Thursday, November 10, 2011

Women in the 21st Century

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about what it means to be a man in the 21st century. Since I am a woman, I had help with that one; Grey and I brainstormed ideas since he is a guy and all. But this idea of cultural influence versus biology is fascinating. You are a man or a woman based on biology and chromosomal factors. Not much, barring surgery and regular hormone injections, will change that. Given our current culture, state of technology and climate, what does it mean to be a woman in the 21st century?

For me at least, there are several factors to consider. There are the expectations I grew up with, the choices I made and what I expect for the future. As a girl in Dayton, Washington, I visited with my guidance counselor at school exactly one time and that was a few weeks before I graduated from high school. I had taken four years of business classes, agriculture courses and the regular high school rigamarole. I was the state Vice President for Future Business Leaders of America and an FFA officer. I was a Columbia County Fair Hostess and had spent four years in the musical plays at school. But I was sick or gone a lot and my grades weren't so hot. She never opened a file or asked me my hopes or dreams. She suggested I take a few secretarial courses at the local community college. "Let's face it", I heard her say, "It's not like you're going to be a brain surgeon". I hated hearing that. But I did sign up for the community college courses. I dropped out because I couldn't write the 10 page term paper for history class.

As an 18 year old drop out, I secured employment in many ways. I worked at US West as an operator and in the winter at the local ski resort. I made very little money and lived with my boyfriend. I cooked and cleaned and felt angry most of the time. I knew how to drive trucks and shoot rifles and fish. I had a vague feeling that my employment wasn't a very important part of society's expectations for me, that my job was somehow to get married and have children and cook Sunday supper. Frankly, I like that idea. I think it's important for a parent to be home with their child if at all possible. I would love to have that option. I would love for all people interested to have that option. But I also subscribed to the idea that the man in the relationship should be the one who makes the decisions and that the woman should be "taken care of" by him. My problem is that I think too much. I heard that many times as a child and a young adult. "You are too sensitive" and "You have got to stop thinking so much".

Oh, and I'm stubborn.

In my 20s, I tried a number of careers- fast food, the Air Force (I have asthma and got kicked out after 7 weeks of basic training), bar tending, hotel (front desk- sexual harassment anyone?) and secretarial work. I sucked at all of those things. I read quite a bit and anesthetized myself with television. It seemed that most of my life was a distraction for the million miles an hour that my brain traveled at. It took years and years before I discovered teaching. I'm good at it. It brings the light to my eyes. It helps my students who need to know the things I can teach.

I loved college because nobody knew me there. I could let my inner nerd come out to play. I applied to vet school. It was ok to be smart. I aced most of my classes, including the upper division English courses I took for fun and stress relief. When I settled on teaching, I couldn't just go with the bachelor's degree I had. I got a master's in education. I started to see myself as something different than the way others had seen me. I found my groove. I found myself. I was still angry and it took years for that to dissipate. I paid a high price for where I am now. I made huge mistakes with my family and friends, sometimes alienating relationships beyond repair. I pushed back on society and its expectations. I said I was sorry to people I loved and hurt. I carved my own identity and was at times forced to confront the woman in the mirror to ask "just who are you are you? Just who do you want to be? Is this course of action getting you there?" When the answer was no, I was to blame. Nobody would or could take responsibility for me. I was both terrified in those moments and exuberant. I got used to it. I am still getting used to it.

To tell you the truth, I do not know what it means to be a woman in the 21st Century. I think of the women I know who focus on family and the women I know who focus on career. I know women who are retired and loving every minute of it. I know women who are married to other women and are still happy after 15 years (Happy Anniversary, Jen and Jen!). I know women in tough situations with college degrees just trying to make ends meet on a pathetic teacher's salary. I know and admire women who get to be stay-at-home moms. I have to have two jobs to keep financially afloat. I made amends for my regrets and continue to keep those amends. Hopefully, I have stopped trying to impose my own ideologies on others. And I get to teach. If you had asked my grandmother what it meant to be a woman, she would probably concentrate on actions taken in and around the home. She was a cook by profession her whole life, starting when she was 15 and cooking for harvest crew.

I know that as with manly-ness, womanly-ness isn't just connected to what's between the legs. It's tied to culture and the decisions I make. Yes, I can cook. I can clean the hell out of a house or give comfort and build up or break down the hearts of others. I can do secretarial work, though I'd rather starve to death rather than to ever bring my boss a cup of coffee again. Actually, that's not true. I could do secretarial work, but it's really hard work that I am not good at. Thank God I cannot un-be a woman because to tell the truth, I like it. Grey said to me the other day, "I love how sensitive you are".

And I am still stubborn. Apparently that does not change.

But I would not want to be a young woman right now, not with all of the conflicting messages sent to young women these days about sex and education, literacy and math and what sorts of jobs we can do and cannot do. I know it's part of my calling to help other women make sense of things. As I try to make sense of this, I will keep you posted. If you have ideas, let me know.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the props. :) Personally, I think gender is bullshit. Sure, there are different sexes & certain things tied to those sexes, but most everything prescribed to gender is bullshit. We're all human. Some are protectors & decision makers, some are in need of being cared for and helped with decisions. Some like to cook, some don't. Some love to embroider. Some like dresses & some like jeans. None of that has anything to do with gender. It has everything to do with what a group of people in charge decided for society. Anthropology is really starting to break down the gender myth. The more they find & understand, the more we understand that what we think has always been is really very recent & new. So figure out what you love & who you are & be 100% okay with that. Know that it in no way makes you more or less a woman.