Competing Philosophical Accounts of Trans-Women

Anton Li

Philosophy of Race and Gender

May 2016

In “Amelioration and Inclusion: Gender Identity and the Concept of Woman”, Katharine Jenkins lays out an account of what it is to be a trans-woman. According to Jenkins, trans people include all people who identify as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth, and trans-women are those who were assigned at birth as men but later come to identify as women. To have a female gender identity means regarding the ‘map’ that guides individuals classed as women through the social or material realities that are characteristic of women as a class, to be ‘relevant to oneself’. This map provides norms of proper feminine behavior, which include both unconscious and conscious behaviors and habits. Various relationships to the female map meet the criteria of a relevant relationship. This includes internalization of the female map, recognizing that society expects you to follow or have internalized the map, and a desire to follow the map or desire the societal expectations to follow it.

In “A Dispositional Account of Gender”, Jennifer McKitrick lays out an alternative account of what it is to be a trans-woman. According to her, a person is a woman if she has “sufficiently many sufficiently strong dispositions” to behave in ways that are considered womanly by the relevant social group. These dispositions can be both biological and socially formed. Dispositions can be thought of as peoples’ tendencies to act in certain ways in certain circumstances. Manifestations of dispositions occur when these people are subject to those particular circumstances. For example, a cowardly person has the disposition to flee when confronted with a dangerous situation. We see the manifestation of this occur when that person is approached by an angry bully and subsequently runs quickly in the opposite direction. A trans-woman on McKitrick’s account is an assigned male who has a sufficient amount of sufficiently strong dispositions to behave womanly (under that society’s conception of ‘womanly’). These dispositions are sometimes not manifest because the correct circumstances are not met. Most commonly this is because of the counteracting social pressure to act according to one’s assigned gender.

In this paper, I will argue that Jenkins’ account is flawed, and that the account laid out by McKitrick is preferable.

First, Jenkins does not adequately consider the notion that gender identity can come in degrees. Under her account, “identifying as a woman can mean many different things for different people and indeed for the same person at different times” (Jenkins 413). This is because having a gender identity consists of taking that identity’s map to be relevant to oneself, and the concept of relevancy, as touched upon above, is a broad one. But though Jenkins discusses different kinds of relevancy, she offers little analysis on the different degrees of relevancy. Relevancy can come in degrees; some people may have a very strong desire to follow the female map, some may have a weak desire to follow the map, some may have a desire to follow only certain parts of it, etc.. For example, there are many effeminate men (males with many feminine behaviors). Would all these people be women? It is unclear under her account because she expounds little upon this aspect. Some parts of her writing though, seem to suggest that degree is not important to her account, as seen in her definition of trans people: “By ‘trans people’, I mean all people who identify as a gender other than the one to which they were assigned at birth, which includes trans women” (Jenkins 396). This definition seems to put self-identification at the forefront, which allows for the different kinds of identity that her model entails. Jenkins does stipulate that there needs to be “some genuine correspondence between the norms people take to be relevant to themselves and the norms associated with the relevant gender class” (Jenkins 412). However, this only refers to a corresponding relationship in regards to the content of the norms; it says nothing about the degree of the relationship.

It is a strength of Jenkins’ model that it allows for trans women to experience their female gender identities in different ways, “depending on which aspects of existence the map is picking up on”. But while there can be many kinds of relationships to the female map, not all of those relationships are sufficient for identifying as a woman.

It is here that we find reason to prefer McKitrick’s account. Remember, for a person to be a woman under her account, that person needs to have “sufficiently many sufficiently strong dispositions” to behave in ways considered to be womanly. The degree of gender identity is thus taken into account both in terms of the amount and strength of the dispositions. This allows for the possibility of effeminate males, who may have a number of womanly dispositions, but not enough to be considered as having the gender identity of a woman.

Jenkins and other critics may object to McKitrick’s account on the basis that because identity is based on the objective match between a person’s dispositions and the gender norms rather than the person’s self-identification, this has the implication that a person can be wrong about their own gender. An assigned male may thus identify as a woman but be wrong about this identification. We thus seem to have basis to question the self-identification of every trans-women. Further, Jenkins would argue that by questioning and potentially denying these people the label of women, we are subjecting them to exclusion, and thus oppression. However, McKitrick has the tools under her account to stipulate that only a certain type of trans-women would likely be subject to to this kind of questioning. This particular type of trans-woman is labeled as “Scenario 1” in Jenkins’ paper, and is defined as someone who does not publicly present as a woman and is perceived as a man by people around her, but self-identifies as a woman.

