Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
The structure of the house was hierarchical, with my grandfather at the top, but its secret life – the life of pie crusts, clean sheets, the box of rags in the linen closet, the loaves in the oven – was female. The house, and all the objects in it, crackled with static electricity; undertows washed through it, the air was heavy with things that were known but not spoken. Like a hollow log, a drum, a church, it amplified, so that conversations whispered in it sixty years ago can be half-heard even today.
― Margaret Atwood, “Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother”, Bluebeard’s Egg
And then there are the cravings.. Oh, la! A woman may crave to be near water, or be belly down, her face in the earth, smelling the wild smell. She might have to drive into the wind. She may have to plant something, pull things out of the ground or put them into the ground. She may have to knead and bake, rapt in dough up to her elbows.
She may have to trek into the hills, leaping from rock to rock trying out her voice against the mountain. She may need hours of starry nights where the stars are like face powder spilt on a black marble floor. She may feel she will die if she doesn’t dance naked in a thunderstorm, sit in perfect silence, return home ink-stained, paint-stained, tear-stained, moon-stained.
―Clarissa Pinkola Estés: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype
Margaret Atwood, the Canadian novelist, once asked a group of women at a university why they felt threatened by men. The women said they were afraid of being beaten, raped, or killed by men. She then asked a group of men why they felt threatened by women. They said they were afraid women would laugh at them.
―Molly Ivins, Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?
Gender identity is more complicated than society likes to admit. Does it remain a valid means of classifying human beings?
“I’m sorry, but I do hate this differentiation between the sexes. ‘The modern girl has a thoroughly businesslike attitude to life’ That sort of thing. It’s not a bit true! Some girls are businesslike and some aren’t. Some men are sentimental and muddle-headed, others are clear-headed and logical. There are just different types of brains.”
Society has traditionally defined gender by anatomy and physiognomy. We have divided ourselves into male and female groups and assigned acceptable roles and attributes to each group. These assignments were made long ago to further the bearing and raising of children and to ensure human survival. With over seven billion people on our planet and natural resources that are diminishing, the need for procreation is lower than it has ever been. This has contributed to a world in which people who have more complicated gender identities can recognize and explore those identities. That isn’t to say that such exploration is easy.
Here is a wonderful, valuable human story of a person born male, who despite a “manly” career as a pilot in World War II and considerable success in life, never felt male. When Robina Asti decided to be herself, others had a very hard time with it. Despite the struggle, Asti found herself in a meaningful, loving relationship. Then, at the age of 92, faced with the death of her beloved husband, she found her gender questioned again.
Why are we so uncomfortable with allowing people to be authentic in their expression of gender? People like Asti and Patton do us no violence by living their lives in this fashion. Perhaps our culture has a guilty conscience and fears that stories like this will invalidate our journeys and our faiths. We should know by now that only we have the power to do that.
Our tradition has difficulty understanding people who are not completely male or completely female, and yet such people are born every day. Biological gender (and this doesn’t even take into account other aspects of gender) is determined by five factors: the number and type of sex chromosomes, the presence of ovaries and/or testicles, sex hormones, and both internal and external reproductive organs. If, at birth, all five criteria do not register as male or female, that person is intersexed and does not fall into either category. Some are hermaphrodites, having characteristics of both sexes while others simply don’t have all of the criteria present. Often these babies are “corrected” immediately. But what if gender is not an either or, but a biological continuum, with male at one end and female at the other? Our words have failed us.
I see you go bare-shod. This is most likely extremely sensible. Shoes are no end of trouble for girls. . . . How many have danced to death in slippers of silk and glass and fur and wood? Too many to count—the graveyards, they are so full these days. You are very wise to let your soles become grubby with mud, to let them grow their own slippers of moss and clay and calluses. This is far preferable to shoes which may become wicked at any moment.
That male military persona feeds a subconscious, passive-aggressive female desire to dominate the warrior as he is perceived an iconic example of masculinity (particularly amongst traditionally warlike cultures). The damsel in distress theme always struck me as embodying this: the hapless, innocently beautiful woman unwittingly enraptures the heroic male so completely that he would risk all to submit to her at his own peril, and quite in spite of it.
He says that woman speaks with nature. That she hears voices from under the earth. That wind blows in her ears and trees whisper to her. That the dead sing through her mouth and the cries of infants are clear to her. But for him this dialogue is over. He says he is not part of this world, that he was set on this world as a stranger. He sets himself apart from woman and nature.
And so it is Goldilocks who goes to the home of the three bears, Little Red Riding Hood who converses with the wolf, Dorothy who befriends a lion, Snow White who talks to the birds, Cinderella with mice as her allies, the Mermaid who is half fish, Thumbelina courted by a mole. (And when we hear in the Navaho chant of the mountain that a grown man sits and smokes with bears and follows directions given to him by squirrels, we are surprised. We had thought only little girls spoke with animals.)
Little Red Riding Hood by Arthur Rackham
We are the bird’s eggs. Bird’s eggs, flowers, butterflies, rabbits, cows, sheep; we are caterpillars; we are leaves of ivy and sprigs of wallflower. We are women. We rise from the wave. We are gazelle and doe, elephant and whale, lilies and roses and peach, we are air, we are flame, we are oyster and pearl, we are girls. We are woman and nature. And he says he cannot hear us speak.
But we hear.
― Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her