What Makes Me a Woman
I was an infant who was designated “female” at birth. I am a woman because I say so.
“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” - Simone de Beauvoir
I wasn’t born a woman. I was an infant who was designated “female” at birth.
Once the doctor who helped deliver me made sure I was breathing on my own and had turned the proper shade of pink, he became the first person Earthside to judge me based on my anatomy. He looked at my body, decided my genitals matched closely enough to certain visual criteria, and told my mother, “Congratulations, it’s a girl.” He checked a box on a form, I got named after a weather condition, and a nurse stamped my tiny little footprints on the back of fancy cardstock for my baby book. Welcome to the world! It’s bright, cold, loud, full of strangers, you’ll have to learn absolutely everything from scratch, and you seem to be missing your pants.
So, when did I become a woman, and how do I know that’s who I really am?
Women have XX Chromosomes!
Generally speaking, yes. But not always, and not exclusively. Experts estimate that up to 1.7 percent of the global population are born with intersex traits. That figure may seem insignificant, but it’s roughly the same as the global population of natural redheads. We tend to assume that all chromosomal variations have external physical signs, as with Down syndrome. This isn’t always the case, especially for female children.
Turner syndrome, where the second X chromosome is either partially or completely missing (Karyotype X or XO), affects 1 in 2,500 live female births, yet does not always have outwardly observable symptoms. Mild cases may remain undiagnosed until adulthood if puberty is not delayed and the patient’s height remains within a normal range. Any loss of fertility due to ovarian dysfunction can go unnoticed if the patient is not trying to become pregnant.
Trisomy X, or Triple X syndrome (Karyotype XXX) affects about 1 in 1,000 females and can also have mild or unnoticeable physical symptoms other than above-average height.
People with Swyer syndrome, which affects 1 in 80,000 live births, have female external genitals and some combination of female internal reproductive organs, with an XY, or “male” sex chromosome karyotype. They are usually assigned female at birth based on their external anatomy and are often not diagnosed until puberty.
I’ve never had chromosomal testing. I didn’t have any outward symptoms of a genetic disorder at birth, and the rest was a waiting game. Society, medicine, and I all assume my sex chromosomes are XX, but that’s never been confirmed. Have yours?
Test the Hormone Levels!
People tend to think of estrogen as the “female” hormone and testosterone as the “male” one. In reality, hormones are not sex-specific. All humans past puberty produce estrogen, testosterone, follicle-stimulating hormones (FSH), and luteinizing hormones (LH), in differing amounts and for different purposes.
My estrogen, FSH, and LH levels are at different levels than many women’s. I’m over 40. I’m not pregnant or using any type of hormonal birth control method. I haven’t menstruated in years. If you’re looking for my eggs, you’d best go check in the fridge.
As for testosterone, I haven’t had mine tested but athletes like South African gold medalist sprinter Caster Semenya certainly have. Ms. Semenya was assigned female at birth based on her anatomy and was raised as a girl. She has an intersex condition that causes her body to produce a higher-than-average level of testosterone. World Athletics, track’s governing body, issued amended rules in 2018 that require intersex female runners to either lower their natural testosterone levels through medication or surgery, or be disqualified from competing in certain international events. Three other women, Aminatou Seyni of Niger, Margaret Wambui of Kenya, and Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi were also affected by this ruling.
These four individuals are legally, socially, and biologically recognized as women. Athletically, they are only considered women if they’re running less than 400 meters or more than 1500 meters or if they chemically or physically alter their natural bodies against their own wishes. Somehow, that’s supposed to be fair.
Women Have a Uterus!
I’m a woman. I don’t have a uterus. Lots of women don’t have a uterus for a multitude of reasons. Maybe they were born with one, maybe they weren’t. Former Miss Michigan USA Jaclyn Schultz was born without a uterus. Jaclyn has MRKH syndrome, a condition affecting 1 in every 4,500 women worldwide. People with MRKH have typical female external genitals (which is called a vulva, by the way), but the uterus, vagina, and cervix are either underdeveloped or entirely missing.
I was born with a uterus, and we had some good years together. Then my uterus started making me increasingly miserable and downright unhealthy. The cure for that, according to my Board-certified OBGYN, was to have it removed, so I did. I’m still too much of a klutz to safely wear white pants, but the surgery really did solve a host of other problems. 10/10, would recommend. I would, however, not recommend going around telling women who were born without a uterus or who have had theirs removed that they are wrong about their own identities.
Only Women Have Periods!
Okay, first off, no. Anyone between menarche and menopause who has a functioning uterus can menstruate. This includes transgender men and boys, nonbinary people, and intersex people who do not consider themselves to be women. It also includes young girls who are not adults in either a physical or legal sense.
I was 11 when I started menstruating. I was still under five feet tall and probably weighed about 90 lbs. soaking wet with my shoes on. I came home with blood all over the seat of my pants, my jacket tied around my waist, and a strong sense of embarrassment and frustration. Nobody threw pads or tampons at me, but also, nobody had told me yet why or when I might need them. My parents had thought I was still too young to know. Reproductive health education wasn’t offered at my school until 7th grade, and I was still in 6th.
If an 11-year-old is a woman in your opinion, please give your head a shake and stay very, very far away from my daughter.
“Someone who can give birth to a child, a mother, is a woman.”
