This Is Womanhood
If you are a woman, there may have been a moment in your life when you first realized you were. Maybe it was the day you got your period, or the day you turned 18, or when you first made love. Or maybe it was a voice inside of you that started as a whisper and grew louder and louder over the years. Maybe there was a moment when you first doubted your womanhood, when you began to question what it was about you that made you a woman, if there was a singular characteristic that, if taken away, would deny you womanhood.
Is womanhood biological? Is it psychological, emotional, spiritual? Is it a lens through which we see the world, a lens through which the world sees us? Is womanhood in us all? Is it a universal element, like carbon or oxygen--threaded through everything?
This Is Womanhood is a photo/flash essay series dedicated to womanhood. As we move into 2017, we may find ourselves looking even more deeply into the question of what it means to be a woman in a changing world. As a working mother struggling to balance my many identities, I find myself questioning myself as a woman. What if I can't cook? Am I still a woman? Am I good one? Will I lose my membership card if I'm always behind on laundry? I work too many hours. Or maybe I don't work enough hours. I'm not beautiful enough. I'm too loud, too emotional, not emotional enough, too sensitive, too fierce, too ambitious, not ambitious enough. Or perhaps what makes me a woman is more complicated than any of this. Maybe womanhood is a concept of my own invention. Maybe I'm still inventing it. Maybe we all are.
In the photographs, paintings, and flash essays you find here, the question of womanhood is navigated with boldness, honesty, and beauty. Women speak out about what it means to be women and how womanhood defines their identities, experiences, and relationships. If you're like me, you'll laugh, cry, and triumph as you scroll through each contribution. Go slowly. Soak them in. They are, every one of them, womanhood.
Interested in submitting your own photo and flash essay to the series? Please do! Go to "Connnect" and submit your materials or a letter of interest.
Susan Duby, Painter
We are two women, painters, collaborators, one younger and one older. One of us has yet to face the betrayal of body and beauty but sees it fast approaching. The other is me. And what is written on my body, the body of a woman in her 70th year, is a record of time. I paint the flesh as a document of the days that identify us in this space.
My painting explores the female-ness of two women, one woman leaving the safety of youth, the other entering the narrower confine of an inevitable, finite conclusion. Our work becomes a simulacrum of us, but we remain our own separate selves, a younger woman following the path of the older woman, traversing age together, separately.
In our painted world, images are painted and repainted, discarded and painted yet again in attempt to find that essential feminine humanity that allows the slippage of one identity into the other. We are bonded, all of us. The essential quality of women is to discuss (paint) our sisterhood, to share joys, sorrows, anger, and injustices understanding what is us is essentially all of us.
This is womanhood.
In the wee morning hours, there is a peculiar loneliness in a sleeping house. Time does a funny thing without the distractions of the day. It becomes more finite and unforgiving—more real.
An urgency will settle upon me.
Rattled, I’ll get up and go to the bathroom. Sometimes, I’ll catch the reflection of a young girl in the vanity mirror. She’s full of creativity, potential, and hope. Life hasn’t happened to her. For a second, we’ll lock eyes. Her face turns older and fuller as she disappears and I come into focus. But before the ether swallows her, my younger self smiles mischievously, her eyes bright and kind, and says, “Don’t quit. Put our light in the world.”
I am so grateful for each birthday—each year. The time I get while it is denied to others. There’s no rhyme or reason to where the bombs land or to whom they hit. At least I get to try. It’s my duty. And yours, too.
So, I duck and dodge.
This is womanhood.
--Heather Christie, blogger and novelist
Archaeologists will find me petrified, a perfect specimen of millennial century woman, buried at a suburban garden filled with blown glass artifacts and cemented angels with no heads. They shall clear away the decomposition with soft brushes and treat me like a fragile treasure while they Carbon-14 the scars on my forehead, arms, and pelvis.
Anthropologists shall hypothesize about the violence of my evolutionary path while they smoke on antiquity: marks on my forehead that make a crucifix down my nose will be evidence of dangerous machines; a crooked arm, set as a child, will cause debate of rickets or accident. And the museum tours! Teachers will ask seven-year olds to take a position in a five-hundred word essay as they peer upon my crinkled, tobacco-rolled appendage, brightly lit under glass.
