What Kind of Woman Are You Anyway??

My best friend Amanda at left current ID: queer, and myself current ID: bi, back when only one of us knew we liked girls too (she figured it out a few years later).

If you’ve never read Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw, perhaps you should get around to doing that one of these days. In the meantime, here is a link to her TEDwomen 2016 Talk on The Urgency of Intersectionality which is about 20 minutes long, and includes subtitles on the video and a transcript at the same link. I may be getting ahead of myself (I do that sometimes), but for me it becomes impossible to unpack Judith Butler’s questions of how to define “women” as a unified group, and whether that unity is needed in the first place, and talks of coalitions without bringing myself back to Dr. Crenshaw’s work. But I suppose first I should return to Judith Butler and circle back.

In Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity Butler says :

“Universalistic claims are based on a common or shared epistemological standpoint, understood as the articulated consciousness or shared structures of femininity, maternity, sexuality, and/or écriture feminine.”

With this passage, I feel like she gets to the crux of the vagaries that come with trying to find a single definition of feminism, let alone of women. It is these universal claims that I have spent my years running headlong into like a wall transcending time, space, and linguistic barriers to pop up when I am least amenable to it.

Belle was my favorite Disney princess for a reason, and not just for her brown hair.

For starters, let’s go with shared structures of femininity. For as long as I have been making my own decisions, there has been a Venn diagram of Things I’d Like To Do and Things I Am Expected To Do. There’s never been a whole lot of overlap between the two in my case. Lacy dresses, sitting quietly, the color pink in general, and later heels, makeup, hip hugger jeans and shirts that showed cleavage were all foreign to me. I would still give in to social pressure every once in a while, but for the most part feminine expression and I just didn’t get along.

In an interview by Sara Ahmed, Judith Butler further elaborates on this mismatch of assignment and expectation, suggesting there are “two dimensions of gender performativity,” namely the “unchosen” gender assignment and the “performative action” which is how we engage with the expections of performativity based on our assigned gender. For me, this follows pretty easily, as it has been my general experience. I was allowed to wear my jeans shorts cut from jeans I’d ripped holes in the knees seam to seam playing tackle football on the playground provided that my top was sufficiently lacy, floral, or a “girly” color to balance that out.

I have always been far more comfortable in clothes that minimized my chesticles, and before those grew in, more comfortable in clothes that allowed me freedom to flip upside down on the monkey bars without being Shannon Elyse’d for showing my underwear. Getting used to the very concept of bras was obnoxious. I was far, far too busy doing other things to bother learning to apply creams and powders to my face. Besides which, the particular strain of Evangelical Christianity that my mom made sure my teen magazines had emphasized that whole natural beauty and “you’re beautiful the way God made you” line of thought and were very cishet binary oriented, as one might expect from a program by Focus on the Family.

Relating to the women around me on the subject of maternity only got harder as I got older. As a Catholic, my other friends who share my faith are not so big on that whole hormonal birth control thing. As someone with a uterus and endometriosis, I am all about that whole hormonal birth control thing (wow is it nice to not lose a week throwing up with cramps bad enough that prescription strength pain medication didn’t help). Mothering a biological child just isn’t in the hand I was dealt, and I’m fine with that. My friends, not so much. I remember one posting angrily about how her fertility was not a disease that needed treated, upset by the very notion that it might be. I remember thinking “it’s great that yours isn’t. Mine is.” The way the Catholic pro-life movement talks about maternity doesn’t have space in the mainstream talking points for women whose bodies aren’t made for motherhood. Just because I have a uterus doesn’t make me intrinsically imbued with the ability to carry a fetus to term. There are about seven medications between autoimmune disorders and chemical imbalances I’d have to go off of if I were to conceive, and that’s not touching the paraplegia or Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and my variant gets progressively worse with each generation. I’m lucky enough to be with a guy who says that his DNA isn’t worth risking my life, but what if I weren’t? The focus on biological maternity continues to both alienate and boggle the mind.

A shared unified concept of sexuality sounds like a fever dream, a utopian idea that can only exist in a vacuum. Maybe that’s just the intersection of being Catholic and being queer. But it feels like even in intracommunity discourses there is very little consensus. Butler touches on this in her answers to Ahmed, “at the time that queer theory began, I am pretty sure that nearly everyone thought that ‘queer’ should not be an identity, but should name something of the uncapturable or unpredictable trajectory of a sexual life.” So this idea of non-identity base concept was already shifting towards identity by the time I started seeking out information in 1997, which she acknowledges. I was nine when I realized I liked boys and girls the same way. I proceeded to check AOL with increasingly panicked searches about how to become a cloistered nun by age 12 in the middle of corn and soy bean field Ohio. Turns out they stopped allowing that practice by the year of our lord 1997. Between arguments about whether queer is reclaimed enough to be used as an umbrella term, to arguments about who really belongs in the QUILTBAG, it’s difficult to find space in my brain for the idea of a unified theory even within the American English speaking population.

The only way I’ve gotten as far as I have in my understandings of gender and sexuality have been coming at it from places of solidarity and acknowledging the differences in background. The work that Butler has done in presenting a groundwork upon which an understanding that there are many factors that influence a person’s views and how they engage in the world and the opportunities available to them, allowing others to correct and fill in the gaps, pointing out new gaping holes along the way, that’s a form of feminism I can start to engage with. Both pieces give an entry to the problem of defining what a woman is, and the multitudes the word “woman” or “feminism” can contain. This passage from Butler is a gateway to examining that place of intersectionality, and I think that’s why it has stuck with me the way it has.