Being a writer, I’m naturally someone who interrogates our collective definitions & understandings of words. As a writer who is also a woman in transition, a word that’s been on my mind a lot lately is “womanhood.” What does it mean to be a woman, and why is that such a nebulous concept that so many people (including lots of women!) disagree on?
Most people have the luxury of never having to question their gender identity. This is probably because most people tend to align with the gender they are assigned — their biological sex & gender identity line up perfectly (or, perhaps not perfectly, but close enough not to arouse suspicion). And for those people who believe gender to be entirely determined by biology, the thought of questioning their assigned gender may feel like some form of cruel joke.
For the majority of my lived experience, I fell into that latter camp. Raised in an ultra-conservative Catholic home, I was taught that there are only two genders, and they are determined by your genitalia/sex organs (intersex people, I was told, were a “mistake”!). Sometimes, I lay awake at night remembering times in high school when I argued “even if you surgically change your genitals, your DNA won’t change, and a clone of you would still have those original genitals. How can you argue with science?” I was incapable of seeing the difference between sex & gender (and also why it mattered).
This is because I was locked into a rigid set of beliefs — it didn’t matter what people “felt,” it mattered what was “verifiable.” The data I was willing to accept were only the data that matched my pre-existing beliefs, and everything else (even if it included mountains of evidence) was discarded. Masculinity and femininity were not concepts that lived inside of everyone and were there for us to explore, but rather fixed criteria that you either matched or didn’t. Anyone who dared check boxes on the “wrong” list or blur those lines in any way was a sinner, spitting in the face of God’s grand design.
Only… I didn’t match my own criteria. I had “male” genitals, but I actively disliked most things described as “masculine” traits or interests. Sports, cars, brotherhood, getting laid, strength, no emotions, dominance, survival… these are the things that men in our modern society are taught to love & revere. They are concepts to aspire to, to measure yourself by, and to compare yourself to others using. They are also things that I wholly rejected.
To excel in sports, one must bury their emotions & devote themselves to an ideal of “excellence,” which usually means “superiority” or “dominance.” Both of those things actively disinterested me. I wanted to stay in at recess and create. When my parents put me into the Boy Scouts (despite my protests), it meant heading into the wilderness and learning “survival” skills, most of which involved killing something. Whether it was fishing, hunting, gun shooting, or archery, we were being trained to track, hunt, and kill in order to survive.
Boy Scouts also meant being surrounded by men and boys, most of whom I found to be morally reprehensible in the ways they treated themselves, their sons, and most notably their wives and daughters. The way they would talk about being married, as if it was something they’d been forced into and were suffering through, and only this “bro time” could possibly bring them any amount of satisfaction. This led me to believe that marriage was an inherently poisonous institution — because even though I knew many, many people who were married, I had yet to meet a person who actually enjoyed it.
Although I disliked (and often reviled) what it took to “be a man,” I can’t lie and say that I disliked feeling superior. The unspoken truth behind the “bro code” is that all women are beneath men — they wanted what we had, and would lie, cheat, manipulate, and abuse us in order to get it (the term you may have heard is “penis envy,” although with a lot of hindsight I suppose I’d re-categorize that as “male privilege envy”). We had to look out for each other, and avoid allowing any of our friends to become “pussy-whipped,” the catch-all put-down that just meant someone had the audacity to respect their partner’s boundaries, aka “giving away their power.” Like all things, looking for “proof” that women were lesser, more fragile, overly emotional beings was a self-fulfilling prophecy, as subject to confirmation bias as anything.
Secretly, I wished I could be allowed into girls groups. I wanted to be a Girl Scout — my sisters were both girl scouts, and at one of the meetings I “had” to attend (I think my mom was in charge of snacks and couldn’t take me home?), even though I wasn’t allowed to participate, I so wanted to sit in the feelings circle, design bracelets, & make friends without worrying that they might tease me or hurt me if I wasn’t good enough at sports.
