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Woman on a Wire

Published : June 14, 2015

What does womanhood mean to women today?

by Serena Nathan

The very question is overwhelming and there are literally a million answers, all completely different to each woman.

There is the physical side of being a woman, with the rites of passage of puberty, pregnancy and childbirth and menopause. 

There are the relationships in a woman’s life that help define who she is and who she becomes, with her parents, her friends and siblings, her partner or husband and her children and grandchildren.

Her emotional life develops alongside her physical being.  With this come questions of balance and spirituality.

She works out as she goes along her personality, moods, faith, and passions.

To each woman the definition of womanhood varies, dependent upon age, circumstance, history, environment and a host of other things that make each one of us who we are.

Armed with some very difficult questions about womanhood today I contacted a broad cross section of women here and in the USA about womanhood and whether we feel we are better off than our mothers and grandmothers.  Those I interviewed ranged in age from 35 to 73.

“To me womanhood is more about the emotional and spiritual side of things.  It means strength, independence, laughter, friendship, being a good mother, working on and having an equal relationship with my husband.” - Jill 41 Perth.

Everyone applauded the fact that we are able to choose from a multitude of destinies. 

Better education and health care for women has opened doors to boundless career choices.  Some are also able to choose to stay home to raise their children, with help.  Domestic violence has been shifted further into the light and progress is being made to protect women from violence.  Domestic roles are increasingly shared between women and men.  Women are actively encouraged during their schooling to pursue jobs and careers that interest them.

How Women see Womanhood

What emerged strongly from the interviews, apart from the awareness of how our lives have become filled with opportunity and choice, is that a sense of being a woman and how this affects us comes from within, rather than as a result of what we choose to do or be.

Aimee is a new mother living in North Carolina with her husband and daughter.  She has had a successful career in education and races cars in her spare time.  To her, how she feels has less to do with the external choices she has made and more to do with how she has nurtured her inner growth and she is “more interested in personal emotional and spiritual growth in women.  I am not sure that I have a really solid definition for womanhood.  It is a sense of wellbeing and sureness that emanates from a woman who is fully within and comfortable with her womanhood.”

The perspective of how women see themselves differs with circumstance and age.  Some work, other don’t, some have kids, others don’t.  All feel under pressure, no matter what they have chosen.  As former teacher Jackie (58, Oregon) says, choice can be daunting and “it’s good that there are more options for women to go back to work, but it shouldn’t have to be felt that it’s a requirement either, and women shouldn’t have to compare themselves with others and the choices they are making.”

The Sharp Double Edge of Choice

In 1999 Susan Maushart wrote The Mask of Motherhood - How Becoming a Mother Changes our Lives and Why We Never Talk About it.  She writes that “today’s woman is told she has it all--and there are times when she would give almost anything for a refund.”

The book was a breath of fresh air for women of the nineties and noughties juggling home, kids, work and friends.

Prior to this women had been expected to simply be grateful for the fact they were able to have it all.  With this book and others like it we realised that while it is wonderful to have that option, exercising it to its fullest extent isn’t compulsory.

Those who have chosen to stay at home and raise children without also working responded that they feel under considerable social pressure.

“No woman wants to feel inadequate for choosing to be a housewife,” writes Jen (39, Perth), “however the role has definitely taken a serious nosedive in status and I think this is one of the repercussions of the feminist movement.  The movement shouted ‘we are better than this’ where in actual fact there is no more important role (like it or not) in a family unit.  But it just doesn’t sit right with today’s women, myself included.  I have to be doing more, all the time.”

Of those interviewed the most mixed group in terms of working and not working were the middle aged women between the ages of 40 and 50.

In the younger and older age brackets all were working either full or part time (apart from those younger with small babies at home).  Everyone had moments where they questioned whether they were making the most of what is available to them and also questioned whether they were making the best choice.

Sally was a partner in a law firm before having children and has chosen to stay home and not work at all in the decade since she began having her four kids.  On the other hand, her close friend Nat - also a lawyer with young children - has chosen to go back to work part time.  Each support and respect the choices made by the other and each also wonder from time to time if their own choice is the right one.

