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Posts Tagged ‘womanhood’

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.

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We all say careless things. Things we mean, but only in the moment. Or things we haven’t thought through a great deal. If we’re lucky nobodies, we probably feel an instant of annoyance at having blurted out a less than well-turned phrase. For celebrities, I’ve always imagined that they must hear a tiny, distant siren in those moments, right as they realize their words will be plastered all over the place. I wonder if that’s how Caitlyn Jenner felt after her interview with Buzzfeed.

Maybe she didn’t even know what was getting ready to happen as the words left her mouth: “The hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear.”

Jenner_hijabNo sooner had she spoken than the internet rose up with a furious vengeance to correct her. How dare she? fumed the outraged women (and men) of the internet. (The worst of them said, How dare he?) And then, as we do now, they whipped up a bunch of memes, pointing out all the things about being a woman that are harder than sartorial decisions: being raped, being beaten, giving birth, raising children, breast cancer, being underpaid, having your opinion dismissed, having your feelings belittled, having your existence diminished, revoked, erased.

Often when we’re speaking, we forget to use qualifiers, or we assume that the hearer will insert the necessary qualifiers, so when Caitlyn said, “The hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear,” I seriously doubt she meant that as a sweeping statement on all women everywhere. Is she coming to where she is now from a place of privilege? Of course. She’s a wealthy white woman with platform and security. There’s privilege there. Does she honestly believe that the hardest part of being any woman is picking out clothes? For herself, maybe she does.

The qualifier she didn’t say is the one we should all remember to insert when we listen to people.

“(for me) The hardest part about being (the woman I am) is choosing what to wear.”

We are each free to choose our own narrative, and the least we can do for everyone is to accept their narrative as valid, for them. We don’t have to accept anyone else’s narrative as valid for ourselves, but we also don’t get to force someone to accept our narrative as the only one.
So before you get angry and say, “She doesn’t know anything about being a woman,” remember that there are lots of things about being a woman that you don’t know anything about. I’m a writer, so I understand that everyone has their own perspective on the world. I know it’s useful to spend some time considering other people’s perspectives. As a writer, I specialize in using my imagination, but even non-writers are free to use theirs.

Imagine how hard it must be for women who are subjected to genital mutilation, or who live in countries where they’re prohibited from driving or voting or owning property. Imagine how hard it must be for women in war zones in danger of being kidnapped, raped, and impregnated by soldiers, or who are sold by their own families to become child brides or prostitutes. Imagine how hard it is for women who have spent decades in bodies that don’t represent who they feel they are. Imagine how hard it must be for women who risk dying every time they become pregnant. Imagine how hard it must be for women whose children die due to lack of food, water, or medicine. Imagine how hard it must be for women who are murdered just for being women.

For me, deciding what to wear isn’t the hardest part of being the woman I am, but I know that there are many hard things I’ve never experienced. So I’m not angry at Caitlyn Jenner. I’m not angry at any of the women whose narratives don’t match mine. I am a little angry at a culture that still seeks to divide and conquer women. What we need is more concern and compassion for each other.

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