catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 21 :: 2008.11.21 — 2008.12.05


Finding my feminine

The girls glanced around awkwardly and mumbled.

“Umm, when I get my period?”

“Yeah, when I have cramps.”

“When I can’t find jeans that fit!”

“What about when you get dressed up or spend time with your friends? Don’t you feel feminine then?” The female leader prodded us but met with little success. 

My youth pastor sighed a little and tried the guys. “So, guys, what makes you feel masculine?”

The boys answered in a tone that epitomized teenage masculinity: each walked the fence between sarcasm and seriousness, waiting to jump until he could see what everyone else was going to do.

“When I’m working on my car. Uh, yeah!”

“Eh, when I’m lifting weights?”

Looking back on this conversation I have to assume that my youth pastor was trying to segue into an open, honest and helpful conversation about gender roles, relationships and sex, but unfortunately he found very little help amongst this particular group of reticent and self-conscious adolescents. While I can’t remember anything else that was said that day, the conversation did get me thinking, so much so that I still remember my thoughts close to 15 years later.

One could never be sure if the guys meant anything that they said, I reflected, but at least they had some positive guesses on what masculinity might mean. The girls, on the other hand, seemed to find only negative things to say about femininity. Why was this the case and what did this say about the place of femininity in our culture today? Were there ways in which feminism had fought so hard against gender stereotypes that we had lost any sense of gender identity as well? What was being a woman all about, anyway?

Ironically, I was happily in the midst of the domestic duty of laundry a few months later when a realization came to me: I think I’m a feminist. I couldn’t imagine anything more reasonable than the idea that women and men were equal in the eyes of God and ought to be equal in the eyes of society as well. I wasn’t an angry feminist and I wasn’t fighting for anything, I just found that the belief in equality was foundational to who I was, and that was that.

I suspect that my journey into feminism began years before awkward youth group discussions and laundry-time epiphanies. I grew up reading a few classic women authors and observing my parents’ healthy egalitarian marriage. I was always an avid reader, and the stories of Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Bronte were both influential in my early years. These days, when I read Alcott there are moments when I cringe a little at her didacticism, but as a child I was just caught up in a good story. What I saw were strong women characters who exerted their independence and met reward for their efforts. Even in some of the passages that seem most preachy now I recognize many of the thoughts and convictions that shaped my early thinking about what it means to be a woman.

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is still one of my favorite books. I had the great fortune of being reintroduced to the story by a college professor who led my class through an energetic exploration of the book’s themes of equality and independence. Reading as an adult I was able to see how Jane staunchly maintains the equality of all people throughout her narrative, proving herself equal to any man in intelligence, force of will and strength of character. Even as a child I must have admired Jane’s indomitable sprit and unwillingness to compromise either her principles or her self-worth even if this cost her life with the man she loved. In the end of the story, Jane has lived out her strength and Mr. Rochester has found his weakness and their eventual marriage becomes a joining of equals. Perhaps some of Jane’s nuanced emotions and articulated convictions were lost on me as a child, but this overarching theme of equality made perfect sense.

Although I grew up in a fairly conservative evangelical community which heartily endorsed women’s submission in marriage, life with my parents made this idea seem inoppressive. Despite the fact that my mother claimed that my father was the head of the household, I never saw evidence that major decisions were made without my parents first coming to an agreement. While each parent fulfilled specific roles in the life of the family, these roles seemed to correspond with natural proclivity as much as preconceived gender stereotypes. Given this example, my early leanings towards feminism hardly felt radical to me.

As I explored ideas of equality and gender roles through out my teen years and into college I started naming things that revealed sexism both in society and in myself. I began to see the insult thrown around by boys of “you’re such a girl” as more of an insult to girls than to the boys themselves. What does it say about our esteem of women, I wondered, if being likened to one is such a terrible thing? And why do I turn my nose up at the color pink? What does it say about my own view of femininity if anything that seems too “girly” is then necessarily something to be scorned?

A three-week, January term course in college enabled me to explore feminist theology and challenged my ideas about how we read gender roles into the Bible and even how we view the nature of God. I started to suspect that the roles for men and women found in the third chapter of Genesis were more God’s description of the corrupting affect of sin than mandate for how things ought to be. For a brief time, I was even able to subvert my own subconscious understanding of God as a somehow male being. It was during this class that I decided to boldly attach the word feminism to myself. By claiming the word, I chose to say to the people around me who still found the word offensive or abrasive, “Despite what you may think, this is what a feminist looks like!”

Over the next several years, travels to Central America and Africa, coupled with studies of cultural formation and adaptation, furthered my understanding of gender as something primarily constructed by culture. I don’t doubt that men and women, as painted with broad stokes, are different. Linguistic studies and simple observation demonstrate that men and women use language and communicate differently. On average men and women tend towards different kinds of social activities and hobbies. But are these God given roles or simply things our culture has taught us? As I observed several different cultures, and read about even more, I saw that different cultures cope with and form gender in different ways. I now believe that much of how we think and act is a product of our socialization more than the result of some unchallengeable law of the universe. Thus, when I find myself presented with a cultural ideal of womanhood that I find suspect I am able to consider the possibility that it may be the ideal that is flawed rather than myself.

On the other hand, viewing gender as cultural has in some ways given me the freedom to accept certain roles laid out by my own society. I have come to realize that there is no escaping culture, we cannot be human without it, and that on a grand scale cultures are more or less equal. While I don’t have to accept every role handed to me by my culture, I don’t have to wholly reject every aspect of it either. This attitude has enabled me to see both the traditional expectation of woman as wife and mother and the contemporary ideal of woman as upwardly mobile and career-focused as options rather than necessary directives.

But I wonder, as I have done all this thinking, distancing and deconstructing, have I actually built any sort of identity for myself as a woman? Have I moved past that initial confusion brought on by my youth pastor’s inquiry about my conception of femininity or just further muddled it? Am I truly free to reject my society’s flawed ideals of femaleness if a trip to the mall can still make me feel so inadequate? How much is my current listlessness and lack of direction related to my unwillingness travel any path already beaten down by the steps of generations of women before me? Have I found freedom or just a different set of shackles?

Then again, perhaps this desire to reject preconceived gender roles gives me the opportunity, if I will accept the challenge, of seeing each person for who she or he truly is. I can meet a man who knits or a woman who is the family breadwinner and see that each is finding a valid expression of what it means to be human free from the confines of prefabricated gender roles. Perhaps I have the freedom to examine all of the conflicting versions of femininity that my culture presents to me and pick the things that fit me best. In the end, I don’t have to look for ways to feel or be “feminine” but simply discover who I am-as both a woman and a human being-and maybe that’s enough.

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