How to be a woman

A few days ago a Facebook friend of mine posted this photo (I have no idea if this is, or is supposed to be, a genuine quotation from Coco Chanel or whether whoever made the image just liked the photo)

trying to be a man

I was interested to find out why she had posted it. Although we have some things in common (we are both women and Christians and of a similar age), we are from different cultural backgrounds and have different ideologies. I asked her what she thought “trying to be a man” meant. She replied that she thought it referred to women who say they “don’t need a man” and that “they can do everything themself.” She added that while women probably CAN do everything men can do, she doesn’t understand why they would want to, and finished by saying that it also referred to women who believe that “manly” things are superior  and forget that “womanly things” are just as valid.

I thought this was an interesting response which showcased some of the key attitudes that exist about women in Christian circles. It referenced the idea that women and men have different (but complimentary) roles, the idea that women need to rely upon (and perhaps submit to) men rather than attempt independence, and finally the (feminist-ish, sort of) idea that feminine things are undervalued. But what exactly is a “manly” thing, and what is a “womanly” thing, and does it matter?

I asked my friend what she meant by “manly” things, and I am genuinely interested to know the answer, but she has yet to reply. The image intrigues yet worries me: does it say “here is a beautiful woman. This is what being a woman looks like, If you don’t look like this you are trying to be a man”? Or could we interpret it more positively – after all, Coco Chanel was a single woman all her life and a successful business woman too, although many Christians might not consider her to be a positive example to follow?

I have heard Christian teaching about women and what it means to be “feminine” and most of it left me cold. The message seemed to be that my role was to marry a man as quickly as possible so that I could have children and fulfil some sort of “Biblical” ideal. The funny thing is that the Biblical ideal for women is not as clear-cut as they made it sound. Christianity is about following Jesus and making disciples. In some places it seems to have rather become a cult of “marriage” and “the family” in which an unmarried woman, a career woman, even a woman who dedicates her life to Christian ministry rather than a husband,  is considered disobedient. This despite the fact that Christ himself asked his followers to leave behind their families (Luke 15:25-27)  and St.Paul taught that for the sake of the Gospel the ideal for Christians, presumably of both sexes, was to remain single (1 Corinthians 7;8), while marriage was the next best thing if they really couldn’t live without sexual intimacy…

I once attended a Christian conference and went to hear a (female) speaker talk about “femininity.” The speaker herself was excellent, but I was shocked by participants’ responses when she asked us to list things that made us feel “feminine.” The responses to me seemed silly, inconsequential and just plain wrong. Most of all they pandered to the worst stereotypes of women rather than affirming women’s unique strengths and contributions. Giggling was heard. One woman said “being afraid of spiders” made her feel feminine! Others talked about girly magazines, lipstick and bubble baths as though these were the things that defined us as women. There is something wrong with the Church if it gives its female members the idea that such trivial things define their gender identity.

According to my friend’s interpretation of the above image, I am probably “trying to be a man.” I do not have a man, nor do I  believe I need a man (although I like them and am glad to have male friends). I do “manly” things if needed. I reject the mainstream Christian teachings about femininity because I don’t believe they are the only option God gives to women in the Bible. I don’t think “manly” things are superior to “womanly” things, mainly because I don’t believe there are many behaviours that are specifically “male” or “female” (with some exceptions). I am afraid of spiders, and I do like a bubble bath, but I don’t believe this makes me a woman or that if a man shared my fears and pleasures it would make him somehow effeminate.

But I am a woman. On the same day I saw the image above I started to think about how all the things I had done that day might be divided into “male” and “female” activities. It was a strange thought. I wondered if I was being “manly” when I helped my father do some hard manual labor, moving the logs for the fire to the back of the house, enjoying the ache in my muscles, the fresh air and the rough bark on my hands. Was I being “womanly” when I made him a cup of tea, only to be “manly” again when I sat with him to smoke a cigarette I rolled for us? A woman again when I helped my sister do her make up and hair for a party? Manly again when I hammered some nails into the wall? Most troubling, am I being “manly” when I chose to live with a woman, to live under submission to no husband? When I cut my hair short? When I stand up to preach in Church?

Or was I just being Charlotte, a woman, a beloved daughter, who choses to submit only to God?

Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame.
Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated.

For your Maker is your husband—
the Lord Almighty is his name—
the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer;
he is called the God of all the earth

Isaiah 54: 4-5

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2 thoughts on “How to be a woman

  1. mikeferemos says:

    It’s quite hard, as a man, to reply to this without sounding either patronising or “camp-follower” -ish. But I do think it’s important to try to do so…

    We are all losers if half of humanity is devalued to the point of being relegated to “traditionally feminine” roles. (Which tradition, exactly? We are in danger of confusing 1950s America with the Chosen People, here.)

    If we can stand, any or all of us, as beloved daughters and sons of God, and if we are prepared to submit only to God (carefully avoids personal pronoun…) then we can change the world, just as the followers of our Lord did in the years after his death and resurrection. If we can’t, then the outlook for the Western world is as bleak as that of any great empire in history, it seems to me.

    Thank you for such a really thoughtful and thought-compelling post!

    • Thank you for this comment, Mike!
      One of the reasons I find this issue difficult is that I don’t see eye to eye with people who claim that certain things are “feminine” (mainly because they usually mean being weaker in some way, or delicate, or in need of extra care like we were all glass vases or something!) I also don’t see eye to eye with the idea that *all* gender characteristics are socially conditioned into us (ie that gender difference, as such, doesn’t exisit at all). I am once again trying to find the “middle ground” but it is a difficult one – how can I define “femininity” without going to either extreme? Part of the problem is that the “feminine” has always been constructed in a reactionary way as “that which is not masculine.” Problematic to say the least!

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