On Being a Woman

With Mother’s Day approaching, I decided I wanted to write a post about what it means to be a woman—what I appreciate about the amazing women around me and throughout history, not just my own mother.

It was harder than I thought.

For example, when I was younger, I saw the way other women could persuade—how they acknowledged the emotions that went into the argument, saw things from both sides, and were gracious even in disagreement. The space they left so that even the most stubborn in the room could back down or change their minds. The way they crafted words with such care that sometimes those on the “other side” didn’t even realize they were nodding in agreement. And I thought, I want to be that someday. I want to be a peacemaker, to be gracious in my conviction.

And then I read articles making fun of highly-exaggerated “woman-in-a-meeting” talk, and I realized that maybe even the times when I was intentionally choosing to be less forceful were really just subconscious nods to the patriarchy.

Bummer.

Okay, what about beauty? There’s something unique about the physical grace and loveliness of women that has inspired artists throughout the centuries. Modern campaigns by everyone from Barbie to Dove acknowledging that beauty doesn’t come in just one skin color or body type underscore what every little girl already knows: their mama is beautiful.

NewBarbie

A few of the new Barbie ethnicities and body types.

Here, too, though, we have a problem: the way beauty is used to sell products and sex and a completely off-base view of the world. When we praise the beauty that has inspired a thousand poets and sculptors through the centuries, aren’t we also endorsing the male gaze, where a woman feels she gets her identity from how those watching perceive and objectify her?

And what about Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair photoshoot, where a person born a biological male was praised for her beauty and the courage it took to embrace a different gender identity? Should we simply acknowledge that our traditional boundaries for womanhood have been wrong?

Completely sidestepping that one.

It’s Mother’s Day—that means it’s at least safe to praise the unique way that women love and raise children—through terrible twos and teens and twenties (hi Mom!) with all the struggles and sorrows and joys in between, mothers are wonderful and often underappreciated.

But I feel like I need to post-script that with “Not to diminish the worth and contributions of fathers, or married people who don’t choose to have children, or married people who would like to have children but can’t, or single people, or any other category of women or non-women.” Recent millennial chatter about the need for ME-ternity leaves and the near-constant dialogue in Christian circles about how the church is largely insensitive to singles make things even more complicated.

Surely strength is something I can talk about. We admire strong women—and not just the YA-protagonist-type hero who hasn’t matured past emotional angst over miscellaneous love triangles but has at least developed the skill set to lead a successful military coup. I mean, come on, Harriet Tubman is going on the $20 dollar bill! As a slave, she got smashed in the head with a lead weight that made her black out at random times, continued to risk her life to help fellow slaves escape on the Underground Railroad, and guided a Civil War raid that freed 700 slaves at once.

Harriet Tubman: significantly cooler (and more emotionally healthy) than Katniss.

Harriet Tubman: significantly cooler (and more emotionally healthy) than Katniss Everdeen.

Most women, though, won’t be spies or revolutionaries. They demonstrate their courage differently. When I want to write about the quieter sort of courage I see around me in women every day—namely, selflessness: putting the needs of others before their own, day after day—I know what the response will be: selflessness, though it sounds like a virtue, is actually harmful to women.

Stay-at-home moms are great, of course, but career women are subtly looked down on, and women of all sorts have been held back by a constant instinct to care for others at the neglect of their own self-esteem and self-care and self-advancement. Did you not listen to “Let It Go” from Frozen? We need more princesses like her as an example to our daughters and sons who identify as daughters (and if Elsa could be a lesbian in the sequel, that would be even better).

Also, Harriet Tubman was enslaved by the capitalism system and probably wouldn’t want to be on our money anyway.

Sigh. This is getting depressing.

I’m not trying to mock those who are working to combat real wrongs that women face. I just want you to listen in on the swirl of cultural voices from different corners that contribute to my confusion when I think about what it means to be a woman.

Sometimes, I’m grateful for what our culture has accomplished to protect the rights of women and start open dialogue on hard issues, and I want to acknowledge that in many ways we still have a long way still to go.

But sometimes, if I’m honest, I’m just annoyed that our culture has taken away everything I can celebrate about womanhood.

I will even name (ideological) names and say that I’m not comfortable affirming feminism without significant footnoting because I think even our best efforts to support and empower women have lost some important nuances along the way. (Nope, I’m not going to unpack that loaded statement here…that would require a separate post.)

This is a broken world. We define womanhood wrongly—by being too narrow about what it means, and, I think, by being too broad until womanhood is meaningless. Men treat women wrongly in actions ranging from subtle to horrendous, all abuses of power and strength. Women treat each other wrongly, particularly with our words, from jr. high locker-room gossip to the Mommy Wars and the divisive superiority they feed.

Maybe the question is not, “What does it mean to be a woman?” but “What does it mean to be a woman in a broken world?”

There has to be an answer, a real one that means something. I want to praise the grace of women in being peacemakers while still saying they deserve respect. I want to celebrate beauty, but not the corruption of lovely by lust. I want to cheer for and emulate selflessness, including the selflessness displayed in motherhood, but know that my identity is not found in what I do for others.

I don’t want to let a movement or culture or any of thousands of voices that clamor for my attention define womanhood for me. I want to define womanhood by what God says about it, and by being thankful for the women of gracious conviction, unshakable courage, and relentless beauty who are living that out around me every day.

I don’t have it all figured out. This is the first draft of what will probably be a lifetime’s worth of study and reflection. But I am watching, I am learning, and I am grateful.

4 comments

  1. Thanks so much for this thoughtful post on a very complicated subject. Just to provide a different perspective on one of the points you raise, I must admit that I greatly admire the persuasive approach often taken by women that you describe at the start of the post. To persuade, to make people change their minds without direct confrontation, to be a peacemaker–these are skills that I think all of us, women and men, could use. I have seen too many occasions when “being forceful” in discussions just ended up hurting people’s feelings to no good end.

  2. Agreed, John! While there’s certainly balance to be had (the article I linked to is a funny, but cringe-worthy extreme of passivity), I think the way women often approach persuasion is something their male coworkers could learn a lot from. Yes, it’s good to be assertive, but if I have to err on any side, I’d rather err on the side of being too gracious.

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