McKitrick could use her account to show that Scenario 1 individuals are generally less likely to meet the required degree of dispositions needed to be considered a woman. The crucial fact to consider is that dispositions can be socially influenced. Specifically, certain dispositions of the female map, such as the habitual or unconscious behaviors (posture, speech, grooming, etc.) of the map, are reinforced when those behaviors are acted upon. Many of these behaviors may become unconsciously engrained after long periods of time practicing them. Those who do not present as women, and thus do not practice them, do not have such engrained behaviors. Further, evidence exists to suggest that the repetition of behavior has an effect on the brain. Elinor Burkett touches upon this when she seeks to describe the “realities that shape women’s brains”: “Brains are…in fact shaped by experience, cultural and otherwise. The part of the brain that deals with navigation is enlarged in London taxi drivers, as is the region dealing with the movement of the fingers of the left hand in right-handed violinists” (Burkett 3). Individuals who have not yet began to present as women, publicly and/or privately, thus generally have not yet experienced these effects on their brains.

On the other hand, trans-women who publicly present as women do practice these behaviors, and thus have shaped or are in the process of shaping their dispositions to align with the female map. McKitrick affirms: “if one is convincingly living one’s life as a woman, there is a sense in which one is feminine to a certain extent” (McKitrick 2588). These people are thus less likely to be wrong about their gender than Scenario 1 trans-women, and are thus exempt from questioning.

Jenkins could potentially could concede this, but still argue that Scenario 1 trans-women are oppressed as a result. But Scenario 1 individuals generally do not seem to suffer nearly the extent of the oppression that publicly presenting trans-women face. This is because a large amount, perhaps a majority, of trans oppression is based on their public presentation. Jenkins herself describes trans people as “suffering oppression and injustice in multiple respects including discriminatory denial of goods such as employment, medical care, and housing; consistently negative portrayals in the media; and particularly high risks of violence”. Most of the things on this list are only experienced by publicly presenting trans-women.

However, though I believe this this account is a conceptually strong one, it may have troubling practical implications, particularly in regards to the way it treats Scenario 1 trans-women. Though it makes sense that people could be wrong about their gender identities, with Scenario 1 individuals being particularly at risk, real-world evidence suggests that this is rare. As McKitrick mentions, it is medically recommended that before engaging in physically-altering therapies, that the patient “has demonstrated a long-lasting and intense pattern of gender nonconformity or gender dysphoria”. In practice, this is seen through standards such as the once-used one-year RLE (real-life experience) requirement, where individuals live full-time in their preferred gender role, before gender re-assignment surgery is allowed. Studies however, suggest that RLE was unnecessary. This would imply that the actual social experience of being a woman, which Scenario 1 individuals lack, does not play a strong role in shaping gender identity. Other studies provide strong evidence that gender dysphoria is significantly influenced by biology in the majority of cases; if this is true, then the role that socialization plays on gender dispositions is further diminished. Thus, McKitrick’s account, though being conceptually sound, may not reflect reality accurately. There is also risk that certain people could use her account to justify questioning the gender identities of trans people, as well as use an argument such as “trans people may just be experimenting with their gender; it’s not permanent”. This kind of skepticism has proven to be harmful to trans people in the past and present. It is an unfortunate harm that McKitrick’s account could reinforce.


Jenkins, Katherine. “Amelioration and Inclusion: Gender Identity and the Concept of Woman.” Ethics 126 (2):394-421

McKitrick, Jennifer. “A Dispositional Account of Gender.” Philosophical Studies: 172 (10):2575-2589

Burkett, Elinor. “What Makes a Woman?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 2015.

“SRS Without a One Year RLE:Still No Regrets.” SRS Without a One Year RLE: Still No Regrets (2001). Web. <;

Tannehill, Brynn. “Do Your Homework, Dr. Ablow.” The Huffington Post. Web. <>


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