I’m a woman, obviously–or maybe not obviously, but I am. The question, “what is a woman?” has always mattered to me, yet never so much as it does right now. Now I have a daughter, an unborn female growing within me, dependent on me for life, and soon, greatly influenced by my worldview. The definition of womanhood is no mere theory: it is a launching point for how I live my life as a woman, how I teach my sons to see and treat women, and how I will teach my daughter to understand herself. It seems to me, answering “what is a woman?” well is crucial; it looms large before me, and seems impossible to answer as I’m surrounded by a world full of conflicting definitions that seem subject to change by the whim of the century or a shift in the wind.
What will I tell my daughter? What do I tell myself?
Is womanhood defined as a choice? A mere preference chosen on instinct and recognizable by length of hair, clothing choices and color swatches? If a man decides his biology does not determine his gender, is that all there is to claiming womanhood? Are our bodies and souls separate, biology in one sphere, identity in another?
Is womanhood defined by shared oppression? Is our identity found in how others treat us? Is emancipation our ultimate goal? And if it is, what then?
Is womanhood indistinguishable from manhood? Is there no explanation for our differences than weak cultural constructs thrust upon us?
Is womanhood defined by our lives as consumers? Is it determined by how we dress and the hobbies we choose?
Are women lesser than men? Are we more?
Or is it possible, when cultural constructs, external appearance, a history of mistreatment, and the opinions of others, are all stripped away, is there something central to being a woman, is there some eternal significance that unites both our bodies and souls, transcending culture and time?
If I try to answer these questions from the prevailing cultural narrative, I find conflicting answers, confusion, and wobbly footing that leaves me feeling disoriented and unsatisfied.
However, if I look to something eternal to find meaning, then maybe I have a chance at understanding who I am as a woman.
Womanhood, as with all other finite concepts, must have an infinite reference point from which to derive its meaning–or so Sartre would argue–and as a Christian, I know an infinite reference point intimately: he created me, he died for me.
As Elisabeth Elliot wrote:
In order to learn what it means to be a woman we must start with the One who made her.
-Let Me Be a Woman
I serve a God who created me, and Scripture describes his creation as an intimate act, not an arbitrary one. It is from him alone that I can find the meaning of womanhood, and subsequently how that meaning influences my days.
And yet, even knowing this, I keep looking elsewhere. It is so tempting to look anywhere but him for answers, because often God’s answers are hard, refining like a fire that burns away all the impurities that I like to cling to. I keep looking to places I know will leave me unsatisfied and confused; I look to beauty ads, politics, history, or a vague notion of the future, and most often I look within myself to somehow figure out what I want to be true, instead of what is true.
But here I am, a woman, a biological fact apparent in the makeup of my body, including the womb I have that now holds the life of another female. I am a woman, not by choice, but design. And this biological reality is united with my soul; I am female, body and soul. As St. Augustine wrote:
That the body is united with the soul, so that [humanity] may be entire and complete is a fact we recognize on the evidence of our own nature.
-City of God
The God who spoke a complicated, life-sustaining planet into existence also fashioned me, uniquely female, in my own mother’s womb. In God’s created order there is intentionality in his actions: he made humanity both male and female, distinct, and ordained in their callings.
It is no mere chance nor choice that makes me a woman: it is a calling, and that matters into the scope of the eternal,
We are called to be women. The fact that I am a woman does not make me a different kind of Christian, but the fact that I am a Christian does make me a different kind of woman.
-Let Me Be a Woman
If we want to know what it means to be a woman, in all that it encompasses: our bodies, our identities, our gifts, our boundaries, our roles, then we must ask him. And–thankfully–we know whatever he says is good, this God who designed us, who bled for us, who sustains us, who loves us. We may initially strain against the definition he gives us–as humans often do–but when we keep our eyes on who he is and what he has done, then we can see the beauty of his design and we can flourish in it, even as it challenges us to embrace–and yes, submit to–something that at first glance may make us curse.