My stitched up wrist will have philosophers debating the “Great Apathetic Age” and the afterlife— did she cut herself? Did she despair? She must have believed in God, why would headless angels be found there?
Pathologists shall study with sterilized scalpels a thick scar smiling between my hip bones: two births and wreckage of a third. Their dogged discussions dragging them into theories about the survival of the fittest and man’s [sic] interference with life, all over a genetically-modified lunch lasting through a day-light saving’s eve.
A woman will recognize me. She will claim no lasting violence to these markings, punctuating multiple sentences on my body’s pamplisest skin. She will understand the mends. This is womanhood, she will say—a soul leaving imprints on her body.
--Jodi A. Corbett
Knight in Shining Armor
For me, being a woman goes beyond being nurturing. It is far more than the typical “feminine” qualities that society generally defines. It is a beautiful blend of strength, bravery, intelligence, drive, determination, adventure, and passion. I may not look like your “typical” woman, and society may have a hard time wrapping its brain around my blurring of gender roles, but I welcome the struggle. I am proud to be a woman, the kind of woman that is chivalrous, a knight in shining armor, strong yet sensitive and kind. This is me. This is womanhood.
From Menarche to Motherhood
Birth control. “Unnatural.”
Unable to conceive. “Unnatural.”
Unable to maintain a pregnancy. “Unnatural.”
Shots of hormones. “Unnatural.”
Intrauterine insemination. “Unnatural.”
Blood thinners. “Unnatural.”
Bed rest. “Unnatural.”
Formula supplementing. “Unnatural.”
Returning to work. “Unnatural.”
There is no “natural.” This is womanhood. Womanhood shifts, injects, rejects, and creates. All in the same body.
I didn’t think I would go anywhere beyond the slums of Brooklyn, New York. My mother never did. For me, womanhood wasn’t about being able to do what a man could do. It was about doing what she, and other women in my family, never could.
I can still remember the day my brother returned from meeting his father. I held out hope the same man might be my father. But my brother crushed that hope when he said, “My father said that you are not his daughter.” I was only 10.
“Why don’t you know who my father is?” I asked my mother. I was haunted and comforted by the possibility that whoever he was, he wouldn’t have the chance to be my father because he didn’t know I existed.
She just sighed and brushed the question off.
I told myself I was lucky to be raised by my grandparents, who told me how horrible my mother really was. Early on, I accepted that although I knew who my mother was, she wasn’t a mother to me.
School was the one place I knew I had an identity. I was always at the top of the class, always the teacher’s pet. Some kids made fun of me for that, but it felt good to get attention from my teachers that I didn’t get back at home.
When my grandparents and I eventually moved to Reading, PA, I was 14 and felt like a woman. I took a job at a flower shop across the street from where I lived, hoped to buy my first car at the age of 16, hoped to graduate high school, hoped to go to college. I wanted to do so much, everything no one in my family had ever done, everything my mother had never done.
The majority of the women in my family were either stay at home mothers or wives. Following that tradition, my grandmother taught me the importance of cooking and cleaning. But she always thought I was very different from my siblings and her children.
My mother was a middle school dropout with four children from four different fathers. She wanted attention from men, many of them, more than she wanted to be a mother. Her eventual HIV diagnosis made me afraid of sex and love.
But, at sixteen, working a job, excelling in school, and driving my own car, I fell in love. And it was good. This, I thought, is womanhood, everything my mother wasn’t.
It took another nine years to realize that she, with all of her failures, is a woman too. She is a mother, a daughter, a woman with a story. She’s hurt a lot of people, but she’s also been hurt. She lives with a sickness that reminds her everyday of her past. She wears the scars of that pain. This, too, is womanhood.
She longs to have a relationship with me. She is still somehow a part of me. She keeps moving forward. It is the only direction in which to move.
My womanhood used to burn deep inside, a fetus turned super-kicking girl-child long overdue. My womanhood is not defined by a vagina, which I never had, nor social constructs of definition—clothing, makeup, social behavior, etc. I know I am a woman minus these definitions. I may have been born without a womb, but I have given birth to myself, thus I have procreative ability. And in this nation that touts equality, I stand proud in the face of adversity. I am white, but I am a woman of color, rainbow color. This is trans-womanhood. This is womanhood.
