What Does It Mean to be a Woman?

The following is an excerpt from Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive by Julia Serano. Reprinted with permission of Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.


A friend of mine was asked to write about being a femme for a queer women’s event. She wasn’t quite sure where to begin. “It’s hard to write about being a girl,” she said, and I knew exactly what she meant.

For some time, I’ve been trying to write my own poem about what it means to be a woman. But every time I pick up my pen, I’m afraid that I’ll paint myself into a corner, betrayed by words forged from soft vowel sounds and weak, diminutive connotations. Words so delicate that they crumple under any further introspection. I’m afraid that I may lose a part of myself as I navigate my way through the landmines of other people’s definition and dogma.

Pop-culture tells us that a real woman knows how to use her body to get what she wants, wielding the power of attraction, seducing with her animal magnetism. But I ask how much power is there in being a carrot on a stick that is dangled in front of someone? And I can’t help but notice that when men try to flatter us, they often use words like "enchanting" and "mysterious." But to me, those words seem like a subconscious attempt by them to place some distance between us.

So it bothers me when I hear women buy into a similar mysticism, as they try to empower us by proclaiming that we are magical, that we are mother earth with the ability to give birth, bearing life cycles that follow the moon like the tides of the ocean. But don’t they see the danger in buying into the idea that we are supernatural beings? For if we call ourselves “goddesses,” then there is no need for anyone to treat us like human beings.

I believe that this is where second wave feminism came to a grinding halt: When we got caught up in the myth that women are special because of our biology. Because when we take pride in how fundamentally different we are from men, we unknowingly engage in a dangerous game of opposites. For if men are big, then women must be small. And if men are strong, then women must be soft. And it becomes impossible to write a loud and proud poem about what it means to be a woman without either ridiculing men or else pulling the rug out from under ourselves.

And being a woman is contradiction enough without being both a transsexual and a dyke like myself. I often feel like the monkey in the middle: on one side of me are older lesbians who insist that I am still a man, as if being born male was some awful disease that has infected my blood and my bones permanently. On the other side of me are younger dykes who are infatuated with trans men, yet secretly confess to friends that they are disturbed by trans women because we act so “effeminate.” I wonder how they can be so oblivious to their own arrogance, for anyone who admires trans men, but dismisses trans women is simply practicing another form of sexism.

I used to think it was a contradiction that some dykes abhorred me for my masculinity while others hated me for my femininity, until I realized that being a woman means that everyone has a stake in seeing what they want to see in me.

My friend said, “It’s hard to write about being a girl.” I believe that’s because the word “girl” doesn’t really have a meaning of it’s own, as it is always defined in opposition to boy. So when being butch is to make yourself rock solid, then being femme becomes allowing yourself to be malleable. And if being a man means taking control of your own situation, then being a woman becomes living up to other people’s expectations.

Well I refuse to believe in this myth of opposites. If we want to shatter the glass ceiling, we must first learn to move beyond biology and give ourselves permission to become anything we want to be. I say to set any standard that all women must meet is to commit an act of misogyny.

I refuse to believe in the myth that all women share a common bond. The truth is we are all very different from one another. We each live with a different set of privileges and life experiences. And once we acknowledge this fact, it will become obvious that when we try to place all women into the same box, we unintentionally suffocate ourselves.

Instead of pretending that all women share the same experience, that we are one in the same, let’s make the word “woman” a perpetual agent of change. Instead of repeating history by chaining ourselves to one specific definition or concept, let’s make the word “woman” a celebration of each of our uniqueness.

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