C. Jane asked me this a few weeks back after she'd watched Miss Representation and was mulling over a lot of thoughts about how what she'd seen. The makers of this documentary want it to be a call to action to women and girls, encouraging them to challenge the limiting way they're portrayed by the media and in public life, so they can realise their full potential and women who have a great deal to offer society, rather than women whose worth is dependent on their looks and sexuality, or fulfilling certain stereotypes.
I think most of us can identify with this. We talk about it - the expectations society has of us, the way it pits us against each other and the way it denigrates women who don't measure up. Someone replied to Courtney to say that for them, becoming a mother was the ultimate expression of womanhood. Not everyone agreed - where does that leave women who can't have children, or don't want to, or would like to but don't have any yet? This is the problem with trying to define it with particular life experiences and characteristics - inevitably, someone will feel left out or hurt.
I'm someone who struggles to articulate what "being a woman" and "femininity" mean to me. I'm not even sure if I know. And I wondered if other women feel the same - so I asked them. Here follow the thoughts of some of the women who follow me on Twitter.
One thing that was immediately obvious was the negative feeling associated with the idea of "femininity".
"Womanhood is a state of being a woman. Femininity is a 1950s advertising stereotype that some try to impose on women. I've been accused of being unfeminine by another woman because I liked beer and football and I was outspoken. I don't want her version of femininity, it's bobbins."
"I feel like womanhood embraces all it means to be a woman, whatever that looks like. Almost a rallying call rather than a label. For me femininity has a lot more baggage. It's a standard used to judge women by. Too feminine, not feminine enough..."
"I feel like 'femininity' is so often a by-line for stifling stereotypes."
"Womanhood is the cultural destiny ascribed to biology. Femininity is when I play along with it. Feminism is when I spit in its eye."
"Femininity is a state that I feel other women achieve and I've never quite managed. It's only a concept to me, not reality. I've always been quite 'unfeminine' (short hair, tomboy etc) and didn't want to be stereotyped by it, but felt like I was failing by not being able to do those feminine things even though I didn't want them. Very confusing."
"Womanhood means the biology bits. Femininity, the way I signal it through clothing, appearance and manners. Being a woman feels unavoidable. Being feminine is something I work at."
"I've always felt excluded by the terms feminine/femininity because it is something I have never felt/wanted to be."
I very much identify with these statements. As a teenager and a woman on the cusp of adulthood, femininity was something I didn't have much of. I wasn't bothered about grooming and adornment. I didn't have "curves". Boys made fun of the way I looked and girls sneered at my clothes (teen bullying, eh?). The accepted line of thinking was that I looked "like a man". I remember sitting in my room in my first year at university, overhearing someone who lived on my corridor discussing this fact just outside the door. People giggled in response. Femininity was something I didn't have, and that made me a failure.
Eventually that phase of my life was over, but I had something new to worry about: "Biblical femininity" (whatever the hell that was supposed to be). I gathered from various sources that I wasn't joyful and outgoing enough. I was too outspoken and opinionated. I had no interest in other people's children and certainly didn't have the "gift of hospitality" - I liked to be left alone. That made me a failure. That phase of my life is over as well, but it just goes to show how much that word, and that concept are used to put us into little boxes, and beat us about the head when we don't fit into them.
In the same was that "femininity" is seen as something limiting, "womanhood" seems, for some, to be something unattainable and far-off, something for "grown-ups" that's dependent on having the job, the car, the house and the partner. How much of that is down to women's magazines and the like, or what society - and our families - expect we should be doing by the time we've reached a certain age?
"Womanhood is something I associate with grand dames, matrons and majestic older ladies. Manhood seems just a sexual euphemism to me. Womanhood is a combination of experience, power and knowledge."
"There seems to be a transition period for all faab people between 'girl' & 'woman' - an interim period, where there's a too-grown-up for girl, not 'grown-up' enough for woman (maybe not ALL female people, but many). Seems like there is an unattainable aspect i.e. a woman can raise a child, have a job, love a partner and DIY a doily..."
"It feels sometimes that I have spent my life trying to be a woman that I think I am meant to be, rather than the person I really am who just happens to be a woman."
There was also a definite third category of responses - and these are the statements I most identify with at this point in my life. To me, being a woman doesn't make me feel special. It doesn't make me feel more spiritual or more blessed. It just happened. I don't feel I have to act a certain way to be a woman. I want to embrace who I am and celebrate womanhood, but I don't think womanhood has to look like anything in particular, and I think that when we attempt to make it so, things start to go wrong.
"I am passionate about teaching and enabling young women, but other than that, being female is almost incidental."
"Womanhood is something I am, femininity is something I wear. Femininity is not inherent to me, not an essential identity."
"I find defining myself problematic as humans are contradictions & far too complicated to label. However in terms of my passion to see women realise and released to fullfill their potential, I am passionate about women. I celebrate my being a woman in that I have managed to do grow and achieve and find value and security, but ironically that security has led me not really be bothered about my womanhood."
That third statement sums it up perfectly for me. Finding value and security in my identity meant I stopped bothering about womanhood and "femininity" as a concept and realised that it doesn't mean a set of achievements, rules and behaviours, clothes or hair or what men think of me. For me this seems like the right conclusion to arrive at. When womanhood does signify those sort of things, it will always leave someone feeling inadequate.
When I look at the women of the Bible, they fulfilled many different roles and displayed many different characteristics. That's why it leaves me baffled when my religion tells me that being a woman is about ticking certain boxes. It's why I feel baffled when people get so very distressed at the idea of men and women being "equal" because they think that means "the same" - because that would never do. It shocks and appalls. Because when you take away the "differences" that aren't really "differences", the "differences" that are more assumptions and stereotypes, what are you left with? The way I see it, the answer is "not as much as most people think". Although we are told in scripture that there is a distinction, it reveals little about any personality traits we must supposedly have as a result. I'll always remember reading an extract from a book, which claimed that Genesis 1 gives us a portrait of "a woman's inherent softness". Just in case I'd been missing anything, I double checked. The creation narrative seemed to be oddly lacking in any mention of, or allusion to, "softness". This is what happens when ascribing stereotypes goes a touch too far.
So how can we focus on a positive concept of womanhood? How do we make sure that all women feel included in this - that there are no accusations flying around of either trying to box us in, or hating on "traditional" femininity - which is of course embraced by many? And what implications does it have for the way we raise future generations?
I plan that this will be the first of a number of posts exploring this subject.