At the confirmation hearing of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) asked her to “provide a definition for the word woman.” While the exchange has gained traction in right-wing media’s coverage of the hearings, the question is just the latest version of a tired meme used by anti-trans figures since at least the Trump presidency — including in the context of the Supreme Court nomination days after President Joe Biden announced that he would choose a Black woman to fill the seat of retiring Justice Stephen Breyer.
Jackson’s refusal to provide Blackburn with an answer to her question has sparked considerable outrage in the right-wing media. On Wednesday morning, Fox & Friends aired the exchange, with co-host Steve Doocy saying, “It’s all about trying to get into her head to figure out if she sat on the Supreme Court for the rest of her life, what sort of judicial direction she would go in.” Later, anchor Harris Faulkner teased her 11 o’clock show by saying the definition of a woman is “just one of the questions the president’s new U.S. Supreme Court pick didn’t seem to have an answer for.” Blackburn appeared on Fox News’ America Reports to further press her case, though she also failed to provide a working definition of “woman” when asked.
On Twitter, former Trump adviser Matt Schlapp previewed the attacks the right-wing media will likely use to attempt to derail Jackson’s confirmation, writing, “Ketanji Brown Jackson defends being lenient on child porn criminals, says she doesn't know when life begins, can't answer if unborn children feel pain, and thinks you need to be a biologist to define the word 'woman.'” Daily Wire podcaster Michael Knowles wrote that Jackson’s “inability to define the word ‘woman’ during her confirmation hearing means that she is either the stupidest nominee in the history of the Court or the most radical,” and former OAN host Liz Wheeler said, “So Ketanji Brown Jackson was nominated to the Supreme Court BECAUSE she's a woman... but she can't define the word woman? LOL.” Right-wing outlets like the New York Post, the National Review, the Washington Examiner, and the Daily Mail echoed the claim in their headlines.
Right-wing media have been incensed about this nomination ever since Biden announced his intention to fill the seat with a Black woman in January, and they’ve used language similar to Blackburn’s questioning to mock the identities of trans people.
Fox News host Greg Gutfeld reacted to the news in January by saying, “I’m predicting Merrick Garland will identify as a Black woman. A commentator on Newsmax joked that “the nominee that Joe Biden is going to nominate will be Hillary Clinton, and she will identify as the first transracial woman to sit on the Supreme Court,” while another made the same joke about Biden’s son Hunter Biden. Former Trump lawyer and Newsmax contributor Jenna Ellis flipped this narrative and directly remarked that the left “can’t even define anymore what a woman is.”
While Ellis made the link to the court nomination, the idea that the left-wing is somehow unable to define what a woman is has been a right-wing meme for several years. In January 2020, The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro tweeted “define woman” in response to a TIME article with the headline “It Matters That Elizabeth Warren Is a Woman.” In June 2020, Shapiro responded to a tweet from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), tweeting, “Can you define the word ‘woman’?”
In August 2020, Ellis repeated the line after misgendering the Biden administration official Adm. Rachel Levine, telling The Hill that HRC “thinks it can define character and patriotism while it apparently can’t even define male and female.” Daily Wire personality Matt Walsh -- who has compared medical care for trans youth to “molestation and rape” -- similarly deployed this supposed gotcha question in a January 19 appearance on the daytime television show Dr. Phil, repeatedly challenging two nonbinary panelists to answer it. Ellis used the line one week later in the context of the court pick, saying that Biden’s pledge was “problematic for the left’s identity politics game when … the left can’t even define what a ‘woman’ is.”
Ellis has a history of extreme anti-LGBTQ and other bigoted statements, including authoring a column in the wake of the 2016 massacre at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando that said, “The response to this tragedy should not be embracing and advocating for gay rights.”
Blackburn similary has espoused extreme anti-LGBTQ views, claiming that a Democratic victory in the Georgia Senate runoff elections would “eliminate” “gender specificity,” arguing for a right to discriminate against same-sex couples hoping to foster a child, and calling the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage “a disappointment.”