What Makes a Woman?

I go back and forth between being a gender essentialist and not.  Sometimes, I believe that men and women are pretty much the same and except for differences so inconsequential as to not matter, but blown out of proportion by ridiculous gender expectations, we are pretty much indistinguishable from one another.

Other times, I believe that there is something grand and mysteriously different between men and women, that our experience as women is and must remain at some level utterly foreign to men.

But, if that’s the case, what, exactly, would it be that would make men so different from us?  What would be the locatable area in which we could begin to look, even if we couldn’t know?

Men often say that they are much more visual creatures than women and if women only understood how men cannot help but respond to visual stimulation.  And yet, I can tell you exactly how pleasing I find the curve of one man’s face, right where the eye socket meets the cheek, at his temple.  Or how impossible I find it to concentrate when men with big, square meaty hands are trying to talk to me.  Or how the ropey muscles in a forearm can stop me short.  Or how I’m convinced that women would be banned from baseball games everywhere if men had any idea how many of us sit there trying to remember to keep our hands above our waists.  And when Rachel Maddow comes on MSNBC?  I’m sorry to tell you, but few women are listening in rapt attention only because she’s brilliant.

We might not talk about how much we’re looking, but, whew, we’re looking and enjoying and thinking, all the time, about what we would do, if only the opportunity presented itself.

So, I’m not buying it.

I don’t know.  It doesn’t seem to me that there’s one universal thing you can point to and say “THAT’s the thing all women share in common.”  We don’t all menstruate.  We don’t all have children.  We don’t all have boobs or for that matter darling boob freckles.  We aren’t all nurturing.  So, what is it?

We know it’s not chromosomal.  We don’t all share two Xs.  Though they don’t make up a huge minority of women, there are women who have three X chromosomes (one in one thousand women), women with just one x chromosome (maybe one in 2500), and XXXX and XXXXX variations (though much much more rare), and there are women with XY chromosomes, both those with Swyer syndrome (where the sex-determining gene on the Y chromosome doesn’t click on and no gonads develop and so the fetus remains female and so then does the person once born) and women with androgen insensitivity (where the testes develop in the abdomen, but because of the androgen insensitivity, the switch over to male doesn’t happen and the woman develops a “normal” body but with testes up in her abdomen instead of ovaries).

And we have some sense that it’s not what a woman looks like.  Even if some of us are uncomfortable believing that a woman could be born with a completely functioning unambiguously male body which she might want to transition out of, I can’t imagine any of us would doubt the word of a person with ambiguous genitalia if she said that she felt like a woman.

So, if it’s not in the behavior and it’s not in the body and it’s not in the chromosomes, where then is it?

I don’t have an answer to that.  I don’t even know where to begin.

Except to say that I think the only choice is to take people at their word about who they say they are.  And remember that the world is always more complicated than we’ve been lead to believe.  And to remember that we are, at heart, just the stories we tell and that all of those stories can be retold in a way that lets us live more comfortably in the world.

(check here for what inspired this post)

16 thoughts on “What Makes a Woman?

  1. Oh oh oh I don’t really have time to give a well-fleshed-out response to this before I get ready for work, but I wanted to drop at least one thread, since this is a question I often struggle with in my research. I’m very interested, within my field of literary study, in revaluing women’s work – reclaiming near forgotten women authors and, in part, arguing for a way to read them as women authors. Re-interpreting scenes of domestic work – cooking, etc. – and the material goods they produce (food, clothing, etc.) All of this requires an assumption that these authors and ideas are valuable as feminine authors and ideas.

    But I don’t subscribe to gender essentialism. If anything, I overcorrect into constructionism, but I find those arguments much, much more persuasive.* I don’t, in fact, think that women as a group are fundamentally different from men as a group on any biological or neurological level. I mean, aside from the reproductive organs, which come in all varieties for all people, men and women come with all kinds of different combinations of the hormones that are supposed to make us so psychologically different.

    So here’s where I find some middle ground: gender (like race, or ability, or sexuality) is a series of concepts constructed around perceived biological difference. But gender (like race, or ability, or sexuality) has material and psychological effects. (http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/2008/07/21/faq-if-gender-is-a-social-construct-arent-feminists-saying-that-gender-doesnt-really-exist-at-all/“>Link to good F101 post on this.) So while attempts to describe a feminine essence or total experience would be limited, one can describe particular experiences or practices as being informed/influenced by sexual difference.

