As someone who spends a good deal of her time writing about her lived experiences, I do a fair bit of thinking about subjects like gender, sexuality, social justice, and intersectional feminism. I think about power dynamics, about agency, and about empowerment. I think about the patriarchy, and I think about how we make judgments and assumptions about people, for no reason other than that we’ve been conditioned to do so.
I’m not alone in this. There exists a whole collective of thinkers, both in South Africa and around the globe, who tackle and engage with issues like these on a regular basis. And in fact, long before I opened my mouth on any of these subjects, I was already listening, reading and learning from them. I was questioning their perspectives and my own, and casting a critical eye upon a society that I’d too often made excuses for in the past.
In some ways, I feel I have a rare perspective on some of these issues. In case you didn’t know, I’m transgender. I was assigned male at birth, based on some doctor or nurse’s presumptive assessment of my genitalia. For the first almost three decades of my life, I did my utmost to fit in with that assignment, and all the expectations and baggage that came with it. It was difficult, and it was painful, and I felt it was obvious to any outside observer just how significantly I was failing at it. But still, I tried, because I didn’t know that there was any alternative.
I recall instances where I’d be perched delicately on the edge of a couch, knees crossed one over the other. “Men aren’t supposed to sit like that,” I’d silently remind myself, as I tried (in vain) to sprawl out in as boorish a way as I could manage.
I always took up less space than people expected me to. I spoke too softly, touched too gently, felt too keenly. I tried to protect myself by hiding beneath layers of sharp wit, scathing sarcasm and cool detachment. But I felt weak. Inadequate. Powerless.
Now, don’t get me wrong; making the decision to transition was not an easy one. Once I knew who I was, I also realised that there was nothing that could change that reality, and in that I had absolutely no choice. But I had to decide what to do about it. I could choose to live (or, more likely, die) with the conflict, or I could risk everything — my job, friends and family — in pursuing a physical and social transition.
To cast aside what is widely perceived as a position of male privilege (although that privilege was something of which I was always acutely aware, and it was a source of great pain for me), in favour of femininity, which is so often conflated with weakness and inferiority? It sounds irrational and reckless even to think of such a thing.
Not just that, but I’d also be making myself a target for abuse, for harassment, and potentially for violence. In the culture and society in which we live, to stand up and say “I embrace my womanhood, I embrace my queerness, I embrace everything that I am, and I refuse to be made lesser because of it” is a revolutionary, defiant, radical act.
We live in a world that strives to preserve a status quo that favours certain arbitrary characteristics over others. Straight is good, gay is bad. Male is good, female is bad. Rich is good, poor is bad. These judgments made about you determine your access to resources and opportunities, and your relative safety in this world.
This was a difficult concept for me to truly understand. Because when I was growing up, I didn’t perceive weakness in femininity. On the contrary, almost all my role models had been women. Not despite their womanhood, but rather because of it. I didn’t recognise the pattern or its implications at the time, but I do know that it came as a shock to me when I was old enough to grasp that women are almost universally regarded as lesser.
I think that experience is a shared one. That moment in every girl or young woman’s life when she realises that she has been born into a society that sees her as being inadequate simply on the basis of her gender.
The moment where she becomes aware of the legacy of misogyny that, to this day, continues to inform her day-to-day experiences, her opportunities, her place.
My transition wasn’t easy, but it moved quickly. With each and every passing day I found a little bit more strength, a little bit more will, a little bit more resilience. Instead of cowering away, as I’d done for years, I started to stand up, and to speak up. I began to find my voice. Insecurities were gradually replaced with growing confidence.
I faced many challenges, and I continue to, but I’m better equipped to handle them. I’ve learned how to reach out for help when I need it; I’ve learned to look after myself; and I’ve learned to give of myself more fully and openly. And although I recognise that my identity, and my openness about it, puts me potentially at risk, I feel so much less afraid.
To me, womanhood means empowerment. It means self-assurance. Independence. Courage. Self-love. Vulnerability — and the strength that lies within it. It means perseverance in the face of every adversity. It means facing life with an open heart, and an open mind, and choosing to embrace my identity, despite the judgments that others might make.
Womanhood means questioning the status quo. It was through my womanhood that I freed myself of the expectations and preconceptions to which I’d been subject for so long. It was the avenue to discovering my true self, and learning how to love, respect, and take care of her.
We have been saying “the future is female” since the 1970s. And it is something we continue to say. Recognising the great steps we have taken, while simultaneously acknowledging the massive struggles that lie ahead of us.
Womanhood in the modern age is not about pink frilly dresses, makeup or high heels. It’s not about preparing the meals or ironing the clothes or sweeping the floors. It’s not about pretending to be less intelligent than we are, or less confident, or less capable.
It’s about acknowledging the injustices that still permeate this world, and it’s about empowering ourselves and others to address them. It’s about understanding that none of us are free as long as one of us is chained.
Womanhood is complex, and difficult, and sometimes painful. But it’s a frontier of growth and of change. A space that we, as those who occupy it and live in it, are working to mould, shape and redefine. A dynamic entity, one that is home to myriad possibilities, for us and for those who will follow in our footsteps.
Womanhood is a facet of my identity. A facet that I fought for, and a facet that I fully embrace. And I do so with full cognisance of all the history enmeshed therein.
The future is female. And we are ready for it.