What does it mean to be a woman?
Over the years, I have heard and/or noticed a variety of hegemonic implications about being a woman:
It’s not safe to go out at night, especially alone.
Family, husband, babies should be the #1 priority.
Dressing up/looking nice means wearing skirts, heels, make up…
Women shouldn’t be bossy, it’s off putting.
Men are natural leaders, women are natural followers.
Women are meant to thrive within the domestic sphere, women do not belong in the outside world.
A woman needs a man to survive, succeed, be fulfilled, and be truly happy.
Women are judged first by their looks and must maintain societal standards of beauty in order to receive approval (and be valued by) from husband, family, peer group, self, and community.
Women always have good manners, they do not burp or fart, ever.
Women do not enjoy sex the way men enjoy sex. Women are not overtly sexual like men unless they have mental health issues or are sex workers.
A good woman can not be a prostitute.
Women are expected to be good, it is a defining feature of womanhood.
Women are closer to nature.
Women are better with children.
Women need to tame the beast in a man & love him unconditionally, so that he can become a Prince. (Stand by your man.)
“Dominator culture has tried to keep us all afraid, to make us choose safety instead of risk, sameness instead of diversity. Moving through that fear, finding out what connects us, revelling in our differences; this is the process that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values, of meaningful community.” Bell Hooks
My 40 year old observations on the implications of being a woman, being a human, and gender limitations:
Beyond societal conscripts, gender does not define or even necessarily restrict anyone. Given the right tools and support system, a person can achieve just about anything.
We are all delicate yet resilient in both body and mind.
Anyone can be tough, fewer risk being vulnerable.
Everyone wants to be heard, respected, appreciated, loved.
Everyone is different but also very similar.
Sexuality is incredibly variable and pleasure is not defined by gender.
There is little difference between genders as far as ability to experience emotion, follow/break social norms, interact with nature and children, work, or experience love/sexuality.
Some men look good in heels.
“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Gloria Steinem
Anyone can pee standing up, with a little practice.
While women have traditionally dominated the domestic sphere, in particular the kitchen, men continue to dominate the culinary profession across the globe.
Feminism is important because through mindful, intersectional feminist ideology, everyone – all genders, all beings – will be able to experience a more expansive life with unlimited options, free from oppression and strongly rooted in compassion, honesty, integrity, and equity.
“What goes unsaid is that women might be more ambitious and focused because we’ve never had a choice. We’ve had to fight to vote, to work outside the home, to work in environments free of sexual harassment, to attend the universities of our choice, and we’ve also had to prove ourselves over and over to receive any modicum of consideration.” Roxanne Gay “Bad Feminist”
There is no static definition befitting the act of being a woman because womanhood is more like a verb than a noun, it is fluid, constantly in motion, shaded differently by each individual’s perception. There is no singular way to be a woman. There is no definitive thing that can happen to make one more or less of a woman, even though there are certainly things which individuals may feel enhance or detract from their personal sense of femaleness. A human biologically born XX with all the standard issue female genitalia is not more of a woman than a person born XYY who defines herself as a woman, or an intersex person who sees herself as a woman, or than the transgender woman who chooses not to undergo surgery (for financial, personal, or spiritual reasons) and still defines herself as a woman, menstruation and mammary glands do not impact a person’s femaleness, even motherhood does not create some magical demarcation in the landscape of binary gender. I don’t see any valid reason to challenge others on their harmless claims to gender identity. We all embrace characteristics which some societies have assigned as female and other has designated male when really these distinctions are imaginary, social constructions, man made meaning. I believe that someday we will move beyond the gender binary and a person’s gender identity will not have any societally construed implications or stereotypes about their character. I’m fortunate to be cowriting today’s blog with a female friend and Phenomenal Woman. What are your thoughts on being a woman, defining womanhood?
