Recently a teacher named Joshua Gibbs, writing for the Circe Institute blog, revived the classic exhortation “Be A Man” to his young students. Noting it applied primarily to the males in the room, he advised the young women to “eavesdrop.”
Today’s more egalitarian society looks upon such an exhortation as moderately sexist. Gibbs understands this when he suggests that we are more likely to be told, “Be a Christian,” which he correctly notes is far too open to interpretation. In secular society we expect our young people to “be the adult in the room.” This at least acknowledges that the crossing into adulthood of both men and women involves, at a minimum, developing courage, mastering emotion, and consideration of others, among other things.
The trouble is that there is no corresponding exhortation specifically for women. There is no classic sense that stepping from girlhood to womanhood involves developing the mature feminine character traits that both men and women would do well to emulate.
The reason for this is written in our history. In Western culture women were expected to keep their childlike attributes. They were allowed to be overcome by storms of emotion, they were allowed to leave difficult or risky tasks to men, and ignorance was mistaken for innocence. Women moved from dependency upon their father’s household to dependency upon their husbands. Single women, if they were lucky, were able to live with relatives. Only the poor were expected to live off of their own labor.
Further, becoming a woman did not occur by virtue of some great act of character, but rather via physical development. One became a woman at the point of maximum attractiveness to men, at which point one could expect to marry and secure one’s future. A less attractive woman may develop a charming personality, or perhaps enough household skill or money from her family that marriage was more or less a financial transaction. Either way she was an object, not an agent. An entire industry is built upon the commodification of womanhood, and it endures.
I was educated by early feminists. I have believed that the differences between men and women are purely physical, that in this day and age women and men should be able to do whatever they choose. A woman should be able to serve in the military without losing her femininity, a man should not be thought of as unmanly because he sews beautiful clothing. Which is why I struggle to understand why there are men and women now asserting they are, in fact, the opposite sex “inside.” If gender is merely a social construct, this should not be happening. Perhaps there is something special about womanhood and manhood after all?
Women and men face some unique challenges as they transition from childhood, but the resulting maturity is available to each of the sexes. Women can be brave, men can be beautiful. The uniqueness of womanhood doesn’t necessarily extend to something so trivial as occupational choice, and there is no real evidence to suggest that either sex is more capable of leadership. So can we say: “Buck up, be a woman” ? or is that somehow inadequate?
When I face a difficult situation, I often tell myself to “strap on the brass bra.” Every superwoman has a brass bra to protect those womanly organs so that she can be transformed back into that mild-mannered, nurturing paragon of femininity she hides behind. But that’s a tad vulgar for classical use, as is “put on the big girl panties.”
Perhaps we don’t need the exhortation to become women so much as the reminder that we are women. We need to seize our feminine inheritance and make it our own. There is agency in the recognition of our own worth and the worth of others. There is the agency of choice.
Wisdom, remember, is a woman.
You are a woman, I tell my daughter. A woman knows her worth. Do not sell your love cheaply, for trinkets or mere attention. The only proper coin for love is love. Do not give of yourself to depletion in order to please others, for, in the words of Charlotte Mason, “you are not your own to give without reserve.”
You are a woman when you know you are beautiful whether or not your outward appearance has a certain symmetry or fits conventional notions of perfection. Do not become obsessed with beauty, either your own or that of others, and do not expect to always be surrounded by beauty. You are a woman. Make your world beautiful.
You are a woman when you are mistress of your emotions, and while living a rich emotional life you are not mastered by transient feeling. To name your emotion is to give you power over your feelings. You are a woman. Only when you can bear your own emotions can you be entrusted to hold the emotions of others as their confidant and friend.
You are a woman. The women in my life I admired most were welcoming. They invited people into their midst, they were inclusive. They constructed relationships as carpenters build houses. They made everyone feel valued and important, whether or not they were intimate friends. To a woman, power is not a zero-sum game. Esteem grows when it is shared. A man will want to know if the woman in his life will build him up, both to his face and behind his back, when speaking of him. A real woman will not choose the small power of gossip and slander, but the greater power of support and honor.
You are a woman. Your womb may, if you choose to keep it open, hold new life. Whether or not you chose this one particular life within you, you may not throw it away lightly, selfishly. You are a woman, and the truth is your life is never entirely your own. This, too, is an act of courage – to give one’s own life to new life, whether 9 months or 19 years of it. Do not succumb to self pity or despair because you are called upon to nurture the life of another. Welcome life into the world.
You are a woman is both a reminder and a rallying cry. Be that woman.