The Meaning of Womanhood

This year, I am planning to dedicate a significant portion of my reading and personal study time to exploring feminism and spirituality. I call myself a feminist, but I think I could be more educated about the histories and current theories of feminism. There is also a wealth of feminist spiritual literature to dig into (thanks for lending me Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Deborah!) My reading list for the year includes Women Who Run with the Wolves, At the Root of This Longing, Embracing Jesus and the Goddess, and The Spiral Staircase. (Further suggestions are welcome).

I’d like to kick off my exploration with some dialogue with fellow feminists and women and anyone else who would like to chime in.Here is my first question:

Are there any essential or intrinsic qualities of womanhood? If you think there are, what are they?

Of course there are physiological differences, but beyond that, what is there really? I do have a few of my own thoughts on this, but this time I’d like to know what others think first. My intention is to be more open to new ideas than I sometimes am.

To follow up with my first question, I typed woman, women, and womanhood into the search function on Reading through approximately the first twenty hits, I gleaned a list of descriptors given to women:

beautiful and chaste
natural grace, goodness, and divinity.
Femininity . . .is the divine adornment of humanity.
capacity to love, spirituality, delicacy, radiance, sensitivity, creativity, charm, graciousness, gentleness, dignity, quiet strength.
feminine intuition
smiling loveliness
innate beauty, charm, decency, and goodness
a beautiful and chaste woman is the perfect workmanship of God
Woman is God’s supreme creation
beautiful, none more inspiring than a lovely daughter
compassionate, self-sacrificing, loving
it is their nature to give and please others
full feminine splendor of her righteous womanhood.
virtuous, homemaker
spiritual and sensitive, tender and gentle.
They have a kind, nurturing nature
precious, nurturers, teachers
womanly instincts of care and mercy
Special spiritual sensitivity
So often the service of women seems instinctive
So often our sisters comfort others when their own needs are greater than those being comforted
Selflessness, faith, virtue, vision, and charity
Helpmeet, radiant and divinely fair
the greatest glory of true womanhood has been motherhood
God’s greatest creation is womanhood

And for my second question:
What are your reactions to this list?

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No Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Amy, Check out Woman Spirit Rising as well.

    I don’t tend to believe that I am essentially different than men. I know I cry more easily than Mike, but I generally attribute that to a society that has always told me that it’s more acceptable for me as a woman to cry than it is for a man to do so.

    That said, I do acknowledge that there may be some hormonal differences between women and men that might lead some men to be more likely to act in a certain way, and some women more likely to act in another way.

    But if you take away our bodies and leave just the spirit, I don’t think I would have an essentially feminine way of thinking or acting.

    My reaction to most of the things on the list: blech. It’s like a Mother’s Day talk from hell.

  2. John says:

    AmyB, what a great project! I’ve done something similar with feminism (personally, and also by arranging a directed readings with one of my professors) and am beginning to think of alternative masculinities. Even taking biology into account, I feel that gender is mostly a cultural construct.

    I think that there are few qualities intrinsic to women or men. I believe that men have all the potential that women have to be nurturing, sensitive, spiritual, gentle, intuitive, self-sacrificing (I’m selecting from your list as well as from my mental list of stereotypical feminine traits). I believe that the reverse is true as well, that women can be socialized to best men at masculine traits, but I’m having a difficult time coming up with a list of positive traits for men (descriptors like belligerent, distant, physical, salacious come to mind).

  3. Beijing says:

    “Womanhood” and “femininity” are social constructs. There is nothing inherent in all people of a given gender beyond the physiology, and even the physiology is murky (chromosomes don’t always correspond to the expected sex organs or hormones, defining gender by ability to procreate becomes problematic when there is infertility, etc.).

    John, let me help you out with some positive stereotypes about men: strong, protective, dependable, bold, daring, hard-working, even-keeled, reserved, goal-oriented, team players, priesthood holders,…

  4. Anonymous says:

    I’ll go out on a limb and admit that I have not really figured out yet whether I believe there is an essential difference between men and women. However, I will say that the list you found is uncomfortable for me, and I believe that’s mainly because it’s so homogenous. It fails to acknowledge the real diversity of gifts women have. On days when I feel neither smiling, lovely, charitable, nurturing nor even special, or any of those other attributes (all of which are great if I ever actually feel that way) then what is left? If that is all that womanhood is, then what am I when I am ambitious, tough, assertive, efficient, smart? Or even cranky, sarcastic and impatient? Is something wrong with me?

    Of course the real answer to that question is no, but I think it would be so much more constructive to have a diversity of positive attributes represented — and imperfections acknowledged and forgiven — for women as well as men.

  5. AmyB says:

    I have similar thoughts to what each of you has said. I can’t boil anything down to an essential characteristic. I was waiting to see if anyone might offer another viewpoint. Gender is a social construct, but that being said, we experience life through the lens of our social constructs. Women inhabit a certain sort of body and have a shared context and history, just as men do. That deeply effects how we experience life. It is helpful to look at those constructs objectively rather than assume that the way we see things is some sort of ultimate reality (which, and pardon my heresy, is in my opinion a major failing of the family proclamation and general discourse on gender in the church).