My concept of woman used to be very different. My concept of woman now is like a sculpture I made that I am systematically smashing. I don’t think I have a real concept of woman anymore. How can you define something that doesn’t exist? My life has been shaped by the void of woman, the space where this idea should have been, or was. Maybe it melted away and that’s where the nothing or something came from. I won’t say “hole” because there’s not a hole. If the thing you used to have, being gone, leaves no empty space, there is no hole. I don’t see (or don’t want to see?) a way to be a woman that isn’t individual, personal, distinct, and therefore meaningless on a large scale. I think I have for a long time been laboring under the idea of woman as caretaker, slave, source of all good things and all disgusting secrets. Woman needs to be sanitized, cleaned, shorn and painted and tied up. Woman has secrets, and one of them is that she loves too hard and she will always pay for it, but her loving makes the grass grow and the world turn and you can’t ever tell her that she’s made it because then the whole thing would just come tumbling down. It’s the longing that makes her useful. Woman always has to be the one stretching herself out like a bridge, because no one else will ever try to close the divide. Reject. Rejected. I reject that is what I’m saying. I don’t know what woman is or how she is different or what she means because how can I know? How can I know in a world where woman is supposed to have different feet? Where woman is supposed to somehow have different jobs? Do men make the software with their genitalia? I can’t think of another reason why they would say that this is a man’s job. “You got more testosterone in the womb, I can tell from looking at your fingers, that’s why you’re good with technology”. Oh that’s it, I’m not really a woman, I’m partially a man. Wait, aren’t you partially a woman, not-really-a-man-who-said-that? How can we know that our brains are different if it was made clear that we wouldn’t survive past infancy unless we smiled real pretty? Or cried less, or played with trucks, or were little princesses, or or or or…
I can’t think of a definitive difference. Women are smaller. Usually. Mostly. Sometimes men are smaller. I’ve met a lot of very small men. Women have higher voices. Unless they don’t. Women have breasts and uterine tissue and clitoral hoods. Except for when they don’t have any of those, or maybe only some of them. Woman is a performance art piece, meticulously crafted out of thin air and bravado, so that we won’t be killed (or maybe so we will be! What fun!). Women are weaker, except we know that’s a lie. All these exceptions. Do they prove the rule?
It’s interesting, the ongoing – possibly neverending – debate about the power of nature versus nurture. I wonder at the various ways our mothers and other other female family and friends influence us as we learn to define ourselves as girls and then women. Thanks to my progressively minded parents, I didn’t feel especially constrained to gender norms. I had Barbies but I also had trucks. I climbed trees, rode bikes, played with bugs, sang songs to snails, dressed up like a princess and did not feel that I had to act or dress a certain way. I loved playing in nature, creating imaginary adventures with friends (boys and girls), even attempting to travel back in time (that’s for another blog, in the future, or maybe the past!). This all changed as a pre-teenager and suddenly appearing “normal” and doing “girl things” seemed very important, especially since at the time my number one aspiration was being somebody’s girlfriend.
“Women talk about love. From girlhood on, we learn that conversations about love are a gendered narrative, a female subject…Femaleness in patriarchal culture marks us from the very beginning as unworthy or not as worthy, and it should come as no surprise that we learn to worry most as girls, as women, about whether we are worthy of love.” bell hooks, “Communion: The Female Search for Love”
It’s like my romantic interest in boys caused my misguided alignment with patriarchal norms. Thankfully it only lasted about 5 years but they were a very uncomfortable five years of being a good girl, attempting to please everyone, wearing dresses, high heels, everyday makeup, good manners (a surprising amount of rules there!), and constantly finding fault in myself and the women around me. In a way, as I was settling into my teenageness during the advent of grunge, the music of Pearl Jam and Nirvana and the style of the grunge scene brought me into a period of fiercely independent, non-femme, almost non-gender identity and started my journey toward feminism. During this time, I began to connect with my mother’s rebellious side and was almost compelled to behave in ways that would have never been acceptable or even possible for her when she was a teenager.
I feel very moved by a Gloria Steinem quote from her autobiography in which she says “Like many daughters, I was living out the unlived life of my mother” (Steinem, 22).
That quote really got to me too! My Mom died when she was 48, I was 21, and I’ve always felt I needed to be or do extra to make up for her lack, the space she left open. She was very politically active, as well as an animal rescuer, and generally outspoken about oppression and social justice issues. I almost feel like I need to live extra hard, in response to her living such a short life and just in case I follow in her footsteps. I mean, who knows how much time any of us have? It’s so easy to get caught up in the daily grind and forget to notice the tiny miracles and possibilities present in each moment. When The Dead Poet’s Society came out, I remember my Mom getting very enthusiastic about the phrase “Carpe Diem!” I like to think that she lived the best possible life she could and her soul has moved onto other ways of being, helping and thriving. Still that doesn’t erase her impact on my childhood, which was undeniably immense and I like to think mostly positive. I’m lucky really, so many of my friends have Moms who they struggle to connect with or have had to cut out of their lives due to the toxicity of their Mother’s mental or emotional state. My Mom was wicked smart, witty, kind, compassionate, and just a lot of fun to be around. We had a brief few years at odds, you know, teenagers, but for most of my life she was both my beloved mother and my very best friend. What was childhood like for you? Tell me more about your family experience and impressions of being a woman.
