Defining a woman

This never goes well. For too much of recent history in too many places, defining women has gone hand in hand with excluding anyone defined as a woman. It’s been about keeping women out of public spaces, out of most kinds of work, and often about keeping women in the domestic sphere. It has meant not getting to vote, and not being allowed to own property. Too often, women have been defined as daughters, wives and mothers, existing only in relation to the men who control them.

Defining women always functions to exclude people. If a woman is a person with a womb, where does that leave the many women who have had a hysterectomy? Definitions of femininity too often tend towards smallness, weakness, fragility, and being inferior to men. Tall women exist, so do muscular women, but like a lot of people I grew up absorbing the message that muscles aren’t feminine, and delicacy is. I have never wanted to be delicate.

Then there’s all the psychological stuff – that women are gentle, carers, nurturers, kind and soft and warm and loving… Which all sounds charming I suppose, but does not play out well. It de-persons the women who aren’t intrinsically maternal, and it pushes all women back into the domestic sphere and the caring occupations while reinforcing ideas that these things aren’t appropriate for men.

When women are supposed to be gentle, kindly, delicate little things, the women who don’t fit are treated as monsters. You don’t have to look far back in history to find that having ideas, ambition, a desire to be active in the world, a desire for physical activity, for education and opportunity would get a woman labelled as unnatural and monstrous.

I see far too many conversations – especially around British politics – where ‘defining a woman’ is a thing. I don’t see any conversations about ‘defining a man’ because there’s far less interest in controlling male bodies and limiting male opportunities. I don’t see any of the people engaged in this giving any thought at all to the women who they want to define as not-women. Those of us who are too tall and too muscular, those of us who were never pretty, and have strong bone structures. Those of us who are not docile and domesticated. Are we men now? What are we? 

Defining a woman is not the beginning of a process that empowers women. It’s a process that will cause many people who experience themselves as women to be excluded, and loaded down with body shame and humiliation. It is a process that leads to narrower options for women. 

Demand equal rights for all people. Demand the freedom to live comfortably in your own body. Resist body shaming and pressure to conform to narrow and oppressive gender stereotypes. Also check out the science, because the differences between people of the same gender and the differences between genders are not clear cut. Some cis women naturally have more testosterone in their bodies than some cis men. There’s a lot of diversity in humanity, and there is a lot to be gained from embracing that. Denying that it exists of course makes it easier to attack trans people (which is a gross thing to do) and also harms a lot of cis people too.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

3 responses to “Defining a woman

  • alainafae

    Wholeheartedly agree. As a cis gendered female that would likely be described as “delicate” and “nurturing”, I have still experienced feelings of exclusion from “woman” via bodyshaming. People commenting on ads that include “plus size” women saying things like “Thank you for putting a *real* woman with curves in your ad instead of anorexic skinny bitches!” (Pardon the language) is just as hurtful to women with naturally thin bodies such mine as the reverse. The only purpose that pain serves is to continue pushing the consumerist agenda that “You’re not good enough, but maybe you could be if you purchased X products.”

  • Fugazi

    As a man who’s always had low testosterone, I’m not at all masculine. In fact some would say I’m effeminate, so I do understand a bit of what you’re feeling. I agree that women face far more judgement regarding appearance and physiology. My old housemate, who could probably benchpress me, has said as much of her being muscular and broad shouldered. It’s pathetic that the “what is a woman” question is even receiving any attention.

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