    I have to admit that reading through the talks that came up when I searched was a bit unnerving. One went so far as to claim that developing physical strength is demeaning to womanhood. Blech.

    John, I did a brief experiment with putting man, men, and manhood into the same search engine. As I suspected, the noun “men” seems to come with far fewer qualifiers than “women.” Here are a few desciptors I found:

    strong and capable; someone who can build and create things, run things; someone who makes a difference in the world.

    For me, comparing those lists is unsettling. I’m not surprised, though.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I’ve been thinking about this since you posted it. In regards to your first question I really think the answer depends on what extent the physical and spiritual are eternally intertwined, and to what extent physiological characteristics are eternal. For example were/are our spirits governed (or run by) by spirit hormones just as our bodies are by mortal hormones? Are the monthly daily and yearly changes in my hormone levels an artifact of a fallen world that will disappear with resurrection or are percieved negative effects from those changes (mood swings etc) not as negative as we think and therefore allowable in a perfected being? Also one must remember the fact when comparing the differences between men and women, the curves have a *huge* overlap. For example, women on average are supposed to be more effective communicators, but if you pick a random man and woman and the woman is only very slightly likely to be better at communication than the man. There are huge numbers of more reliable indicators of skills and qualities than the sex of the person in question. (Sigh, this is turning into quite the screed). I’m not convinced there is anything intrinsically female other than the things women have at birth.

    As to the second question here are a few thoughts I had reading through the list in no particular order.
    ~A lot of this sounds like something one says to some to soften them up for bad news.
    -Adornment? I’m an adornment? That’s supposed to make me feel good about myself?
    -This list seems to fall into the trap of viewing male/masculine as normal or the default state of being human, and female/feminine as the deviation from the normal, or an altered state of being human.
    -Divinely fair: Fair = pretty or fair = just?
    -Calling women God’s supreme creation seems at odds with the idea of being equal before God.

    I wanted to mention before I bring this behemoth comment to a close that I think valuing and encouraging the development of different traits between men and woman is not inherently unfair. Specialization is not unfair, so long as it is implemented with both parties recieving comparable benefits and workloads, and neither party getting a free pass in any area. I am not, however, convinced that the list above is really the sort of specialization God has in mind. being “the divine adornment of humanity” is not of comparable weight to ‘running things.’

  7. Deborah says:

    It would be fun to fit all those descriptors into one Mother’s Day talk. It’d probably end up sounding like David Sedaris’ Christmas Letter.

    That said, I have read enough brain research to believe that Y chromosomes, testosterone, and estrogen make a difference. But rather than viewing the differences as two bell curves that never touch, I wonder if we aren’t looking at overlapping curves, with means in slightly different places and a wealth of commonality.

    If I had to pick one essential quality (that may or may not be intrinisic but) that I would equate with the soul of Womanhood: empathy. Nature gives us some slight advantage, it would appear, in being able to read the emotions of others. Girl’s moral development tends to stem from a relational view of the world. However, where we go from there, it seems, is a conscious spiritual journey — because the ability to read others can be used as much to manipulate as to serve.

    (For fun, take a look at this quiz from BBC Science)

  8. AmyB says:

    Starfoxy, thank you for your thoughtful comment. To answer your question about “divinely fair”, if I recall, it was about looks. I hadn’t thought about the extent to which physical and spiritual are entertwined. It seems to me that all we can really know is our embodied experience. Which brings me back around the circle in my thoughts. Sure, we’ve defined gender as a social construct, but that doesn’t negate our gendered experiences. And there are some orienting generalizations that can be made even though none will apply accross the board.

    Deborah, sounds like you’re familiar with Carol Gilligan. It is fascinating to me that moral development manifests differently in boys and girls. I think there is something rich and complementary in the differences that show up between the sexes and amont various human beings, cultures, and times. At the same time when I ponder it I can’t think of any absolutely essential differences. As I’m off to bed tonight I’ll be mulling over the paradox that we are essentially different and have no essential differences. (And I’ll check back to see if any of this still makes sense in the morning!)

  9. Wes says:

    I like a lot of what Ana said. When I think of a woman that would be attractive to me, the first things I would think about are “ambitious, tough, assertive, efficient, smart? Or even cranky, sarcastic and impatient”. These traits seem attractive and even sexy to me. Especially since she included a few less desireable traits. I enjoy being around women who are comfortable enough with themselves to not stress about trying to be perfect.

    That being said, I run a risk by mentioning that I do not know many women that can be satisfied. The women I know who constantly complain about what they don’t like about life, society etc seem to constantly be finding new things to complain about. Will women ever be satisfied?

