“I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.” “Trans women are women.” “A woman is anyone who identifies as a woman.” Statements like these are now commonplace: they reveal that words, and the way we use them, change over time. That which used to go without saying is now being said in a way that implies its opposite. The words “woman” and “man” and the categories they denote, which used to be intuitive and axiomatic, are beginning to crack under the pressure of a culture determined to do away with nature’s limits, and to elevate freedom (underwritten by technology) as the highest good. On June 6, 2020, J.K. Rowling retweeted an op-ed piece whose title conspicuously replaced the word “woman” with a female bodily function. “‘People who menstruate,’” Rowling mused.” I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” she wrote. Rowling is right: there used to be a word for those people, but it has been pressed into the service of a new purpose. Rowling’s tweet dropped like a hand grenade into Twitter, and the sheer volume of verbally profane pushback she received, loaded with sexually violent threats, is astounding. Many people, myself included, are concerned that the word “woman” is decaying with repeated twisting and misuse, and that natal females will suffer from the “slip slide and perish” of its broken meaning. The problem of universals — how it is that we can recognize categories like Woman, Tree, or Cat — has been a source of philosophical debate since Plato and Aristotle, through Boethius and Augustine, to Thomas Aquinas and William of Occam.
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