I am not a woman. Are you?

February 6, 2008 | By | 21 Replies More

I realized this very recently, when several factors forced gender into awareness. In a psychology course a few quarters back, the professor asked the class to list the groups to which we each thought we belonged. My list looked something like this: “Student; Intellectual; Atheist; Independent; Skeptic; Young Adult”. As students read off their answers, I noticed a big glaring gap in my own response: gender. Most women had mentioned that they saw themselves as “women”. In fact, “women” was usually the group at the top of the list. I wrote this off as an example of how much I value my intellectual life over my more superficial life-on-paper. Or something.

Then one day, I became ensnared in one of my Hillary-Clinton-supporting roommate’s little tirades about women and power. He considers himself a big feminist, and he loves powerful women and the gender questions it creates. At one point he said something like, “When people look at you as a a woman-” and I quickly, instinctively replied, “But I don’t really think of myself as a woman.” He seemed to understand what I meant instantly- I see myself as a person.

Don’t mistake this for a discussion on gender dysphoria. I don’t feel out of place in my body; I don’t feel forced into a category that doesn’t fit. Instead, I don’t really feel that category at all. The matter has no salience for me; I don’t move through life with a constant reminder in my head of womanhood. You probably all feel this way about your shoe size, or your eye color. It doesn’t restrict you, it doesn’t represent you, and most of the time, you entirely forget about it.

One of the oft-mentioned benefits of belonging to a powerful majority is this sense of personhood without the burden of a heavy label. White people in the U.S. don’t often think about their “whiteness” or how they fit into a “white culture”. They don’t have to, because whiteness is so frequent it is transparent. Instead of thinking of yourself as a “White Person”, you get to think of yourself as a “person”, an individual. Feminists also make this claim about men- their manhood has no salience; male is the default and female is the “other”, and so on.

So while I’ve always agreed with the basic ideas of feminism, I guess my androgynous situation makes me more of a post-feminist than a bread and butter I-am-woman-hear-me-roar feminist. My experience is more like: I-am-a-person-that-deserves-respect, hear-me-do-uh-whatever. But I don’t know how odd my feelings are at this time, generations after feminism first bloomed.

For that reason, I’d really like input on my realization/musing. To the women: do you think of yourself as a woman, a person, or both? Do you feel like a woman? Does it depend on the situation? Men: is your “manhood” more salient than I’ve come to believe, or do you see yourself as the default? Do you feel manly? I’d really like some response on how others hash out the labels that reflect their identity, because I’ve written this post from a very intuitive place, and I could have a warped understanding of things.


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Category: Culture, Sex, Whimsy

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (21)

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  1. I am a woman of a "certain age"–and obviously of the demographic that Hillary Clinton is depending upon in this race. I could not agree with you more. It isn't that I don't think of myself as a woman; however, like you, my female-ness is salient only when I bump up against some sort of inequity based upon gender.

    I say this even though I became a lawyer when few women were in the profession and the glass ceiling was very real, was a political candidate when voters still felt it was perfectly okay to say women should stay home with their kids, etc. I raised three sons who consider themselves feminists. None of us votes on the basis of gender, nor do we consider gender to be relevant to job performance–some women do well, some men do well, it depends upon the individual.

    It has always seemed to me that the goal of women–and African-Americans, Jews, Hispanics, etc.–is to be evaluated on the basis of our personal talents and character, neither penalized nor privileged for the accident of identity. (Of course, we should all work to eliminate barriers based upon identity. But little is gained by replacing one sort of bigotry with another.)

    I think many women feel as we do. Unfortunately, the "talking heads" on TV foster a quite different narrative.

  2. 300baud says:

    I not only don't think of myself as a man, I also tend to mistakenly take offense for a moment when my gender is referenced. I also don't identify with being white or straight, though I *do* identify with and take some pride in being born a geek. I kind of think "pride" cultivated through such accidents is a bit misplaced, though I understand that it's being used as an antidote for shame, so it can be justified over the short term.

    Perhaps identifying with such meritless traits tends to reflect an insecurity?

  3. I spent the last two days in bed being sick, somewhat bored, reading stuff that caused me to brood about my existence as single, about the lack of men I want to date and who want to date me, about women who are feminists and worrying about my biological clock ticking, so your question adds a nice aspect to all these things that have been wandering through my mind lately.

    I've been sitting here, trying to figure out what I'm feeling, but think before I can answer the question, "do you feel like a woman?" I need some information on "how does being a women usually feel?" Before I can identify what I'm feeling I might need something to be able to recognize it.

