I am a woman, phenomenally, phenomenal woman, that’s me. ~Maya Angelou
Inspired by my favourite Maya Angelou poem, I constantly consider what it means to be a woman. March brings the beginning of International Women’s month and the strive for women to acquire recognition, rights and roles that were always dominated by men has truly been incredible.
To think that even a century ago, women could only vote under certain age and socio-economic circumstances demonstrates that the plight for equality has been long started and although we’ve improved there is much to be done. I will lead you through the history of womanhood, the fight for the suffrage, the modern climate and how we can be better for the future.
Women in Ancient Greece (and Ancient Rome) were generally responsible for housekeeping and other domestic activities, and didn’t attend schools (although by contrast, women from ancient Sparta could access an education, own property and could partake in sports).
A woman reenacting Ancient Roman life (domestic roles were a woman's responsibility).
Likewise in ancient China, women’s sole duty was to bear sons (as explored in the Disney movie Mulan). In contrast to other ancient societies, Egypt gave women a greater degree of freedom—women could testify in court cases, own businesses and had the marital freedom to divorce and remarry. But even with this, men were still superior, and Queen Hatshepsut requested all artwork of her to make her resemble a man to appeal to the better nature of the Egyptian people.
The notion of a patriarchal society continued throughout medieval history and the golden age where women who challenged social norms of being obedient, composed and submissive were deemed witches. A notable example—Joan of Arc.
She courageously led French resistance against the English army, stating that she was under God’s influence in the Middle Ages but was sadly captured and burnt at the stake for “violating divinity, witchcraft” and impersonating men. Divisions between men and women have continued throughout a lot of known history, through the Golden Age, and through the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras (ironic considering the connotations of each of these nouns when isolated).
Iconic warrior queens from ancient and early modern history included: Queen Nzinga of Ndongo who lead African resistance in modern day Angola against the Portuguese and the Trung Sisters of ancient Vietnam who led rebellions against Chinese rule in the 1st century AD. You can read about them and other trailblazers like them here.
Society was heavily patriarchal in the industrial era and separate spheres meant that women were required to embark on the more domestic roles in life and in some cases, were sent to finishing schools to “become better wives and mothers”. This theme of male dominance (and in many cases, toxicity) was explored deeply in the Robert Browning poem My Last Duchess (I highly recommend you read it). The dramatic monologue written in 1842 was crafted to showcase to an audience how a man’s power (due to social norms) is easily abused.
The poem is constructed to depict the Duke’s hostility, bitterness and obsession with power (through caesura and rhyming couplets). It opens with the duke pointing toward a painting indicating it to be “[his] last duchess”, and he proceeds to tell her story and detail how good-humoured she was. Knowing her husband, she only ever revealed a "spot of joy" when in discussion with others; the duke was dissatisfied, however.
He ultimately “gave commands” and “all smiles stopped together” (we can infer that he had the Duchess killed) and he proceeds to take a new bride at the end of the poem. The cyclical structure demonstrates that the abuse of power is regular and will continue until patriarchy is abolished and equality is encouraged. Enter the suffragists and suffragettes.
A Victorian woman with aligned posture and her hands clasped to reflect her composed nature.
In the UK, women could vote in local council elections but not the parliamentary one under the belief that only men could have a voice on matters concerning the nation and imperial powers. In 1897, three groups of early feminists joined and formed the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and were led by Millicent Fawcett. Their campaign methods included petitions, non-violent protests and lobbying members of Parliament.
Some could argue that their methods were slow in enacting change and weren’t as representative of different social classes—the NUWSS consisted mainly of middle/upper class women, so they most likely campaigned for these women’s votes and even though some working-class women joined, there was little mainstream reception. Thus, in 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union. The group were dubbed the ‘suffragettes’ by the press and attracted working and middle-class support.
Protest methods included interrupting parliamentary sessions, chaining themselves to railings and going on hunger strikes when arrested—more radical actions to draw public attention to their plight. Perhaps the most renowned action is that of Emily Davison in 1913 who stepped in front of the King’s horse (and unfortunately, died) at the Epsom Derby (her intent was unknown, but it is believed she wanted to pin the suffragettes' colours on the horse to gain attention).
A suffragette sash.
Women’s enfranchisement was eventually granted (on a partial basis) after the First World War in 1918 due to the women being willing to keep vital industries running during the war. The 1918 Representation of the People Act gave the vote to all men over 21 and women who were either: over age 30, property owners or wives of property owners. Eventually, 10 years later, due to the 1928 Representation of the People Act, there was a full adult suffrage—both men and women could vote at 21.
There is a long history of women campaigning for the franchise and without their contributions, our pathway to the present may have been more difficult.
Today, we have a more diverse view of the concepts “masculinity” and “femininity”. Many describe Shakespeare as the greatest writer in history and whilst I don’t necessarily agree, I do believe he was ahead of time. In his 1623 play Macbeth, Shakespeare introduces the notion of the fluidity of gender through Macbeth himself.
