To Be a Woman

written by Andrea Lacombe*
and Washington Castilhos*
translated by Kylene Guse*

After her presentation during the seminar at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil, in 2007, the transsexual Bárbara Graner asked, “I don´t understand why genital surgery permits a woman to be called a woman. Why can only a vagina prove that you are a woman? Why is femininity only attached to genital organs?” She said this, stood up out of her chair, bat her fists loudly on the table and proclaimed, “I am a woman! I feel like a woman, so I am a woman!”Although we know that the International Day of women, officially recognized by the United Nations in 1975, initially referred to biological women and the difficult matters they face such as the criminalization of abortion and violence; it is also important to face Graner´s affirmation and reflect “what it means to be a woman.” Especially, a time when the dichotomy between sex and gender, and the idea that gender is a consequence of biological sex continues to be reflected upon by gender and feminist studies.

“To be a woman is a social and cultural construct,” explains Chilean sociologist Teresa Valdez of the Center for Studies on the Development of women (Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo de la Mujer) (CEDEM). “Historically, cultures have constructed the idea of “being a woman,” taking into account the sexual body, which is a sex that has been designed through gender. To be a woman is not only a social and cultural construction, but also a strong subjective construction. To be recognized as a woman is also a necessity, and here is where tension is produced–between your own proper subjectivity, where, for example, I can feel like a woman even though I am not recognized as such. In this context, we have to understand Barbara Graner´s outburst. What is worth more: how she feels or the social context that considers the attributes needed to recognize her as a woman?” she questions.

Making this point, Valdez´s opinion converges with the transgender activist and transgender person Diana Navarro Sanjuán, Director of Corporación Opción, explaining that feminine gender belongs to “more than the genital and sexual organs where gender does not have to match physiology.” “Independent of our physiological genitalia, we are persons with masculine sex but with a feminine identity; we are women,” she affirms.

Theoretical and political discussions in relation to what it signifies to be man and to be woman have been marked by the biological and social substratus. “From the biological point of view, a woman is a women with XX chromosomes, however, from the cultural point of view, there is not only one way to be a woman,” comments anthropologist Marta Lamas, director of the Mexican magazine Debate Feminista (Feminist Debate). “To be a woman in a Muslim country is not the same as being a woman in a Nordic country or in Mexico. There are many ways to be a woman, which result from one´s generation, social class, geographic location, religious beliefs and ideologies,” the feminist points out.

Following in the same direction, Brazilian anthropologist Anna Paula Vencato, finds it is impossible to give an objective definition of what it is “to be a woman” and doesn´t believe that a specific “shared essence” exists for all women in order to define “womanhood.” Argentinian activist, Alejandra Sardá, involved in the group “Mulabi” (Espacio latinoamericano de sexualidades y derechos), considers “woman” to be a category of identity and social convention that “offers the possibility to move your meaning as social circumstances permit.”

A professor at the Federal University of São Carlos, Vencato completed the study, We exist for the pleasure to be women: body, gender and sexuality in men that practice crossdressing. This ethnographic research was conducted at events sponsored by the Brazilian Crossdresser Club (BCC) and also on the internet. “Crossdressers are not women and don´t look like they are. In one way, we could say they are ´men that dress as women,’ or more effectively, ‘men that desire to dress in feminine clothes,’ even though crossdressing is something more complex than that. It´s true that their feminine elements are quite peculiar. It is a “transitory image” made in specific moments, that involve various degrees of bodily intervention, depending on the type of results intended of that production. Generally, crossdressers are inspired and pick up their images from things that they observe and admire in women or in things they see in women they think are beautiful or interesting,” the researcher explains.

In this perspective, instead of referring to a common essence in order to think about what it means to be a woman, it is necessary to conceive of this identity as a category of multiple types, which, in the words of Brazilian anthropologist Regina Facchini, would be “always open to include all of the differences that demand the recognition of people as women.” Facchini is the author of the doctorate dissertation, Women, homosexuality and differences in the city of São Paulo, in which she researched women that have active sexual relationships with other women between the ages of 18 and 65 years old from different class, ethnic and racial backgrounds. Besides the lesbian bars and nightclubs, she observed her ethnographic research in social situations in the outskirts of São Paulo, with people that frequent a sado-masochist club and a young feminists network called “riot girrrls” or “minas do rock.”

