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On "Being a Woman" [May. 4th, 2015|12:01 pm]
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While I have been mostly delighted with the Makers series on women in many fields, intended to encourage girls and women, the sponsors do tend to recycle the same quotes from interviews over and over...and one of those quotes, by Diane von Furstenberg, bothers me.   Disclaimer: I don't know von Furstenberg, and neither like nor dislike her personally.  I know she is a famous fashion designer and successful businesswoman--I have nothing against either choice of career.  But when she talked, in the interview, about the importance of remembering to be a woman, I winced.  I winced because to me that's another attempt to define--and to limit--what "being a woman" is, as opposed to being an adult female human being.

In the hasty tweets I wrote this morning, I made one mistake, in equating being born with two X chromosomes as permanently determining gender identity.  There are cases of intersex infants, and of persons who have extreme gender dysphoria and despite having the XX chromosomes, feel that they are not women, but men. For people like that, XX does not mean "woman" in any social sense.
But for me--as a woman with XX chromosomes who is OK with being designated female--the problem is largely with the cultural definitions of "woman" that exclude some women by insisting that a "real" or "proper" woman fits into a narrow definition of behaviors appropriate to her sex.   This, it feels like, is what von Furstenberg meant.  "Never forget you are a woman"  or "Never forget to be a woman" is tied to a cultural definition of what a woman is, not the biological one.   It is tied to conventions of femininity: what a woman wears, from hair and makeup right through the colors and fabric of her clothing down to her shoes...appropriate choices of occupation, hobbies, interests, opinions.  It is specifically intended to divide humans into two different genders, not on the basis of biology but on the basis of culture.

The admonition to "remember that you are a woman" presumes that a woman can forget her own body, manage not to notice that she has breasts (or the scars where they were), that she has no penis, that she has (or once had) a uterus and ovaries.   The admonition to "be a woman" presumes that a woman can be anything else (without, in the case of persons with gender dysphoria, going through long and difficult transition.)  I'm 70, past menopause, but I still have  plenty of daily reminders that my age-spotted female body is the not the same as my husband's age-spotted male body.   And since I was strongly enculturated from infancy with my biological sex and what it meant culturally, I am unlikely to forget that I'm a woman and how society as a whole has, and still does, view women.   I don't forget--I can't forget--that I'm a woman, because my nose has been rubbed in the fact from day one.

But...what is "being a woman?"   The world is full of women who are very different from one another.  Tall women are women.  Short women are women. There are women with every color of skin, every color of hair, every color of eyes.  Skinny women.  Fat women.  Rich women.  Poor women.  Women who have children.  Women who do not have children.  Women who enjoy sex.  Women who don't enjoy sex.  Educated women.  Uneducated women.  Athletic women.  Unathletic women. Women who follow fashion. Women who don't follow fashion.   Women acknowledged as beautiful.  Women acknowledged as plain or ugly.  Urban women. Country women.  Suburban women.  Women for whom a day at a spa is a delight; women for whom a day digging up artifacts is a delight; women for whom going to a party is a delight, women for whom climbing mountains, or knitting socks, or making bread, or running a business, or flying airplanes, or cleaning house is a delight. Women who like variety in their life; women who like regularity in their life.  All women live their lives--whatever they are--"being a woman."   They cannot, without transitioning to another sex, live their lives as anything but women.  So everything that any woman has done, or does, or will do,  is part of what "being a woman" means.  Attempts to define "being a woman" with some list of what women do/like/want and don't do/don't like/don't want always defines some women as "not really women."  Yet they are alive; they have the XX chromosomes, they have the breasts, the uterus, the ovaries (or the scars where these were removed.)   How are they not "real women?"   What is "un-real" about them?  Nothing.

The fact is that there's a huge overlap in the abilities and natural interests of humans of all sexes.  The most important parts of our biology unite, not divide, the sexes.  Women do not need any reminders to "be a woman" or remember that they are women...women know that.  They've always known that.  What they need is encouragement to remember that they have a self, and to be themselves, whether that matches someone's cultural notion of "real womanhood" or not.  Because every woman is a real woman.  She cannot be anything else.

And that's why what von Furstenberg said in the interview, and the quote that keeps showing up in Makers Twitter posts, bothers me.   It feels to me like an attempt to nudge women into paying attention to, caring about, obeying the rules that von Fursterberg believes define "being a [real] woman." 


From: geekmerc
2015-05-04 05:40 pm (UTC)
I always took it in a non-cultural context. All the animals I can think of have a variety of mating rituals to attract a mate. This goes for both genders. We view things differently as humans, but there is still something instinctual about attracting and keeping a mate. The phrases "being a woman" or "being a man" has always struck me as remembering those instincts.

