In a world where gender roles are constantly in flux and in one that increasingly understands gender and biological sex as two distinct realms, I often find myself wondering about the nature of womanhood. What does it mean to be a woman? We no longer make sense of what it means to be a woman through a set of physical characteristics or personality traits, nor through fixed societal roles. But if being a woman is not determined by these dimensions, is there some other element that is shared by all women?
I stumbled upon this line of broad questioning through an experience that focused more specifically on female sexuality, that is, on questions about what it means to be a woman who loves other women. Two summers ago, I interned at a library in Brooklyn that maintains a catalog of lesbian history and culture. I spent that summer immersed in the history of gay women — how they fought to work and love and live as an expression of who they were. My boss was a recent college graduate who was getting a degree in library sciences and serving on the board of directors for the library. She also lived upstairs from the collection with her partner, Colleen. Colleen did not identify as a woman or a man, but rather as someone who lived outside of the gender binary. Significantly, the relationship between my boss and Colleen caused some strife amongst the old guard of the library board. Only lesbians were allowed to serve on the board. And, in the eyes of some of the board members, because my boss was dating someone who did not identify as a woman, she wasn’t a lesbian. I thought a lot about how my boss had spent her life loving and protecting the history of women. However, some board members had proclaimed that she could not situate herself within the shared history of lesbians. I left my internship with questions rolling around my head. What is a lesbian? A woman who loves other women? But what about a woman dating a non-binary person? Is it wrong for her to think of herself as a lesbian?
As I started to do more work in the world of gender equality my questions broadened: if a lesbian is a woman who loves other women, what even are the specific parameters of womanhood? Do such parameters even exist?
I often think of feminism as pushing the boundary of what it means to be a woman. The suffragettes pushed this boundary to include being a fully-fledged voting citizen. Second wave feminism pushed this boundary into the economic realm through advocating greater freedom for women to work outside of the home. They further pushed into reproductive realms by pushing to grant women more control over their pregnancies and bodies.
Today another kind of push is being made around the boundaries of womanhood. The trans rights movement is working to normalize and socialize the idea that gender and biological sex are distinct. In American mainstream media, there is an emerging understanding that much of gender is socially constructed. We see mainstream television shows like Billions or Transparent with transgender and gender non-conforming characters exploring the idea that gender is not something determined by physical sex. We are also seeing huge legal strides; Oregon was recently the first state to offer more than just a binary Male/Female option on state IDs, providing a third “X” option for gender non-binary or non-conforming people.
I think it is important to note that the ideas fueling both second-wave feminism as well as the trans right movements are not radical ideas objectively, but rather radical ideas primarily to middle/ upper-class white America. Working class white American women and American women of color were working outside of the home for decades before second-wave feminism marched for such rights. Furthermore, transgender people have found an accepted identity and place in many cultures.
So if we are moving toward a society where gender is not determined by one’s sex organs and there are fewer and fewer boundaries on the way that woman can work, have families or live their lives in general, we must ask a crucial question: What does it mean to be a woman? What unites us?
I toyed with the idea that all women are united by the fact that they face gender discrimination in their lives. But I ran into two problems: The first is that not all women face the same kinds of discrimination. The type and severity of discrimination faced by women will vary largely based on other identities like race, class, and sexuality. There is no unifying female experience and liberation looks very different depending on a particular woman’s circumstances. The second problem I had is that I think that there is certainly more to being a woman than sharing a common type of oppression. I don’t believe that the whole of the identity ‘woman’ is defined through discrimination at the hands of the patriarchy. To me, there is an ineffable strength in womanhood and a deep beauty, but I am not sure if that’s enough of a definition. After all, that’s only what I think about womanhood, which says nothing about what womanhood means as a whole.
I wonder if this question about what it means to be a woman will shape movements to come. Our feminist journey is obviously far from complete. There are still too many people that deny that transgender women are women or that it is acceptable to be someone who identifies outside of the gender binary. And yet there still is a kind of panic today among some older feminists that because we are moving toward a world that has no solid definition of what a woman is, we are in danger of losing womanhood. There is a desire to preserve something that we can’t quite see. But the newfound nebulous nature of womanhood doesn’t worry me. Maybe because womanhood has always been nebulous it has always pushed against the definitions that constrained it. You can’t preserve what has always existed in flux. Maybe asking about the definition of womanhood is the wrong kind of question – perhaps it is too essentialist. Perhaps our lived experience as women is what in the end defines womanhood. This seems in line with the goals of feminism: to improve our lives and the lives of others by freeing ourselves and each other from sexism. We continue to face new challenges and push new boundaries in the world of gender equality; all the while our ideas of womanhood are flowing in previously unthought-of directions. Whatever the way that womanhood continues to morph itself, we must always be wondering: What is the question that we can be asking that will shape our feminist journey to continue to empower and to be powerful?
Sofiy I. is a President’s Office Intern at the National Organization for Women (NOW) Action Center in Washington, DC. She is a student at the University of Chicago.