    I might express myself more like a person rather than a woman, like I once mentioned, people always think I'm a guy on the internet, maybe this means that I also quite often feel like a person and not only like a woman?

  4. Actually, with a rising awareness of my ticking biological clock I do feel pretty much like a woman…

    Interesting question, I'm curious to read what others have to say. 🙂

  5. Steff says:

    I've always thought of myself as an intellectual first. I don't really think of myself as "woman", although I am very definitely a feminist. My careers have been spent in male-dominated fields (computers and comic books), and I always felt like one of the guys.

  6. Ben says:

    Brave article Erica. I also spent the last few days in bed, hospital bed. Met a girl online, heart began racing, did not sleep for 36 hours, exercised too hard, ate a bad sandwich, got that illness that bodybuilders (see Gato's bodybuilding movie), rabdomeisis or something I think, where the muscles begin to cramp up. I still tend to think of myself as a boy rather than a man, weird as that sounds.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    Erika: We each have a body that comes with one set of sex organs or the other and we each also have the potential of seeing (or at least feeling) that we are acting in the world as a woman (or a man). In my case, though, I don’t constantly think about being a man in either sense. Maybe I don’t think of being a man often or even on a regular basis.

    Sometimes, I am reminded of being a man, but whether I’m a man or a woman doesn’t have much to do with what I do during most hours of most days. Hence, like you, I mostly walk around doing things as a person, rather than as a person of a particular gender.

    Sometimes, whether someone has a penis or a vagina matters, of course. For instance, when sex is a possibility or when I need to choose the proper public restroom or when it occurs to me that I’m not qualified to attend the “Mother-Daughter Breakfast” at my daughters’ school. Certainly, as a heterosexual man, I sometimes notice attractive women, which then causes me to feel like a man, sometimes strongly so.

    There’s so much else going on in my life, though, that gender often gets lost in the mix. For instance, I am a human animal and I’m often reminded of this. That biological fact of my animal-ness shapes my understanding of who I am; it gives me a guiding context for why I do many of the things I do (see here, for example http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=1287).

    I am an introvert, which I have often considered this year, because it so often matters http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=1520. For me, introversion explains much about the way I’ve tended to approach the world and the way I’ve attempted to solve problems.

    I’m also a “lawyer,” according to the sign on the door at work. I often forget that I’m a lawyer, however, even while I’m at work. I do the tasks necessary to represent people. I often don’t think of those people I’m assisting as “clients” either. I’m just a person trying to help people; that’s how I earn my living. When a receive mail telling me to renew my “bar membership,” I’m sometimes a bit surprised that I’m a lawyer. Some would think it would be obvious all day long, but it’s not.

    I’m also a musician. For many years, I taught music lessons and performed music in public. I sometimes think about my music skills, but not always, because I often don’t need to draw on those skills throughout a typical day. I do like to consider myself to be a musician, though, because I feel I’ve earned it through hard work. Am I a musician? When asked, I have to think about it. I’m a little embarrassed to answer the question—it’s as if there’s an implied question (“Are you an adequate musician?”). If you hand me a guitar and ask me to play some chords, I’ll just do it, often with joy, but that doesn’t make me think of myself as a “musician.” I’m just a person who likes to play music.

    I’m a parent, but I don’t often think of myself in using that term. I try to take care of those two little girls who live in my house. But I often don’t think “parent or child” when I am with them. I’m reminded of this relationship (of parent/child) when I have to fill out a school form directed to “parents.” Am I a “spouse”? I don’t often think about myself in those terms either. I live with Anne and I’m often aware of the strong bond we have with one another. Sometimes, it occurs to me that she is my “wife” and, strangely, I am repeatedly and pleasantly surprised. “Oh, yeah,” I think. We are married to each other. She is my “wife”!

    I write a lot. When someone asks me whether I’m a “writer,” though, I often pause, not quite knowing what to say. I think, “I write a lot” rather than considering that I’m a “writer.”

    What I’m trying to suggest is that I feel like a person rather than a gendered person or a person with the training or the skills that I sometimes draw upon. It’s the norm for me that I am a person trying to get through the day and trying to figure things out in an abstract way. Do my daily activities often cause me to focus on the type of sex organ I was born with? Rarely.

    Maybe it would be different if I often engaged in activities in which women couldn’t or didn’t proficiently do what I did. But women can and often do the same sorts of things I do. I am acquainted with large numbers of terrifically talented female lawyers, writers, musicians, parents, scientists and athletes.

