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What Is a Woman?




Excerpted from
Just Like a Woman: How Gender Science Is Redefining What Makes Us Female
By Dianne Hales

I run with a wobble in my hips-just like a woman. I throw a ball underhand rather than overhand-just like a girl. I cry during sad movies and take everything personally. I also walk, talk, smile, worry, gossip, flirt, and change my mind just like a woman. Or so I've been told-in appreciation at times, in exasperation at others.

Just like a woman, I like spring blossoms, silky lingerie, babies' gummy grins, French perfume, and slow dancing. I've melted in the arms of the man I love and been swept away by the sight of my newborn child. I've twirled in gowns of black velvet and laughed long and hard in the company of good friends. Just like a woman, I can act like a lady, think like a man, and work like a dog. But what do all the ways I'm just like a woman tell you about who I really am? Not very much. "Woman" is generic, I am not.

In legends and literature, it was just like a woman to be bitch or witch, madonna or muse, angel or harlot. Eve tempted, Delilah betrayed, Medea avenged, Cleopatra seduced. Juliet loved too much, Anna Karenina hoped too little-just like a woman. Ours was the emotional sex, irrational, manipulative, deceitful, never to be trusted. Or so we were told.

Hippocrates described woman as a damp, soggy creature. Aristotle declared her naturally defective, a "mutilated male." The Old Testament depicted her as unclean,- the New, as a "weaker vessel" in need of male forbearance. Medieval monks damned her as a necessary evil, a "sack of dung" wrapped in seductive flesh, "a domestic danger, a delectable detriment." All were wrong.

In 1710 the British essayist Richard Steele defined woman as "a daughter, a sister, a wife, and a mother, a mere appendage of the human race." Her greatest possible aspiration was as self-sacrificing "angel of the house." She seemed capable of nothing more. An obstetrics textbook widely used in the early twentieth century declared, "A woman has a head too small for intellect but just big enough for love."

Only men-or at least a few great men-made history,- women made the sons who would grow up to fight the battles, conquer the kingdoms, and perform the daring deeds that other men would record and long remember. Women, living by rules they never made in roles they never chose, remained in the shadows of time, on the margins of meaning. Until now.

To a breathtaking extent, the old rules, confining roles, and presumed biological imperatives no longer apply. These days it's just like a woman to soar into space, march off to war, manage (and make) millions, govern countries, pass laws, negotiate treaties, fly jets, transplant organs, conduct symphonies. Not only do women hold up half the sky, we hold down nearly half the jobs and head one quarter of the world's households.

From Asia to America, women are learning and earning more than any previous generation. Once barred from universities, women now receive the majority of baccalaureate degrees. In national elections, women cast the decisive votes. Whether buying televisions or trucks, we control the bulk of consumer dollars-with good reason. In almost half of American two-income homes, women earn as much as their spouses,- in about a quarter, they earn more.

We have become women of independence as well as independent means. More women everywhere are delaying or deferring marriage. In Great Britain, women are waiting until an average age of 27 to wed; American brides are older (at an average of 24.5 years) than they've been in three decades. Fewer women are having babies, and those who do have fewer of them. In certain regions of Italy, Spain, and Eastern Europe, women's birth rates have fallen to an average of fewer than 1.1 children, the lowest ever recorded. Of those women who do become mothers, more remain single. In Germany, one in seven new mothers is unmarried, in Great Britain and the United States, one in three, in Sweden, one in two.

Women, occupants of bodies once believed flawed and fragile, are outliving men by about seven years. Female athletes are sprinting faster, jumping higher, and running longer distances than anyone once thought a woman possibly could. Female minds, derided for centuries as incapable of intelligence and instruction, are becoming the best-educated in history. Female hands, once deemed suitable only for rocking cradles, are wielding scalpels and gavels. Female presidents and prime ministers have taken the helm of nations as politically diverse as Great Britain, Canada, Bolivia, Poland, Israel, Pakistan, New Zealand, and the Philippines. In Sweden and Iceland, women head 40 percent of government ministries. In Great Britain, France, and Italy, a record number of women hold parliamentary seats.

In thousands of ways both subtle and significant, in a revolution so gentle it feels like evolution, the planet's 2.8 billion women are changing the world. We have moved into places where women rarely went. We are doing things only men used to do, often in ways men never tried. We have unprecedented opportunities, power, money, and autonomy-as well as the burdens they can bring. To an extent never before possible, women can live just like men. Yet most of us, even as we eagerly explore new realms of possibility, prefer to remain true to who and what we are: female in body, mind, and spirit.

Fifty years ago an American polling firm asked women and men two questions: Which sex has an easier time in life? And if you were to be born again, would you rather come back male or female? In the postwar 1940s both sexes agreed that women had an easier lot. In 1996 both said men did. But fifty years ago, despite their supposedly easy life, most women said they'd prefer to be men, no men wanted to come back as women. Men of the nineties still like being male, but women, by an overwhelming majority, said they'd choose to remain female.

In the course of talking to hundreds of women, formally and informally, about the substance of this book, I got the same response-from women who work and women who don't, from hurried mothers and harried managers, from the woman who invests my retirement funds and the woman who cuts my hair. But one made an important distinction: "I'd always want to be a woman," she said. "But I'd never want to be 'just like' one." I can understand why.

With an Italian's fine-tuned ear, the writer Paola Bono notes that being "just like a woman" misses the essential point: It doesn't address what it means, simply, to be a woman, but defines us in terms of someone or something else. Throughout history, the invariably male powers that were beheld women often with disdain, always with presumed superiority. In their eyes, we were pets or parasites, objects of desire or disgust, vanity's name or hell's fury, the eternal "other."

The fault, they said, lay in the very cells that make up the female body. "A woman is a pair of ovaries with a human being attached," a nineteenth-century physician observed, "whereas a man is a human being with testes attached." It was a cruel distinction-and a false one. Because it was just like a woman to have a womb, it was presumed she should not, could not, use her brain. Because it was just like a woman to give life, her own life seemed to have no other value. Because her mental and physical health seemed too precarious, she was told she could not, should not, learn to read, dare to run, hope to rule. Biology wasn't just woman's destiny, it was her definition.

In every age exceptional women defied such dictates, but it wasn't until the 1970s that the women's movement began to sweep aside barriers for women of all ages, races, and classes. In the course of these changes, a new notion took hold, at least in some quarters: that liberated women could somehow transcend biological realities-menstruate without cramps, give birth without pain or painkilling medication, sail through menopause without breaking a sweat. As many women soon discovered for themselves, this isn't so. Once again we found ourselves caught between stereotypes and reality.



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