A year or two ago a conservative college student, Katie, received her acceptance notice from a prestigious law school. While out celebrating, she was pulled aside by a disgruntled male classmate who been rejected by the same school.
“You shouldn’t go,” he said. “You’re taking that space from a man like me who will need to support his family someday.”
Needless to say, he was talking nonsense, and she knew it.
Yet the comment bothered her for days. She wanted to do the right thing. Should she go to law school if she planned, at some point in the future, to leave the practice of law to care for her children? Shouldn’t she be realistic? Immediately she put aside her excitement about the law to instead worry about the long potentialities of womanhood and the question of whether she should limit herself now, just in case her approach to womanhood might restrict her later.
She began to ask herself not, “Should I go to law school?” but, “Is going to law school really okay for a woman?”
Katie (who ended up thriving in law school) is not alone in the experience of being observed and critiqued in her actions not just as herself, but first and foremost as a woman. From the “Mommy Wars” to the “girlboss” phenomenon, most women encounter expectations and limits that are based on a cultural perception of what women ought to be, a perception that also sometimes sees women as a threat. Although Katie’s law school, fortunately, did not see her this way, American subcultures on both sides of the political spectrum often see individuals as women first, and people second.
While our media culture seeks to minimize biological sex, paradoxically, as a whole we remain obsessed with sex as the primary determinant of our identity and our behavior. Whether based on feelings or biology, both the Right and the Left see womanhood as defined not by what women actually do, but what people think women ought to do—in other words, by social mores. In this way, gender functions as a restrictive force based on stereotypes and potentialities.
Of course, being a woman is indeed important to both identity and experience. Being female comes with a set of specific biological realities, as well as a constellation of common social experiences, all of which affect women’s lives and thus, their choices. Yet in trying to define what it means to be a woman, our culture turns the relationship between womanhood and personhood on its head. Instead of asking, “What does it mean to be a person who is also a woman?” we ask, “What does it mean to be a woman (who is, incidentally, also a person, I guess)?”
I argue that, to paraphrase Dorothy Sayers, we are persons first, and that our womanhood modifies but does not exclusively define this reality. Our womanhood should inform and affect our individual situations, actions, preferences, and decisions, but not to the extent that it overshadows our status as unique human persons.
Let us return, then, to the quandary faced by our aspiring lawyer, Katie. The essential question for her ought not to be, “Is law school a good choice for a woman?” but rather, “Is law school a good choice for me?” “Woman” and “man” are useful terms, but they are not our primary source of identity; that is our personhood. Many characteristics, personality traits, duties, and circumstances tend to be more typical of one sex than the other, and so thinking in terms of sex can often be helpful, but this framework only tells part of each person’s story.
The word “me,” on the other hand, encompasses not only my womanhood or manhood but also all the other influential factors in my life: my personality traits, my upbringing, my education, my family, my talents, my health, my location, my religion, my commitments, my finances, my preferences, and much more. Thinking first in terms of personhood includes considerations related to one’s sex, without conferring unnecessary restrictions and pressures. Considering whether law school – or whatever – a good choice for “me” encompasses all of my circumstances and beliefs, including those that come forth from my womanhood, but puts my humanity at the center of a major decision about my life.
Katie’s sex and any plans related to it may affect her decision, but it would be unwise for her to restrict herself based on potentialities related to her sex rather than her current, personal reality. She may marry and have children and wish to stay home with them. On the other hand, she may not. Who is she now, what does she want, what are her current responsibilities, and how does all of this relate to law school? She, or any woman (or man), might ask herself the same thing about any major decision.
For who are you, anyway? Are you primarily a person, or primarily a man or woman? You are male or female because your body—from your DNA to your reproductive organs to your secondary sex characteristics—is organized around reproducing either within your own body or outside of it. But you yourself are not reduceable to mere XX or XY chromosomes, nor can your identity be captured by cultural gender stereotypes. You are a human being first and foremost, whose personality and experience is modified but not overwhelmed by the unique gifts and challenges of your sex.
This personhood-first principle not only resists restriction-based thinking about sex, however. It also allows both women and men to acknowledge needs and desires that do align with stereotypical femininity or masculinity. Maybe you, a woman or a man, are a deeply empathetic person who cries easily when moved. There is room for that in the vast ocean of humanity! Whether more women than men are emotionally sensitive is useful information, but it is a minor point overall. Emotional sensitivity shouldn’t be described as “a female thing.” Nor should a woman who is indeed emotionally sensitive be expected to suppress this in order to be allowed to chop wood, support her family as the primary breadwinner, or do whatever else some people reserve exclusively for men. Your sensitivity is simply part of you as a person, along with the rest of your tendencies, experiences, strengths, and weaknesses. It does not place requirements on your to fit into a stereotype.
The term “woman” encompasses whatever you, as a biological human female, are. This is not the same as the circular reasoning that says you can choose your sex. Rather, you are a human with an inherent sex that is intrinsic but is secondary to your personhood. We are people first and men or women second. It is crucial that we respect, maintain, and understand both sex and personhood. Both are valuable. Both are at risk in our culture. But one does not erase the other.