Womanhood, girlhood and shared exclusion

Over the past couple of days I have been half-following the #sharedgirlhood hashtag on twitter and the surrounding controversy over cissexism and exclusion. I don’t wish to comment on that directly, not least because it feels like being asked to choose which women have the most authentic lived experience (and all women get quite enough of these arbitrary judgments already).*

One thing that has interested me, however, has been seeing the suggestion that the idea of “shared experience” has no value anyhow. I’ve seen several feminists suggest that because women’s experiences are so disparate and dependent on other inequalities, the idea of a shared experience (whether or not we call it shared girlhood) is at best pointless, at worst a sop for the privileged. I don’t think this has to be true. If women’s oppression is not understood collectively – if sex discrimination is regarded as something that has no internal coherence in and of itself – how can feminism have meaning as a project for women’s liberation?

Clearly the manifestations of sexism are dependent on other intersecting inequalities. But the idea that there remains an overarching narrative of female inferiority which affects all women, albeit in different ways, should not be terribly controversial. Indeed, identifying it is surely valuable not just in fighting women’s oppression, but in pinpointing why a feminism based on individual experience alone can only benefit the few.

To be a woman is not to own something called womanhood, a magical substance given to some in greater quantities than others. To be a woman is to live within a power structure which positions you as slightly less than real. You are not the default person, but an added extra who provides others with greater definition. You are there to fill in the gaps and must mould yourself around the spaces already occupied. You are essential but not to be taken seriously. You are: frivolous, fickle, irrational, childlike, dependent, not to be trusted with possessions, including your own body. You lack sexual agency, but you are also to blame for the sexual transgressions of others. Your actions lack external validation because you are not-quite-real. The depersonalisation you experience is reinforced or mitigated by other oppressions or privileges around you. The one constant is that whatever “woman” is, you know it isn’t really you.

This feeling of finding definition only through what you are not starts early in life. The narrative of girlhood is exclusive, not just because it is culturally specific and ignores economic disparities, but because it requires that girls repress or entirely dispense with pieces of themselves in order to find their place within it. The experience that girls share is not so much that of being a girl but that of not being one. As unique individuals, in widely variant social environments, we each experience this “not being” in different ways. For all of us girlhood is, to a greater or lesser extent, a narrative of exclusion. Unless we recognise this attempts to articulate what we share will always themselves be exclusive.

Due to anorexia I bypassed much of what is seen by the culture that surrounds me as an essential stage in the journey between girlhood and womanhood. I didn’t develop physically or sexually. I was in my twenties before my periods started. While, like most young women, I experienced some degree of sexual harassment, I wasn’t fully aware of it until much later, when I stopped looking like a child. My own sexual desires were so fully repressed that I felt no conflict between them and the passive role I was expected to play. I felt I had my own path to forge, separate from the girlhood narrative. It was only later that I started to panic that perhaps I hadn’t fully grown at all. I worried that recovery from anorexia had dumped me in adulthood as only half a person.

It took me a long time to realise it simply wasn’t the case that some wondrous biological process, for me interrupted by illness, had allowed all the women around me to grow seamlessly into their designated roles. They, too, for a whole host of other reasons (social, physical, economic, racial, religious) had had to find different ways to situate the real experience of being a person within the false ones proposed by girlhood and womanhood. Many, if not most, of them were damaged by it. I think this is one of the many reasons why we need feminism. Feeling like half a person is normal if you are a woman (regardless of whether or not your childhood was categorised as girlhood by others).

Our past and our present – girlhood and womanhood – are not possessions. They are not concepts that some of us legitimately own and can withhold from others. An inclusive feminism would enable us to make ourselves, as actual, self-defining girls and women, central to the narrative of our own lives, but to do so we first need to engage with the false definitions which hamper our lives. If this were to happen I think we’d have one less thing in common (that thing being exclusion) but I also suspect we’d feel less alone.