    Maybe my (subdued) image of my gender is the result of my good fortune of being exposed to so many highly skilled females that do the same sorts of things that I do. Some men who lack that background have trouble seeing female professionals as, first and foremost, professionals. And I’m sure it’s different for me now than it was 30 years ago, perhaps for those same reasons. Back then, women were sometimes denied those opportunities they are now often expected to embrace as people.

    Or maybe it has to do with yet something else. I am firmly of the belief that men and women can be good friends without sexual tensions messing things up. There are many men and women out there who would disagree with me, whose experience is that men and women cannot have the strong sorts of friendships that men can have with men and women can have with women. Maybe those people who think that sexual cravings can’t ever be subdued are more likely to see gender as a predominant factor regarding who they are.

    Lots of speculation, I know.

  8. andrea says:

    I may be a woman, a wife, an atheist, a skeptic, a democrat, a feminist, a musician, an avid reader, an activist, and a volunteer, and am proud to say so. First and foremost, however, I am a person, and I wish to be treated accordingly.

    I find it limiting and misleading to think of myself (and others) in such specific terms. We humans have much more in common than we think. These narrow views of people tend to focus on our differences and often result in discrimination.

  9. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Kudos, Erika, for making us think.

    I believe that there must be a primal drive in humans to belong to a group. After all, we are social animals. We have a need to belong. When tasked with naming the groups you identify with, you set priorites on how you let these groups define who you are.

    People that place gender, race or religion high on such a list, are conceding that those are the things they consider important in themselves and in others. From looking at you list, I see that you value knowledge and understanding obove the more physical things.

    Much of the strife in this country seems to come from placing race, gender, religion and politics high on the list. The comedian Paul Rodriguez pointed this out.

    You hear people call themselves "African-American" or "Asian American" or "Mexican-American". They place their heritage before their nationality.

    Mr Rodriguez described himself as an American of Hispanic ancestry.

  10. I have never identified strongly with typically masculine traits. Sports, playing cards, fighting, drinking to excess, all the things that are supposed to be "manly" attributes I found pointless and stupid. I have always tried to distance myself from those things whenever possible.

    It's only later in life that I have come to feel more manly, mostly because my somewhat delicate features have become more weathered and craggy of late, a change I welcome. I finally look less like a boy and more like a man, but I still don't watch sports, play cards, drink or fight.

    If I dig a bit deeper I find that my perception of increased manliness in my 40s has also come from feeling more confident and self-assured than I have ever been. I now think that I am wrong to say that I feel more manly. I think I just feel more like ME than I ever have. And I finally know what ME is. That feeling is neither masculine nor feminine but some kind of combination of both.

    I don't know if you are going to get a random sample of humanity by asking this question here at DI. I have found DI contributors to be more thoughtful and less rigid than the norm. Try asking this question over on the bodybuilding forums that I regularly contribute to and I'm sure you'd get a much different set of answers!

  11. Vicki Baker says:

    Hmmm, now I feel a bit self-conscious admitting that I feel that at some level I am always aware that I'm playing the role of "woman." At least in personal/professional relationships. I don't see how I can afford not to. If I talked to male colleagues about some of the same things I talk to female colleagues, they might feel that I was being inappropriately intimate. If I ask for more money in the same way a man might, I'm likely to be seen as overly demanding and less likable, as this study shows:


    Politically speaking, I can see that some of the issues that I would advocate for, like pay equity, parental leave, reproductive rights/health, or subsidizing women's education in the developing world, might be seen as "feminist" issues but I think of them as "humanist" issues. The idea that those issues could somehow constitute a "special interest" seems absurd. In societies that where repression and violence towards women is encouraged or tolerated, in reality the suffering is spread throughout the society.

  12. Vicki Baker says:

    This may not be totally on topic, but here are some reflections on dude-itude, courtesy of Bud Light:

  13. lisa rokusek says:

    Gender is such a very interestingly charged topic. I think that many of the traits and "experiences" we identify as particularly gendered I see as constructions – actually in my mind gender itself has become more of a construction – especially as I am exposed to more fluidity as people modify their bodies in way that suits a particular gender identity that may not fit fixed characteristics.

    But I have to say that I find myself being aware of being a woman quite often, particularly in a professional capacity while working in a primarily male-dominated technology niche. If I act in an assertive way I risk a very real backlash. I am quite aware that I immediately have to establish my knowledge in a way that a man, perhaps, might not or be relegated to the back of the line. These are all subjective experiences, but they happen enough that I would be foolish to ignore them.

    When out walking alone at night I feel very vulnerable, but a man might well feel that way too – though I wonder if a woman feels especially vulnerable – perhaps not.