    And that’s where I come in with the revaluation project. I do think it’s possible to point to an author like Tess Slesinger and say she’s experimenting with a mode of socialist discourse that has room for women in it, since many of her contemporaries were fairly hostile to women. I think it’s possible to look for female values or perspectives in places that have conventionally been devalued by men: for example, finding creative power in cooking or other fields deemed as “crafts” rather than art, finding strength in the communal values that are usually gendered “feminine” (in opposition to competitive values).

    Shit, time to get dressed.

    *This old chestnut – Men often say that they are much more visual creatures than women and if women only understood how men cannot help but respond to visual stimulation – I’ve had such a good time debunking it several times on my blog!

  2. Some of my tranny friends raise this question, too. I never really understood why a man would want to cut their penis off to be a woman. As if that makes you a woman… but I do understand the need outside of the context of defying gender.

    One day I asked a very good tranny friend what makes them think they are so radical. They seemed to revel in the thought of living on the fringe, growing breasts and defying gender roles … as if wearing a dress and growing boobs wasn’t being the ultimate slave to gender and sex stereotypes…

    Given all that, I couldn’t help but wonder then why someone who rejected gender stereotypes so openly would struggle so much to wear a dress, wigs and seek sex reassignment surgery. Again, I understand the need to do all that, but never understood the arguement that doing so was the ultimate act of gender defiance.

    If being a woman is a state of mind, why did he need all that – the dress, the wigs, the boobs? That’s when it dawned on me. I’m one of the most radical trannies on the planet. I’m more radical than the most radical of America’s gender bending feminists. I’m a woman with man business… I’m a woman that dresses like a man… while most intellectually ponder gender roles, I’m bending it like Beckham over here.

  3. I have found all the recent discussion of sex-testing, WRT the Olympics, just wonderful. The men (it’s almost always men) saying, “look, we just keep getting more and more indications that all these different body types are women’s bodies, and that this — all these shapes — is what women look like,” is so unexpected and welcome. Now (harkening back to a discussion here a couple of months back), if we could just start to include the Queen Latifahs and shapes like the woman who used to be in Sugarland in the mix, too, we at least might start to move forward about what women look like. Which isn’t all of what makes a woman, but surely is a piece of it.

  4. Even as a kid I knew PlayGirl couldn’t last. Tom Selck, Burt Reynold, Dom Deluise? The hairy men are a dying breed thanks to global warming, Gillette and Marky Mark’s Calvin Klein ads.

  5. NM, me, too. Though it’s also kind of funny. Like, duh, yeah. That’s what we’ve been saying. We come in all kinds.

    Christian, Dom Deluise wasn’t in Playgirl. He was in Girl Play. But don’t front. We know you’re secretly sad Playgirl is done.

  6. It doesn’t seem to me that there’s one universal thing you can point to and say “THAT’s the thing all women share in common.”

    Your paragraph about Rachel Maddow and your baseball hobbies insinuated that those were common to all women.

  7. W, I can’t speak for all women. But I don’t know any women (including lesbians) who have ever been to a baseball game who have failed to comment on how flattering those uniforms are (I make an exception for the late ’70s dayglo polyester era, of course), and the number of women who comment on how more players ought to wear their pants-legs high because that shows off the calf so well surprises even me, who comments on it regularly herself. So nothing B says is odd to me.

    But you’ll notice that she restricted her comments to refer to only those women who bother going to baseball games (and even then, she restricts the field still further to “many of us”), only those women who make a point of watching Rachel Maddow, etc. So I don’t think she’s positing those things as common to all women. Just to lots of us.

  8. Yeah, I threw in the requisite disclaimers–many of us, few of us, etc–but I think we both know that this has more to do with W.’s baseball past and his obvious discomfort in learning that the only thing that kept him from getting dollar bills shoved in his jock strap was that we all were in mixed company.

  9. Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know that W had a baseball past. I wouldn’t mind seeing pictures, but I want him to know that I have always respected him for his madd engineerin skillz anyway.

  10. It’s either him or his brother. But does it matter? It’s not like we want to see him playing baseball. We just want to see him in the uniform, maybe fielding some balls.

    Hee.

    Ha.

    Oooo. I need to go get a drink.

  11. A little late and off topic, but I saw some thing on pbs the other night about West Germans doping their atheletes without their knowledge and the dangers therin, many long term, including the 1986 shot put champion who attributes, in part, her/his transsexualism to the very high does of various hormones she received.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andreas_Krieger Does this add a little weight to the biology side of the discussion?

  12. LOL. It occurs to me that if anyone wanted to get Aunt B out of the way for awhile, all it would take would be season tickets to the Sounds. Then she’d never get anything done. Are you listening Mr. Hobbs?

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