    You may say men “run things”. I don’t run anything. I’m no CEO, President or Bishop. I know several women who make more money than I and who have much more power in the work place. Should I be complaining that my rights as a man have been infringed? A lot of men don’t run anything. Why is it that food and intimacy seem to be enough to satisfy most men (and a big screen TV)?

  10. AmyB says:

    Wes, I’m not quite sure what you are getting at. I don’t buy into your dichotomy that most women are not satisfied and like to find things to complain about while men are satisfied with food, sex and tv.

    I’d also like to point out that _I_ did not say that men run things, I was quoting from my search of masculine desriptors on “Men run things” came from a conference talk.

    Deborah, I tried the BBC quiz. I measured at “0” on the scale, exactly in the middle between male and female brain. Interesting . . .

  11. Wes says:

    I admit that I have no scientific study or proof of my statement. Only anecdotal evidence that women find things to complain about. If I make enough money this month to pay my bills, I assure you I will be content. I suppose that is becuase I have such tight finances. I don’t have time to worry about who holds the priesthood, who gives blessings, etc. Also, though my comment may have seemed insulting, I don’t have anything against women. I just don’t understand sometimes why some women spend a lot of time on the differences between men and women. And I think that some (not all) women do that because for whatever reason they wish there weren’t any differences. That would be incredibly boring.

  12. AmyB says:

    Wes, if you are definining our discussion here about what may or may not be essential about gender as complaining, then perhaps an overly broad definition is contributing to your perception that women find things to complain about.

    Perhaps I am missing something, but you seem to be lumping speaking out against injustices and examining social constructions together with “I don’t have anything to wear today.” Do you think that we should just be silent and accept our lot even when things are severely unjust? Should women not have asked for the vote or for equal pay for equal work? Should we not want to be validated for our contributions? Should we not want something more than being an “adornment to humanity?”

  13. Wes says:

    I consider not being able to vote to be very unjust and I applaud women for standing up and demanding that. The same is true for equal pay. But I think this post started as a fundamental question as to whether there are true differences between men and women. Perhaps I unduely went off subject in my earlier responses. But the truth is that I don’t understand why women don’t want to be different than men. I am all for equal pay and the right to vote. Those are true injustices.
    But if it were somehow confirmed that men and women are truly different by God’s design, is that really an injustice?

  14. AmyB says:

    Wes, I think I’m starting to see where you are coming from. No, I do not think that men and women being different is an injustice. As I said earlier, I think there is a lot of richness in difference, not only between sexes, but cultures and individuals as well. Where the injustice occurs is when we are put in a box. Rhetoric about our differences has been used to keep women oppressed for much of history. That being said, that’s not really what I intended with my post.

    I find myself thinking that there is something eternal or essential about masculine and feminine. And in our mortal bodies we have different physiologies, hormones, brain structures, so our lived experience is clearly different. My difficulty lies in figuring out what the true essence of the difference that might be exactly. How much of what we associate with each gender reflects a true essence and how much is something else? I’ve yet to find a characteristic that holds up very well when I examine it closely.

  15. Wes says:

    “Where the injustice occurs is when we are put in a box”

    I agree with that statement. Not to take away from your focus on women, but I think it is a tragedy when any of us are confined to such pre-arranged ideals that stifle creativity and exploration. On the other hand, it is a great joy to see someone previously chained inside the walls of society’s norms break out and grow in ways that are truly wonderful. I consider myself that kind of person, and I wish that upon others, particularly you ladies. At the same time, I try to temper myself in a way that I am willing to submit to the will of the Spirit. But something tells me that the Spirit would want you to break out of those boxes too.

  16. Wes says:


    I was just re-reading the post and I realized that I have actually been addressing a side issue. I have been addressing the issue of “Why do some women want there to be no differences between men and women”. I suppose I assumed at first that you fit into that category. On this subject, I feel that you and I have come to a more common meeting place and that perhaps we are not that far apart. As for your latest question,

    “How much of what we associate with each gender reflects a true essence and how much is something else?”

    What a wonderful question to contemplate. I’m not sure I can even pretend to sound intelligent in a response. So I’ll just wish you good luck on this spiritual journey. If you should encounter any special insights, please let me know!

  17. AmyB says:

    Wes, I’m glad we have come to some common ground.

    For some reason, your question “Why do some women want there to be no differences between men and women?” leaves me uneasy. In the context of our discussion, it seems clear you think that is a bad thing. I’m not saying it is good per se, but it brings up a lot of things.

    In an earlier comment you characterized most women as complaining and never satisfied and most men as satisfied. Your implicit message in that statement was: Men are better. Women recieve that message all the time in myriad ways. When women fight for the same rights, treatment, and access to power that men have, they have often been written off as whiny or complainers or something with the pejorative tone of “well, they just want to be like men and isn’t that the stupidest thing ever!”

    While I do accept that there are general differences, I still don’t think I could pin down what they are. And I don’t think those differences should be used to systematically disempower women. I’m all for challenging and examining our constructs and for transcending those that are not useful.

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