THIS is rhythm.
THIS is flow.
THIS is a primal, cyclic connection to the higher power that binds us all.
THIS is womanhood.
-Kimberly Glover, LMT/CLT
Figuring It Out
This is Womanhood.
4:40 a.m. in the quiet and dark, slipping out of the blankets into the cold air, into black gear pants or a pair of heels, depending on the day. It’s coffee then work then school, 8 hours then 7 more.
It’s 10:30 p.m., crying into the pillow. It’s not yet having figured out life.
It’s her who’s raising two little girls on minimum wage and trying to be a good wife.
Or her, leaving on an August flight for a year in Europe instead of four in college.
It’s watching him leave for boot camp.
It’s wishing you were somewhere else, perhaps someone else.
Womanhood is long talks with your best friends in the car at night.
It’s the outline of New York at midnight, over Ed Sheeran’s “Kiss Me.”
It’s donuts in the Subway parking lot, Brandon’s beat up truck, laughing so hard you hiccup.
It’s realizing your little sister learned a bad joke just to get your attention.
It’s your mothers, more than one. It’s realizing you have a home. Or two.
It’s heels and clubbing dresses and Sex on the Beach, whatever that is.
Abandoned houses, dinners we can’t afford, bubble tea and Jimmy John’s.
Hikes and bikes and the heat of summer.
It’s all the way to the “Top of World,” where you lay on the cold pavement to look up at the stars.
It’s the love of your life at the end of a long day.
Womanhood, for me as I age, is filled with sweetness. Fully clothed, in the presence of my friends and loved ones, I am seen and valued for my essence, which is ageless.
However, every morning I put on my bathing suit I am keenly aware of my aging body. It has been a long time since my skin was taut and my muscles lean. My breasts and belly droop and sag; age spots dot my hands. Sometimes, when I feel vulnerable, the voices of society echo in my mind: "old," "unappealing.” But when I swim, I am light and supple. I feel energized and refreshed each time I emerge from the pool. I have learned to embrace and celebrate ME, accepting my aging body with joy and gratitude.
This is womanhood.
...coming from a mother who, without even quite realizing it, birthed five daughters into a privileged history where men, like Santa and Jesus and fathers, were myths, neither false nor true, but stories whose words, whose metaphors and images, tried, but didn’t quite add up, didn’t quite answer the questions, didn’t quite feed the hungers and longings, and, thus, with a courage and fervor that ached and commanded, these myths were revisited, were retold through other perspectives, with other characters and plots, even conflicts, reshaped and transformed into stories whose beginnings and middles and ends were, are, and will be. This is Womanhood.
--Joey Flamm Costello
I have heard through the mouths of my mother and father who I was. What I have gathered is I am stubborn and a rebel at my core, unbending and unyielding to outside forces attempting to chip away at my conviction, no matter how small. Per my father, as a child it began with an overwhelming fascination with light switches and grew to coming home unapologetically, with tattoos, piercings, and ideologies at fifteen years old. His telling me this was an effort to shame, to compare me to my unwavering mother from whom he happened to be divorced. My mother, however, encouraged the behavior, teaching me that though she was a single mother of five, she had her womanhood. No man was successful in changing her, though they’ve tried, she said. She clung desperately to her pride. My father was unaware of these conversations repeatedly unfolding and embedding themselves deep inside me, hardening me against any outside force attempting to break me.
My husband broke me. Piece by piece, he gingerly pulled me apart and together we rebuilt someone who can actually breathe and allow happiness to penetrate. On June 10, 2014, I stood still with my hands in his under large swaying trees, a warm breeze blowing, sweat forming on my neck as I proudly said “I do.” Although my mother almost stole something from me I never knew I would have missed until it was too late, I hold sorrow for her. I didn’t realize she chose herself over love when she never had to choose. To allow yourself a deeply visceral, overwhelmingly quiet love, an unbending and unyielding love, to acquire the strength to bear the soul altering realization that to love is to gain, not to lose oneself--this is womanhood.
“Mommy, what are those scars on your arms from?” asks my daughter. She means the track marks on my arm, just above a tattoo of her tiny, newborn footprints.
