Monday, January 31, 2005

The Paradox of Woman's Being and Doing

The definition of "woman" cannot be comprehended either through distilling the essence of her being, or by solely outlining what she does. Like faith and works, being and doing are inextricably linked. They are paradoxical notions. Being and Doing parallel and echo Faith and Works. In the context of a work driven, achievement oriented society, doing (works)has been denigrated spiritually in favour of being (faith), as if the essence of personhood, either male or female, can be divorced from what one does. I maintain that it cannot.

I grew up thinking I knew what it was to be female. My mother looked and seemed the perfect model of feminity. She wore those slinky suits and crinolined dresses, matching hats and stilletto heels. With her large breasts and small waist she was the essence of feminine sexual desirability in that post war world. She had a low, soft voice and deferred to my father in many things. But that is not all there was. My mother visited the sick, comforted the bereaved, opened her home to the lonely, taught the teen Bible class, shared leadership in the women's prayer group. Once my brother was in school, she returned to work outside the home. She brought her skills of organization and administration to her work. She kept her personal griefs to herself, in the way she had been taught by her Victorian parents. I expected to grow up to be just like her.

Then suddenly it was the sixties and I emerged as a woman far different from my mother. I did not have large breasts and a slim waist, but small breasts and a thicker waist. This was confusing. Was my body the definition of who I was as a woman? Now more than thirty years later, past menopause and well into the invisible decades, I can assert firmly, "No." I was not like my mother in size or shape or fashion. I didn't think like her either. But I was still a woman.

I was somewhat consoled by the sixties' fetish for flat chestedness and long slim legs, but I was further confused by the buzz of burgeoning feminism all around me. Reading Germaine Greer and others shattered all the notions I had gathered from my mother about what was required of a woman. Chastity was gone. Sexual freedom was in. Homemaking was gone. Career was in. Dependence was gone. Independence was in. A woman had to be tough. Passive sexuality was out. Orgasm was in. The cover photo of The Female Eunuch haunts my mind...a headless, limbless, empty female torso, hung painfully, a sack on hooks, or was it a clothesline?

For me it is quite impossible to talk about a definition of womanhood without reference to sexuality, sex role stereotypes and history. I never demand of the past that it be other than it was. There is no point. Clearly both my mother and I were products of our generation. We wore the fashion of our time and imbibed our individual generation's norms and mores. If I were to go one generation back, I would find my mother's mother doing the same, to the best of her ability. Immigrating to Canada. Bearing and raising ten children. That is what women did in 1914, before we had birth control and the vote. Still, I believe we were not without influence. Left to his own devices, I don't think my grandfather would ever have managed to get himself and those first five children on the boat!

The essence of womanhood cannot be grasped without an understanding of her lived experience. One must be female. One must fill out that empty torso and wear it in the world. I have an acquaintance who is transgendered. She has lived as both a man and a woman, and although clearly she felt that she needed to conform her physical self to her psychological reality, I think she would be the first to say that her experience of herself as female was and is the aspect of her life which defines her as a woman. In other words, not her genitalia, but her inner sense of herself defined her. She lived this all her conscious life, long before her surgeries. She perceived herself as woman before anyone sensed this and furthermore, she perceived that this was how God made her. I don't argue with that.

I have spent a lifetime trying to conform to this or that external notion of womanhood. I was not the classic beauty that my mother had been. Nor was I fertile, like my grandmother. I spent some time at university trying to embody The Feminine Mystique, the toughness, the language, swearing a blue streak, striking an angry posture. But my lived experience as a woman was mine alone. No one can duplicate or falsify this aspect of reality. This place, this lived experience, is where our being and our doing unite.

My lived experience of womanhood was abruptly awakened when I held a dead baby in my arms, and buried it in an unmarked grave in a Haitian jungle. Part of the experience of all womanhood was now my own. There was One who in permissive will allowed me to experience this tragedy. Later, though I would adopt children, I would never bear them. But I would know, from inside, what it is like to nurture and love, and then, shockingly to bathe and dress a tiny body for burial. This experience almost more than any other in my life defines who I am, creates my essence. It may be rooted in practical doing at a point of time in a long gone summer. Yet it is vitally real today. It links me to grieving women in East Asia, in Iraq, in Toronto's hospital for sick children.

Who rushed to the grave to anoint the body of Jesus? The women. This is one thing women do. But this is not all. Women come alive where being and doing meet, where heart's longing and soul's choosing mesh. They live out their essence, as they become aware, of self and other in the unending chain of being, of pain and joy, of solace and wholeness. They make choices, creatively doing...following the call of the One who made them female in the first place. Their faith carries them into works and back again to contemplation.

I end where I began, touching on huge issues and leaving them largely unsolved. There is a paradox of being and doing, of faith and works. You can't have either without the other. Women, in the context of their times, live out that paradox. Whether they be confined or free, young or old, educated or unschooled, cosmopolitan or rural. Whether they are single or married, widowed, divorced or abandoned. Whether they have children or not, wombs and breasts or not...these things, believe me do not define woman. A woman is one God makes and calls. This makes her no different from a man. It is her living, her sense of herself, her being and doing, which make her unique.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

oh Connie - this is so hard to comment on. The fullness, the heart, the reality, of who you are and who others are pour from this page."A woman is one God makes and calls. This makes her no different from a man. It is her living, her sense of herself, her being and doing, which make her unique." You rock. Thank you for sharing your beauty with us. Anj

steph said...

Connie this just blows me away. This is amazing. You are amazing.
I wish I could sit there talking with you, hearing more, asking questions, putting pieces of my own life together. This is a wonderful piece of truth.

Deb said...

Wow Connie! What a tremendous post. Your thoughts are so clear, so true and so empowering. Anj is right...you rock!!

bobbie said...

thank you for this life-giving one - you have given birth to great beauty here. i need to re-read this again and again to own it's truth.

tears course down my cheeks at this gift you have given me - so well timed. thank you connie. owning, accepting, acknowledging and embracing my feminitiy is exactly where i am right now and i am so grateful for your help in this. god bless you woman! consider yourself hugged!

me said...

"so hard to comment on" is right, but i feel the need to let you know how much i enjoyed reading this.

Kathryn Ballantine said...

Wow, truely inspiring Aunt Connie. It seems that my little 16 year old body is trying to understand the meaning of femenity, my mind and heart also. It seems to come up more and more in odd dreams and daily conversations... thankyou for shending a little light
Aunti Kate