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What Makes A Woman A Woman

G Eugene Pichler

Dec 30, 2004

A funny thing happens when you begin to think beyond "puppy dog tails" and "sugar and spice". Researchers tell us it's not just our culture that makes rules about gender appropriate behavior—it's our own body chemistry, including what ticks in our head.

Jul 31, 2015 12:00


Revellers at the 2003 Toronto Gay Pride Parade, June 30, 2003

A funny thing happens when you begin to think beyond "puppy dog tails" and "sugar and spice". Researchers tell us it's not just our culture that makes rules about gender appropriate behavior—it's our own body chemistry, including what ticks in our head.

fetal development and gender

The forces that shape a woman from a man are a series of incredibly complex events that largely occur in the mother's womb. The process of fetal development is the end result of tens of millions of years of natural selection and evolution. Here—in the microscopic world inside the human uterus, timing is everything. Chromosomes provide the simple Xs and Ys to determining sex.

A human egg carries a single X chromosome. Whereas the sperm from the father either carries an X chromosome or alternatively a Y chromosome. The statistical proportion of X bearing sperm and Y bearing sperm are significant depending on the environmental conditions of these fields of fertilization. Acidic properties in the vagina can selectively favor sperm bearing X Chromosomes over their Y counter parts. This may explain why the human species has more females than males.

When the egg is fertilized, it's the chromosome in the sperm that determines the physical sex of the fetus. But the chromosome pairing (XX or XY) won't always match the fetus' physical appearance.

During the critical first trimester, the embryo's sex-related genes go to work. A gene on the Y chromosome triggers a flood of androgens from the embryo's developing testes. Androgens, such as testosterone, are steroid hormones —chemical messengers that eliminate potential femininity and ensure that the fetus develops into and functions like a "normal" male.

A genetically female embryo's adrenal glands (which produce hormones) also secrete androgen, but in smaller quantities. Instead, the embryo (with the help of the uterus) produces—and is bathed in—loads of estrogen. By the ninth week, the ovaries of a female will be neatly tucked into place; by the end of the 12th week, an ultrasound will reveal a female. But if too many androgens are floating in the uterus, an YY fetus can end up with male equipment. That's where inter sexuality can occur.

Again, timing is everything. The process usually works amazingly well.

To call this the miracle of birth is an understatement. Modern science of the twenty first century pales in comparison to what nature does with routine precision.

biological influences on gender identity

The forces of biology and in particular the role of hormones in the child continue well after birth. Although males and females are born into bodies that share a common design—breathing, circulating blood, processing toxins— a proportion of our bodies are different. We regard what is different as sex organs. Among these sex organs are the prostate, ovaries, uterus, testes, vagina, penis, etc. The brain has historically been seen to fall under the category as being part of that shared design. But is it? I will touch on the proposition of the brain being a sex differentiated organ and the implications thereof later.

It is not all about biology, but biology is a driver. Where exactly does biology stop and socialization begin? Or do the combination of biology and socialization play off on each other?

To illustrate where biology and socialization meet consider the concept of the gender appropriate toy. It is a bit of a chicken and egg theory. Do we create toys that we think children of different sexes will like or do children choose the toys of their choice and the toy industry simply responds to these changing market wants and needs? As it stands lots of boys ask for dolls. Parents do not encourage boys to ask for dolls. In fact parents go out of their way to purchase "gender-appropriate" toys for their children.

In a study involving almost 300 children, researchers found that if little boys asked for a soldier equipped with battle cannons for their birthday, their parents would buy it for them 70% of the time. If they asked for a Barbie doll or similar "gender inappropriate" toy, parents would buy the Barbie doll only 40% of the time.

Attempting to segment biology and socialization is nearly impossible. A few brave researchers attempted to do just that in pre birth differences where socialization is completely absent. They discovered that male fetuses are a bit more active and restless than female fetuses. However, after the first year of development after birth, toy preferences become distinct. Boy infants tend to opt for mechanical play while girl infants gravitate toward toy with faces, toys that can be cuddled.

The latest theories insofar as play is that it's a practice run at the challenges of adult life. Through games and role play, the experts say, we learn the art of measuring the competition, how to win and lose gracefully, which leads directly into how to build friendships. In scientific terms we learn socialization.

In the late 1970s, Robert Goy, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, first documented that young male monkeys consistently played much more aggressively than juvenile females. Goy then went on to demonstrate that if you manipulate the testosterone level—raising it in females, cutting it off in males— you reverse the behavior of the sexes. Boy monkeys began to act in a more gentle manner and girl monkeys began to act in a rough-and-tumble manner. There are no studies of this nature in the human population. However, researches see this same type of behavior you would expect in girls had you raised their testosterone level in one type of inter sexuality, the congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), in which a baby girl's adrenal gland inadvertently boosts testosterone levels naturally. Researchers found that CAH girls, in general, prefer trucks and cars and aggressive play. However, they adapt to more gender appropriate play for girls when in the company of other "normal" girls. However, if left to choose, they gravitate towards the rough-and-tumble play we are accustomed to seeing from boys.

Higher testosterone levels also affect competitiveness. In fact, testosterone levels are predictable in certain situations. In a competitive situation testosterone levels rise. Researchers have measured the testosterone levels during chess matches, soccer games, and courtroom battles. The testosterone levels in people stay up when they win; and drop when the lose. People who lose literally deflate. The purpose of testosterone is to get you up for competition.