OK, I was born in Beaver Creek, Ohio, in 1987, to an Air Force Second Lieutenant father and a Stay-At-Home mother. I am one of 5 biological daughters, of whom I am the middle, smack dab. My dad was raised by a single mother in a very poor part of Los Angeles. His family was Russian Orthodox dissidents who immigrated to the States before WWI. His parents had left the Molokan church and his mother raised him in a religion called “Eckankar”, something I didn’t find out about until after I was an adult. My mother and my mother’s family have been Mormon since Mormons were Mormon, so her marrying my dad, a non-member, was seen as quite rebellious. We all believed in God, and we all wanted so desperately to be good and to make our God and our parents–rather interchangeable beings–proud of us. My family moved around the US frequently when I was young, as a military family, so the only childhood friends I have are my sisters, and while we were close knit we were also extremely hierarchical and cruel to one another. My dad was gone on Temporary Duty (TDY) for many months at a time when I was young, and my mom was left to raise all 5 of us as practically a single mom–though of course she would have the financial support of my dad. I don’t remember this, but my mom tells a story about when I was in kindergarten and dad had been on a 6 month TDY to Israel. Because of the time difference, he could only call late at night, after us kids had gone to bed. I was asked about my father in school and nonchalantly replied to the teacher that I didn’t have a father, that he had died. This prompted a call home to my mother, and my dad made more of an effort to call us during the day after that. I can’t help but think that my father’s absence from my childhood made an impression on me in certain ways, but I’d be hard pressed to put my finger on anything specific. I have a good relationship with my parents to this day, and I don’t want to give the impression that I’m passing judgement on them. I had a great childhood, it just didn’t have as much love in it as I think we needed.
My mother is a cold woman. I say that with respect and love. She is not demonstrative; we rarely hug, and when we do it’s awkward and there always seem to be too many elbows involved. It is unusual for her to tell us that she loves us. These things don’t come naturally to her. What does come naturally is thought. She is brilliant. Before marrying dad she was double majoring in Computer Science and Chemical Engineering at Brigham Young University, with a full-ride scholarship. After she had transferred to Arizona State University to be with him, she had two children and still managed to get through a decent amount of classes. Once she found out she was pregnant with a third daughter, however, she knew something had to change, and with the help of a counselor was able to go through her extracurricular credits and find out that if she took another semester of carefully curated classes, she could graduate with a degree in Classics. So she did. Women have to give up things in order to be mothers, she says. Sometimes I wonder if she regrets it. If so, I’ve never heard a breath of bitterness on that account.
So my childhood was one watching sacrifice. I watched my dad, a family man to the core, sacrifice time with his children to give us a life he never had, and stability he never had. I watched him join a rigid and astringent religion in which he did not believe, to keep the peace at home. As a child, however, I didn’t understand that he was sacrificing. He wasn’t as much a part of my life as my mother was. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to identify with him in the same way as I was supposed to learn ‘how to be a woman’ from my mother. I watched my mom turn her blistering intellect to cloth diapers, planning halloween parties, and figuring out how to make her children clean their rooms. Our childhood was one of strict gender roles. Given our religion and sex, we wore dresses and played with dolls and ponies. We all said that we wanted to grow up and marry our father. When I was 5 or 6, I had a mini rebellion where I told everyone I wanted to be a boy, because boys got pockets and pants. I cut off one of my ponytails and would kick out the screen in my room to sneak over to Jonathan Weber’s house and play in the mud. This desire to be male was not an expression of what sex I thought I was, but rather the gender role I felt was superior. I found myself deriding anything feminine, refusing to play with ponies. While I eventually left off the tactic of shocking people by telling them I was a boy, I carried my denigration of the feminine through to my teenage years. It is difficult to be a Mormon girl and hate skirts. I wore them because I was supposed to, and because I was taught that you do what you’re supposed to, but no one had ever told me that as a woman I was ‘supposed’ to be emotional, so I wasn’t. I took my mother’s mothering to heart and tried to operate on observation and intellect alone.