Of course, we've attached a lot of other meanings to those words. We strive for meaning and understanding in everything we see and do. We seem to dislike the concept of just accepting things as they are.
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[User Picture]From: gossamera
2015-05-04 11:44 pm (UTC)
Especially when that means accepting that someone in the equation is "second class" or seen as "less than" due to that intrinsic factor. People so are weird. It's a good thing we have someone in the privileged class to remind us that we should just accept the status quo!
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From: geekmerc
2015-05-05 12:50 am (UTC)
I think you misunderstand me. I believe we dislike accepting people, nature, and our universe as they are. Our thirst for knowledge and defining every little thing leads to a legalistic viewpoint with every i dotted and every t crossed. Unfortunately, we are an ignorant species. The most knowledgeable of us still knows nothing in the grand scheme that is life.

Sure we should strive for a better society, but I believe that means accepting people for who they are. Who a person is isn't defined by their "class" nor does it have an intrinsic "worth". Assigning worth or classifying any individual is a mockery of life. It removes the individual and applies a social construct.

I hope you weren't assigning me the label of privileged class. I can't even finish writing a short story, much less a novel. As a writer, I'm definitely not privileged.
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From: kaspurr
2015-05-05 01:51 am (UTC)
Yeesh. What a lot of lame double-talk.

We are accepting people as they are, not as others made little convenient boxes for them.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2015-05-05 04:19 am (UTC)
But the cultural context is the one that operates on all sexes...and is the one intended by most speakers when the tone is admonishment. "Act like a man" when spoken to a man does not mean "act instinctual about attracting and keeping a mate." It means "Behave as men are supposed to behave in this culture." I grew up in a multi-cultural area where these definitions were clearly different culturally: appropriate male behavior was different depending on race, religion, and social class, but all the boys were at one time or another admonished to "act like a man." "Remember that you're a man" meant "remember you must be strong, you must not show fear, you must prepare to support yourself and a family" plus the individual cultural tags. For girls it was the same. "Be a little lady" to girls (stay clean, be quiet, be polite, be obedient--etc.) Women were considered "real" (validated) women if they were married, had children, wore makeup and were always neat and tidy and clean, were perfect homemakers...were gentle, quiet, passive in many ways, and generally June Cleavers. The moment women stepped out of that role--took on authority, chose not to follow standard dress styles, etc.--they were perceived as less than real women and safer targets.

That you accepted the terms as having a non-cultural context suggests that you stood apart a little, and did not realize how the phrases were used to pressure others. Or that those who taught you convinced you that the terms and the conditions attached to them actually referred only to biology and mating. It's wise to be wary of explanations that claim "it's natural for men (women) to want/think/need/do [whatever]" because H.sapiens really should've been named H. variabilis (yes, I should look up "variable" in my Greek dictionary but it's late and I don't remember where I put it.) We experience our biology through culture, even the gritty bits where the biology refuses to cooperate...we assign meanings to those bits which animals never have to bother with. Think of Bush I being nauseated and throwing up at an official function. Involuntary, not something anyone can control, but...meaning was assigned by both the US and by China, and it wasn't the same meaning. We all have to breathe, eat, drink, excrete--and it's through our culture that we filter all the possible things we could eat and drink, and all the possible places and times we could excrete, and give meanings--moral meanings--to them.

I'm not in favor of unbridled individualism--because means the selfishness of the powerful imposed on everyone else--but I am in favor of recognizing individuality (a quality rather than an -ism) and softening (to elimination if possible) the hard lines between sexes that leads to defining some people out of their actual sex and gender identification.
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From: geekmerc
2015-05-05 05:19 am (UTC)
I agree completely. I know I take a simplistic view on things. I'm also pretty sure that the quote had nothing to do with my view on things. To be honest, I find culture itself annoying. At times I might respect it because I offer respect to an individual who values it. However, I'd prefer that my thoughts and actions themselves remain separate from culture. I probably don't always succeed as I'm sure that I am not perfect and there is plenty of bad information my poor brain has been subjected to for many years. Of course, this is probably one reason I don't fit very well in society and in social settings. Perhaps I am broken.

I agree that the hard lines need to soften, or go away. I also wish that people would accept everyone's individual decision. My wife chose to stay home and take care of our son. She's been ridiculed for it by other women who feel being a homemaker is insulting to women. That's not to say that my wife is gentle, quiet, passive, and wears makeup. She is opinionated, loud, and does what she wants when she wants. Those hard lines, unfortunately, are supported by a large number of people regardless of their gender identification.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2015-05-05 05:50 am (UTC)
Totally agree that individual decisions about to what extent they follow gender roles should be respected. I stayed home to care for and homeschool our autistic son. I also wrote books while doing so. A former college friend criticized me for even adopting a child, let alone staying home rather than finishing my graduate degree and going on to a doctorate; others criticized me for "neglecting" him while writing instead of spending every single moment doing therapy with him. Some of my friends stayed home with kids; some worked outside the home (my mother, who supported us, had to; so did my husband's mother, left with three boys to bring up), some chose not to have children, some could not have children.

