Wednesday, 3 January 2007

2:2 Are you a woman?

You describe yourself as a ‘girl’ or ‘woman’. You probably mean that you are not a man, that you have certain physical characteristics (breasts, womb) which give you certain potentials (nursing and child-bearing) which are different from those of a man. This is all true. Yet as well as the physical differences you have characteristics which you have absorbed, largely unconsciously, from the day you were born, which we may call ‘gender’. This is what the feminist Simone de Beauvoir was referring to when she wrote that ‘One is not born a woman, one becomes one.’

You may let your hair grow longer than most men, wear make-up or perfume, carry a hand-bag , prefer particular colours, wear certain clothes, read girl’s magazines, play only some games (hockey rather than football for example), think of specific careers (media, education) rather than others (the army, stock exchange). Yet the selection of all these as feminine ways and goals is a matter of chance and teaching. There is nothing ‘natural’ or genetic about them.

In some societies it is men who grow their hair long, while women shave their heads; it is men who wear perfume or make-up, wear dresses (I was teased at school for wearing a ‘skirt’, i.e. a kilt), who sit around gossiping while the women do all the hard physical labour. Nowadays ideas of the female gender are changing very fast, and women are becoming soldiers in the front line, taking on many of the roles and attributes of men.

In particular if you add ‘English’ to ‘woman’, you become even more unusual. An English woman is the heir to a Christian society, living in a certain country and fitting in with its laws and customs. Most of your ‘womanhood’ is a construct of a particular history.

For example, ‘being’ a woman in England today entitles you to equality before the law, control over your own body, the right to own property, the right to vote, the right to choose your own marriage partner, equal respect and an equal chance of going to heaven, if you believe in such a place. Yet ‘being’ a woman in almost all civilizations in history has automatically denied a woman all these things from birth.

You can speak a language which has fewer gender differences built into it than most other languages. For instance all nouns in languages such as French or Italian have to have their gender specified, while in traditional Japanese the superiority of men and inferiority of women was built into the language.

So you are not just a woman, but a very particular and historically unusual kind of woman, who has been constructed by millions of random decisions and accidents over thousands of years. You are not an artificial robot, but you are certainly the product of huge random variations. This pressure occurs in every inter-action you have with every living person, in every moment you spend reading, watching television, in every sentence you speak and every thought you have.

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