Women’s History Month: What makes a woman a woman?

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I seriously want to know… if womanhood transcends anatomy, then what exactly is womanhood?

“Why can’t you play without messing your hair or losing your barrettes?”

“Ladies never have dirt beneath their finger nails.”

“You need to know how to be able to cook for a man if you want to be with a man.”

“Where is the slip for you dress and why are you dressed THAT way?”

“Don’t go out of the house without lipstick on.”

I heard these things all while growing up. Their constant repetition made a huge impact; I was a girl who fell short of being a girl.

When I decided that I eventually wanted to be a mother, I realized the qualms I had about raising a daughter. Unlike my mother and sister, I had neither a talent nor affinity for hairstyling, makeup application or fashion. Though I was a decent dancer, I was awkward and lacked grace. I was shy and not a good conversationalist. I didn’t think myself pretty. Though I worked hard to mimic my mother’s and sister’s sense of womanhood, I didn’t want to raise a daughter because I didn’t think I set a very good example as one.

The more I thought about my inadequacies, the more I realized that I didn’t want to pass on my insecurities to a girl. Or cause her in any way to think that she had to share my same interests or beliefs to gain my approval or acceptance. Or prescribe a certain future for her. Or accidentally ignore the true essence of who she was to satisfy my desire for who I wanted her to be.

Though I prayed for healthy children regardless of gender, I didn’t want to take any chances of messing up the gift of a daughter by inflicting upon her those same notions of womanhood that had been imposed upon me. And if she naturally gravitated to those notions, I didn’t want to restrict her embrace of them. I wanted her to be who she was—and who she was destined to be—without my meddling. I was not confident that I could.

I’ve since gotten over those feelings of lacking. I am who I am and that is fine. I have two sons, but if I had a daughter, I don’t feel as if I’d raise her any differently than I raise my boys. I don’t tell my boys what young men should and should not do. I vaccinate them and protect them from harm. I teach them not to hurt themselves, each other, or anyone else. I feed them nourishing food. I encourage them to love themselves, others, life, their interests. I dress them in warm, age-appropriate clothing that I often allow them to choose. I help them grow and then get out of their way so they can.

Should a girl’s upbringing be any different? If so, why?

Did my own upbringing cause me to be more womanly or less?

What does it mean to be a woman? Is there a femininity scale?

I was recently reading Can We All Be Feminists? New Writing from Brit Bennett, Nicole Dennis-Benn, and 15 Others on Intersectionality, Identity and the Way Forward for Feminism. The introduction is by the book’s editor  June Eric-Odorie, a self-described queer, disabled Black woman. In this writing, she talked about her conservative, religious upbringing in Lagos, Nigeria followed by her journey of self-actualization toward a more inclusive version of both herself and the world around her. She discussed the exclusionary practices she viewed in both mainstream feminism and Black feminism. And she also noted repeatedly that womanhood isn’t defined by biology because trans women were as much women as those who were biologically born as women.

I thought this was interesting considering Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s controversial commentary. Adichie also said that womanhood is not about having a vagina or a penis. However, unlike Eric-Odorie, Adichie noted that the trans woman experience is not the same as a woman who was born a woman.

I am really not interested in having the trans versus cis-gender conversation because I seriously would not do either side justice. Still this long-time argument in feminism always begs the following question:  What does womanhood mean?

If a woman is not a woman because of her anatomy, then what makes her a woman?

If she is not interested in those things that society dictates as feminine, is she not a woman?

If womanhood is about how one is perceived and treated then am I less of a woman if I’m given the same treatment as a man?

Is womanhood a social construct like race?

If womanhood is a “feeling,” then what exactly is that feeling?

I don’t have an answer for any of these questions—as least not one that can be fully articulated in an 800-odd-word blog post. However, I know I am a woman. I know my womanhood is unique, personal and based solely upon my experience. Finally, I know that my womanhood is a manifestation of my humanity—and that in and of itself is worthy of respect and equity from everyone.

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