The True Meaning of Womanhood

What does it mean to be a woman? Is womanhood defined by our breasts (upon which society, the media, culture are so fixated)? Is it being able to menstruate? It is about whether we are a biological mother?
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Any institution where there's no women around -- like the Church, like football, like the Middle East, like fraternities -- things go to s**t, you do need women as a moderating influence. When men are just among men, they do stupid things. That's just the truth.

Guess who said that? Those words were spoken by Bill Maher, host of "Real Time With Bill Maher," after the Penn State sex scandal shocked our national conscience.

Now of course it is debatable whether Maher is always pro-women (I mean, he is a comedian), but this statement in particular was striking. So striking that I paused my DVR and played the moment over again so that I could transcribe it. I tweeted it out to my followers immediately.

As a sexuality educator, I often think about what it means to be a woman. And I pose this question to my students, too, as they explore the concept of gender. I ask them to consider that our biological sex is only a small (and sometimes not at all) part of our gender and identity. But this can be a hard lesson for students to understand, particularly when contemplating women, as the most common visuals of women in our media and pop culture focus on bodies -- big, bouncy breasts and butts. Or caricatures of "traditional" women's roles, offering us polarizing representations of motherhood, such as women devoid of any sexuality (the stressed out housewife in "mom jeans," for example) or completely consumed by sex (the vapid, sexy mom, such as Cheryl Hines' character in "Suburgatory.")

But a woman has to be more than her most observable body parts or that which makes her physically able to be a mother, right? I am overly sensitive about this issue this week because of recent public (and private) news. Giuliana Rancic, the 37-year-old television anchor, has been courageously open about her decision to get a double mastectomy following her breast cancer diagnosis. Without breasts, is she less of a woman? Or what about the less public figures that undoubtedly all of us know, such as my friend's 40-something sister, who has chosen to undergo a prophylactic oophorectomy and a double mastectomy because of the results of her BRCA screenings. Is she less of a woman?

So I ask again: What does it mean to be a woman? Is womanhood defined by our breasts (upon which society, the media, culture are so fixated)? Is it being able to menstruate? It is about whether we are a biological mother?

As all women do, I know women who have no children of their own but are extraordinary caregivers and in some cases, are far more naturally maternal than I; I know women more overtly sexual than I; women with bigger breasts than I; is womanhood measured in degrees? Are there some women who are "more woman" than others?

No, of course not. Instead, I believe that being a woman is a state of mind and a commitment to social action. We act as a moral compass and a sounding board for partners, friends and family. We believe in standing up for what's right. Why do we do this? Is it simply because we have a vulva and vagina? Nope, don't think so.

I don't always agree with Bill Maher, but I absolutely concur that women are a moral influence on the more base elements of society. Yet, if women are our moral centers -- that moderating influence speaking up and out about social justice -- what does that say about the Bachmanns and Palins of the world? Perhaps they only further prove my point. They may have all the "right" biological parts, but they have all the wrong sensibilities. They don't speak up for women. They don't believe that women should have control over their bodies, nor do they support men and women who love their own gender. Bachmann perpetuates the notion of being submissive to your husband, and her heroine, Phyllis Schlafly, waged a battle against the Equal Rights Amendment. Is this true womanhood?

In the end, I pose the question to all of you: What does being a woman mean to you? I know that it isn't about femininity, and it certainly isn't limited to biology. And being a woman or like a woman, will never be an insult.

Women are so much more than the sum of our parts. The next time you hear someone try to insult a man by referring to him as a woman (or "womanly") consider that it may be the greatest compliment one can give.

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