“My work in the field forced me to think about the category ´woman.’ I met people born as biological women but considered themselves to be FTM (female-to-male) or lesbians, looking for a “more masculine” gender expression.’ “In my research, masculinity was more present especially in women with lower class backgrounds, for example. There are so many different gender expressions that it’s hard to define ‘woman’ as a limited category”.

The Significance of Femininity

Suppose we think of “woman” in the plural, referring to femininity as different shades of color and this idea materializes. “The way that women and other people incorporate aspects of femininity are informed from various social conventions, considering diverse elements in the specific context in which determines where the person is inserted,” argues Anna Paula Vencato.

The Brazilian anthropologist Jorge Leite, professor in the Department of Sociology at the Federal University of São Paulo (UFSCAR), remembers there has never been a consensus about what it signifies to be a woman or to be a man, but “moments in which a certain point of view becomes hegemonic and natural.” The same thing happens with the concept of femininity. “It’s the social conventions that determine what you can and can’t be understood as feminine at the time. Today a woman can be an enthusiastic fan for her team or plays soccer and this isn’t seen as anything that counters her femininity. However, here in Brazil, decades ago, that was seen as a clear fault of femininity and a sign of “masculinization” of the woman. Nowadays, women bodybuilders still suffer this type of preconception today.”

Jorge Leite is the author of the dissertation, Our bodies also move: sex, gender and the categoric inventions of “travesti” and transsexual in scientific discourse,” defended in November 2008 by the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo (PUC/SP). The fieldwork was conducted with travesties and transsexuals that work and live in the central São Paulo region.

“Generally speaking, I can say that the feminine construction among “travestis” happens after the ingestion of hormones, implants or silicone applications and the intense and constant process of enacting gender norms (in this case, feminine) without surrendering certain elements associated with the notion of masculine virility, especially in relation to sexual practices. In any manner, it is always important to remember that a grand majority of people that self-identify as ‘travestis’ here in Brazil don not recognize themselves as women,” he said.

However, these gender expressions co-exist with hegemonic models that mark an order of gender in order to construct the feminine, which are maternity and conjugal heterosexuality. For Diana Navarro Sanjuán, these social paradigms of “what should be feminine” put biological women and transgender women in a place that validates and reproduces stereotypes. “Many of us still copy models of what we are suppose to impose as feminine: big breasts, ostentatious bodies, small waist, square hips, delicate arms, flat bellies, long nails, long hair and the use of make-up, clothing and accessories that allow us to identify as part of the multiple forms to be a woman.”

According to the activist, submissive behaviors reproduce negative stereotypes of “what a woman should be,” conditioning the type of woman that trans-women want to be. Thus, the researchers agree with the privileged place of maternity in feminine conventions. “There is a myth that says a woman’s destiny is to be a mother and her femininity will be confirmed in this biological fact. On the other hand, this is how femininity has been constructed—to value maternity. However, the theme of maternity is not a biological theme. Many woman, whether they be transsexuals or not, opt to adopt children and be good mothers.” argues Marta Lamas.

At the same time, for Alejandra Sardá, the feminine veneration of maternity – as well as masculine veneration of paternity -, “is one of the more resistant taboos, which seriously damages the possibility to think and implement serious health and reproductive public policies and also meet new forms of femininity. On a global level, it has been a long time since critical movements have been created to reform the human condition, moving towards the diversity and recognition of sexuality in many different forms. Valuing the diversity will break these monolithic schemes of what it means to be a man or woman.”

In the words of Regina Facchini, “perhaps one of the most important forms of political solidarity would be to think how we can recognize the diversity of women so that on every March 8 we could create a space to commemorate all the possibilities of the meaning of the word “woman.”

*Andrea Lacombe has an MA in Anthropology and a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the Museu Nacional (Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro)

* Washington Castilhos is a journalist and coordinator of Social Communications at the Latin American Center on Sexuality and Human Rights

* Kylene Guse has an MA in Sexuality Studies from San Francisco State University