This past summer I read a novel called The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Within the novel Chopin uses her main character Edna to represent the struggles of coming to terms with her place in society as a woman. More significantly, Chopin addresses the issue of women breaking away from societal norms as she shows Edna to recognize a truer meaning of womanhood from the refusal of conformation within society. These themes represented within Chopin’s work led me to ask myself the question, “I am a woman because…”?
I feel as if this novel really struck a nerve within my thoughts due to the context of my life at this time. I am eighteen years old and journeying through my final year of high school. I am deciding where to go to college and the focus of my studies. I am a survivor of sexual assault, and continuously recovering. I am recognizing that if I choose so, my impact on those around me can be much more significant than the idle thoughts I had for myself when I was growing up. Those thoughts I had as a little girl of being taken care of by a man and having a family no longer correlate with my new thoughts. The thoughts I am now having as a woman.
All these ideas have led me to question not only what it means to me to be a woman within society today, but also what it means to other woman, and how those women view themselves as individuals and in comparison to their roles within their community. As society is continuously changing I felt compelled to get personal ideas and opinions of women from all ages, races/ethnicities, and orientations in order to recognize a truer meaning of how, why, and when women are able to come to terms with their identity as a woman.
Katherine Flugge (37, White, Straight):
One of the first women I thought to interview was Katherine Flugge, a history and social justice teacher from my school here at Central. Flugge is thirty seven years old, she is a wife, and a mother of two little boys.
Flugge said she recognized herself as a woman for one of the first times when she was a freshman in college. Flugge’s original plan for her college education was to major in political science with intentions to be a political operative in D.C, but due to the “overwhelming misogyny and sexism [she] experienced from [her] (almost all) white male classmates and professors” Flugge decided to pursue a degree in history education.
“I had such strong women in my life growing up, and they were acknowledged as such by everyone in the family – men included. So it never occurred to me until I was older that women weren’t supposed to be strong, fierce advocates.”
Even so, Flugge still recognizes that society has it’s own ways of implementing gender roles whether a person abides by them or not. For instance, Flugge shared that after her and her husband were married they decided to put her husbands name on the mortgage of the house that she was previously the sole owner of. Flugge said that even though it was she that owned the account and it was she that provided a bigger source of income for the two, when they got their first statement from the bank in the mail, her husband’s name came first and her own beneath it.
Begging the question are the people that would say, “Well her name is still on it, so what?” The fact of the matter is, that because she is a woman, society indirectly acknowledges her as lesser than her husband by being listed second in official business matters. Society perpetuates this idea that because women do have some privileges that men have, that they are to a certain extent “equal”. But the thing is, having some equal rights is not the same as having true equality for people of every gender.
When asked what is means to be a woman in society Flugge expressed her concerns, “ so often the idea of “woman” is defined as the opposite of “man” and I don’t think it’s that simple.”
She expressed the idea that both men and women interchangeably hold characteristics of all genders. In her words Flugge acknowledged that she is a woman because she is, “strong, passionate, compassionate, and kind” adding that, “those qualities can and should exist in men, as well.”
Emma Chmielewski (17, White, Gay) :
Emma Chmielewski, a peer of mine here at Central is seventeen years old and identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Chmielewski acknowledged that she holds, “Both traits of male and female, but [she] still recognize[s] [her]self as a woman.”
Chmielewski’s main concern regarding the experience of coming to terms with an identity as a woman comes from women as a whole own ideas and stereotypes of what it means to be a “woman.”
“The term woman is different for everyone, there is no one definition. The problem is, many woman have an idea of what a woman should be, and it then makes women as a whole feel like there is an unrealistic stereotype that they need to fulfill.”
A common theme in society is for women to shame other women for not correlating one’s own experiences with another. Chmielewski talked about how she has always recognized herself as a girl, but that sometimes when she sees other girls grouped together she feels as if she doesn’t necessarily fit into the same “category.”
Additionally Chmielewski has concerns about the discrimination she will receive as not only a woman, but as a bisexual women in society as she transitions into adulthood.
“I feel prepared to endure discrimination. Being gay at such a young age in a somewhat liberal high school hasn’t faced me with a lot of discrimination. But I feel as I get older those characteristics could hinder my place in society.”
Discrimination against members of the LGBT community have always existed within society. At seventeen years old for Chmielewski to that her potential roles within society could be hindered simply because her orientation must be daunting.
But she uses these things, the things society uses to oppress her, as something she can gain from. Confidently she expressed, “I have both male and female qualities and I am happy and comfortable and I don’t live to represent society’s stereotypes.”
Chmielewski’s response to being asked why she was a woman simply was, “I am a woman because I am myself and no one else’s.”
Brandi Pelmore (44, African American, Straight) :
Brandi Pelmore, my counselor here at Central kindly shared with me her history of how and when she first recognized that she was a woman in the context of learning about her period. In addition she shared how other woman in her family have helped to positively influence a confidence in sharing her own voice.
In 1983 when Pelmore was a little girl she recalled how “the commercials on television wouldn’t even mention the word “period.” In fact she remembers thinking when the pad brand Always was first advertised on television, “what in the world are they talking about?”
Historically, talking about menstruation has always been a taboo thing. Many cultures in society believe that because or during the time that women have their period they are unclean. The lack of discussion in politics of women’s reproductive rights has caused for few education resources provided for by the government. I myself was never provided with any formal education about menstruation until I was in the 6th grade, after I, and many other girls had already started our periods.
Pelmore shared with me the first time in her life that she recognized she was a women. It was when she was in the 5th grade and her and her classmates were separated by boys and girls to be taught about puberty.
