At the Big Green (I may be starting quite a few posts with those words!) I went, almost by accident, to a workshop on “what being female means to me”.
To me, being “female” is a biological thing. It’s about stuff like whether you have female reproductive organs and genitalia, whether you have XX sex chromosomes, whether you have the other biological quirks that are typically associated with women. It is the stuff we take for granted – unless you happen to be intersexual or transsexual*, of course.
[* I learn stuff. “Intersexual” means a person who has atypical sex characteristics: for example, a person who is born with sex chromosomes other than plain old XX or XY, or a person who for whatever reason (e.g. exposure to the “wrong” hormones in utero, or an atypical response to the “right” hormones) has developed genitalia or other reproductive equipment different from that normally associated with their chromosomal sex. “Transsexual” means a person who, whether intersexual or not, has an internal gender identity at odds with their assigned birth gender. Nobody knows quite how or why this happens although theories associating it with physical causes seem to be more plausible at present than theories postulating purely psychological causes. I will apologise in advance, and am happy to stand corrected, if I say anything wrong or offensive in what I write in this post about people who are intersexual or transsexual, and hope that any slip-ups will be taken as they are – ignorance, rather than hostility.]
But how does being “female” relate to being “a woman”?
For myself, I never identified particularly as “a woman” until a couple of years ago. I thought of myself as a person and, if pressed, a person who happened to be female. Femaleness, or womanhood, were not really part of the picture, they were almost an irrelevance to my conception of myself. Perhaps it was or should have been a rejection of (socially constructed) femininity rather than (biological) femaleness but either way I certainly never felt that being female was an important part of my own identity.
Pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding created a bit of an epiphany, a eureka moment. Aha! That’s what all these bits are for! This is what I am meant to be doing with my funny-shaped body! And when I felt really in tune with my body, especially with the female parts of my body which had shown their importance and power by creating a whole new life, I could finally feel like a woman. I felt whole – and powerful – in a way that I did not really feel before.
So, to me, motherhood is an essential part of my sense of womanhood.
But what about females who are not mothers and will never be mothers? These may be, for example, people who simply do not want children, or who are infertile, or who are intersexual or transsexual. It would I think be patronising and offensive in the extreme to suggest that such people are any less of a woman merely because they are non-mothers.
Being a woman isn’t necessarily about those biological bits and pieces. A little girl has all those biological bits, but is not a woman. A transsexual man has them, but is not a woman. A transsexual woman does not have them, but is a woman. A woman who has had a hysterectomy or the like no longer has them, but is still a woman. An intersexual person may or may not have them, and whether or not they identify as a woman does not necessarily depend on what bits they have or don’t have.
So what does make a person a woman?
When you say “I feel like a woman!” – what do you mean? When a biologically male person says “I am a woman, I identify as a woman” – what does that mean? How do you even know that what you feel is “like” a woman?
Is there really such a sharp biological difference between men and women, a gender dichotomy? Or are gender differences artifically created by social norms so that “feeling like a woman” is itself something artificial? Does it merely mean that you feel comfortable fulfilling a female stereotype? That you have found a “feminine role” where you fit? Even if there is something chemical or physiological in your brain that is somehow female – if you have only ever experienced feeling the way you are (and not the way that, say, a representative sample of people of another gender feel) how do you know that what you feel is “like a woman” rather than just “like you”? I mean, how do you know that what you are feeling is specific to gender rather than to some other aspect of personhood?
I have a lot of questions. Sadly, I don’t have answers.