On the heels of an inspiring trip to Ireland to present new research at a motherhood studies conference, I'm delighted to grace my blog with some thought-provoking ruminations related to the subject of my paper by my dear friend Sarah Bairstow. She's a smart, funny writer who will hopefully soon have a blog of her own.
If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.
- Anne Lamott
As I write this, our beloved blogger Michelle is jetting off to Galway, Ireland, where she'll give a talk titled “From Childless to Childfree: Documentarians Flipping the Narrative about Forgoing Motherhood in Italy.”
Sadly, I cannot attend the talk in person. But I did get the chance to read her first draft.
It really got me thinking about how motherhood – or the lack thereof – defines women's identity in Italy. In her talk, Michelle quotes film director Elisabetta Pandimiglio, who, when speaking of childfree women, says that “they’re often told they’re cold, unemotional, infantile, insensitive, selfish, flawed” (translation Michelle's).
Yes. We've been called all or most of these things. But it can go beyond that: sometimes we're told that if we don't have children, we're not actually women.
The matter of what makes a woman a woman – and when she becomes such – is huge. Far too big for a blog post. In the spirit of the documentarians that Michelle discussed, I'll offer just my own, personal experience of gaining and “losing” my womanhood: that of a cisgendered woman, raised in the U.S. and living in Italy.
At some point, early on in my life, I encountered the idea that a girl becomes a woman at the onset of menses.
This might be a rather old-fashioned concept, one based on the principle of potential motherhood. It reminds me a bit of an age in which girls were married off as soon as they were capable of reproducing. Regardless, it ties a woman's identity as a woman to her biology.
(Did you feel like a woman when you were eleven, twelve, thirteen, or even fourteen? I sure as hell didn't.)
When I was a bit older, I was exposed to an alternative perspective. I was told rather wryly that a male relative of mine believed “a woman becomes a woman when a man makes her one.”
I'm sure that such a statement won't sit well with the readers of this blog. No one questions the fact that many women choose not to have sex with men, or cannot do so. Are lesbians not women? How about nuns and other figures who take a vow of chastity and never have sex? Those with physical conditions that prevent them from having sex? Is it impossible to be a woman and be asexual?
And then, of course, there's the basic principle that a man is invested with the extraordinary ability to “make” women by means of his all-powerful Magical Penis. Sorry, no.
In this case, too, a woman's identity comes down to her biology, her status as virgin vs. “woman,” and, perhaps as a result, her ability to reproduce.
Although I rejected both of these ideas before hitting adolescence, I didn't really have an alternative I liked. Then I finished high school and enrolled in a women's college.
I was in for a bit of a shock: almost instantly I noticed that all of my fellow students referred to themselves as women. At first, when they recounted what “a woman in my Poli Sci class” had said, I caught myself picturing “non-traditional” students who returned to college at a later age.
When I realized they referred to everyone that way, it was a wake-up call. A few weeks earlier, in high school, I'd been a girl. Now, suddenly, I was a woman.
I have to admit, I liked it. And if I've purged my vocabulary of the term “girl” for anyone over the age of eighteen, it's thanks to my time at Smith.
And yet, it seemed a little artificial. Were we really women? Maybe. But when did that happen? Did it all come down to reaching the age of eighteen, as imposed by law? Or did the transition take place at high school graduation?
I spent my third year of college in Italy, and then returned after graduation to work here. It's been sixteen years now. Initially, my time in Italy was ridden with the usual episodes of culture shock one might expect.
But as I got older – having no doubts now that I'd officially attained womanhood – it became clear to those around me that I was not all that interested in reproducing. That's when something new rose to the surface: I was declared “not really a woman.” It was a verdict I was given by an Italian man I once dated, and it was a sentiment expressed both privately and publicly.
In my case, my very identity as a woman was being called into question, and not just because I wasn't having children. In many ways, I did the things our cultures expect of women: I wore makeup, jewelry, and women's clothing; I did more than my half of the housework; I helped others until I burned out; I was partnered with a man.
But I failed mightily in the crucial areas of caring about cooking, ironing (God, who the hell wants to iron?), and wearing uncomfortable clothing for the benefit of my man. Worse than all these offenses was that I was no good at nurturing. I was never one to drop everything so that I could soothe a barely fevered brow. Unless it was going to be reciprocated (and, as I learned, it wasn't), I was simply unwilling to do it.
My not having children was the last straw. It was expressed indirectly more than once, but I distinctly remember my partner turning to me once with an expression that said Admit it, his tone one of undisguised disgust. “You're not really a woman,” he said.
Am I not? I was never hurt by his words so much as angered. To my mind, my womanhood wasn't – and isn't – a matter of debate.
Onset of menstruation, losing your virginity, turning eighteen, having children: these are what our combined cultures believe make a woman. Take your pick.
But just for fun, let's turn this around a moment: what makes a man?
Outside of religion, we no longer have many rites of passage. Instead, we have a poor substitute: a sort of collective mythology fueled by books, movies, television shows, and advertising.
I'm sure there are those out there who think that a boy becomes a man when he hits puberty, or when he loses his virginity. However, in this last case, few believe that it is the woman who makes him a man (such is the power of the Magical Penis).
Beyond this, when it comes to becoming a man, we have narratives that center around facing adversity, around courage, self-sacrifice, or making wise decisions. Often taking place in natural settings, surrounded by other manly men, but whatever – you get the idea. Rarely is manhood defined by biology alone.
Why does this not apply to women?
Can we create our own cultural narrative, or narratives, that define the progression towards womanhood? Can we build a definition that includes other, more personal factors than mere biology? One that is inclusive, rather than exclusive, and subjective, rather than externally imposed?
It would require us to think of women as people, complete with their own thoughts, emotions, values, opinions, and personalities. People whose identities are not shaped by their traditional roles and functions, or by their equipment.
This woman is all for it.
How about you? What do you think makes a woman? If you identify as one, has anyone ever questioned your identity as a woman?