“For one class period someone (I think it may be the school nurse) talked to us about girls getting their “period”. At the end of the talk, we each received a “gift bag” which had feminine hygiene products and a coupon on our “next purchase” she said.
Today at the age of forty-four Pelmore represents herself as a very strong and confident woman. After sharing four years with her during my high school experience, it is very clear to see how comfortable she is with herself in everything that she does.
Pelmore acknowledged that part of this confidence came from the influence she received from all the “strong women” within her family. Explicitly mentioned were her grandmother and mother.
“My grandmother whom I was very close to was an activist during the civil rights era, and a community activist afterward. She was also the first African American head nurse at the VA hospital in North Chicago. She was comfortable “in her skin” and also, was not afraid to speak her mind.”
Pelmore’s mother was also “an activist in her community and a champion of social causes.” She claimed that her mother’s thought has always been, “ if a person asks me for my opinion I will give it.”
That same belief is shared by Pelmore herself. When asked why she was a woman she responded, “ I am a woman because I believe I am.”
Lia Roberts (54, Italian American, Straight)
Lia Roberts (yes, my mom) was born in 1962. Today after having been married for over thirty years and having five children, Roberts recognized a huge growth in her perspective of feminism and how it positively affects society.
Gender roles were highly enforced during the time Roberts was growing up. Roberts mother, my nonna was born and raised in Italy and came to America after marrying my grandfather. When the two were divorced however, her mother was thrust into society as not only a single mother of three, but was also a foreigner with a very noticeable heavy accent.
“Society’s expectations on my mom as she was a foreigner were different from regular women. My mother’s accent caused others to think she was stupid. My mother was very smart.”
Roberts was heavily influenced by her own mother in the way that she was taught how to carry herself within society.
“Growing up on the weekends I helped my mom do housework while my older brothers got to go out. I learned from my mother how to take care of a family, how to care for children, how to dress and be a lady. My mom always had her hair and makeup done for when she went out.”
The 1960s headed the start of of second wave feminism. At this time things such as birth control, women in the workplace receiving equal pay, and fighting against domestic violence and sexual assault began to reveal itself. Many women had already been fighting for these rights, but at this time the conversation reached mainstream media.
At this time, my mom like many in fact disagreed with these views, considering them radical and unnecessary.
“When I was younger I didn’t believe in women’s rights” expressed Roberts. “When I was growing up the ideal was for girls to get married and have kids. I was raised on a military base and people’s expectations were for me to marry an officer.”
Roberts recalled the time when she first recognized like she was a woman. At the age of fifteen she remembers walking around on the military base in Rantoul, Illinois how young men would catcall at her.
“It made me feel like a woman, being able to get a man’s attention. My parents were divorced and I never had the attention of a man at home. [Being catcalled] was a validation for me.”
Street harassment continues to exist in cultures today. Psychologically the effects of street harassment cause a distorted image of self-work. Street harassment causes both men and women to view victims of such as solely a source of objectification.
Roberts recognizes today how important it is to be supportive of women’s rights, and how they not only can positively affect her but her daughter (me) as well.
When questioned how or if society today shows women how and why they are women, Roberts responded very passionately.
“I don’t think society tells you what you are anymore. I grew up in the 60s and 70s. During that time there were very distinctive gender roles. Now a days genders mix, they intertwine. Women can be lawyers and be respected. Men can be nurses and not be called gay. I get up confident in who I am as a person, I know who I am. I think every girl, young woman, and women of older ages recognize pressures, I myself included. But over the years I have grown comfortable with the directions I have moved in.”
In all, when I asked my mom why she felt she was a woman she knew right away. She proclaimed, “I am a woman because I am strong.”
Glorian Roberts (18, White, Straight)
Strength, compassion, and confidence. Three common characteristics these women have expressed when revealing why they were a woman. This prolonged the question within myself, one that I had to think about very hard. Why AM I a woman, and how do I know that? As I began to recount the experiences I’ve gone through during my life, I began to formulate an answer. One that like all of these other women have shown, required compassion, confidence, and most importantly strength.
In the fall of 2015 I remember having had my first thought of what being a woman meant. It came after, in all honesty, such horrific circumstances.
Last fall I was raped by a peer at my school. It was daunting to me, to recognize how most unwillingly I had been used. I remember the day after I was assaulted thinking to myself, “This is what is must mean to be a woman. To have someone use you, in such terrible ways. But I was able to get up this morning. I was able to wake up and get ready and to be apart of the world as if nothing happened. This is what it means to be a women.”
Months passed before I was able to acknowledge that what had happened to me was wrong. But as soon as I was able to acknowledge the truth, that to me was the first step I truly took in coming to terms with womanhood and what it meant to me to be a woman.
Today I am able to recognize that I am a woman, because as a woman I have been able to take all the things society has used to oppress me, to stereotype and categorize me, to manipulate me and tell me I am wrong, I use those things and make them something I can gain from.
Facing the taboo of being a survivor of rape has not and will not always be an easy thing. But rather than let the ideas of who I am to not only to society, but the ideas of what I was to my rapist define who I am as a person, I have decided entirely on my own to define myself.
I face the world today carrying the most powerful tool I have grown from my experiences, and that is love and compassion.
I hope from these journeys of womanhood it is more clear for society to recognize that in the end women are, and will always be just as equal as men. And by woman, I mean every single human being that identifies as a woman. It does not matter your background, age, orientation, race/ethnicity, etc. If you believe you are a woman, you are a woman. And being a woman does not mean you are weak, or submissive. It means you are brave. In the words of an author I consider truly inspiring, Maya Angelou describes us women in all when she claims, “I’m a woman//Phenomenally.//Phenomenal woman,//That’s me.”
We are women. Phenomenally. Phenomenal women. That’s us.