UPDATE May 2021: This post talks a lot about being a cis woman, but after a great deal of introspection etc, I have realized that I’m actually nonbinary. I think my points within this essay still stand, however.
CW: mentions of childhood sexual abuse, of modern and historical misogyny, and TERFy gatekeeping bullshit
I am a woman, and that’s okay, because when I was born, some doctor or nurse or intern said “It’s a girl!” and gave me a pink hat, and so my mother had two daughters. My sister got a My Little Pony, as consolation for the trials of a new little sister. No one has ever questioned that I was a girl, a woman, backed up by pink birthday parties and a naturally-occurring set of tits.
(Is that where my womanhood is found? In breasts and cunt, in the curve of my hip? In a womb and the supposed ability to bear life? My womb will always stay empty; am I a vessel with no purpose, then? Is womanhood found in my ovaries, which are controlled only by modern medicine? If they don’t work right without the pills, does that make me Not A Woman? Explain it to me.)
Whether I played princess or dress up or my feeble attempts at T-ball in kindergarten, I was always a girl. Sometimes, especially climbing trees, overturning rotten logs to find salamanders, I was a tomboy. My mom was proud of me as a tomboy, proud that I read so much, that I much preferred jeans to restrictive skirts—like somehow I was better, and for some time I thought that, too. Other girls are frivolous, all they care about is clothes and boys (even at six, eight, eleven, even when I also started to notice the oh-so-handsomely pimpled faces of my classmates, I couldn’t be caught caring about such things). Not me; I was different and special, Not Like Other Girls. But I was still a girl, and I would still become a woman. Those things were never in doubt.
(When I went to my conservative Christian college, I met with some other women on my floor for some mandatory social event. I mentioned briefly that I didn’t like Jane Austen. “Are you even a girl?” asked another classmate, incredulously. I think that’s the only time my gender has ever been in doubt.)
A girl. A woman. I loved Grand Champions model horses, and preferred stuffed animals to baby dolls, and I read Animorphs, and never understood sports. Still a girl, always.
I was girl enough for a relative to abuse before I’d even hit puberty; I was girl enough to be told that’s how it is, because that’s how men are to women, and since I was a female child, that was close enough. If I didn’t want to be touched, then I needed to stay away from his hands…except I still owed him hugs and time and attention, because that’s what girls were for.
My sister is the only one who told me that this wasn’t right. My sister, who wore makeup in her teens and read voraciously, who never saw a conflict in being like other girls and gloriously herself, is the one who told me that I should demand respect. She deserved so many more My Little Ponies.
I’m a woman. I connect to my breasts and cunt, to the curve of my hip. I am neither graceful nor elegant—I am round, and soft, and just a little bit clumsy in my movements. Sometimes I wake up and find that I have a mustache to remove, much to my dismay. I no longer eschew dresses; I love to see a skirt fall around my knees. But whether I wear my favorite dress, covered in candy-print, the sort that would appall 6-year-old me but brings great delight to my current self, or whether I wear a floppy t-shirt and jeans that won’t stand another wash, no one questions that I’m a woman. Not even me.
The rigid, essentialist Christianity of my teens and young adulthood made sure I knew that made me less. Anyone born with a vulva (who was therefore a woman) shouldn’t hold leadership positions. They mustn’t be the head of the household. They should never ask out a man, because it sets a bad precedence—he must be the leader in the relationship. In chapel (required, at my college, or you paid a fine. Freshman year I went every day; senior year, I paid the fine) a young man stood up once, during a Q&A session with the president of the university. “Why,” he said, “has this school not taken an official stance on the Biblical truth of complementarianism?” He was applauded by most of the student body for his willingness to speak “truth.”
(To be fair, I’ve never asked out a man. I did ask out someone I thought was a woman. Turns out, they’re neither man nor woman.)
Eve went ahead and ate the Apple of Knowledge, and for that particular bit of initiative, the rest of us needed to shut up and sit down. And so many of us have, those of us born to the legacy of breasts and hips, for centuries—our mothers, our grandmothers, their mothers before them, all finding their place in the kitchen, or so we’re told. At least, the ones who could afford it. In truth, most of our be-cunted ancestors (ancestresses? What a word) toiled alongside their husbands and children in the fields, because if you didn’t, you starved. And on top of that, they cooked bread in an old black smoky oven, or in a fireplace, or over an open flame. Too weak to lead, our mothers’ mothers’ mothers taught their children, their neighbors’ children, the children of wealthier women entrusted to their care. They taught them songs and stories and prayers. Sometimes they taught them to read and write. Certainly they taught them to talk. Their power was in the legacies they left—named, if they were lucky, for a generation or two, but persisting more subtly through their descendants.
