issue 227 - January 1992
The Real Woman
What is a woman anyway? Nina Silver charts a course
through sex, roles, paganism and love for her dog.
'You walk like a soldier.' The sneer in the accusation startled me. Focused on my inner world and stepping determinedly, my body was free to let my arms swing the way they are supposed to when you walk.
This was in the late 1950s, before women's liberation. The words were spoken by my mother who had been brought up to believe that if a woman didn't suppress the natural impulses of her mind, body and heart she wasn't being a lady - and was therefore not worthy or redeemable as a human being.
Even before that childhood challenge to my sex identity, I'd thought a great deal about what it means to be a woman, what is really entailed in being a man. As a little girl I was keenly aware of the sex-role stereotyping in our culture and hated it.
I observed my mother submerging her intelligence and opinions beneath my father because, according to her, his ego was fragile and needed boosting - and should be boosted because he was a man. In kindergarten the boys were assigned to play with electric trains while the girls could only potter with miniature kitchen sets. This made me very indignant. I ignored the tiny stoves, sinks and pots, and taught myself how to read bigger words.
The world has changed somewhat since I was a child but the same questions have remained with me. What is a man? And what is a woman? Apparently, my possessing female genitalia wasn't enough to qualify me for being a woman. It also involved other things I needed to learn.
I failed miserably. Particularly in those early years. I was accused of embodying qualities that offended both the existing norms and the people who made the accusations. At different times my accusers charged that I looked like a boy (when I kissed another girl); looked like a girl (when I was developing breasts); thought too rationally (like a boy - my father called me 'Univac' after the first computer); was too emotional (like a girl); was a lesbian (because I was assertive); and - after all that - acted as though I weren't human.
In high school, when my budding sexual desire for female classmates was unhappily still relegated to the realm of fantasy, the mother of a nice senior boy I was dating warned him about me. She'd heard I was on drugs (which wasn't true) and that I was a lesbian (which wasn't true - yet - either). I felt amused by the first allegation and complimented by the second. To me, being regarded as gay meant that people saw me as someone who had enough personal identity not to need males or the male-dominated culture to define me. A lesbian, unconcerned about securing a husband, was exempt from most role-playing at being a 'sweet young thing' who shouldn't get her hands dirty, sprint across the street, fix the faucet or tell somebody off.
By the time I entered college, cataloguing people's similarities and differences had become my passion. I decided that I couldn't do anything about the language or what people thought, but I could try to develop my strengths so that whatever people said about me wouldn't have any power. If people wanted to equate a female adult or a lesbian with being 'mannish', who cared? Those qualities made me more, not less, of a woman. I met many lesbians who were vibrant, strong, women-identified women. And these women were saying that what our culture defines as 'feminine is in its own right, strong, necessary, and good.
This challenged me, for despite the fact that a woman is not supposed to possess the stronger characteristics attributed to men, I had actually found it easier to exhibit traits relegated to the 'non-female' end of the spectrum. I would now find the perfect balance and support in the gay community. I rejoiced in eager anticipation.
Alas, in communing with the gay world I discovered to my horror that the polarized butch-femme roles of gay women I'd always heard about did indeed exist and my precious theory was shot to hell. I saw how in some lesbian and gay relationships - just as in heterosexual ones - the rigid sex-typed roles of 'man' and 'woman' kept people prisoners of culturally acceptable human behaviour. Both partners were - as far as I could tell - genitally women. So what then did constitute a real woman?
By now I was a psychology student and reading voraciously. I discovered enthralling facts that only complicated my research. Some African cultures reversed roles. That was great, I thought, but wait a minute... that meant there were circumscribed rules to follow. That couldn't be very good, could it? Men who acted as women do in our culture, and women who were male-like? What was the use of role reversal as long as there were still roles to reverse? Why couldn't people simply act as they felt?
By the time I graduated college there were lots more studies out on both humans and animals. I read, fascinated, about the male seahorse which gestates the eggs that the female seahorse lays in his pouch. Another article reported that the tropical clownfish changes its sex according to the reproductive needs of its community.
What men investigators had determined was natural, aggressive, sexual behaviour in some adult male primates was countered by women who were showing - surprise! - that many female monkeys were sexually assertive and promiscuous, even when they were already pregnant.
And on it went. By this time, even the local newspapers were featuring stories stating that men had hormonal cycles as well as women, who now shouldn't have to take all the bad press for being emotional during 'that time of the month'. When I read that male mono-rail operators in Japan were given time off during the sensitive points in their cycles, I was overjoyed.
Meanwhile data was coming out that the maternal instinct is stimulated by the mother's smelling of the newborn and I struggled with the possibility that maybe there was something to biology after all. But no; that would give men power to call women weak and emotional, power to relegate women back to the kitchen. I collected more data, grateful for my 'male' analytical mind and hating myself for even thinking in those terms.
