designed to produce ova?
Can a fetus be female? What about a pre-pubescent human? Clearly one could be female at some point during puberty and throughout child-bearing years. But what about a person who has undergone natural or surgical menopause? There are large portions of a human’s life when her reproductive system is designed to do things other than produce ova.
The female reproductive system consists of lots of pieces that perform various functions. Is it fair to say that the vulva is designed to produce ova? Yet it is the witness perception of a vulva that prompts the declaration, “It’s a girl!” In the male reproductive system, it is the witness perception of penis and scrotum that prompts the declaration, “It’s a boy!” The ova and its fertilization are not inspected (nor could be inspected) in determining biological sex assigned at birth.
“Designed” is a pretty loaded word in this context.
Does the EO mean intelligent design or Darwin’s acceptance that organisms are “designed” insofar as they are functionally organized?
Surely not even the ruling party in the state wants to argue this point. From an intelligent design perspective, the female reproductive system is designed to do many things. Among them, mature oocytes to ova, release the ova and implant or discard it, grow and birth offspring, and provide pleasure. In Darwinian terms, the female reproductive system is designed to ensure the survival of the species. Everything else it does serves that design function. From either perspective, saying a female reproductive system is designed to produce ova is a rather dim and narrow understanding of the design, the designer, and the functional organization.
Sam Cooke, “Wonderful World”
Labels, language, and life are complicated.
The Executive Order (EO) pretends to be a safe haven for the sanctity of womanhood but fails to understand the intricacies of human biology, let alone language.
The EO’s preamble says, in part, “To settle the unfounded confusion surrounding such basic questions as ‘What is a woman?’, this Order is intended to provide clarity, certainty, and uniformity to administrative actions.”
My! How intentions can go awry!
Labeling is a cornerstone of language. Humans label everything. Why is a chair a chair? Someone said so and word traveled. Artists have dedicated great amounts of time and energy to push the conceptual boundaries of the chair. Human beings enter the world not knowing all the labels they’ll accumulate in a lifetime, not yet knowing language.
More complicated still, language is a mere facsimile of experience. A sort of shorthand. Hard to read. Harder still to learn to write. As such, language is ill suited to describe the width and depth of the human experience.
That’s why trying to codify the answer to the question, “What is a woman?”, will inevitably fall far short.
What is a woman? The EO responds that a woman is a natural person whose biological reproductive system is designed to produce ova.
How absurd to define “woman” by her internal biology! How would anyone go about proving womanhood? (And don’t think for a moment proof won’t be required.) Would we subject infants and new parents to invasive and unnecessary investigations of the internal reproductive system before declaring, “It’s a girl!”? Under this definition, what will be required of a person to prove basic human value or even existence in Oklahoma? What will be required of children to enter a school restroom? Who will judge the evidence?
A rose by any other name…
It’s no better to define “woman” by chromosomes. Hint: there are more combinations than just the two. It’s no better to define “woman” by her external genitalia. Perhaps, though, one could define “female” or “male” or “biological sex” by a person’s external genitalia. Hint: It’s the world we already have.
Definitions should closely resemble the world in which they function. No one says, “Congratulations! You have a baby capable of producing eggs!” Unless perhaps they are celebrating your new hen or platypus. They may well say, “Congratulations! You have a baby girl!” Where “girl” is used no more and no less than to imply the external genitalia that doctors, nurses, and parents perceive the baby to have at or soon after birth. Because we’ve never quite felt comfortable, as a society, saying things like, “Congratulations! You have a baby with a vulva!”
In this time and place we assign human biological sex at birth based on how we perceive external genitalia. It’s inexact. Perhaps it works as well as any other classification for a large majority of people. But there are those for whom external genitalia is ambiguous or otherwise not neatly fitted into one of two checkboxes. It stands to reason that if we want to classify people based on biological sex, we must 1) define it in a way that acknowledges actual determination of the classification and 2) name a third category. Because no one checks a baby’s reproductive system at birth. Because social value may be discovered in understanding how differing biologies impact humans differently. And because everyone exists.
At least one natural problem persists: What proof does society demand? How does one prove she had a vulva at birth? Or *didn’t* have a vulva at birth? It’s eye-witness testimony. Imagine if a huge piece of your life hinged on your length as measured at birth. Disastrous. Babies squirm. Methods of measurement vary. Records can be mistaken, lost, or destroyed. And no one in the present could possibly discern your length at birth.
The underlying problem festers.
It is the problem that warrior women and suffragettes and each wave of feminism has tried to solve. (Not to mention every civil rights movement since before there was such a thing as a civil rights movement. Not to mention plain old good humans doing good things.) Rather than reckon with the problem, our government spends its resources maintaining the festering wound.
The problem: Society uses an external indicator at birth as a deciding factor in power, politics, freedom, and welfare. A deciding factor in who someone can be, become, and love. You name it. If it’s a human feature discernible at or soon after birth, it’s been used to oppress some and advance others. The EO uses the thinnest veil of women’s rights as a cover for further entrenching the discriminatory systems that pervade all levels of society.
You don’t change an oppressive system by cobbling nonsensical definitions. Or by changing the facts as they are when they are. Change is so much harder: we must get the medicine to the site of the disease. We must, as a society, decide humans are. Humans are. No direct object necessary to the sentence but tons available to the individual.
Anything less serves only to further entrench the powerful.
Sam Cooke, “Wonderful World”