And that was a strange and confusing feeling for me. It’s a strange thing to actively want to be closer to a group of people you’re told want to take everything from you. Stranger, still, when you believe it to be true. So I did what most people do when faced with an impossibility: I lied to myself. I pushed female friends away & slowly slipped further and further into the mind-state best described as “toxic masculinity.”
My “male”ness was a facade — an act that I performed for everyone else’s comfort because it was what was expected of me. At night, I dreamed of swapping bodies with girls that I knew — especially girls who treated me with kindness and made me feel accepted. In high school, I attempted a number of times to invite myself to “Girls Night,” because I desperately wanted to talk about feelings and bond with girls over shared interests or mutual respect. Instead, I was always told I wasn’t allowed. So I’d go to “Boys Night,” where the list of activities included (almost exclusively) things that bored me to tears: First-Person Shooting games, backyard sports, TPing absent friends’ houses, & watching dumb “bro” comedy.
That isn’t to say there weren’t things I enjoyed. I loved the times we would lie down to go to sleep but would end up talking instead. If asked what I wanted to do, my answer was usually “just sit here and talk to each other.” I enjoyed when we would sit around a table and play board or card games (usually Magic: The Gathering, which I still play and enjoy). I loved when I could get my friends to commit to a shared artistic project, like a short film that I would write and direct.
There were a few weeks where I tried to own & speak to people about feeling like a woman. I felt strongly that I was much more of a woman than a man, but I was also attracted to women, and that felt like I was breaking some form of rule. Eventually, I settled on calling myself a lesbian. The response from everyone was pretty much exactly the same: “You can’t be a lesbian, lesbians are girls.” And then I would say, “I like women. I’m a woman. Therefore, I’m a lesbian.” And the response to that was also, always the same:
“You can’t be a woman. You have a penis.”
It wasn’t too long before the idea slipped back into the recesses of my mind. I think I even convinced myself I was just trying to troll people, but I also couldn’t deny that every time I said it, I felt a little weight lifting off my chest.
During and after college, I dated a string of girls, almost all of whom would later confide in me that they were pretty sure they were gay. Some of them broke it off with me to pursue other women, some of them maintained a “casual” thing with me while they pursued other women, but I started to realize that “forever,” or at least a “long-term” relationship, wasn’t going to happen for me if I didn’t start being honest about who I was.
But I still didn’t know what that was. I felt pretty strongly that I was much more “woman” than “man,” but that pesky thought kept overriding the whole procedure: “You can’t be a woman… you have a penis.” So I figured, if I couldn’t be a woman, perhaps I could just reject masculinity with all my power. There was a period of time when I thought I might go into stand-up comedy, and every joke I wrote was about how much I failed at “being a man.” I wrote a ten-minute routine breaking down all of the “requirements” of being male, and then explained why I fell far short of that.
At the same time, I was beginning to learn about “privilege,” specifically “White Privilege” and “Male Privilege,” both of which I had been benefiting from my whole life. As I became more and more of a radical feminist, I believed (perhaps foolishly) that I could be of “Most Value” to the cause by remaining in disguise as a man, and using both my white & male privileges to gain access to male spaces so that I could convince these men to support women’s causes. There was an overwhelming amount of evidence that suggested men are far more likely to listen & hear complaints if they come from a fellow man, so I appointed myself the male advocate for feminism, and used that as an excuse to keep hiding.
What I found instead was that most men didn’t give a shit what I had to say about women’s issues, regardless of the context. In addition, presenting as male meant most women didn’t want me as an advocate or spokesperson for feminism in the first place. I was then shamed and rejected from both sides: by men for being “virtue-signaling” and “pretending to be a feminist so I could get laid,” and by women for attempting to speak “for” them on a subject I couldn’t possibly know anything about (remember: penis).
(Looking back, I think my main mistake was attempting to use the Internet as a medium for meaningful dialogue.)
