To Feel A Gender

I am sorry @clementine_ford to inundate you with verbiage but your question was so interesting. “How do you think someone feels like a gender?”

After much thinking about basics like nature v nurture etc, I took myself and the dog to the beach to further ponder. What better place is there to think on the great questions of life than looking at the vast ocean? I also looked at the way my female dog played with other new dogs she met on the beach at the time. Yes, they are all neutered, but there was a difference in the speed with which she started her play depending on the gender mix. She appeared to relate more quickly to the other female dogs. I told myself to stop being silly. The sample size was much too small!

I next thought of Freud and his concepts of female penis envy and castration complex, but I have long disregarded that aspect of his otherwise very important contributions to matters of the mind. If I had not done so by then, an exchange between my 5 year old granddaughter and her 6 year old brother when they were changing at a swimming pool would have caused me to do so. He was prancing around with genitals on show and she asked me, “Grandma, don’t you think penises are ridiculous just dangling there?”  Her brother, quite naturally, got quite upset.  My reply was, “I think they would look ridiculous on girls but they look very nice on boys”. I suspect that reply might have done irreparable damage to the structuring of gender expectations. But it was all I could think of at the time.

Perhaps we could look at Lacan and his concept of “the other” for this early feeling of identification. We do like belonging to a group. Perhaps it comes about at his “mirror image” stage when he claimed there is mental development of the ego in synchronicity with the libidinal relationship with the body image. (I think I may have another read of him tonight with your question at the forefront of my mind, because there is actually little difference in the bodies of very young children except for that dangling penis.) In my childhood, differences were dealt with by gender segregation during the so called “latency period”. Thank goodness for the emphasis on co-education now.

And in my childhood I had very forward thinking parents who thought girls were as capable as boys. I probably spent more time with my father, trying to build things, rather than with my mother, trying to sew things, but I never for a moment ever felt any way but proud and happy to be a female.

Surely it cannot be merely the issues surrounding reproduction. People are still female when they do not reproduce. That does not impact on femaleness. And for those who do reproduce it constitutes such a very short part of our lives. On the beach I added my time up for myself. Having had five children I spent  45 months approximately being pregnant and about another 45 month breast feeding. That is 90 months out of a lifetime that has so far spanned 862 months. Just 10.4 % of my life. This surely was not the only period I identified as female nor does it define me as female. ( I also spent 72 months undergraduate university and more than that in post graduate work. That does not define me as anything either.) I certainly felt less like a woman when I was pregnant but more like either a hippopotamus or an incubator. When my husband unthinkingly brought in a dress with a mini skirt for me to wear home from hospital after the birth of my last child, I was surprised and thrilled that it still fitted me and I felt much more like a woman in it – a woman with my own body reclaimed.

So IS it the societal trappings?  Is it the pink dresses and the princess myths?  If so why do those of us that have been brought up to reject such shallow trappings still feel female? They might say “clothes maketh the man” but I am sure they do not maketh the woman.

Hormones are interesting and both men and women are subtly different in the quantity and types of hormones they produce, but there are also differences between individual men and individual women, sometimes greater than those between a specific man and a specific woman. It surely can’t be a concept that is entirely hormonal. Women do tend to have a burst of oxytocin at the time of childbirth and feeding. This tends to help contribute to empathy. But fathers experience this similar burst often when they hold their infants and there is no doubt men have a great capacity for empathy. And any teacher will tell you that young girls have a great capacity for leadership and control and often tend to run kindergaten classrooms!

So I think I have to say, “I have no idea what makes me feel female”. Perhaps I will read Lacan tonight. Perhaps I will just sit here and enjoy feeling like a woman.


About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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2 Responses to To Feel A Gender

  1. I’ve told this story somewhere before, but apparently not on my blog. When my daughters were little I brought them back from Sydney a Meccano set – the ultimate boys’ toy. They were delighted, and immediately set about building… strollers for their dolls. Not that dolls were their only other toys – I was quite keen for them to have a range of toys of all types, but somehow it always came back to the dolls. If there’s an irony in this it’s that they, now in their 30s, have both chosen not to have children.

    As to dangly bits, our Aunty Amy told us the joke as kids of the little girl asking the little boy, “What’s that between your legs?” I can’t remember his answer or how she came to have a viewing, but she then said, “That’s a handy little thing to have on a picnic.” Of course, we kids thought that was a great joke.

    In the end, it all accentuates gender, doesn’t it? But not in a harmful way, I believe. As long as there are such significant biological differences, it’s absurd to think that we should strive to ignore them – merely to make sure the gender differences don’t get in the way where they should not matter.

  2. Anne Powles says:

    A fascinating story about your daughters’ reactions to Meccano. And I have seen the reverse in what little boys can make of toy prams and strollers in terms of objects capable of motion! There is a difference, clear even among children who are brought up in families like your daughters were and I was, where gender stereotypes are not emphasized. I tried do do the same with my children. Even though there were personality factors among my children that strongly appeared across gender lines, there was still a marked gender difference apparent from quite young (although my two daughters did not like playing with dolls nearly as much as I did).

    @clementine_ford brought this question up in relation to what DSM 5 are apparently now going to call “Gender Dysphoria”, but as a former psychologist I tend to look at the more usual situation before moving on to the unusual. This is a particular question I had never thought to ask myself.

    In my own family the girls, always putting on plays and musicals, probably made their younger brother’s life a misery by requiring him to act many different roles when they were a bit short of performers. He was often dressed up in their dresses. I still have on celluloid a wonderful clip of his death bed scene as Beth in “Little Women”. He remained throughout a real little boy with never a gender confusion on his horizon.

    And there I have unwittingly done it again. My daughters have complained for many years that I refer to them as “the girls” but tend to refer to my sons individually by name! Could that be some weird form of gender identification?

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