On this, International Women’s Day, I wanted to talk about the evolution of my personal experience of womanhood and femininity.
Two of the women who raised me were not what you would call feminine. They didn’t wear dresses or heels, and they didn’t put on makeup or style their hairs. They did perform many of the socially expected chores of women in the 1970s. They cooked, cleaned, and raised children, but it wasn’t really a natural fit for them. My grandmother was a farmer, who rode a tractor, and my mother worked for a natural gas company doing chemical analysis. They were boots, jeans, and pickup truck women.
Despite the best efforts of my other grandmother (a secretary) to turn me into a feminine woman, she failed. I became a secretary, but by most other measures, I’m pretty butch. I know more about guns and motorcycles than I know about makeup and manicures. I’m more comfortable with power tools than babies. These are all things I’m okay with. I like being the Friend with a Truck, the one who’s not afraid of getting dirty or throwing a punch.
What I’m not okay with is the idea that this makes me different from other women. I see these t-shirts sometimes, the ones that say, I’m Not Like Other Girls. I’m never sure what to make of them, but I frequently suspect I’m seeing myself in an alternate reality. One in which the notion that being rough and tumble means I’m not like other women, and the completely unsubtle suggestion that this makes me superior to other women.
I was raised to think that. I was raised to think men were superior to women, and therefore any inroads I could make into being more masculine would automatically elevate me above those other girls. It was such a desirable thing to be unlike other girls that I was even encouraged to make male friends. My childhood friends who were male were always made more welcome and judged less harshly than my sisters’ female friends. No one warned me that when we hit our teenage years, those boy friends would turn on me like a pack of hormone-crazed Highlanders, preparing to fight each other. There can be only one!
Thirty years on, how did I end up with some of my closest friends being female, instead of wearing a Not Like Other Girls t-shirt? Short answer: books. I read books in which girls and women were valued. I read books in which womanhood and femininity were not lesser or derogatory things. I read books in which female friendship mattered.
Also, I started writing, and in writing characters who weren’t men I learned about all the ways that masculinity wasn’t the most important, most valuable, most world-revolving trait for a person to have. I learned to value all kinds of people, because to write them, I had to know them and empathize with them.
This is why it matters that we have books with girls as heroes. Books with girls of all types doing all the many things that girls do. It’s the most important step we can take to break down the barriers that classify us and pit us against each other. It’s how we get rid of the message that there’s something wrong with being like other girls.