“Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman’?”

This is the million-dollar question asked of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings last week. It’s a question that has captured the conservative zeitgeist, and it isn’t a “gotcha,” but a fundamental chasm between the right and left leading up to the midterm elections of 2022.

Jackson’s reply — that she was unable to answer because she’s not a biologist — has already spawned a thousand memes. The nominee, who was chosen by a president who said he wanted to nominate a woman, was unwilling to provide a definition for “woman” during her confirmation hearings. If it wasn’t so troubling, it would be amusing. 

The question of who is a woman, asked by Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn, is a profoundly important one, and far from a “bad faith” question that correspondent Philip Bump portrayed it as in The Washington Post. The question has been in the news more than usual of late because of the dominance of Lia Thomas in college swimming competitions. 

Perspective: The Lia Thomas case is changing the conversation about transgender athletes in competition
In search of a level playing field. How male-to-female transgender athletes are impacting women’s sports

Jackson’s refusal to answer is a “Rubicon moment” for the right. The controversy over North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” was six years ago. Back then, concern over how transgender rights could encroach on women’s rights was seen as  fringe, far from the mainstream consciousness. That’s no longer the case. A great deal has changed in that time: in particular, the left’s fear of running afoul its own gender police and the right’s eagerness to go on the offense on social issues when they realized how powerful the strategy could be. 

In a post-Trump world, politicians and conservative media alike recognize a winnable culture war when they see it. Media companies like The Daily Wire are throwing real money into what they see as potentially viral content, such as this forthcoming video from commentator Matt Walsh:

And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, an early favorite for the GOP 2024 presidential nomination, is eagerly stepping into the fray as well, issuing a proclamation that declared Florida native Emma Weyant the winner of a competition that Thomas won.

The fact that the right is responding with memes, a media campaign and political pronouncements should concern Democrats. In Gallup polling last year, “Just 34 percent of those surveyed said they supported trans athletes playing on teams that aligned with their ‘gender identity,’ while 62 percent said they felt transgender people should have to compete on teams with athletes of their ‘birth gender.’” This polling was conducted before the controversy over transgender Olympic weightlifter Laurel Hubbard and record-setting victories by Thomas.

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The unjustness of seeing biological males competing against women is now crystal clear; even Caitlyn Jenner has come out against Thomas’s presence on the women’s team. In response, Democrats won’t even answer “What is a woman?” For the party that sees itself as the champion of women’s rights, it’s quite the turnaround, opening them up to political attacks that will leave them vulnerable in 2022 and, if they don’t change course, in 2024 as well. 

Former President Donald Trump didn’t just show Republicans how they can win the culture wars; he also convinced them that they should be aggressively fighting them. In the past, Republicans were wary of being labeled hateful and bigots, but now they see that their failure to push back has led to situations that are damaging for women and girls. They’re increasingly willing to endure the name-calling for what they believe is right.

“What is a woman?” If the Democrats won’t answer, the midterms will.

Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for the Deseret News and an editor of the children’s book series “Heroes of Liberty.”

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