Where were those lessons stored? Where in the body was this leadership found? If you look at the skeleton of a woman, or the skin draped over it, in what part do you find that shared history?
And women had another power, in unity. They could gather around to shell peas or do the laundry or to wash the dead before burial. And they spoke, at these times. Religious texts forbade gossip, perhaps because gossip was its own power; when women could not read the news, could not attend the formal meetings, they had gossip, the “idle chat” that contained all the news of the world, if one listened closely. Older women imparted wisdom—to remove a stain with urine, to treat a cold with honeyed onion, ways to end a pregnancy, or to start one. They told what their men were doing and, perhaps, how to persuade them otherwise. They weren’t always lucky—they were forbidden so many things, throughout history—but they had other women, sometimes, to learn from. Folklore, witchcraft, medicine, advice, often labeled as old wives’ tales, and summarily dismissed, and thus protected.
Were these secrets shared dependent on ownership of a vagina? Perhaps it was assumed, but I doubt anyone checked. Why are we checking now?
Of course, I speak only of some parts of the world, of some parts of history. Hunnic women rode into battle; Viking women handled finances; Dahomey women were an army. Bounce around history, bounce around the world, you’ll find women with power. Bounce around history, bounce around the world, you’ll find women with none.
But this is the history I am given, the history in my bones and blood. If the women in my history were warriors or midwives or queens or poets, their valor did not survive. My grandmother left school at fourteen; for work she cleaned at a hospital and then came home to clean after thirteen kids and a husband. And all I know of her mother is her name, Theresa, because it became mine. Any women before that are nothing but an endless stream of faceless figures. Our power was found in small ways: in gathering, in childrearing. Our strength was in our work-worn hands and in our community and, above all, in our ability to endure. Starvation, brutality, loss—they endured it all, because what else could they do?
And so I’ve endured, in the legacy of those who came before me. I heard the sins of Eve as a child, and I worship some Mother Goddess or another as an adult. I don’t always know if I believe in deities, in the herbal magic I use in my kitchen, but those things don’t care if I believe. I act on them anyway, finding a secret strength there, a belonging in a hidden, half-forgotten, half-invented tradition of folklore and witchcraft. I found strength in myself.
I am a woman, now. I was a girl, pink birthday parties and chasing my sister with frogs. In some ways I have endured less than the women who came before me, but their blood is in my veins.
Their blood is in your veins.
I am a woman, and it is not because I was born with a void between my legs. I am a woman, holding onto a legacy of women before me. When I die all of my softness will rot away, but the legacy of endurance will continue, stubborn as bones.
Why hoard this legacy, when strength is found in numbers? Why proclaim that womanhood is found only in the womb? It is a woman writing these words, right now; when I am dead and gone, you will still be reading a woman’s words, because my womanhood is not found in my body.
I love being a woman. It is hard-earned, in some ways, this love, faced with the hatred of womanhood in religion, in family, in all those subtle ways that the world tells me that women are Less Than, Not Enough, Too Much, Unacceptable. But it is here, and it is beautiful, the strength that I have inherited. And it is not up to me to share that strength with anyone else; it is there, not for the taking, but inherent, self-evident, omnipresent.
Where I live, we no longer gather to birth a baby, to shuck corn, to wash the dead. But women still find strength in numbers, and to deny women a part of this community, this legacy, because they didn’t get a pink hat in the hospital, is spitting in the face of all the women who loved and cried and lived and died. The history of drudgery is not so precious it must be protected; the history of sharing is, by definition, to be shared. To claim that trans women are invading “women’s spaces” is no different than the boy at my college insisting that people born with breasts should respect their place. Biology is not destiny, nor has it ever been.
So when I say fuck TERFs, what I really mean is that my body is not my legacy, that womanhood is not a test that can only be passed with ovaries, that biology is not destiny, nor has it ever been. I am a woman because my soul feels womanly, and whatever body you might put me in, that’s what and who I am. And because I am a woman, because it is a spiritual thing in its own strange way, that makes me part of this ancient sisterhood.
And so, as a part of it, if you are a woman, I welcome you, though it’s only a formality. You don’t need my approval. I don’t need a My Little Pony to soften the news of your inclusion. You have endured; the strength of all these women is yours by birthright.
Not sponsored; all opinions are my own. Anything about gender written by a cis person is inherently limited in its scope; I want to thank my spouse Damien and my friend Vykki Sieven for reading over earlier drafts with a critical eye. This was heavily inspired by repeated listenings of “Song of Women” by The HU feat. Lzzy Hale.