By: Audrey Gibson
Staff Phenomenal Woman
I’ve grown up a lot during the course of my college experience, and this growth has emphasized for me how annoyingly vague and rare the definitions are for what it means to become an adult woman. For much of history the transition into womanhood was defined by sexual maturity. A woman was someone who could be used sexually — someone who could produce children. This definition is unhelpful to say the least, and at its worst contributes to the persistence of rape culture. But there is nothing, really, to replace it. For all the advice and popular wisdom and endless novels about becoming a man, it is difficult to name many pieces of culture or tradition that discuss womanhood in anything more than a sexual sense.
To verify this, you only have to do a few quick Google searches. “Becoming a man” yields many results with titles like “13 Things Every Boy Must Learn if He Has Any Hope of Becoming a Man,” “How to Become a Man in the Modern World,” and “So You Want to Become a Man” – that last one is from artofmanliness.com. I could go on. The search results for “becoming a woman” turn up a much different crop of articles. There have been a few recent articles about womanhood in the context of the #MeToo movement, but there is certainly not a site dedicated to the ‘art of womanhood’. Many of the results are from the same source, and are descriptions of a series of books with titles like “Becoming a Woman Whose God is Enough.” It is unsettling that, this far after the midcentury “Cult of True womanhood” era, which very highly promoted piety as a womanly virtue, the solitary instruction that seems to be available in womanhood only suggests this.
And, although contemporary novels treat women and womanhood more holistically, most books involving women’s maturation generally communicate growth in terms of relationships, while literature’s boyish heroes find themselves growing through individual reflection or daring adventures.
We have to ask the question: will we ever start teaching girls that becoming a woman means more than gaining the ability to please a man?
It may seem that, in the face of the current administration, the demarcation between girlhood and womanhood is not an issue of much urgency. But when we fail to define womanhood, we tacitly allow the systematic infantilization of women; we fail to elevate them from girlhood.
Girls, by definition, are children. They lack the complete agency and control over their lives that is granted to adults. Upon achieving adulthood, ostensibly, one gains the freedom to go boldly in the direction of one’s ambitions. By not recognizing the turning point of womanhood, this change itself is neglected. Women are therefore left in an infantilized state of girlhood indefinitely. Women can be thought of as girls – and have been—until the point of their marriage, another traditional way of defining womanhood. Again, the agency of the woman is lumped into her relationship with men.
By neglecting to define and celebrate the point of becoming a woman, the task of determining women’s agency is left to traditional models that base her maturity on her ability to engage in relationships with men. Womanhood is powerful. Womanhood means true agency and equality, and it is something to celebrate and recognize. For too long, confusion with girlhood has seeped into the treatment of women.
I don’t have a universal answer about when a girl becomes a woman, or how it should be recognized. I think I decided I was a woman during my freshman year of college, when I looked around at my life and realized that I had constructed it myself, and that I had the power to change it to be anything I wanted it to be. It sounds cheesy, I guess, but years from now, when a little girl is searching for what it means to be a woman, I hope that that is the kind of definition we are able to give her.