What Makes a Woman? Abby Wambach and Caitlyn Jenner

I had told myself that I wasn’t going to weigh in on the Caitlyn Jenner story:  I felt that there has been enough said, and plus, I really try to avoid anything that has to do with the Kardashian family–I have a negative visceral reaction [I was going to say “loathing” but that felt harsh….] to that kind of “celebrity.”  

However, I changed my mind after reading this very interesting article in The New York Times:  What Makes a Woman?.  What is so interesting about this article, which made me what to weigh in, is this question about the category of “woman”–what it means, who it includes, and how it functions.  So, let me say a few things about the article first.

The author, Elinor Burkett, opens with the question of whether or not women and men have different brains; and she notes that when the then-president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, suggested they might, he was heavily criticized.  However, when Caitlyn Jenner said something similar, she was lionized, and this statement served as a window into how Jenner understands her identity:  

“This was the prelude to a new photo spread and interview in Vanity Fair that offered us a glimpse into Caitlyn Jenner’s idea of a woman: a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular ‘girls’ nights’ of banter about hair and makeup.”

The article went on to talk about some of the tensions that have developed between the transgender community and many feminists, specifically around bodies and the physical markers of being a woman.  Burkett states it plainly:

 “I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women — our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes. Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side — people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination — are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us.  That’s the kind of nonsense that was used to repress women for centuries. But the desire to support people like Ms. Jenner and their journey toward their truest selves has strangely and unwittingly brought it back.”

Her point is that being a woman cannot simply be reduced to looking a certain way, or feeling a certain way, and certainly not “thinking” a certain way.  She argues that instead, a big part of what it means to be a woman is the sociological, environmental experience of growing up and living in a society that continues to be deeply marked by patriarchy and sexism.  So, she challenges someone like Jenner, who grew up as a strong, athletic, famous man, to acknowledge that his background and upbringing makes a difference in his identity. She writes that both Jenner and Summers 

“haven’t traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails. They haven’t suffered through business meetings with men talking to their breasts or woken up after sex terrified they’d forgotten to take their birth control pills the day before. They haven’t had to cope with the onset of their periods in the middle of a crowded subway, the humiliation of discovering that their male work partners’ checks were far larger than theirs, or the fear of being too weak to ward off rapists.”

 Her point is that, in no small part, “being a woman means having accrued certain experiences, endured certain indignities and relished certain courtesies in a culture that reacted to you as one.”

All of this has been in the back of my mind as I have been following the Women’s World Cup, which started last weekend.  In particular, I was thinking about Caitlyn Jenner as I read the article about Abby Wambach in Sports Illustrated last week.  Wambach doesn’t “look” much like Jenner–and I imagine she has no desire to, either.  In fact, I imagine Wambach has more in common with Bruce Jenner the elite athlete, than Caitlyn Jenner the bombshell.  But nonetheless, as a female athlete, Wambach’s experiences have been very, very different from Jenner’s.  The fact is, regardless of her elite athletic status–this year, Wambach was honored as one of TIME’s most influential people on the planet –Wambach has experienced the kind of systemic discrimination that is a part of being a woman in a male-dominated world–to say nothing of a male-dominated sport.  The article talks about how Wambach has been openly critically of Sepp Blatter [the FORMER FIFA president–good riddance to bad rubbish, I say], and the sexism that is rampant in FIFA.  

As an example of this, Wambach tells the story about being being in Zurich in 2013 at the World Player of the Year awards when Blatter walked up to Sarah Huffman [a former US player and Wambach’s wife], and mistook her for the Brazilian phenom Marta, a 5 time winner of the award.  They look nothing alike, and it was clear to Wambach how little attention Blatter pays to women–and the women’s game in general, a belief that was confirmed when the announcement was made that this year’s Cup would be played on artificial turf–which would NEVER happen with the men’s game, by the way.  [I guarantee that Bruce Jenner, Wheaties box cover boy extraordinaire, never had to put up with disparaging treatment like that.]

For me, all this is important because even though it is clear that the category of “women” is becoming much more open and fluid [which I both welcome and celebrate], it still functions and is necessary, as it allows for both men and women to identify and speak out against structural sin [my theological language now], the sin that affects not only this or that specific woman, but women in general.  “Structural sin” points to the behaviors and attitudes that are woven into society, which create a climate in which women are regularly paid less than men, are subjected to sexual harassment and abuse–on the street, at home, and in the office–and continue to have the bulk of the responsibility for child rearing and “home economics” with little to no recognition or pay.

So, I still think there is a place for women’s colleges, women’s organizations, feminist thought, feminist theology, etc., etc.  I think that “women” is a category that not only individuals choose for themselves, but also that society assigns.  It has to do with biology, but also with sociology; it includes not only how someone “feels,” but also how she is treated by others.  As Burkett notes, we are all “assigned” a gender at birth–and probably will be for the foreseeable future, but what we do with that gender, how we live into–or out of–it, is “mutable.”  Keeping options open for us all is work we all can share together.

Burkett closes her piece this way:

“Bruce Jenner told Ms. Sawyer that what he looked forward to most in his transition was the chance to wear nail polish, not for a furtive, fugitive instant, but until it chips off. I want that for Bruce, now Caitlyn, too. But I also want her to remember: Nail polish does not a woman make.”

Somehow, I think Wambach would agree.

One thought on “What Makes a Woman? Abby Wambach and Caitlyn Jenner

  1. I don't usually comment on my own posts, but after continuing to think more about this, I realized I had two things more I wanted to say. First, I want to be very, very clear that I am not in any way unsupportive of the trans community. Not in ANY way–nor do I think that someone is “less” of a woman because she wasn't “born that way” (a la Lady Gaga…) Second, I realized that George Lindbeck's well-known categories of various definitions of religion might be helpful here. Remember, he talks about three different definitions: religion as a set of rules to follow; religion as a universal, essential experience; and religion as a cultural/linguistic system–a set of behaviors one learns by being a part of a community. Lindbeck leans toward definition #3–as I do; and I realized that, applying this schema to gender, the author also was resisting definition #2 in favor of definition #3. She was critical of the idea that being a “woman” is reducible to biology–a “brain,” an emotional experience, etc., etc., and wanted to emphasize the importance of the performative aspect of being a woman–being formed by learned behaviors in community. I still think I agree with her, mostly–although I'm wondering about a place for #2–or at least aspects of it. In particular, I'm thinking about the difference between someone who performs her gender in a transgressive way [even something as simple as Abby Wambach wearing a tux to a formal event with her wife who was wearing an evening gown] versus someone who undergoes surgery to experience her gender in an essentialist kind of way. How do we continue to think about the category of women in a way that honors both?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s