What is woman?

This is a question we are not supposed to ask. And is certainly one I am not supposed to answer. But in these few paragraphs I will sin boldly, as old Luther apparently suggested Melanchthon should do on one occasion. As I answer, I will write from my own admittedly particular point of view, hoping that the reasons for my writing become apparent.

Woman is what each of my daughters is becoming – what they are and become through swimming competitively, playing the piano, throwing a football, completing math tests or reading novels. They seem to do these things more confidently and competently by the day. Each is unique in temperament, in self-awareness, and in their approach to friendship, among other things. But they are both discovering grace and growing in grace.

These two are also each becoming woman in the particularity of their bodies – gaining coordination and strength to test against the world, whether in playful jest or with compelled determination. As embodied, each is also becoming aware of the remarkable capacity to carry life and deliver life into the world, through and for relationship. How will they respond to this gift and gift-giving capacity? They must discern their answer against the backdrop of a culture that says, astonishingly, the body is irrelevant to (their) being/becoming women.

Woman is courage and strength through immigration, compelled by myriad forces – global, cultural, personal, familial – toward a new culture and context. My mother and grandmothers learned English, inculcated practices of faith, provided discipline and encouragement. Leading, with too little acknowledgment, limited support, and invariably in the face of prohibitions against exploration of their own aspirations.

A more general word: Woman is not and cannot be defined by, or in relation to, man. As Luce Irigaray would put it, throughout history woman has become his opposite, his helper, his complement – defined by and in relation to him. She has thereby been prevented from becoming her own self. With the result that woman has invariably become his possession, subject to his self and whims, too often leading to a violence that is as often real as metaphorical.

Her own self
Woman is the one alongside me, though she is more often in her own sphere of work and struggle and success – nurse, academic, team member, board member. She and I have chosen to be “held to this thing,” to use Sarah Harmer’s lovely turn of phrase, but she is not thereby reduced to this covenant, partnership, home or family we share. In her becoming woman she has made space for me, giving and contributing even as she graciously listens and receives.

A not-insignificant element of our being alongside each other is her carrying and delivering of three children in(to) this world. Woman ≠ mother, yet in this case a woman is also a mother. As such she brings direction and encouragement to the lives of these growing ones, setting the stage for their lives even as she sets them free in their respective becoming. In her living out this task I see uncertainty, joy, growth, wisdom and strength.

 Are we able to say anything about what woman is, as I have tried to do here in my own way? Or is the task itself a forbidden one? A more precise question, perhaps: If woman cannot somehow or similarly be described (even if we acknowledge that every woman exceeds this definition) will not the concept and identity of “woman” finally be an empty one? Is it not the end of woman?

In describing her there is much more that exceeds my vision and description than is within it. My calling as a man is, I think, as Luce Irigaray has suggested: To respect the mystery of this other in her becoming. And to celebrate what I am given to see of her and learn of myself through encounter with her. Looking forward to the risk of another encounter, should she draw near. 

Author

  • Roland De Vries is Director of Pastoral Studies at The Presbyterian College, Montreal, and a Lecturer in the School of Religious Studies at McGill University. He teaches in a variety of areas including Missional Theology, Reformed Tradition, and Global Christianity. He also has a keen interest in explorations at the point of intersection between church and culture. Roland and his wife Rebecca live in Montreal with their three children.

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