What is a ‘Woman?’–a personal journey
I’ve asked this question before. Idly passing time with friends. As a sounding board for non-binary loved ones trying to understood where they fit in the crazy thing we call ‘gender.’ A philosophical question in classes. A discussion in biology.
But I ask the question now in confusion and loss. And yet I am afraid to ask it.
All my life I have called myself a woman. All my life, until the last year. Sometime in the last year, ‘woman’ stopped feeling like the right answer. For a while I put ‘female.’ And in the last few months when the question comes up, I just stare. Not sure how to answer.
And slowly, I realized, I don’t know how to answer. I don’t know if I am a woman. How can I say I am a woman when I don’t know what a woman is?
But isn’t this just cis tears? What right do I, with 34 years of cis privilege behind me, have to bother the world with my mid-life identity crisis? My closest friends and links are trans or non-binary. Surely they would wonder why I’m making such a thing about my gender. It’s not like I stopped being cis, right?
I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to any of it. I just know I need to find my way through this sudden morass that once was a clear trail.
So I need to ask, what is a woman? And can I still call myself one?
Biology is useless. Anyone willing to do some basic research with an open mind at this point understands that ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are more than genitals, more than XX or XY chromosomes. Neurology might eventually provide some useful information. Might.
My limited understanding of the research is:
- cis women’s brains usually look something like this range of development
- cis men’s brains usually look something like that range of development
- trans people’s brains usually are somewhere in the middle with trans women being closer to cis women and trans men being closer to cis men
if anyone has looked specifically at non-binary folks I haven’t heard of it.
So I suppose theoretically, one day, we will be able to define gender based on brain structure. Not sure I like that idea, but it’s kind of irrelevant right now. Even ‘woman’ could be defined by falling within a certain spectrum of brain structures, it’s not like I can afford to get my head scanned just to see if I meet the criteria.
Culture is… I mean, I know I’m not femme. But I don’t see myself as masc either. And neither of those equals ‘woman.’ Sure, women are more likely to be femme and men are more likely to be masc. But there are plenty of femme men and masc women out there. Plus all the non-binary folk who are both, either, or neither depending on the person and the situation.
And I’ve never really known where I fit in the cultural male-female dichotomy. I’ve lost track of the number of times I read something or was talking with someone about “women usually think like this, men usually think like that,” and gone, “huh, I guess I’m more like a man than a woman.”
That’s kind of getting into psychology which is… look, psychology is an absolutely fascinating field of study that has done a lot to help people with mental illness and done a lot of harm when it enshrines cultural stigmas. Way back when a psychologist saved my life. And I can still him looking at me today with that quirked smile. I could dump all this out on him and raise his eyebrows… “And? What do want me to say?” with that infuriating serious-humor of his.
“I want you to tell me I am overthinking this! Tell me it’s simple. Tell me I don’t need to rethink my understanding of who I am and how I fit in this crazy world!”
And he’d lean back, purse his lips. A minute or so later he’d sit back up and go, “No.
“I’m not here to give you the easier answers,” he’d say, “I’m here to give you someone to rail at until you’re ready to admit what you already know.”
What I already know is that there are a dozen or so definitions of ‘woman,’ from my friend’s ‘an external label that shapes how people treat me,’ to the bigot’s ‘a person with a vulva,’ to long involved definitions by feminist thinkers I honestly can’t wrap my head around.
What I already know is that none of these definitions help me. That no definition will help me.
I’m not ready to take that next step. I need someone to rail and rant at until I’m ready to face the truth. The reason that for my current turmoil, it doesn’t matter how ‘woman’ is defined.
Because right now, I really wish it did.
If I am Not Woman, What am I?
A couple months ago I wrote about my struggle to define woman so I could understand why I was no longer comfortable calling myself a woman. I didn’t come to any satisfactory (or useful) conclusions, but I did reach a point of acceptance. I reached a point where I could say, “Whether or not I can clearly define woman, what matters is I am not comfortable calling myself ‘woman.’” Which left the big question: where do I go from here?
I found the answer in a place I never expected.
After I wrote that article, I mostly tried to put my gender confusion aside for a while. I didn’t pretend it didn’t exist, but I also didn’t spend time trying to figure it out. I put my energy into things I felt I had some control over.
One of the things I started doing was actively studying the Talmud and the Commentaries. I found a great website that has a huge amount of Jewish scripture and writing available for free. A lot of it is only in Hebrew, but enough has been translated into English that I don’t need to finish learning Hebrew before I dig in.
A few months into my studies, I had version N+5 of the conversation where I explain that Judaism recognizes six genders. I’ve had this discussion several times, but never had good references to offer because I didn’t have access to the scripture or writing that discussed the various genders. And it occurred to me that thanks to this website, I do have that access now.
So I went searching. And there it was. Laid out before me in beautiful pixels. Not just the references I needed to show others that Judaism does not enforce a gender binary, but the information I needed for myself, to finally learn and explore the true spectrum of gender as understood by my culture and heritage.
It was, as I rather expected, a mixed bag. While Judaism did reject a binary view of gender, it did and for the most part does embrace a view of gender defined by genitals and other sexual characteristics. And it also assumes that one’s gender will be determined by the rabbis, not by oneself.
And of course, being Judaism, it wasn’t simple.
But I found there something I never expected, even if maybe I should have. It’s not like I didn’t know that Judaism had a complex understanding of gender. But one word stood out for me in a way I never expected.
Translations, as always vary. A masculine woman. A woman with a male nature. A woman with male characteristics. But the core of it is there—a gender that exists between man and woman, not fully either, but that is closer to woman-ness than man-ness.
“Woman” irritates—like my one shirt with a rough spot in the seam that digs into my shoulder and will open a sore if I wear it too long. “Man” doesn’t fit at all—as well try to stuff myself into my children’s clothing. And “non-binary” just sits wrong—like a shirt one size too big that keeps slipping down to show off more of my boobs than I like.
I wrestled with it a bit. Because while the essense of ay’lonit fits, the traditional application of it didn’t. Traditionally, a person was considered ay’lonit if they were born with a vulva, but either didn’t go through puberty or were barren.
I did go through puberty. And I am most definitely NOT barren.
But the traditional application was based the rabbis’ presumption that they needed to make the best guess they could and not on an individuals understanding of themselves. Today we understand that genitals are not gender. While genitals and gender both exist on a spectrum, gender is a mix of sociology and psychology—a matter of culture and mind. And the six genders of Judaism were culturally recognized, with the obsessively detailed and highly gendered laws having specific applications for each of the recognized genders.
Ay’lonit is a gender. And whether my sexual organs correspond with the way ancient rabbis THOUGHT that gender should be is neither here nor there. What matters is my heart, my mind, my self.
I am ay’lonit.
*transliterating is always fun. Ay’lonit can also be spelled ayalonit and aylonit. Ay’lonit is my preferred spelling, but others are equally valid.
I first shared these several years ago on Medium. I hope they continue to be beneficial to people walking their own journeys.
Alexi’s Tale: A Transgender Fairytale