As I mentioned recently, I’ve been thinking a fair amount lately about gender as relates to identity. In particular, I’ve been struggling with the question of my own valuation (or lack thereof) of so-called feminine characteristics. In fact, I mostly feel obligated to find freedom from femininity. I have accepted some of its superficial aspects—like wearing women’s clothing—and have been socialized into certain modes of conversation and a more relaxed attitude towards emotional expression. But I tend to see these as mere evidence that I haven’t given up my full humanity in certain realms, as many men have felt pressured to do. Not being repressed in these areas doesn’t make me feel positively about femininity—it is merely a first step towards being everything I can be, and everything I typically feel I can’t be if I’m restricted to a woman’s world, even a woman’s world in the 21st-century United States.
The problem here is that some feminists would actually accuse me of accepting the lie that for women to be valued or successful they must become just like men. Obviously, many women believe this, accepting male culture and men’s rules to play in the big leagues of politics, business, and academia. And of course, sometimes adopting the “majority” culture can be adaptive, even if it carries many disadvantages. But the question becomes where do we draw the line between a woman who is putting aside the passive roles once thrust upon her and a woman who has abandoned the positive values of womanhood to buy into an alternative value system of logic, aggression, and bottom lines? What is a woman acting more “masculine” because she is rejecting traditional roles vs. a woman buying into sexism by hating her own femininity?
In his 1968 book Identity: Youth and Crisis, psychologist Erik Erikson discussed female identity in the chapter “Womanhood and the Inner Space.” In many ways he is progressive, asking readers to consider the ways in which women, if actually included as full participants in every field (rather than mere token additions to the workforce), might influence the world for good. Would we be less prone to war? Would women suggest new ways to apply technology? Where else would feminine values balance out the ways men have always done things? Interestingly, such inclusion of women’s values and communication styles is, in many ways, in line with what feminists today desire.
However, I believe Erikson also exemplifies that dark side of this kind of thinking. He emphasizes the symbolic value of a woman’s reproductive capacity to an extreme, which I find a little ridiculous. We would never twist the shape of our ears or the number of our toes into some grand metaphor, and yet we think we can do this when it comes to the vagina, penis, uterus, and sperm. Even when biology has psychological and social implications, is that enough of a basis for an entire schema explaining gender and identity? Particularly, I question his emphasis of the “outer” vs. the “inner” orientations of men and women. I doubt he would be fixated on those particular concepts were it not for the Industrial Revolution and the sharp division of the public and private spheres that ensued. And if you don’t accept the way Erikson sees feminine identity, what else is there? On what tangible thing can Erikson, today’s feminists, or anyone else base “feminine values” if not gender essentialism?
I do agree that we need to embrace some of the values typically shunned by men, but not because they are “feminine” as much as they are good. Many of them are quite Christian, in fact, and our Christianity, in particular, will be hurting without these emphases. I also agree that we need to consider women’s ways of communicating and doing things in business and other realms, even beyond these positive values they bring. We should be sensitive and inclusive of the “culture” men and women both bring to their work together, much as we should strive for multi-ethnic cooperation that fully appreciates everyone’s gifts. I’m with Erikson and I’m with many of today’s feminists on that much.
But I’m just not certain that I as a feminist and as a woman will ever be comfortable saying there is anything uniquely feminine. I consider “masculinity” and “femininity” to be misunderstandings in and of themselves, restricting all of us into molds many of us don’t fit. I don’t want to be a woman that devalues women’s contributions or the positive traits women have been socialized to have; however, I tend to believe they are just that: traits we have been socialized into. And when it comes to understanding myself as a woman, I find the most meaning out of understanding myself as a feminist in a sexist world. Being a woman is a constant battle with society to expand the limits of who I’m allowed to be, and after that experience, I’m much less interested in emphasizing positive “feminine” values than I am ridding myself of any restrictions on the expression of my human identity.
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