Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

What they taught me

kjmason's picture


Carolina Beauty Shop Chapel Hill 1-1943 Medium Web view.jpg

Image taken from:


I would sit in the American Legion with Aunt Carolina and drink Shirley temples till I danced out with a slight sugar high, ready to be picked up by my mother. My nails were painted red, little Shirley temple cherries at the end of every one of my stubby fingers. Womanhood was red lipstick carved into peculiar shapes by frequent use. It was sewing dresses for my dolls, and drinking sweet tea at a table that was too big. Womanhood smelt of perm solution and dark blue, Dawn dish soap and hot nights over the stove. Someday, I would cook, clean, sew for my family, stay at home with my children and find happiness in “find a word” puzzles. Someday I would be a woman too.
Elementary school, fifth grade, I wore a B cup in a sea of mosquito bites and I was the first girl in my class to have a menstrual cycle. Holding hands was a big deal and I was dating Cody Whissner. I was finally a woman. Passing notes and acting like a ditz in class became a way of life. No boy wanted a know-it-all as a girlfriend. I took tests and intentionally got questions wrong that I knew the answers to so that I could fit into this mold of a woman I had contrived in my misguided little head. Between the influence of gossiping adolescents, and the stifling cinderblock walls of my small town middle school, nothing really changed in my perception of what would make me a woman. I defined a woman by her man. And I was determined to make sure that I had the best one. That would make people respect and love me…right?
See, I’ve always been the type of person who needs to learn lessons for myself. All this time, over all these wasted years, my mother would tell me after every heart break, “No man can ever make you a woman, you have to find that on your own”. It really broke her heart that I was dumbing myself down to be less intimidating to the opposite sex.  This wasted time is my biggest regret. Now I believe a woman defines herself however she pleases, she can date a man, a woman, or neither. As long as she is fulfilled in those moments when she sits back to think about her life as it is, she’s doing it right.
I didn’t learn the value of a woman by reading books in classes, or by getting lectured by my teachers growing up. Actually, women were, at best, ignored in most of my classes. Sure there were books like My Antonia that celebrated the beauty and power of a strong willed woman, but even that novel fell short of defining herself as truly independent. I have learned what a strong woman is by meeting strong women.
I don’t think my Aunt Carolina was entirely wrong about what womanhood is. For her, she was right. She could sit back at night a top her crochet blanket on her single bed and in the leaking light of the small kerosene lamp she used she found contentment in her days of cooking and cleaning. I think there is beauty and strength in a woman that decides her priority is her family. 
Mrs. Valenteen is a married woman with two grown children. She is a Spanish teacher at a private boarding school. She coaches softball and works with yearbook. Sitting down in her 1980s lazyboy chair and slipping her sore feet into a pair of worn slippers ends her day as well as she can imagine.
I sit here, in my dorm room, thinking about things Aunt Carolina and Mrs. Valenteen never thought about. The definition of what makes a woman is changing. I want to live my life, questioning my behavior and what motivates me. I can’t see myself being satisfied by a family or a career alone.
For the first time in my life, I’ve decided I don’t know what womanhood will mean for me. I know it doesn’t mean what it meant to Aunt Carolina or Mrs. Valenteen. I know I need to be truly satisfied at the end of the day. I know I don’t want to define myself by any other human being, but rather as a sum of the influences of countless human experiences. I just seem to be missing what I want my life to be made up of, whom I want to have these experiences with. I have no clue if I want a family, if I want a man in my life, what I want as a career. So I guess for me, even though this essay has covered where my perception of gender came from and what I don’t want to be defined by, there is still a lot for me to learn about what it means to be myself, as a woman, whatever that means. 



Anne Dalke's picture

Defining womanhood


One strong theme in your essay is how much of y/our education--especially our education into gender--takes place outside of the classroom (Beta and skindeep have also written about this, from two different angles of vision). Do you think that more of that learning should take place inside schools?

Also striking here (especially in light of Paul's talk, yesterday, about the costs of categorizing) is your emphasis on defining womanhood, on the work you've done, over time, in refining the category in which you place yourself. Might you want to re-visit that focus, in the light of y'day's (and tomorrow's!) conversation? Why is the category itself so important?