Eleven years ago, I sat in my drug counselor’s office, abscesses oozing with yellow puss and deep purple bruises lining my arms. “I am staring at a corpse right now, Catherine,” she told me, trying to be professional, holding back her tears. It was two weeks later when a minute speck, a faint heartbeat, on a black and white sonogram picture awakened something inside of me. It was a glimmer of hope which had been extinguished by a hypodermic needle for over 13 years.
My daughter will never truly comprehend the impact she has had on me. As we sit and look through albums of baby photographs together, I tell her how she saved my life. I will never be a perfect mother. But this is womanhood. These scars will stay with me the rest of my life. She’ll continue to watch as I take the handful of pills she knows I need for my Bipolar disorder. She’ll watch as I wake up every morning to drive a cab, scribble out another poem. Maybe she’ll know it is love and gratitude for her that keeps me breathing, keeps me trying to be the best mother, woman, and human being I can possibly be.
I have always been my biggest bully. There was a point in my life when my mind was consumed with thoughts of me not being good enough. My biggest fear was that I wasn’t perfect; the thought of failing terrified me. I would look at myself and pick out everything that I disliked. I no longer felt beautiful. This ultimately led to my developing an eating disorder at only thirteen years old. My perception of myself and my body was completely distorted. Every day was a constant struggle, and it grew worse as the years went on. Finally, at the age of eighteen, I am slowly starting to realize that failure is okay. It is an unrealistic goal for me to strive for perfection because it doesn’t exist. I have also learned that beauty is something that everyone has. Growing up and learning these things has helped me to obtain confidence, which is something that I thought I would never have. This is womanhood. Nothing is perfect, failure is inevitable, and everyone is beautiful.
Already a Mother
“Just try again,” said the doctor. But trying again is not as easy for a same-sex couple.
Just try again, she said. We did try. A friend was a donor who’s DNA my partner felt would represent her well-a similar phenotype
Just try again. But no one prepares you for a labor and delivery with no bundle of joy to take home. The miscarriage was not natural. It was violent. Ironic. A cruel joke.
Just try again. After the miscarriage I felt as violated as I had as a victim of sexual assault. I could not stand to be touched. My uterus and vagina no longer felt like mine. And out of it poured an endless stream of blood that came for days, disappeared, and returned a month later so hard, I nearly required a blood transfusion.
Just try again. “I am sorry this is happening to you. It must be scary,” one nurse said, and I broke down in tears because I had not felt any kindness from the ER staff and those few words felt warm.
“Just try again,” said the doctor, but dismissed my postpartum depression.
Just try again. It took me nearly a year after the miscarriage to have the strength to hope again, every month waiting, each cycle a reminder.
Just try again. Deep down in my core I think I have always known that I could not bear children. I’ve only been pregnant twice and both times I miscarried.
Just try again. I should have been pregnant many times.
Just try again. The other day my therapist asked me how I was feeling and I told her it shouldn’t be this hard. “Women should bear children,” I say, “My body can’t do the one thing it is supposed to.”
Just try again. The mother in me is strong. Somehow, I always knew she was coming. I could see her, a four-year old girl navigating my home. And when she came, I knew she was my little girl.
Just try again. My womb is barren, but my heart is not. It is open and fertile. For six years now, she has been mine, not of my womb but of my heart.
I tried and tried again and again until I realized I am already a mother. I have been for a long time, through the blood and the tears, to the girl who traveled down the birth canal of another woman. This is what I longed for. This is fertile. This is not barren. This is womanhood.
Those Who Fight
Women are like a gaggle of geese: noisy and of no substance. We have been trying to overcome such notions and much worse for centuries. The bias came and comes in many forms, including from some women. Today we benefit from marriage laws, and the right to vote and own property because of hard fought battles by groups of women in the past. Legal and, especially, social equality are still a work in progress. It is only through the efforts of many people (mostly women) that we will finally achieve gender equality for all. This group cares about these issues for themselves, their daughters, and all other women. To me, this is womanhood.
This is womanhood--Love, kindness, kids, a life of hope, dreams, and wonders. I am only a kid, but I know I don’t have to wait to see the magic of womanhood. I see it in my mother, in my grandmother, in my aunt, my cousin, and in many more. It’s a kind of magic that is a feeling, an action, and is a gorgeous sight. To me, womanhood is not only beauty on the skin but a beauty in the heart and more. I believe you see it here and everywhere.
