With International Women’s Day already a month behind us I’d like to reflect a bit on a currently taboo or off-limit subject: womanhood. It is taboo because, in the current climate of hyper-political correctness, we are not even supposed to acknowledge notions such as womanhood and manhood for fear of excluding or offending someone, somewhere, somehow. One definition of womanhood is the state or condition of being a woman. And one reason the topic may be taboo is that it is currently widely accepted that words like woman/womanhood and man/manhood are social constructs. While they are indeed social constructs, the notions of male and female are biological realities that cannot be escaped. So in order to not offend anyone, though I suspect that parts of this post may still offend some pc people, I will speak about “femalehood.”
For me, and I suspect for many other women, my physical and biological femaleness has largely shaped the state and condition of being a woman. What this means is that my biological sex, and the organs, body parts, hormones and functions that go along with it, have very much affected my state and condition of being a woman. While these are not the only things that have shaped that condition, they have been and remain very instrumental, and at times foundational, to my experience of being a woman.
While we are often told that one does not need female body parts and reproductive organs to be a woman, for me (and I can only speak for myself) these parts and organs, and the monthly hormonal cycles they regulate, very much colour my experience of womanhood. While I am in no way defined by my physical and biological makeup—I have a few fancy letters and degrees behind my name that suggest my cognitive and mental attributes are important—I would be dishonest if I said my physical femaleness has not shaped my experience to some, and at times a large, degree. Any woman with an “ample” bosom or bottom, to use some cringe-worthy phrases, knows that these physical characteristics colour the way people interact with you, especially heterosexual males.
More significantly, the very fact of having a vagina greatly shapes or affects ones experience of femalehood (and womanhood). How could it not affect the experience? Almost every major, life altering event in a female’s life is linked to the vagina, be it the onset of menstruation, physically “losing” one’s virginity (which really means when the female hymen is physically broken or opened) or childbirth. Each of these events is linked to the vagina and each is extremely profound and potentially life altering on some level. Since I have never given birth, I have not encountered the entire range of these distinctly female experiences, but I have experienced and lived with the monthly preparation for procreation, for most of my life. Of course, these experiences, or potential experiences, do not encompass all that a woman is. Nonetheless, these events are very unique to femalehood and are directly linked to female physicality.
Beyond the physical, the female vagina has been a culturally and religiously potent tool (no pun intended) and topic for centuries. Entire cultures, religions, tribes and families have been shaped and affected by, and were often obsessed with, what the women in the culture, religion, tribe or family did and, more importantly, did not do, with their vaginas. Things like honour killings of girls and women who engage in pre-marital and extra-marital sex still exist to this day!
So to suggest that the female vagina is not necessarily linked to the reality and experience of “being a woman” or that including the vagina in the description of the feminine is offensive, as some politically correct liberal feminists and some transgender activists (meaning activists for trans issues not just transgender people that are activists) do, is somewhat unrealistic. I recently read about some women’s groups being asked by trans activists to not include the vagina or female reproductive organs in their characterizations of the female. That is what inspired me to write this post. I think it’s odd and borderline offensive that biological females are being asked to disavow their genitalia so as not to offend someone. While women are not defined by or reducible to their genitalia, it is strange to negate this when characterizing femaleness.
Having a vagina is inextricably linked to being a female. Anyone who was born with a vagina and has spent their entire life as a biological female, with all the physical and social realities (the good and the bad) that this entails (and they are far from all bad), knows how true this is. As a female there have been times when I wished I could be, figuratively or symbolically, removed from the vagina. For Middle Eastern women, especially, so much weighs on what is between one’s legs. And in general, I am sure many women can relate to particular experiences of over-objectification or over-sexualization that left them feeling quite literally like a walking vagina–as simply a vagina with legs attached. At the same time, there are a host of very positive experiences that are also inextricably linked to female physicality.
All of these experiences are very real and, for better or worse and whether people like it or not and want to acknowledge it or not, are very deeply connected to ones experience of womanhood. While I may be demonized for saying this given the current hyper-politically correct climate, I find it difficult to believe that a biological male turned-female, who easily spent half if not most of their life as a man and may still have a male penis (a la Caitlyn Jenner), can truly relate to my experience of femalehood and womanhood; just as I cannot relate to their personal, social and physical experience and reality. This does not mean that I cannot empathize with them. I just cannot relate to them, especially not “as women.” And that’s okay.
This is not meant to dismiss or insult [i]. It is a reality that some people feel like, and identify as, the sex they were not physically born in. I do not take issue with that. Though I do take issue with a sixty-something year old former man, who still has a male penis, being named “woman of the year.[ii]” But that’s a topic for another post. Today, I am simply stating something that I suspect many women may be thinking but are too afraid to express. While mental concepts and perceptions shape our experience of reality on many levels, there are nonetheless material and physical, including biological, realities that are inescapable. And for me, the physical reality of my female sex has been a fundamental and inescapable contributor to my experience of womanhood.
[i] I know that I may me labeled a TERF, even though I don’t identify as a feminist—neither radical nor liberal—but as a radical humanist. TERF means trans-exclusionary radical feminist. As a radical humanist I know that in the current global establishment most men do not have power and are also exploited.
[ii] As of June 2015, Jenner had not had gender reassignment surgery. If Jenner has had it since, then I am not aware, though given the nature of reality trash TV, I suspect if and when that does happen, it may be a televised event.