To drag religion into it...mine says we're all imperfect in one way or another, that brokenness is part of the human condition, and that we can get better but will never be perfect in this life. A friend of mine, now dead, said one time when I was snarling about someone, "Did you ever think maybe that was the best she could do?" Stopped me in my tracks. No, I hadn't ever thought that--I thought the other person was deliberately choosing worse than she could do, being mean on purpose. But maybe not. I've become somewhat gentler over the years. Less sure that I know what the other person is capable of, more willing to consider that maybe that IS the best they can do. (This doesn't help me with some people, alas...I am sure that anyone in their position could do a LOT better and that they're just born-again SOBs, choosing SOBness out of the range of things they could have been. Though these days I'm willing to admit that maybe, just maybe though not very likely, I'm wrong about that.)
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[User Picture]From: kengr
2015-05-04 06:17 pm (UTC)
XX/XY isn't as telling as most would believe either.

Somewhere I have link to a paper on a mother who was XY. Yet gave birth to a daughter. And her mother (and grandmother?) were XY as well.

Yep, XY, had a uterus and no penis, and was fertile.

Then there's the more common AIS & CAIS that give XY females who don't have a uterus, but appear female until you do genetic tests or an internal exam (they have breasts and vaginas, but no uterus or ovaries)

I'm sure there are XX males as well, but can't recall any of the the relevant conditions.

And these are just intersex conditions brought about by genes *not* of the X or Y chromosomes.

The we get into the combos other than XX/XY that occur.

So "sex" (biology) is not nearly as simple as most folks believe.

When you get into gender, which *is* cultural, it gets even weirder. Lots of societies had 4 or more genders.

So yeah, "woman" (or "man") are pretty slippery concepts.
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From: 6_penny
2015-05-05 03:24 pm (UTC)
Your daughter sounds marvelous!
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[User Picture]From: catsittingstill
2015-05-04 08:34 pm (UTC)
I *am* a woman. Forgetting to be a woman would be forgetting to be me.

Paradoxically, the only way I could do that would be to let someone else--Ms. von Fursterberg, for example--define what I am.
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From: sheff_dogs
2015-05-04 09:07 pm (UTC)
Concise, but accurate, this is just how I feel!
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[User Picture]From: gifted
2015-05-05 02:13 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: ann_mcn
2015-05-04 11:15 pm (UTC)
Oh, preach it!!

Yeah. It is difficult relearning the overly simple explanation of gender (XX/XY) we were taught in school. I'm willing to learn but there are so many aspects I don't know that I don't know.
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[User Picture]From: gifted
2015-05-05 02:36 am (UTC)
Oh, I agree, and such comments irk me for the same reasons (and some which are harder to define). Since childhood, I've had infrequent encounters where people point out that I "should have been born a boy", that I'm "such a male sometimes", that I'm "acting like a man" -- some have said this fondly, others with embarrassment or annoyance or, in some rarer cases, anger -- and it's like, excuse me, I'm just being myself; maybe you should try it. While I found the latter (anger) more difficult, internally, to deal with, the former does me no grace either, and leaves me perturbed. Always did -- and now I can define why. Both men and women have taken exception to me, at times, because I wasn't what they expected when they approached what they thought was a small, genteel woman-type. What is sad is that they will then fail to see that I am actually a small, genteel woman-type. There just so happens to be much more to me than that. I think it breaks some people's minds to conceive of someone being more than one thing or another; some people find this "unreliable" or "inconsistent", and it makes them uncomfortable, but humans are Complex. Those that know me probably actually find me rather predictable -- it's a matter of understanding the individual.

I want to be seen as my Self, and not judged or belittled or disrespected or made to feel uncomfortable or wrong for not fitting a stereotype or predictable zone of behaviour that feels more agreeable to certain people when approaching me, believing I am a woman. Because I am one. That which I am does not change this.

I've also been told, in not so many words, that women should smile and be visibly happy if they're feeling happy, so that others might take comfort, and not feel that there is some secret womanly problem going on that they should worry about.

These expectations are silly, and also disrespectful, and can be harmful. They inhibit all people, all sexes and genders, from being themselves. And I feel people who take such issue with those who break their expectations are probably confused, and certainly limited, about who they are or should be, themselves.

I wish more people felt the freedom to be, and not feel they have to undermine, or overdo, themselves in some way, to be viewed and ~respected as a [whatever]~.

Edited at 2015-05-05 11:53 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: redvixen
2015-05-05 12:47 pm (UTC)
We live in a world that likes labels. People need to be labelled so that other people can understand them. If a person does not follow the label they are given then they are wrong not whoever labelled them.