    While I may not place the identifier "woman" at the top of my list of important traits, there is no doubt it plays a very strong role in how people define or even just interact with me. I try to think of people as people, but things like gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, socio-economic reality, and a zillion other things do inform who we are.

  14. Vicki Baker says:

    More information related to my previous comment: it may be possible to over-use the word "dude." See this advice on "Maintaining Your Heterosexual House of Cards":

  15. Erich Vieth says:

    Very funny video, Dude.

    Hey, Vicki, what is my identity if I go around calling women "Dude"?

  16. Vicki Baker says:

    Dude, I have no idea!

  17. Erich Vieth says:

    Is Barack Obama a candidate who happens to be black or is he a black candidate? Here's a well-written article exploring the kind of person who considers himself to be. http://www.salon.com/opinion/kamiya/2008/02/05/ob

  18. Vicki Baker says:

    I asked the zebra,

    Are you black with white stripes?

    Or white with black stripes?

    And the zebra asked me,

    Are you good with bad habits?

    Or are you bad with good habits?

    Are you noisy with quiet times?

    Or are you quiet with noisy times?

    Are you happy with sad days?

    Or are you sad with happy days?

    Are you neat with some sloppy ways?

    Or are you sloppy with some neat ways?

    And on and on and on and on

    And on and on he went.

    I'll never ask a zebra

    About stripes


    -Shel Silverstein

  19. Dan Klarmann says:

    I have never doubted my sexual preference, my gender identity, or my physical gender. In my own mind, at least.

    In my teens I'd received quite a few passes from men. I was as oblivious to them as I was to the more subtle flirtations from girls. It's not that I was uninterested in the latter; I am just dumb in some ways.

    My teen appearance was quite androgynous. One of my nicknames was "locks" as in Goldi-, and I got very tired of answering "are you a boy or a girl?" I also resented the question, "Are you queer?" I was firmly and entirely attracted to girls, but I usually answered the dumb question with a flurry of long words to convey that I was indeed offbeat, but not gay. My prevailing mustache began as a shield against the gender question.

    Some people are still confused about me. I am a bit flamboyant, for a straight guy. I like some chick flicks, and Amy Tan. I get along quite comfortably with people who are most comfortable dating their own kind. Several are my friends.

    I have always been able to fit in with girl talk. Girls and women often seemed to forget that I wasn't actually one of them. Perhaps I unconsciously carried Dale Carnegie techniques too far. I was always a friend to the few girls in my classes who talked to me.

    I was somewhat surprised when I found out that the girl who finally overcame my stupidity and "made a man of me" later decided to do it to herself. She decided to become a man when her son was almost the age she was when she first "knew" me. His husband is supportive of the change. This doesn't affect my own sense of identity, though.

    But gender is not a major characteristic at the root of my self image. When I am asked a simple "who are you?" sort of question, I usually answer with one or more of my vocations or hobbies: Computer Geek, Artist, rehabber, traveler, or the like. Maybe I simply neglect to answer that I am a man because it seems too obvious.

    Someday I may have to decide what I want to be when I grow up. But I really doubt that it will be a woman.

  20. CC says:

    I would love to know what you women do to keep your menstrual cycles and the accompanying hormone fluctuations in check all the time so that you are not thinking about being a woman during one to two weeks out of the month. I find it very difficult to deny that being biologically female has its disadvantages. I'm a professional who must put on the same face every day for clients and colleagues, no matter what time of the month it is. I know this is so cliche, but it is also very true. It's unfair and extremely challenging. I suffer from moderate to severe PMS symptoms, to include all the physical symptoms and a bit of PMDDish depression a couple of days as well. Imagine a man going through all of that and still trying to act normal – ha, right!

    We have set ourselves up to be equals in the workplace, but it will never happen as long as we have to work so hard to feel normal. We will always be at a disadvantage in this way. So, I would love to know the secret that keeps you all from thinking about womanhood. I can't believe that it isn't a big part of your lives – unless you don't have a uterus.

  21. Erika Price says:

    CC- I don't have any secret. I just don't happen to have those physical ailments you do, nor do I think most women have them to the extent that it sounds like you do. Obviously you could try birth control or other medical treatment for it, but otherwise I think the big difference has to do with how you conceptualize the process. I guess I don't think of menstruation as some "womanly" process, but rather some natural process that some of us happen to encounter, and that others of us don't. Yes, menstruation indicates your "femaleness", but does it make you "a woman"? Perhaps this seems like a silly nuance to you, but a see a distinct difference between the biological and the sociocultural labels. One will always exist, but mostly doesn't matter; the latter is the big basket of associations and expectations that are handed to you, that do matter, but that you could throw away.

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