When I Learned I Was :: A Woman
This is a submission from Ashley Solomon at Nourishing the Soul to the ongoing series “When did you know?”, an examination of the intersection of labels and identity. Information on how to submit your piece to the series can be found on the Join Us page. To see all posts in this series, click here.
To be honest, I had a difficult time deciding what categorization to explore. Like everyone, I have countless identities, some of which include the following: wife, daughter, white person, runner, writer, friend, therapist, professional, privileged, intellectual, teacher, student, and lover of sleep, to name a few. And also like everyone, these identities of mine shift and change for me on an almost-daily basis, expanding and contracting based on the situation, others’ expectations, and even my mood.
I decided that the category to which I most ascribe is the category of “Woman.” And so I began to think about when I knew I was a woman…
Being a woman is such a fundamental a part of who I am, I feel as though I had to be reading The Second Sex in utero. This is not to say that environment and culture don’t play major roles in the development of gender, because they most certainly do. But even as a very young child, I whole-heartedly embraced my femininity with a passion that would later be reserved only for chocolate and Sex in the City.
Along with being in love with being female, I fell in love with fighting for women to have equal status and equal rights. At six I wrote letters to Milton Bradley complaining that all of the winners in their board game commercials were boys. At nine I called on my elementary school to produce financial statements proving that they were not allocating more funds to boys’ sports than girls’ sports (they refused… and I still have my suspicions). At eleven I stuck a photo of Gloria Steinem, lovingly ripped out of Newsweek, into my Trapper Keeper along side my pictures of Leo and J.T.T. At twelve I started reading Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique. But it wasn’t until thirteen that I felt the full impact of being a woman.
At thirteen, post-menarche and still quite uncomfortable in my own skin, AIM (the virtual chat service) had just busted onto the scene. I recall playing on the internet, likely clicking in places that I didn’t belong, when I received an instant message from a guy who was much older than I was – probably in his early twenties. I remember my heart pounding with excitement at the thought of this stranger being so interested in me. No one was interested in me then, or so I thought. So despite the fact that my suitor was a faceless screenname, I reveled in the attention.
But very quickly the chatter about playing basketball and the latest MTV VJ turned seedier. The man began asking me about whether I’d ever had sex… if I’d thought about sex… what I looked like… what my fantasies were. I was thirteen. My fantasy was to not have to graduate high school without my first kiss. I wasn’t quite so blunt – I wasn’t yet sure how to be – but I did tell him that I had not had sex and wasn’t into “that kind of thing.” But he persisted, telling me that he could teach me how to use my hands on him, to make both of us feel good… And I clicked the “X” to make the screen disappear, my body shaking uncontrollably with feelings of shame and disgust.
I knew that I was a woman before that chat session, but I didn’t realize all that being a woman meant. I had known on an abstract level that women were often demonized, sexualized, marginalized… But I had not yet felt the crushing weight of being treated as a sex-object. This man, in a matter of a few moments, had taken my wide-eyed and innocent sexuality and had somehow turned it something dirty and untouchable. My womanhood became suddenly laden with shame, something I wanted to painfully scrub away and watch swirl down the drain.
I had learned that sexuality was power, but not the kind of power I longed for. And, as you might expect, the lesson didn’t end there. Suddenly aware of my own “power,” I encountered men who wanted to rob me of it at every turn. I don’t completely blame these men for this – it was part of their own confusion about sexuality and part of the distorted messages they had been taught about gender. Nonetheless, being a woman became associated for me with being an object of sexual desire – a token or a toy.
It has taken me many years to negotiate my own feelings about my womanhood and to disassociate my gender from a sense of victimization. This process is, of course, still ongoing. It has helped to become intimately connected with other women who have navigated this process well, as well as with men who break through the stereotypes of their own gender. I’m still learning what this category of “woman” means for me, keeping in mind that my own womanhood is a constantly evolving phenomenon.