Macbeth was lustful for power, and he set out on pursuit to satisfy what others would perceive the archetypal man. Shakespeare emphasises to us that gender is fluid and typically feminine attributes can be applied to men and vice versa, and such would not make a person less of a man/woman; it simply reinforces their self-awareness and understanding. Today, we have many people realising their gender identities demonstrating that there's no one way to be a human.
Disney movies were perhaps the prime of many of our childhoods, depicting many fairy tales and giving us hope that we too, will live happily ever after. But looking back, something irritates me about the presentation of female characters—they were mostly the conventional “damsels in distress” (apart from Mulan and Merida). Even Tiana (who I love being the first African American princess) was a frog for a good proportion of the movie and had the assistance of a man (to some degree) to enact her dreams.
What are we teaching our younger females—that they need a man to help their dreams come true? That they must be attracted to men in general?
Tiana, Disney's first African-American princess.
In terms of my own experience, I'm Black and I'm a woman so experiencing life from this specific lens has been very interesting. Growing up was an interesting experience—for the first 8 years of my life, I didn’t know that dolls could be Black so I had a warped view of myself.
I never truly considered the intersection between Blackness and femininity until a few years ago—the notion of the angry black girl is perpetuated by the media characterises us as hostile, short-tempered and bitter which stems from roles that black women played during the colonial era but in present times, I have to be mindful of how I express my emotions not just as a woman but as a Black woman—due to stereotypes, my race is almost a threat.
Discussions of feminism have also been rather interesting. I studied the post-modern feminist bell hooks as part of my Politics at school and she proposed essential discussions around how women of color (specifically Balck women) experience both racial and sexual discrimination and neither the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s nor the feminist movement acknowledged this intersectionality. I was reading Why I’m No longer talking to White People about Race and Reni Eddo-Lodge echoes the views of bell hooks. She denotes that racism and sexism fail to highlight the experiences of black women—racism highlights the consequences of social structures for black men and the latter on white women. It sometimes feels as though there’s no safe space for us to be us.
2 young Black girls relying on each other.
In the years to come, we need to break down our social conventions—beauty standards are the first. Each society has norms for what is considered beautiful and what’s even more toxic is that if they are not adhered to, they can be extremely damaging to young boys and girls. It's interesting the kinds of adverts, television programmes and games our young children are exposed to—makeover and dress-up games are prime examples.
A girl being unloved due to her physique sets unrealistic beauty standards that children feel they need to adhere to or they will never experience love. The same thing with cooking games—I typed cooking games into the App Store and 11 of the first 20 results had a woman on the app display picture. The 20th was published by a company called “Girl’s cooking games for Fun”.
Designing the games specifically for girls cements the notion that cooking is for females and young males shouldn’t be encouraged to embark on such a life skill. It’s time we broke down barriers between what is typically for boys and girls—whether it’s colours, games, or television programmes.
Images that came up with the search of "cooking" on the Pexels website.
Another thing which came to mind was encouraging positive self-talk. I read this tweet and it made me consider how we’ve been conditioned by popular culture to look a certain way and only then do we classify as beautiful. It’s extremely detrimental to growing girls.
I can definitely speak for black women and girls in the UK that there’s an aesthetic that we feel pressure to meet for validation: nails, lashes, hair, make-up—it's all rather superficial. Wear these things for your own satisfaction, not society’s.
Adesayo Talabi on the importance of positive self-talk.
And ensure to be mindful of the social climate. A worldwide discussion sparked on Twitter over the Christmas break after news that a 26-year-old mother sadly passed away after being given anaesthesia and not waking up prior to enhancement surgery. Reading through the comments, there were men and women condemning her for her choice; ironic when we consider beauty standards.
Or perhaps she just wanted the surgeries to feel confident. It was so unfortunate that her life was in the hands of unlicensed practitioner and people spoke poorly about her. Remember social norms are all around and impact our choices (often subconsciously) and that people also make choices to suit themselves.
Leading on from this, the contemporary fight for liberation by Iranian women is so inspiring. These women are striving to wear the hijab on their own accord. Under such a regime and still these women and supporters stand as a voice against oppression, a voice for the next generation, a voice of freedom. It’s a beautiful legacy that we should all support.
Coming back to the idea of what a woman is, I find it difficult to define. And I know why. It’s subjective.
It differs. We all derive from various walks of life, and this wouldn’t invalidate a person’s humanity but rather allow us to acknowledge and celebrate our differences.
But I know one thing—women are kind. Strong. Capable.
Insightful. Fierce. Brave.
Black women, Mixed race women, Asian Women, Trans women, Muslim women, Latina women, disabled women, single mothers, women who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, plus-sized women—society may try to condemn us. But we are phenomenal.
We are women.
An insight into women in history can be found here.
I am a woman, phenomenally, phenomenal woman, that’s me.