It's hard to distinguish between what is morally right and what is cultural tradition sometimes. I find this particularly true just now as I contemplate what it is to be a woman - both personally and collectively. Mostly I look around me in this world of marching and pussy hats and Facebook posts about the sanctity of motherhood and see so many sides that feel in conflict with one another about what a woman is, or what a woman should be. What I find so bizarre about all this is that I don't see the need for this conflict. It feels like both sides are pulling on false opposites.
All the same, it has me thinking - what does being a woman actually look like and feel like for me? This is in no way an attempt to universalize the female experience, but for me - being a woman looks and feels a bit like this:
1. It feels like pencil skirts and hot red lipstick. I have a mad obsession with fashion from the 30s-60s. I hate wearing heels most of the time (I teach.) but when I get the excuse, man I love the way I look. I'm a short, not terribly curvy girl, so the chance to show off my calves (that I am oddly proud of) is awesome. What the rest of my body lacks in curves my lips make up for in spades. I love the way I look in red lipstick. A lot. (I have a Lady Mary streak, ok?!)
2. It feels like a battleground. Against people who dismiss contrary emotion as PMS. Against those who seek to define how I define myself. Who, for example, assume I will quit my job to raise my family (that I don't currently and may never have.) Who assume that when I get married, I will move wherever my husband's job takes him and take his last name (because the possibility choosing not to marry/choosing to marry but not take a new last name is unfathomable.) Against those who take to the internet in vicious "mommy wars" and seek to define the "right" kind of mothering. Against media attention on the right kind of woman and wrong kind of woman. Against religious culture on the right kind of woman and wrong kind of woman. Against governments made up primarily of men who want to make laws dictating how women can or can't control their choices, especially when it comes to their own body. Against myself and my own doubts on where the line between feeling inspired about something and being an all out rebellious sinner begins and ends.
3. It feels like an adventure. I grew up surrounded by a myriad of amazing female role models. I had wonderful real women (my mom, my grandmothers, my aunts, a host of amazing teachers). I had fictional women and girls (Anne Shirley, the March sisters, Hermione Granger, Winnie Foster, Fern Arable, Heidi, Sara Crewe, Mary Lennox, Wendy Darling, Harriet Welsch) who were strong and creative and determined in a huge variety of ways. For my creative mind growing up, everything felt possible if I had enough nerve. I still feel that way. I've never felt limited in possibility by virtue of my gender.
4. It feels a little lost. Looking at government representation, church representation, Biblical representation and seeing so few examples of women in leadership. "But!" I hear. "The woman is most powerful in the home! That is where she belongs!" "But!" The other side screams. "What if that home is like mine? What if it has no children? No spouse? What if it has those things and the woman has great talents and gifts to share?" It feels tugged in frustrating directions and obligations. It feels confused about what is culture and what is doctrine. (Is a woman's place in the home because Puritan tradition has always said that to be so, or because that is what God wants? Because if that's what God wants, I'm definitely not interested in spending eternity in a maternity ward, any more than I'm interested in sitting around playing the harp forever. And if I'm not happy with that vision of eternity, is that because I'm sinful and can't see the truth and beauty of that existence, or because the vision and culture that suggest it are flawed?) It is full of questions about what I want and what God wants for me and how to somehow combine those forces for good. Somewhere in of all this mess of confusion is an example of womanhood I can strive to reach for. Somewhere there is a vision of the divine that is pure and can encompass the wide variety of desires, interests, and abilities that are inherent in our individual worth. God help me find it.
5. It feels like compassion. It feels like sleeping with my kitty purring while she sprawls over my legs and being so grateful that she's warm and fed and cared for, not trying to find food and shelter outside. It feels like smelling the top of a baby's head. It feels like seeing women, men, children who have felt limited by their gender or race or social status or sexual orientation and reaching to help them as best I can. Tradition has not always been kind to women, and to those who have fought and are fighting to extend basic human rights to women - my heart is full of gratitude and admiration. Tradition has not always been kind to minorities of so many varieties, but the internet makes it easier, so much easier, for people to have a voice. Being a woman to me means a duty to listen, to feel, to ask that question "what would this be like" before I clam up with "I've never felt like that."
6. It feels like hard work. Because while I have not felt harmfully limited by my gender, so many around the world have. Women who are told what to wear and when to wear and how to wear their clothing (or face not just social pressures but political retaliation.) Women who face genital mutilation, rape, inadequate access to feminine hygiene products. Women forced into marriages they don't want and sex they don't want and children they don't want. It feels like a long way to go to help my sisters feel not just safe, but wanted.
7. It is an honor. There are many elements of being a woman that are hard, are uncomfortable, are painful, are frustrating. But there are many, so many, that I find beautiful and inspiring and full of opportunity. I find this time in which I live so empowering. Unlike so many of the women who have come before me, who have fought so hard for rights that I now enjoy, I live in a time where I can make a difference. I am allowed to live on my own, to buy a house and car and vote without permission from a spouse. I am allowed to attend universities and have received a great education at one of the best universities in the country. I can travel the world unchaperoned. If I marry, I will not have to quit my job by virtue of being married. I can obtain safe and affordable medical care by good doctors. I can use my voice and my influence to encourage change and better representation. And because of these amazing luxuries, It is my honor, my great privilege, to speak up and act on behalf of those who do not yet enjoy these rights either in whole or in part.