Maybe underneath my passion for learning was an inferior female body. But that couldn't be. Trying to calm my whirling brain, I had just treated myself to New York City's Big Apple Circus and seen the only two-women trapeze act in the world. One of the women had to be as strong as a man in order to hold herself in the air and her partner, too.
If my outward genitals didn't qualify me as a woman, then it must be more subtle biology. Enter John Money, Johns Hopkins University psychologist and sex researcher, who said that the XX and XY chromosome myth was very nice - tying the sexes into neat packages - but untrue.
We have assumed, he wrote 'that there are two quite separate roads, one leading from XY chromosomes at conception to manhood, the other from XX chromosome at conception to womanhood. But scientists are uncovering a different picture. There are not two roads, but one road with a number of forks where each of us turns in either the male or the female direction. You become male or female by stages. Most of us turn smoothly in the same direction at each fork.'
I read, fascinated, about how the many different forks could produce: females with internalized male organs; women with an 'overabundance' of testosterone which gives them muscular strength greater than the average female; hermaphrodites possessing an XX chromosome pattern born with both male and female internal organs; and the extremely rare case of males possessing XX chromosome patterns.
This was interesting, but left my basic question unanswered: how could I determine what a real woman or a real man was if biology was so varied?
Meanwhile my world was rearranging itself at a dizzying pace. All around me, lesbians were buying houses and having children together via artificial insemination; my feminist friends were growing their hair long again and becoming more 'feminine'; and open transsexuals joined the women's, gay, and bisexual liberation movements.
Frantic, I focussed the bulk of my affection on my dog and decided to be celibate for a while.
Clearly, the sex of the person one relates to didn't have a thing to do with one's own sex. Neither did chromosomes, times of the month, hormones, whether or not someone lactates, how one earns a living, or what they do in their spare time. There had to be a fresh insight apart from the books I was reading or the people I was talking to, something that would end my search once and for all.
I got interested in the pagan movement and finally, one day, I invented a transcendental experience. My awareness took the form of a voice. It was - and is - my own voice. It has authority, this voice that somehow got lost in the shuffle of turning book pages, discussion groups, questions. For a long time this voice has needed to know that it exists. How can we know who and where we are until we sort through everything that isn't important, isn't real?
I remind myself that we are all bound together by our humanity: we laugh, cry, eat, grieve, pee, yell, feel joy, have orgasms. Embracing the life force inside myself that grants us these feelings is the most I can ask of life. And if I feel my own energy, and act according to my desires, then that's who I am. If I am considered a woman, it's because I'm a human being who happens to have observable female genitals. But that's as far as it goes. We're constantly inventing ourselves, or allowing ourselves to be invented by others.
When I'm in the present, labels don't cross my mind. I'm too busy simply... being.
Nina Silver is a counsellor, writer, singer and composer living in New York.
My name is Graciela Tapia and I was born 37 years ago in a small Peruvian mountain village in the province of Apurimac. When I was eight my mother sent me to Lima to live with my aunt and uncle because my father did not like me.
I arrived in Lima without documents and so I could not go to school. I started to work in various houses as a domestic servant. I did not make friends with anyone who could have advised me about life or sex.
At the age of 14 I met the person who was to become the father of my children. It happened like this: as a small child I'd heard my mother say that when a man kissed a woman that man became her husband. So when he kissed me I said: 'Now you are my husband'. We got married when I was just 15 years old, he was 21. I knew nothing about sex. No one had told me where babies came from.
I was very disconcerted when my husband told me that we must join our bodies. The first time we made love I was frightened and ashamed. But afterwards I felt happy. To hold someone's body close to mine felt so good it made me feel happy.
I was very surprised when I became pregnant. I didn't want to leave the house. I wanted to wait for the stork. My in-laws found this very amusing. 'How could you know how to go with a man and not know how to give birth?', they asked. My mother-in-law then explained it to me but so badly it made me very worried.
The first year we lived together was the best, but as soon as I gave birth everything began to change. I felt so happy with my baby. I lived to take care of him. My husband got jealous and started going out with other women and mistreating me.
For any reason he would insult me. He taunted me with the fact that I was illiterate whilst he had almost finished secondary school. He would not give me money and spent on drink the money I earned washing clothes. And he forced me to have sex with him. Sometimes I gave in because I did not want the children to hear us fighting. But often we came to blows. During sex I felt humiliated, furious and disgusted. I became like a stone, closed my eyes and imagined I was with another man.
Now that my children have grown up I no longer want to live like this. I understand now that as a woman I have dignity and that nobody should abuse me. For the past few months I have been insisting that he leave. He does not want to but I am going to force him to. I'm seeking legal advice.
I'm also in this women's group which produces radio programmes in this suburb and it is doing me a lot of good. I've always wanted to learn and share new things. On the programme we express our problems through radio theatre - I do dramatizations which are all based on real life situations. We know many women who are beaten and raped by their husbands. But many now are not putting up with it anymore. As for me, I get on well with my children and I'm teaching them to be caring and sharing in their sexual relations.
Graciela Tapia was interviewed by Sonia Luz Carrillo.