All month long I have read articles and heard news stories about women, past and present. Their accomplishments, their struggles, their everyday lives. I enjoyed it immensely. It buoyed me up and I felt like women were starting to matter more to the world. It felt like I mattered a little more to the world. It was half way through the month when I realized the noticeably increased interest wasn't due to a new social awakening; it was Women's History Month.
I felt a bit deflated by that realization. It was much more uplifting to think the increased volume of content about women was because consumers and creators were more interested in telling those stories. It was much less inspiring to realize it was largely due to a government declaration that we pay special attention to women from the 1st through the 31st.
I didn't actually know March was women's history month. Apparently it has been since the late 1980's. That means for most of my life women's history month has been a thing. Maybe someone mentioned it to me at some point, but we certainly didn't celebrate it in school, and it wasn't recognized in any way by my employers. I can't actually remember hearing anything about it in the news or other media until this year. It never even occur to me to Google it. And that's sad.
I am fem-presenting and often identify myself as a woman, although I didn't identify as a feminist until my thirties. When I was a kid and the only gender choices available were boy or girl, I identified as a girl-who-hates-dresses. Someone told me that meant I was a tomboy, so I ran with that for a while. Sometime later I stopped hating dresses, but I kept hating pink, so I decided that meant I was a not-girly-girl.
I was some other kind of girl. And girls grow into women. So that is what I became.
I was certainly enculturated to be a woman. I have gone to great lengths to avoid taking up space in the world. I have seen it as my duty to facilitate the comfort of the people around me, especially when those people are men. And I have done the lion's share of emotional processing in many of my relationships with man-identifying humans.
But what does it actually mean to be a woman? What is a woman? For much of history, woman has meant a particular kind of property. Today, according to Google a woman is "an adult female human being." Logically accurate, much more neutral on ownership, and also not very useful.
Ultimately, a woman is a made up idea, just like many concepts in our modern society. When I think about what makes me a woman, it's hard to put my finger on. When I examine all my tendencies and preferences, none of what makes me me has anything to do with my being or not being a woman. When it comes down to it, I am a woman because of my cultural upbringing.
I feel like a woman because I have shared experience with other women. I have suffered a woman's hardships and I have realized a woman's accomplishments. There are things I have seen and felt in my life that only another woman can understand. The world has treated me like a woman, and I have treated myself like a woman. I have lived a woman's life.
In my early adulthood, I didn't think my being a girl or woman mattered very much. I did not spend time pondering the meaning of being a woman or consider gender identity beyond how it related to sexuality. I thought of myself as just a person. One of a zillion humans roaming the earth. It wasn't until I began training in martial arts that I started to see being a woman was an integral part of my identity.
My first martial arts teacher did an excellent job teaching in a gender-neutral manner. He taught everyone in the dojo the same curriculum in more or less the same way, adding nuance for individual student's needs or comprehension. He is quite adept at seeing exactly where a student is along the path to mastery and offering that student exactly the next piece they need to move forward in that training journey.
For the first few years I felt like one of many humans at the dojo, and that felt great. I didn't ever think about being a woman because I could punch and kick and throw and grapple just like everyone else. It mattered more that I am a small-sized human, so my teacher gave me tips and techniques to be successful against larger opponents. But once I had all the basics, it started to become clear that training as a woman was very different than training as a man.
One day as an intermediate student, my teacher pulled me aside along with the other two women in class that day. We were doing street drills on the ground, so simulating the worst case scenario of being on the ground with an attacker on top. He asked us why we were not using what I will call the techniques of last resort: biting, pinching, grabbing our attacker's balls.
I explained that when I used those techniques, my training partner would freak out and just squash me even more so I could never be successful in the drill. He said I would have to know that was coming and get out of the way. In other words, I would have to keep myself safe. Just like I already had to do in the world outside the dojo, although I did not make that connection at the time because I had not yet acknowledged the totality of my experience as a woman in the world.
On that day, my teacher gave us all permission to use the techniques of last resort, so off we went to bite and pinch and claw our way out of bad martial situations. It seemed like good advice at the time, and in one sense it was. It worked. In the world that exists today, I need to assert myself and maintain my boundaries and be prepared for inevitable blowback.
But that method of accommodation only serves to keep me safe from moment to moment. It does not cultivate a safer world for us all to live in because it does nothing to address the underlying problem. All the responsibility for my safety during class was in my hands, which does not ask my training partners to check their egos and allow me the space to learn without worrying about getting hurt.
I did not make the connection until years later that I was having a very different experience in class than my often larger and mostly male training partners. I was constantly working two skills at once. Not only did I need to do the drill set by our instructor, I needed to accommodate for my (male) partner's ego or lack of control.
As an advanced student, my training became even more personal. I had to work through some significant internal and emotional daemons to advance from green sash to brown, and from brown to black. Part of that was reckoning with my identity as a woman. I realized I had not initially considered my womanness as relevant because I didn't think being a woman gave me any added value.
I had swallowed the world's toxically low opinions about women and accepted them as true without even being aware of what burden I was carrying. It was an incredibly painful realization. And incredibly healing once I processed through it. As poet Audre Lorde put it: women are powerful and dangerous. I am powerful and dangerous.
My experience as a woman is important to recognize because it has shaped who I have become. I am a woman. And I am also so much more. I am a fighter, a teacher, a dancer, an organizer, an accountant, an artist, a cook, a volunteer, a gardener, a philosopher, a friend, a lover, a sibling, a child, a human.
All those other identities feel much more relevant in describing who I am as an individual. And they are much more useful in discerning whether I might be a compatible friend, a good fit for a project, or have useful advice on a particular topic. Being a woman only explains part of my existence, some of my experience, and does not determine my worth or ability.
It turns out that has been true for all of human existence. Women were also hunters in ancient nomadic tribes, despite the myth of man-the-hunter that has been accepted since at least the 1960’s. And that makes perfect sense. I know many people who are adept survivalists. Some of them are men, some are women, and some are nonbinary. And none of them are skilled at living in nature because of their gender.
Using gender to decide how a long-dead person participated in their ancient society has resulted in scientists and historians drawing many faulty conclusions about humans of the past. Which, in turn, leads us to draw faulty conclusions about our contemporary fellow humans.
Gender is an experience. And it informs much of the rest of our experience. It can be a useful shortcut, but too often it's applied when it is the least relevant factor in a situation or circumstance. I am a woman. But you don’t know what that means to me unless I tell you because I am also a complete human being. We are all complete human beings. Let's work harder to see the fullness of ourselves and each other.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.