For years, I felt marooned and alone in that space — too afraid to come out as a woman, and too self-aware to keep pretending I was a man. Add to all of this the constant underlying fear: Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is something else entirely. Maybe I’m only mistaking it for “being a woman” because I’m an egotistical idiot with a penis who couldn’t possibly understand (and yes, I’ve been down the path & considered that I might be “non-binary,” but I feel much closer to the female end of the gender spectrum than I do to the middle). Maybe my reasons for feeling like a woman aren’t valid — maybe I’m using sexist criteria. Rejection of masculinity isn’t necessarily the acceptance of femininity.
And that brings me all the way back around to where I started, and the title of this entry: How exactly do I define WOMANHOOD? What does it mean to “be a woman” in 2020 America? Do I have to be certain of the answer before I start exploring, or is it like most things in life, where it’s constantly being redefined and updated?
That religious upbringing I mentioned would have defined womanhood as “the ability to become pregnant & care for a family.” I think that definition is pretty one-sided, and reduces women down to a single aspect of what they’re capable of. I know plenty of women (with vaginas!) who are incapable of becoming pregnant. I also know women who would be the first to tell you they have no interest in or skill for raising a family. I know stay-at-home dads. I know so many wonderful people who break the Catholic definition of womanhood that I know it’s bullshit.
Then, there are people who define womanhood as “being in touch with your emotions,” or at least cite that ability as one of the defining characteristics. Problem is, this definition reinforces patriarchal ideas that men can’t feel or don’t have emotions, which is a dangerous idea. Most men today who can’t feel their emotions are that way because they were conditioned to be, not because they are incapable or “shouldn’t.”
“Overcoming tremendous adversity” is another one I’ve seen, and I understand the appeal… but why define ourselves based on the struggle, rather than the outcome? I’ve learned not to define myself by the rapist who hurt me, but I am proud of the emotional skills I developed in order to move past that incident. I don’t want that to be “part of my story,” but it is, so it’s complicated.
I also feel judged for my emotions. I know all too well what it’s like to receive unsolicited dick pics from strangers who claim to love me. I like wearing makeup, but it mortifies me because I’m color-blind and have no skill for applying it. I regularly shave all the hair off my body. I enjoy the feeling of a dress or skirt.
None of these things even begins to scratch the surface of the lived experience of being a woman. And that is something I’ve never done. It’s a Catch-22: I’ll only truly feel like a woman, and like I’m worthy of claiming that I’m a woman, if I live a lifetime as a woman, but I’ll only be allowed to live a lifetime as a woman if I truly feel like a woman…
What if the mere existence of a gender binary reinforces gender stereotypes and causes gender disparity? What if the only way to defeat the patriarchy is to reject the concept of gender as a whole? Does my identifying as a woman help or hurt that cause? Should that be irrelevant to my thoughts and feelings?
I’ve read about trans women who choose to continue dressing in “masculine” clothes and reject the concept of make-up as a patriarchal concept, and then are told that, therefore, they are not really women. It seems the only way cis- people will accept me as a woman is if I play into their pre-existing stereotypes, including the ones that many cis-women also reject, and the ones that hold women back.
It’s a lot.
And I fully acknowledge that, as I’m thinking through all of this, I continue to benefit daily from White male privilege. I am lucky enough to have the luxury of time to sit with and sort through all of these feelings. Others, particularly Black trans women, do not. So, on top of all of this, I feel like a coward. I feel like I’m clinging to my White male privilege as a life raft, knowing that I’ve been so sheltered and protected because of the part I’ve been playing. And it feels particularly insulting to say that the very White male privilege that has protected me, to me, felt like oppression. How could I dare say that, when I know how many people have had it so much worse?
Suffice to say, I’m still processing through all of this. I’m going to continue exploring my womanhood and searching for a definition (although, honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever find one). I decided that writing about my feelings was the only way I’d be able to track my progress and growth, so I’ll be using this blog as a way to do exactly that. You’re welcome to follow along. I’m “out” here, but I haven’t come out to many people in my personal life. Perhaps this journey will encourage me to do so.
You’re welcome to follow along, and I am very, very open to encouragement, resources, and other things to help guide me.