During this time of stressful self-orientation (oh, is that what you’re calling puberty these days?) I was doing poorly in school. At the end of my high school career this turned out to be a blessing in disguise for me, since I didn’t have the grades to go to BYU, I was able to convince my parents to let me apply to CU Boulder, which had a much more lenient culture than that bastion of Mormon indoctrination. It’s a cliche story: ‘religious girl leaves the bosom of her family and falls into the wicked ways of the world’, but it’s mine, what more can I say? I started studying Linguistics, with a minor in Classics–just like my mother. The schism really became palpable when I took a course called “Language and Gender,” and felt as if I was hearing music for the first time. I learned about gender being a construct, about sex being a spectrum, about the Hijra and the Two-Spirited, uptalk and vocal fry, hypercorrection, covert and overt prestige. I drank in, and still regularly return to, Gender Articulated: Language and the Socially Constructed Self. Suddenly I was tearing apart everything in my life that I had previously only vaguely questioned. What was a woman? What was a good woman? Why did I feel such pressure to be carrying, sifting through and categorizing the emotions of everyone around me? Why was I so bad at that? Did that make me a bad woman? Was my mother a bad woman? I was still going to church and institute, a kind of college-level Mormon doctrine study, but at this point it was just because I needed my parents to continue paying my tuition, which they made contingent on my ecclesiastical attendance. I understand why they did this. If I had gone to BYU, my church attendance would have been policed by my peers, sisters, and the honor code of the school. But complying and consenting to attend physically did not mean that I wasn’t parsing, analyzing and developing a healthy skepticism of the church and its teachings.
The LDS church professes to be the one path to salvation on the Earth, and I was always taught that “religion is not a buffet”, that you take it all or leave it all. One hallmark of the church is their refusal to allow women full partnership in any kind of leadership roles. When I get pushback these days from my family about becoming inactive, it’s not the complete and utter lack of scientific evidence, the inculcated racism, or the devastating homophobia that I point to in order to explain my falling away. Though any of those would be and are valid, inexcusable flaws in the doctrine, the reason that I give for leaving is that I cannot take part in a church that considers me to be inferior simply because I inhabit this body. My great-great grandmother was one of several wives, so I am myself a product of polygamy, and I use this reason because I can speak on it with authority. It’s not that I wouldn’t have left if I were a straight, white man, it’s that the emotion available to me because of the personal wronging underlines my words with power, and it’s not something anyone can discount. Being a woman is many things in our world. Being a woman is many things it shouldn’t be in our world.
In the end, there is really only one thing I believe anymore about the reality of being a woman, about the concept of womanness, and even this is nebulous. In The Chalice and the Blade, author Riane Eisler introduced me to the concepts of contrasting “dominator” and “partnership” models of society. The dominator model, “ popularly termed either patriarchy or matriarchy…[is] the ranking of one half of humanity over the other. The second, in which social relations are primarily based on the principle of linking rather than ranking, may best be described as the partnership model. In this model–beginning with the most fundamental difference in our species, between male and female–diversity is not equated with either inferiority or superiority” (Eisler, xvii). Without giving women some kind of “natural” ability to care, or putting them up on a pedestal as the “fairer sex”, Eisler painstakingly documents how the association of stereotypically “feminine” traits with weakness and stereotypically “male” traits with strength has altered the course of our global culture from even Neolithic times until the present day. This dichotomy has led to a culture of violence, of hierarchy, of might-makes-right, and Eisler’s book truly spoke to me, and moved me, as a student of Anthropology, Archaeology, Linguistics and Gender.
To think that there is another way to be, another way to not just be women and men but to be human, is a revolution on which I don’t think my brain has finished turning. It’s difficult to overstate the effect this book had on me, my life, and the way I look at the world. Now I try to look for ways to connect, to be vulnerable, to emote and absorb the emotions of others in a way that links me, inexorably to the people around me, and I’m finding that I’m slowly healing the female-specific wounds that I gained or gave myself during my life. I don’t know how to be a woman, but I’m learning how to be a human.
Leaving your family to go to college is hard, breaking free from an oppressive religion that has been a cornerstone of your entire life, wow, that’s epic. Round of applause for your fortitude, vision, and self-love! The older I get, the more it seems we are all just learning how to be human. Thanks friend for the intimate and inspiring blogversation & thanks to you gentle readers. Here’s some fun bonus content, a song I write years ago entitled “Phenomenal Women.”
Eisler, Riane. The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1988.
Hall, Kira, and Mary Bucholtz. Gender Articulated: Language and the Socially Constructed Self. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Hooks, Bell. Communion: The Female Search for Love. William Morrow, 2002.
Steinem, Gloria. My Life on the Road. New York: Random House, 2015.