On Caster Semenya And The Sin of Womanly Exceptionalism

By Kimberly Congdon, PhD

The International Association of Athletics Federations are going after Caster Semenya again. Subjecting her to what I can only imagine was a gruesome and demeaning “sex verification test” wasn’t enough for them, they’ve now instituted some new rules on testosterone levels and competition. WHY? Oh, for so many reasons. Because we can’t allow women to be exceptional. Because gender exists to categorize people, and when people defy those categories, we punish them. And just as we punish men for failing to be manly enough, we punish women for failing to be womanly enough. Caster Semenya doesn’t fit the IAAF’s definition of  “woman”,  and so she must be punished for her sin. Here’s the thing, though: gender is a social construct. I know this, because people ask if my dog is male or female (sex), not if she’s a man or a woman (gender). It’s about how you feel, and what category society decides to force you in based on the way you choose to express how you feel. The list of items that designate a category have changed over time. In other words, the way we define “man” and “woman” have changed over the course of history. They also vary from culture to culture. But those changes are gradual, and rarely does a society recognize a non-binary definition of gender. So regardless of the nuance of an individual’s identity, society forces them to pick a box and conform to it as best they can. And when they do, they are stuck with ALL the other conditions in that box. Which, for women, means “don’t ever be too good at anything.”

We punish women for their exceptionalism all the time, and when we do, we tend to do it in terms that questions their “woman” credentials – we use language to either imply, or directly declare, that she’s not womanly enough. Women who are too smart, too ambitious, too accomplished – all of them are criticized for those traits. Women are denied the right to be exceptional at anything, because exceptionalism is for men alone. And now, with Caster Semenya, the partriarchy has found a whole new way to apply this form of oppression. Ms. Semenya runs too fast, she improved her own records too quickly, so she can’t possibly be a woman. That’s not an exaggeration of what happened – when her times in the 1500 and 800 meter races improved, the IAAF ordered she undergo a “sex verification test”, because 1. They equate sex and gender, and 2. A woman can’t be that good, so if she is that good, she must not be a woman. While, at the time, the tests failed to confirm she is not a woman, the IAAF attempted to suppress her exceptionalism by forcing her to take hormone suppressants. A legal challenge ultimately ended that, but they’re at it again. They have instituted revised restrictions on testosterone levels for specific races – the races she participates in (what a coincidence!). The idea of exceptional women offends these people SO MUCH that they will force an exceptional woman to deny her own exceptionalism to be allowed to be a woman. She must now take testosterone-suppressing drugs to compete, because the IAAF has decided her exceptionalism is linked to her testosterone levels, and that those levels are too high.

Consider the circular logic these people will accommodate to stop womanly exceptionalism. Ms. Semenya identifies as a woman, and based off whatever humiliating “sex verification test” she was forced to endure, can’t be identified as something other than female, but her testosterone levels are high. Both males and females have testosterone, and the amount varies within the sexes, but males typically have more, and testosterone is a big part of the male stereotype. But testosterone level is not a definition of sex (or gender, fyi). Caster runs like the WIND (good for her). She ran so fast, someone decided she can’t be a woman (because women can’t run that fast). So they tested her womanness by testing her sex (not the same thing). And they decided that her testosterone level (their definition of MANNESS as well as MALENESS) was too high, so even though they can’t prove she’s not a woman, she isn’t enough of a woman by their standards, so they’re forcing her to suppress her own biology, to fit their definition of womanness, which requires her be less great than she is. She can’t be a woman, because she’s too exceptional, but they can’t prove she isn’t a woman using the (already flawed) ways of equating sex and gender, so they pick something about her that they feel is anomalous, and use that to determine she’s not a woman – because she’s too good to be a woman, so she must not be.

So now, Caster Semenya has a choice – be a mediocre woman, or a mediocre man (because her times, while great for women runners, would put her near the bottom of the pack of men runners). There is a deep-seated hatred of women at the root of this treatment of Ms. Semenya. If you want to be a woman, you can’t be exceptional. That’s the statement the IAAF is making with this rule – women are not that good at anything, so if you are that good, you aren’t a woman, and if you want to be a woman, you have to stop being that good. This is what sexism looks like.






Dr. Congdon is an anthropologist, anatomist, scientist, feminist, activist, conservationist. When those things collide, she writes about it here. She wants you to vote, and stop littering.