This is the attitude we still deal with and are trying to change. People can not be labelled, they are too complex for one or two labels to fit. Plus there are times when they will act contrarily to the labels even if the labels otherwise fit them.

Lately I've been trying to understand transgender issues. My child, who for over a couple of decades was my daughter, told me she/he was transgendered and is actually my son. It surprised me because I've never thought of her as being male or even classic female. She was my child and she was into both "boy" and "girl" stuff. However, finding out he was transgendered made him happier and that is all I care about. We raised him to consider himself a person first and foremost, not whether he was male or female.

I know that when I meet people I go with the physical appearance and classify the person as male or female unless I'm told they are still transitioning. In which case I go with the gender pronouns the person claims. However I can say I've met people who are transgendered and never even suspected they were. To me, a person being one gender or the other is unimportant. I like to get to know the person inside the body and that is how I will describe them in the future.

I have also met people who introduce themselves with a label "Hi, I'm so-and-so. I'm gay." or "Hi, I'm a Christian." and even "Nice to meet you. I'm a Liberal." I don't care about that. That is something that I would learn as I get to know whoever it is. Some things I figure I really don't need to know like what your sexual preferences are or that you're trans if you've fully transitioned. The first should be between you and your partner and the second is not my business.

But we're so used to making assumptions about people that we don't even think about it. We expect a certain reaction when we use a label so we get it out there in the beginning so anyone who won't look past it and still want to know us will go away before we invest time in a friendship that might fall apart when this information comes out.

I applaud companies that are trying to help us change away from labels but even they are still human and make mistakes. In this case I would probably send a message to the Makers series and explain your objection to them using the von Furstenberg quote. One complaint might not remove it but then again, sometimes all it takes is one complaint.
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[User Picture]From: jenrose1
2015-05-11 10:33 am (UTC)
Four people in my life including my own child are now identifying as "nonbinary" and preferring gender neutral pronouns.

I feel like in a lot of ways it's a different answer to the same issue I faced growing up... Most of the things society seems to define as "how women are" or "what fits women" or "how women should look" don't fit me. Shoes, talents, gloves, hats, interests, whatever... I decided society was screwy and shrugged. They decided to refuse to play the game.

My difficulty with the gender pronoun thing has been primarily a hardwiring thing in my brain, linguistically speaking. There's a little grammar nazi sitting on my shoulder that flat out refuses for singular "they" to come out of my mouth. When I try to use it I end up spiraling into a stutter of dysfluency. Intellectually I find it an elegant solution, singular they... but in practicality? Ha!

My three year old only has the vaguest idea of gender. He calls people he and she pretty much randomly and varies from moment to moment. His favorite outfit is a spiderman shirt and a floofy tulle skirt. Right at the moment my husband and I are using exactly the same comb attachment on the Wahl clippers (#2, 1/4 inch) and the longest hair in the house currently belongs to one of our housemates who is male. I waffle between trying to teach him "correct" pronouns and wanting to wait on that until his grasp of other parts of the language is better so that we can have a real conversation about the concept of gender identity vs. biological sex.

I don't mind being designated female, though I got rid of my uterus pretty much as soon as I was done using it, and will probably get rid of my boobs about the same way (I'm currently an L or M cup and have spent almost 12 years of my life nursing. To say I am D.O.N.E. is an understatement.) Most of the time it falls under the category of "You use this word but it does not mean what you think it means."

I am a woman. I have hands and feet that are an average size for a man. My hat size is bigger than my husband's and I'm taller than he is. I'm really blazingly good at comprehending math, science, technology, etc. I'm mediocre at the whole social skills thing. And I refuse to pigeonhole my girls into dresses and princesses and pink. I refuse to pigeonhole my boy AWAY from dresses and princesses and pink. (He wears skirts just about as often as my eldest did. It clearly, clearly did not turn my eldest into a "typical girl" and it likely won't turn him into a typical girl either.)

I am thankful with every breath that I live in a community that accepts little boys who wear skirts with a smile. That my eldest went to a high school where the gay/straight alliance was a social club.

The whole gender dichotomy thing is a weird social structure that is, as far as I can tell, completely ridiculously wrong. It's not even a spectrum. It's more like this fractionally dimensional fractal structure with as many points on it as there are people.

They did a study of neuromes recently, looking at the neural connections of people on the autistic spectrum, and discovered that there was, indeed, a "neurotypical" brain pattern that looked very similar in a lot of people... and then the autistic brains, which all looked completely different one from the next. Which highlights the usefulness of the "Neurotypical/neurodivergent" concept... and I strongly suspect that gender is very similar. You've got a significant number of people who "fit" typical this or typical that based on their genetics, and then a huge bunch of everyone else who are all completely different one from the next.
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