On April 5, 2022, HuffPost asked Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) for his definition of a woman. His reply was, “Someone who can give birth to a child, a mother, is a woman. Someone who has a uterus is a woman. It doesn’t seem that complicated to me.” In follow-up questions, he was asked whether a person who had their uterus removed or had lost their reproductive organ function due to cancer would still be a woman.
Thus Spake Joshua: “Yeah. Well, I don’t know, would they?” and “I mean, a woman has a vagina, right?”
Yes, Mr. Hawley. Some women do have a vagina, and some women can and have given birth to a child. My own body has conceived, carried, delivered, and fed three children. That makes me a parent. My kids call me “Mom” most of the time and “Mother” when I’m embarrassing them in public or making them wash their own dishes. I would also be a mother if I had adopted my children, had chosen formula over breast milk, or used donor eggs or a gestational carrier. I’d still be a parent if I fostered children. If I hadn’t done any of those things, if I couldn’t or if I just didn’t want to, I would still be just as much of a woman.
Biological essentialism, defining women by their breasts, wombs, and child-bearing capacity is reductive, exclusionary, patriarchal, and smacks of eugenics. I am much more than a sentient incubator and a life support system for a pair of tits. Sex characteristics and anatomy may describe what is “female,” but these factors alone cannot define or dictate who is a “woman.”
Speaking of reductive, Google may be a subscription-free service, but its search results are not always accurate or applicable to nuanced sociological concepts. For example, I recently Googled “aspects of womanhood” and up popped “femininity” and this list of its stereotypical traits. It’s a little more expansive than sugar and spice and everything nice, but the overall gist is still the same.
I looked up “manliness” for good measure. At least I got a definition that acknowledged cultural, racial, and historical variables, but it still condensed masculinity down to “strength, courage, independence, leadership, and assertiveness.”
Does that mean that as a woman I’m limited to passivity if I also want to be affectionate? Can I not be both nurturing and assertive? We’re going to have to be more specific on how we measure strength. I can’t lift as much weight as my spouse, but he can’t handle how hot I run my bath water and brew my tea.
If it’s all the same to Wikipedia, I’m going to combine both lists into a single, a la carte menu to define myself accurately and to choose the characteristics I most want to embody. I want to my sons to know that emotion and gentleness are not weakness or forbidden to them. I want my daughter to know that modesty and humility are spectrums she gets to calibrate for herself. I believe that none of these traits are limited to or by specific anatomy, genetics, or reproductive capacity. They are, and should be, open and applicable to all humans.
Gender? I Hardly Even Know Her!
Femininity, masculinity, and the near-infinite mixtures of the two are aspects of gender, not sex. Our culture is obsessed with sex as an activity and deeply averse to it as a descriptive term. We frequently use “gender” as a more palatable euphemism for sex, but the two words are not actually synonyms. Sex traits are what designated me as female. Sex is scientific, rooted in biology if not in binaries, and definitely real. Gender is a social construct, still equally as real but nowhere near as rigid.
For example, color-coded pink and blue baby clothing didn’t exist prior to the 1900s. Pink was originally thought to be a stronger color more suitable to boys, while blue was the delicate and dainty complementary color for girls. It’s only been since the 1940s that pink became so solidly linked to femininity instead of masculinity. High-heeled shoes originated in 10th century Persia to help cavalry riders keep their feet in their stirrups. Men had been wearing makeup since 4000 BCE, until Queen Victoria I and the Church of England decided to be killjoys about it in the 1800s.
In more modern times, social constructs of gender have been manipulated into narrowly defined roles and rules for relationships, professions, parenting, hobbies, and interests that are weaponized against anyone who doesn’t comply, even if that compliance makes them miserable. We’ve used it to create pay gaps, divide restrooms by signage instead of type of plumbing fixtures, and remove functional pockets from a good portion of women’s clothing. I reject and rebuke that nonsense.
For me, gender is a personal identity factor that gives me labels like “woman” to examine, test, and decide whether its fits my innate sense of self. Gender is also a form of expression. It’s my lace lingerie worn under my sharpest suit and tie. It’s my undercut, vertical pixie hairstyle and my waterproof mascara. It’s my stiletto heels and my abject refusal to sit like a lady, even though I was definitely taught how. Gender is feeling like an imposter in a frilly dress but right at home in a flannel shirt. Gender is a spectrum of options that still lands on some shade of “woman” for me even as the individual parameters continue to shift over time and to suit my taste. Gender is what each person decides to make of it, and I don’t think there are any entirely wrong answers.
As a newborn, I was assigned female as a sex category and raised and referred to as a girl. My transition from girl to woman was a process of aging, legal and social maturity, and personal discovery.
I am an adult human whose sense of identity as a gendered being, as I have come understand and define it, still basically aligns with the sex category someone else entered into a form on my behalf. My dimensions transcend my measurements, and my value is so much more than the sum of my parts. My womanhood recognizes my biology as a baseline and not a limitation. It knows that women who are exceptions to certain binary anatomical or reproductive rules are not broken, flawed, freakish, selfish, or expired.
I have and will continue to navigate age, culture, parenthood, femininity, marriage, identity, and expression and decide for myself what to embrace or reject. I will recognize that this is an individual journey that applies only to myself, that others are free to choose differently without my approval, and that I am in no way limited by their choices. My sense of womanhood is not based on or limited to other’s definitions. I know I’m a woman because I know myself better and more intimately than anyone else does.
Ultimately, I’m a woman because I say so, not because anyone else did.