Again we see the affects of testosterone in the two sexes in preschool. Boys tend to hang out in larger competitive and organized groups. They play games that have clear rules to determine winners from losers. Boys like to openly boast their accomplishments after victory. Girls, on the other hand, gather in small groups. They engage in theatrically play where there are no winners nor losers.

socialization influence on gender identity

However, even with this research the development of a girl to a woman is a complex process. The results from one person to the next can vary tremendously. It varies even more sharply when you regard the socialization process of a trans* individual.

"Although a great deal is known about the socialization process of girls as they progress towards women, there is a great deal of variation. Class, race, ability all weigh into the development of a female child into an adult woman. Not all woman are raised to be unassertive, dependent and nurturing. We know even less about the socialization process of the trans* boy." Eleanor MacDonald says. MacDonald is a professor in the Political Studies programme at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. Ms. MacDonald has published a number of articles on feminism and transsexuality, including one that appears in the journal, Atlantis .

How does gender-based indoctrination affect our gender identity? What does a female child get out of her childhood to equip her to function as a woman in society?

"Children of both sexes learn that there are these two categories of genders and that they are significant. They learn that there is a defined structure. Children take things they are told as concrete and literal. They see gender in the external. for example, they don't understand the adult male with long hair. None of there male friends in school who are their age have long hair, so that presents a violation to what they are taught. This indoctrination constitutes a key part of how you come to understand your gender and your gender identity." Krista Scott-Dixon says. Krista is a Ph.D. graduate of the Women's Studies programme at York University. There she concentrated on feminist theorist, feminist epistemology, methodology. Krista co-founded the site, , with Justin Cascio and Elaina Hardy.

Parental influence is the gatekeeper to the formation of a child's development of their gender identity. Parents ultimately choose how to present their child and what their child is exposed to to a limited degree.

"Parents undergo a type of anxiety towards parenting. They are scared of introducing gender inappropriate clothes and toys for fear that that may have damaging repercussions later in life. For example, I gave a friend's child a pink t-shirt with the logo of the sex pistols. The parents were somewhat livid. They didn't want their child, who was a boy, to have a pink t-shirt for fear he would turn out to be gay."

However, what happens when the child isn't listening or if he is, what if he is listening to another message? What if he is receptive to different signals—signals meant for female children?

"If you are growing up and you are male embodied, you are going to internalize an awful lot of what is being told to girls. You may get a different set of messages. On the one hand [there is] a lot of pressure to grow up and become like a man. [...] on the other hand you are probably also internalizing some of the messages that is being giving to your sister or your female cousin or the girl next door about how you are suppose to behave. I don't know if we can say that children growing up who are transsexual are being raised as either male nor female in terms of their social condition. There are probably more interesting combinations than that. It is hard to study because we don't know until well after the fact. but when you read people's autobiographies about what the experiences were like, it is pretty clear that they not receiving the same information the same way." MacDonald says.

Still there needs to be a mechanism within the child that instructs to child to switch the learning focus from the people in your defined gender to people, who you are aware as being outside your defined gender. That is where the brain enters.

Not much is known into how the brain plays into gender formation and gender identity. In 1997 researchers discovered that the brain is a sex differentiated organ. In particular researchers discovered that one region in particular which they label the BSTc as being highly differentiate by sex. The BSTc plays an essential role in masculine sexual behavior, as shown in studies on rats.

In this tiny region of the brain inside the hypothalamus, the neuron density of a "normal" heterosexual male is 44% largely than in a "normal" heterosexual female (2.49 cubic mm compared to 1.73 cubic mm). However, in the same study, the neuron density of a "normal" heterosexual male is 52% largely than in a male-to-female transsexual (2.49 cubic mm compared to 1.64 cubic mm). More importantly, the neuron density of the heterosexual females and the male-to-female transsexual were nearly identical (or within a 5% variance).

The researchers found no relationship between BSTc size and the sexual orientation of transsexuals, that is, whether they were male-oriented, female-oriented, or both. Furthermore, the size of the BSTc of heterosexual men and homosexual men did not differ, which reinforced the idea that the BSTc size is independent of sexual orientation.

The study includes six samples of male-to-female brains. All of the transsexual women had undergone some regiment of estrogen therapy, however, researchers discounted estrogen as a cause for the volume of the BSTc.

The implications of the research is that there is a physical rational for why people feel a dysphasia towards their birth sex. The BSTc is in effect telling the individual that he/she belongs with them over there. Unfortunately, the research, although promising, has never been repeated and as a result it has not been accepted into medical fact.

the feminist movement and its influence of gender definitions

The feminist movement, which champions women's rights and equality, by it very nature is somewhat discriminating on who it accepts into its movement. Thus, by necessity the feminist movement has weighed in on the question of what is a female. However, the answer depends on who you talk to.

"The second wave of feminists largely go by one's birth and the concept of a common experience. If you are an adult and you were born female, than you are a woman. The second wave of feminists also point to a common experience as the large influence in what makes a woman a woman."

The argument of the second wave feminists falls apart, however, when faced with how to treat the phenomenon of the female-to-male transsexual.

"According to the second wave of feminists, FtMs don't exist. If they exist, they are deluded. They are clearly born female, they are clearly raised with this same common experience, yet, they clearly aren't women. The third wave of feminists are much more open to identity. They openly regard anyone, who self identifies as a woman as a woman, including trans* women." Scott-Dixon says.

Outside of grass roots feminist organizations, the definition of gender is not only being discussed but also it is being reshaped.

At the seminar, The National Association of women and the Law, a two-day seminar, feminists and trans* activists held a number of sessions that delved into the subject of inclusion and definition. What came out of these seminars was a very different message than the hard line doctrine feminism has preached to the masses.

"From all accounts what people generally came to agreement on is that gender is about a state of mind; It is about how you identify." Scott-Dixon says.