Over one year ago I turned thirty and finally felt like a woman. I mean a real, adult woman. In contrast, the years leading to my thirties felt nothing like adulthood, let alone womanhood. Since this mental shift, I ruminated the question over and over, “What happened?”
[Short pause for tired age-related jokes.]
As it turns out – a lot. None of it has to do with personal history. Rather, I believe it relates to real issues of womanhood: what makes one feel like an authentic adult woman, what constitutes womanhood, and problems with stereotypes relating to this problem.
I was invited to participate in a roundtable discussion at the Eastern American Studies Association, entitled “Beyond the Binary: Exploring Contemporary Concepts of Femininity and Masculinity,” and held at La Salle University the weekend of March 28, 2014. As the “women’s studies” scholar on the panel, I was surrounded by talented intellectuals: Jeanine Ruhsam of Penn State Harrisburg, representing study on transgender issues; Amy Milligan of Elizabethtown College, who works in the realm of gay/lesbian scholarship; and Jared Rife of Penn State Harrisburg, speaking on masculinities. While a successful and lively discussion occurred at the conference, I left considering new thoughts and threads, leading to this post.
“Beyond the Binary” deliberated over what it meant to be outside of the standard and within the gender borderlands. Certainly, much of the conversation revolved around one’s sexual identity and outward representation of that identity. These are concerns are relevant to today’s exchange over LGBT civil and human rights – adults who wish to live and love peacefully and children who should be free to experience their youth without fear, hate, or limitations. I do not think we should move away from this aspect of binary conversation, but I believe that there needs to be another discussion happening – possibly in the realm of feminist scholarship towards a more complete view of womanhood. Considering the binary and feminine borderlands will take us there.
As a basis for these reflections, it is important to note that scholars have defined a hegemonic masculinity that serves as a standard for western culture. All other gender variations are contrasted with this standard and, by definition, hegemonic femininity is the exact opposite of hegemonic masculinity. The former is aggressive, outward, and a producer of culture, while the latter is passive, inward, and a receiver of culture. Those in between cause problems. All other variations are unable to be placed in a category. This causes anxiety at the least and is subversive to western culture at its most severe. The “feminine borderland” also necessitates definition. The “standard” western feminine is passive, nurturing, other-dependent, relational, interested in family, and soft aesthetics. Anyone who extends beyond these boundaries creates uncertainty, or fear, in the minds of those who wish for consistency.
How does this relate to definitions of womanhood? During the roundtable discussion I realized that there are parts adult womanhood that may seem standard, but are outside hegemonic femininity, and could be the basis for many problems facing women today. Most obvious is the choice a woman makes of career over motherhood. Third Wave Feminists (or whatever we are going to call 2014 feminists) would mostly agree that a woman could choose whether she will work outside or inside the home. It is the blessing of coming after the Women’s Liberation Movement that paved the way for our generation to make choices. Gender borderlands occur in this area because the woman is outside the guidelines of feminine normativity. There continues to be emotion against the woman who chooses to not have children. No longer “childless,” she is “child free.” I say “emotion,” because for some overly-opinionated folks, a woman’s choice of career over children is a fraught issue. They react as if her decision has an intimate and permanent effect upon their lives. That a young woman (past a certain age) is without child provokes concern in the outsider who comes to one of two conclusions: that the young woman is unable to conceive or that she decided against a family, thus is pursuing a selfish lifestyle.
This begins a series of posts relating to the “womanhood issue” on The AD. There are many, many topics under the larger question, and while I will write about the most obvious concerns, I will take on some not-so-obvious problems. Ideas? Please send them my way.
 Mimi Schippers, “Recovering the feminine other: masculinity, femininity, and gender hegemony,” Theory and Society (2007) 36:85–102.
 Lauren Sandler, “Having it all without having children,” Time Magazine (August 12, 2013): http://time.com/241/having-it-all-without-having-children/.