Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What is "True Womanhood"?

By Mary C. Tillotson

Stages of womanhood, 1849
I don't know if I love or hate that question, but it's one that's fascinated/bothered me since I was about 14.

I went through an "any desire to look good means you're vain and probably trying to get guys interested in sex" phase through most of high school and into college. I wore baggy T-shirts from the groups and clubs I was in, but somehow managed to always wear a blue one (I don't think blue will ever not be my best color, except navy) when certain attractive men were around.

Following this, I fretted briefly over whether I was obligated to like shoe shopping. This gave way to a "the ideal woman is tough and strong!" phase, followed by a "the ideal woman is weak and frail and beautiful" phase, followed by an identity crisis. That brings us to yesterday. Yesterday, I felt pretty balanced. I was comfortable letting the men do most of the heavy lifting, but if I didn't help, it was out of laziness, not a belief that I ought not. I was willing to admit that I would like to be one of those women who just always looks good. I thought motherhood was the zenith of femininity and I thought the women at IUseNFP are really cool.

Most of that I still believe.

I stumbled on this the other day. Jill Filipovic, a blogger at Feministe, is frustrated with those who oppose or are suspicious of hormonal contraception (e.g. IUseNFP), and while I have good reason to be skeptical of her claim that "women have spent all of human history trying to avoid" motherhood (there are obviously plenty of women nowadays, in different cultures, who aren't), I think she does make some good points - particularly that the pro-motherhood, pro-stay-at-home-motherhood "narratives resonate so widely: wasn't life just so much simpler for June Cleaver?"

I'm sure it was simpler for her, and I'm sure that's part of today's struggle. And I completely agree with her that part of the frustration of many women today is the constant judgment, no matter how you balance work and family, no matter when and how many kids you have, there are plenty of loud voices informing you that you're doing it wrong.

Part of the problem (to which she alludes) is that culturally, we don't know what "true womanhood" is. We don't have a general consensus, right or wrong. On one end of the spectrum, the only difference between men and women is our bodies, and they don't really matter, so let's push women into all the roles that used to be exclusively or heavily male. Like jobs, especially engineering. On the other end of the spectrum, there's a major difference between men and women - men are strong and aggressive; women are beautiful and nurturing - so women should pursue motherhood as an ideal and shouldn't work outside the home. Women's minds aren't quite as suited for math as men's are, and most women would rather study literature, which is equally important but underrated. Probably most of us fall somewhere in between.

Today - and here is where I'm different from yesterday - I found this by Dr. Greg Popcak, and I think I like it. He doesn't agree with either end of the spectrum. Taking a cue from Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body, Popcak writes: "What differentiates men from women is not traits, preferences, work, or habits, but their bodies and how those bodies allow them to express - in complementary ways - the virtues and qualities that evidence their shared humanity." (Emphasis his.) Our bodies (he includes our brains as part of our bodies) are pretty much the only difference between men and women, but that means something profoundly important.

"Nurturing" is a role that belongs both to moms and dads, he says (for example), but because we have different bodies, we express it differently:
A woman, for example, is able to nurse her children and thus express nurturance in a particularly profound and intimately embodied fashion. A man can’t lactate, but he is also required to be fully nurturing if he is to be fully human. He also expresses his nurturance through his body. For instance, because of greater upper-body strength, a man can more easily toss his kids in the air (and sometimes, even catch them!). Likewise, even men who shave have more facial hair than the hairiest woman. My little one loves to sit on my shoulders and rub my fuzzy face. She loves when I put my scratchy, tickly chin under her chin and go “phhhhhhhhhhfffffffffffffftttttttt!”
Men actually can lactate, but that's beside the point. Our bodies are different, and that matters. And - this is my extrapolation now - as women, our wombs aren't the only part of our bodies that matter.

Now, I fully agree with many of our readers that motherhood is underrated, and it's a shame that women are pushed toward careers despite many of them wanting to stay at home with kids. (I'm not against women - including mothers - having careers. I am against pushing an agenda via pushing careers on women who don't want them, and I am against treating motherhood like it's bad for women.) Our wombs - our capacity for motherhood - are an important part of who we are.

But I don't think it's correct to define us that way. If we get overly gung-ho about motherhood being the epitome of womanhood (as I've done), we are telling women who aren't mothers that they aren't quite there yet. Motherhood is not the only authentic expression of womanhood, and women who are mothers are not only mothers. Even the mothers I know who do no work at all outside the home read voraciously about topics that interest them - genetics, British history, music. One of them made my wedding dress while juggling a three-year-old, one-year-old twins, and a pregnancy. Their motherhood is an important part of who they are, but it isn't it.

The rest of our bodies matter, too. I'm short and scrawny, and while I could work out more than I do, I'm never going to be strong enough to do cool things like this:

Lauren  Mitchell

My hair, eyes, and skin are colored and shaped in a certain way. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an actress; even if I had pursued theater, I never would have been able to play this woman (even though she's a hero of mine):

Harriet Tubman. Courage.

But clearly there are plenty of other women with different capacities for physical strength and different colors that can do the things I can't. Our bodies are different.

And the same goes for our brains. That many women study literature doesn't mean a woman is less womanly if her brain is better wired for math. That many women like flowers doesn't mean a woman is less womanly if she doesn't. That  traditional women are "passive" or that modern women are "assertive" doesn't mean that temperamental inclinations or Myers-Briggs results reveal a femininity score. Much of this has to do with our brain's wiring and chemistry, which, incidentally, is bodily. And which contributes to our identity. And which matters.

Many see women's bodies as prisons because we're "trapped" by our half of the reproductive system (which can be obnoxious whether or not you're having children). But am I not equally trapped by being short and unable to reach the top shelf? Or by being thin and having to put up with I-bet-she's-anorexic comments? Or by the fact that I can't wear navy blue without looking washed-out and pimply? Or by the makeup of my brain that makes me smart in some areas and not in others? Or by having my own cocktail of bodily imperfections?

I think the message of "embrace motherhood" is good, but incomplete. Maybe a better message would be to embrace the bodies we have. To be healthy, physically and mentally. To break bad habits. To make an effort toward being honest, courageous, strong, prudent, smart, responsible, hardworking, and kind in whatever way comes naturally to us with the bodies we have.

Not to fight our bodies or work against them, but to be okay with them - wombs, intelligence, looks, abilities - and work with what we're given.

h/t to everyone who helped me think through all this - my college professors, friends, and roommate, various authors including Alice von Hildebrand and St. Francis de Sales, my husband, Judith, Dr. Popcak, and lots of others. I'm still a work in progress.

Images courtesy Wikipedia, via Creative Commons

1 comment:

  1. To be holy and to follow God's call in our lives...


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