Because I didn’t make it clear earlier, I just wanted to add that I don’t think anyone deserves threats or abuse for the position they take on a twitter hashtag. Like the hashtag’s originator (and those who might not agree with it, but use hashtags for other campaigns) I absolutely agree they have a function in consciousness raising. Moreover, I think if any women feel the validity of their experience of oppression is being questioned, we should listen. However, it’s like making an argument that echoes out way beyond your control, and then gets repeated by other people in ways you didn’t quite intend, or in ways you did but in places where wasn’t meant to be heard (which isn’t to say you shouldn’t speak out in the first place, just that twitter is a messy arena in which the chance to reach out to others can have its drawbacks). Anyhow, I’m conscious of how vague and non-committal this all sounds. But I just wanted to make it clear that if it’s sounded at all like I condone people being facing death threats for having the “wrong” interpretation of male power and female experience, then I’m sorry. I don’t think that and I don’t think anyone should.


8 thoughts on “Womanhood, girlhood and shared exclusion

  1. Great post. I hadn’t really thought about it in that way, but I do largely define myself by what I am unable to do and all the ways in which I’m not a ‘normal woman’. But who needs to be a normal woman? There’s actually no such thing and we don’t have to aspire to it.

  2. Having started #shared girlhood hashtag to discuss the from-birth second class status of women globally in its many variables I was at first thrilled as it went viral, then felt pretty alone as I was attacked and assaulted as “middle class” (I’m not), “ableist” (I’m disabled), “exclusionary” (I’m not)heterosexual (I’m a lesbian) as the hashtag was hijacked from its original intent. I don’t feel less alone having read this. Some things are immutable. Being born second class is one of them. Unfortunately for all of us, female & male & those transitioning, until that gets recognized by us all and altered, we will all be living our least best lives.

  3. What is interesting to me about the shared girlhood debate (and your fantastic blog about it) is that it makes me think more about womanhood as an identity compared to my other ethno/cultural identities. I believe women are made, not born, but the experiences we go through to become women are very different, hence the need for not just one feminism but feminisms, or an understanding of lots of different people believing in the same general feminist goal but prioritising different means to achieve it and emphasising different identities

  4. Yes great post. Just after I joined Twitter about two years ago, I was overwhelmed by the incredible shared experience of #webelieveyou. Knowing that hundreds of women had kept rape or abuse secret, many for years because they were certain they would not be believed, was just amazing.

    As the disclosures came tumbling out (pre-Saville) and I reflected on all the women I personally know who have experienced violence against them, (a sad long list that turned out to be) I cannot adequately express the value of this shared experience for me.

    To those that choose to devalue, undermine or ignore other people’s experiences, off you trot for a bit of self reflection. Sometimes listening and accepting in a supportive space is enough. Shame on the cognitively challenged who want better treatment than they are prepared to give to others.

  5. “To be a woman is to live within a power structure which positions you as slightly less than real.”

    “Your actions lack external validation because you are not-quite-real.”

    This was a belief many well-regarded men used to profess explicitly and publicly merely 100 years ago: that they believe that women were _literally non-real_. Take Austrian philosopher Otto Weininger from 1906, in his book “Sex and Character”:

    “Women have no existence and no essense; they are not, they are nothing. Mankind occurs as male or female, as something or nothing. Woman has no share in ontological reality, no relation to the thing-in-itself, which, in the deepest interpretation, is the absolute, is God. . . . Woman has no relation to the idea, she neither affirms nor denies it; she is neither moral nor anti-moral; mathematically speaking, she has no sign; she is purposeless, neither good nor bad . . . she is as non-moral as she is non-logical. But all existence is moral and logical existence. So woman has no existence. (p. 286)”

    and Otto Weininger “was regarded in his day not as a vulgar polemicist but as a scientific authority on his subject” (to quote Theodore Roszak from “Masculine/Feminine: Readings in Sexual Mythology and the Liberation of Women”)

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