Karen is a secondary teacher in Melbourne with two grown sons.  She was able to adjust her working life to suit her and her family’s needs while her sons were growing up and chose a career that allowed this, but remembers watching her aunt who didn’t have options like that available to her.

“My aunt who died not long ago aged 86 had to leave school at 14 to help her mother at home.  She had no choice in this and lived her life as a traditional country farmer’s wife - never worked outside the home but was a ‘good’ wife.  There was always a bitterness and tightness in her, particularly evident in her relationship with her only daughter, and I often wonder how much of this was tied up with the lack of choice in her life.”

The past problems women have had with lack of choice has given way to an overabundance of choice if there is such a thing.

The expectations we have had of ourselves over the past 30 plus years have been high as has the possibility of what can be achieved.  While it is wonderful to be able to choose to be anything we want to be, those who decide to just ‘have it all’ are finding that it actually isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be, as Susan Maushart pointed out in The Mask of Motherhood.

“The idea that women can have it all is faulty,” writes Diana (35, North Carolina).  “We cannot have the perfect career, family, social life etc.  It’s a falsehood.  In attempting to have it all, we sell ourselves short and burn ourselves our.  Realising that choices mean compromise is of greater value, causing us to consider our priorities and choose what we want for our life.”

How we compromise is the sixty-four thousand dollar question.

We are no longer expected to burn our bras in order to advance the progress of fairness and equality for women, nor are we expected to keep a copy of Laura Doyle’s 2001 The Surrendered Wife under our pillows if we choose to stay at home as our great grandmothers mostly did.

The answer (or answers) lies deep within as, like Aimee, we increasingly choose to identify womanhood “through a complex interaction of femininity and self growth.”

As we do this we realise that it is not so much the choices that we make that define who we are in the context of womanhood or femininity, but where we spring from; the intention behind the choices we make.  In this we are increasingly supporting each other’s choices and withholding judgment based on our own experience.

Future Expectations

Women helping women is not a new phenomenon but it is starting to morph into a wider, more open and transparent movement that spans all areas of a woman’s life. 

Reflecting this is a new movement in the USA called Minute Mentoring.  It is for professional women and works a little like speed dating.  Each up and coming alpha woman spends a maximum of 10 minutes with one of America’s most powerful and successful women to find out how to get to the top.  The wisdom these alpha mentors impart to their eager mentees is reflective of the way feminism is moving away from its harder edges and towards a more rounded sense of achievement:

  • “Read the classics.”
  • “Turn off the TV and read.”
  • “Always be a class act.”
  • “Say Hallelujah Sister!”

Women are increasingly becoming each other’s champions. T ey are less judgmental of each other than they were 20 years ago and are actively working to help their peers and those younger achieve what they want, whether that be at home, school or work.

It is no longer the career woman versus the stay at home mum, versus the mum with three kids and a three day a week job; we really have gotten better at saying “hallelujah sister!” the tendency today is to be accepting that there is no one ‘right’ role for a woman; that we need women in the home as well as women in the House (of Representatives).

Respect for the woman running her own micro-economy of three kids and a dog is just as great as that for the woman helping to run the country as the Prime Minister of Australia.

Women have come a long, long way and the road is endless as it continues along around twists and bends.

We struggle greatly with self image and spend way too much time looking into plastic surgery and Botox, but we are becoming far better at being supportive of each other than ever before and this is apparent across the neighbourhood as well as across the globe.  The other good news is that we get more content with how we see womanhood as we get older.

“Ageing is fascinating, physically and emotionally, watching and feeling the decline physically is interesting and then there is the fun of seeing who has the upper hand; yourself or the process,” writes Evie of Perth, 66.  And of the struggle with self-image?  “I don’t struggle at all.  That’s easy,” she says, “Lady with big dog.”

There is no answer to getting it right as a woman today; no book or article that is going to be your "How To" guide.

In this new age of unlimited choice and opportunity women find themselves both excited and daunted by the prospect of choosing their destiny.

What it boils down to is not how we choose to live our lives but the attitude behind those choices.  Where we spring from defines where we are going and that springboard changes with time and experience.

As author Judith M Knowlton said, “I discovered I always have choices and sometimes it’s only a choice of attitude.”

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