What makes a 100% woman? Pierre Weiss of the International Association of Athletics Federations has said “it is clear that (Caster Semenya) is a woman, but maybe not 100%”.

What is a woman?

We know that genetically all women carry a certain level of male chromosomes and all men carry a percentage of female chromosomes. So there is no such thing as a 100% woman in biological terms. Indeed, our interconnectedness in genetic terms is what gives each of us strength, passion and emotion.

Women need testosterone (the male hormone) to maintain muscles, bone health and a good sex drive. In men, oestrogen (the female hormone) is essential for a healthy libido, improved brain function, a strong heart and bones. High levels of oestrogen in a man can cause reduced testosterone, fatigue, loss of muscle tone, increased body fat, loss of libido and an enlarged prostate.

But too, if you look at women with infertility problems very often it is because they carry high levels of testosterone, which may make them hairier than average, have problems with their ovaries and erratic periods. Journalists that write that Semenya carries three times the “normal testosterone level of a woman” are writing rubbish, there is no norm.

And if you look at the fact that globally one in seven couples have infertility problems, it gives you an idea of how many women may have high levels of testosterone.

As another example, at least five percent of all women have polycystic ovary syndrome, a leading cause of infertility. It is particularly problematic among Afrikaans and some Mediterranean women in South Africa. A common factor is very high degrees of androgenic or masculine hormones. It does not make them less female, it just makes reproduction more challenging.

Testosterone is also a driver in successful women, we have all heard men say that a certain woman has “balls of steel” — they may be right. A study released in late August of 500 graduate business students showed that women with higher testosterone levels take more risks and are more likely to choose a finance career than women with low testosterone levels.

Researchers at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University tested testosterone’s effect on career choice among MBA students at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

They record: “Men and women volunteers gave saliva samples to measure testosterone levels. (Women typically have lower testosterone levels in their saliva than men, but not always.) The volunteers then played a risk-taking game that is often used to predict how much risk a person would take while investing in the stock market.”

After graduation, the researchers compared the results of the saliva test, the students’ career choices, and a few other measurements that loosely mark how much testosterone the person was exposed to as a foetus, including the ratio of the index-finger length to the ring-finger length. Eventually, 36 percent of female students chose high-risk financial careers, compared to 57 percent of male students.

The researchers found that in women, not men, the amount of testosterone was linked to a choice of a high-risk career. The researchers also found other factors that permanently increase or decrease testosterone: “For example, married men tend to have a lower level of testosterone than unmarried men.”

Do we know whether any of these women has inverted testes? Of course we don’t, most will never get tested, why on earth should they? But medical ethics and confidentiality would ensure we would never know — so why has the Hippocratic Oath been so flagrantly violated in the Semenya case?

If there was a suspicion that Caster was HIV would the IAAF so easily broadcast that to the world? I suspect they would not because there is a world of activism that would go after them, but with Semenya there is uncomfortable posturing because what may or may not ail her is one of the many medical conditions we create a discriminatory silence about.

Why are only women tested in sports for proof of their femininity; no man has yet been checked for his oestrogen or chromosomal right to call himself a man. How do we know that slim, small-boned male gymnasts are truly men — if we are to use IAAF terminology.

Instead we have a plethora of sleaze journalism claiming that Caster has neither ovaries nor a womb. Feminists have long argued that it is not our womb that makes us women. So what does?

In Africa and Brazil, big bums are considered desirable, in South-East Asia where women are small they are considered repugnant. Big breasts are considered beautiful in the United States with plastic surgery creating perhaps the worst contrivances ever called breasts in human history. Camilla Parker Bowles, the much maligned wife of Prince Charles has what some call a “horsey” face — she lacks the coyness of Princess Di, but she clearly makes him happy so in my book she is successful as a woman and as an individual.

Who determines what a woman is? Hollywood? Glam mags? Cosmetic houses? Sporting associations?

I can understand sporting bodies’ demands for tests around steroids and drug use and even around gender but the disgraceful very public way in which the athletics world and the media have handled this is shocking. Instead of the South African government uselessly mouthing off I hope they are going to give Caster a big legal fund to sue the pants off those media and athletics officials who have exposed the most intimate details of her life to such intense public scrutiny, ridicule and comment.

What makes a woman is different things to every woman, the same is true of men. But more importantly there are certain things that define the best of individuals — honesty, courage, a desire to achieve and working on that aspiration, kindness and a loving heart.

On all of those scores Caster Semenya is the sort of woman I want to be.


  • Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which she has worked have also won awards. She has worked as a broadcast journalist and radio-station manager. Smith's areas of expertise are politics, economics, women's and children's issues and HIV. She lives and works in Cambridge, USA.


Charlene Smith

Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which...

Leave a comment