--Sophia S. Glover
If I Were Fearless
I’ve spent a lifetime seeking approval from men.
I devoted myself, as a child, to being good at math and philosophy for my father.
I repented my sins, at night, in the dark, through my tears, for God, who had always been a man, a severe and unrelenting one, who was always watching me, waiting for me to fall short.
I learned to do my makeup for my first love, who said I wasn’t pretty enough. I figured out how to quiet my bubbling emotion and bury myself in school for my second love, who said I wasn’t strong enough. I sought counseling and medication to please my third love, who said I wasn’t stable enough. I practiced smiling, dancing, and laughing for my fourth love, who said I was too angry.
I pretended my fifth love wasn’t married.
I labored over Foucault for the sixth, added squats to my workout when my seventh told me my ass wasn’t hard enough. I tried, so intently, to quiet my voice. I straightened my curly hair, agreed that low-cut shirts probably did send the wrong message. “If you only knew how intense you are,” he said. And in the mirror, over and over, I tried for less intensity.
But I have still never been validated. I still walk into a room of men and find my heart racing, wondering if they will want me, like me, respect me, hear me, if I am pretty enough, strong enough, stable enough, fun enough, articulate enough, enough enough enough.
Sometimes I wonder what I would do, who I would be if I weren’t afraid. I think of the words I would shout, the distance I would run, the music I would play, the bike I would ride, the house I would buy, the shirts I would wear, the shoes I would rock, the volume with which I would laugh and speak, the freedom with which I would dance and sing, the rules I would break, the fights I would fight, the tears I would cry.
I have swum through an ocean of “Don’t be so melodramatic,” “Idealism isn’t realism,” “Nice ass,” “You’ve got to be stronger than that,” “Life isn’t fair,” “Don’t be such a bitch,” and “Calm down,” finding only glimpses of courage enough to raise up out of the murk for breath, for clear vision, for truth. That truth exists outside my need for validation. It is slowly coming alive in me, in the shape of a naked, melodramatic, wild Goddess, untamed, always in flight, with long crazy wavy hair, a loud voice, and a face like mine. I can see her now, transcending all boundaries. She shouts, fearlessly, “Fuck it. This is me. This is womanhood.” And she does not apologize.
--Stephanie J. Andersen
Stages of Awareness
When I was in elementary school, girls had to wear dresses—unless the temperature was below freezing; then we could wear pants under our dresses and take them off in the cloakroom. (Yes, there were cloakrooms, a small hallway parallel to the classroom. I am a pre-baby boomer.)
I was allowed to be a tomboy—the term for girls who liked to play sports rather than dress up-- but I was admonished to keep my knees together when sitting on the porch steps with the other kids—because I was a girl. When my younger sister wanted ballet slippers, I wanted my own baseball glove, and I got it, but was told that I threw like a girl. Instead of playing with dolls, I drew pictures of horses and turned the back yard into a series of horseshow jumps by putting brooms and other poles at intervals around the fence.
When I started my period, I could not go swimming with the others and had to stay home with my daddy—and he knew why I was staying home; I was embarrassed. Mom told me that I could write my grandmother to tell her that I was a lady now.
I never moved with much grace, and when I plopped down in a chair, I would hear the old expression, “Well, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear!” I never knew exactly what that meant, but knew that I was not being “ladylike.”
I knew I was a girl; I never thought much about the words lady or woman. Looking back from my view from being 74 now, I believe marriage and motherhood were milestones that might have led me to think of myself as a woman instead of a girl—as noted, I never really thought of myself as a lady. Of course, I lived through the beginnings of the women’s liberation era and recall Helen Reddy’s song “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar,” raising awareness of being a woman, but I was busy being a mother and did not think much about it. Graduate school and composition studies in the 80’s raised my awareness of gender bias and sexist language, and I began making my students aware of this issue in composition classes. Divorce, dating post-divorce, moving to a new state, choosing female doctors and lawyers—those have also been facets of increasing awareness of being a woman. So, for me, this is womanhood—moving from subtle awareness of being different from boys, to growing through stages of awareness into affirming—now as a grandmother—that I am a woman.