As per Jo, I’m thinking about how we define womanhood.
Ideal womanhood is something you can’t catch up to, no matter now much you might chase it. If you’re the perfect mother, you aren’t perfectly sexual. (What do you mean you’re using your breasts for breastfeeding?!) If you’re a sex kitten, you lack womanly modesty. (We wanted you to be alluring, not a slut!) If you’re too demure, you’re not superwoman. (You’ve only got your own reticence to blame if you’re not successful.) If you’re superwoman, you’re overambitious. (Lady Macbeth!)
To be a woman in a patriarchal society is to be shoved ill-fittingly into narrow archetypes, and inevitably to do those flavours of womanhood badly. What feminists try to do is expand ideas of what womanhood can be. We expand it until to be woman means not only lots of things in itself, but that an individual woman can be lots of things. I, for instance, am brave and spiteful and resentful and loyal. The traditional narrative says that I cannot be that complex, and cannot encompass seemingly conflicting things. Really, to be a person is to be varied. What feminists try to do, then, is to gain general acceptance of the idea that women are people.
That variation intervenes in essentialising, in the idea that there is some womanly essence of which all women must be composed. I’m not convinced that there is a single element of being a woman that is common to all of us beyond that we group ourselves under that term. There may be. But there doesn’t have to be. That grouping is enough for me, I don’t need science or argument beyond the knowledge of belonging. From what I can see, we are people with all kinds of behavioural, physical, and ideological difference, and not knowing sameness beyond being in community with each other is fine with me.
And that’s where a lot of images of feminism’s supposed failure fall down. Feminism supposedly fails because the image of hairy-legged lesbian activists is unappealing. (To whom, one wonders; some of my favourite people fit that description.) Feminism supposedly fails because we’ve tried to get women to have it all, and we simply cannot have it all. If you’ve only got a monolithic idea of womanhood – defenders of women’s rights are all like this, women want to be all of this – you can’t acknowledge humanity and difference. I cannot be an astronaut and a politician and a dancer all at once, but I can want women to have the opportunity to be all of those things. I am not the supposedly nightmarish feminist stereotype, but that does not mean that I think that people who are are not worth attention. To look at variation, to see that womanhood is various things to various people: that’s where we acknowledge women and define us properly.
That’s where I’m coming from when I begin to interrogate rigid definitions.