Mary Beth is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C., and blogs at Life in the Gap.
“You throw like a girl.”
He said it half to himself, half-jokingly—the wry musings of an oldest boy who had always planned on sons, who had four daughters and wasn’t quite sure how to connect with them. Like everything then (I was eight years old, and determined to be perfect), I took it as a scolding. Not only had I ruined our evening game of catch, there was a more fundamental flaw that needed correcting.
It’s been twenty long years, and that underlying flaw is still there, the same flaw that turns me into a quivering bundle of raw emotion at odd points throughout the month, the flaw that plays into my love of beautiful things and cute clothes, my penchant for gossip, my craving for admiration, my reading and re-reading of Jane Austen novels and the Anne of Green Gables series, my occasional craving for a rom-com, my love of chocolate.
Over those twenty years I have tried so many remedies. In the early years I did my best to eradicate it altogether, proudly donning over-sized T shirts, giving my dolls to my younger sisters, and trying to prove to myself and everyone else that I was really a tomboy. Later, in my “tweens” and into my teens, I simply ignored my underlying flaw and focused on developing antidotal strengths—sarcasm, artistic ability, and some pitiful attempts at intellectualism. In college and later when I launched out into the career world, I threw myself into excelling academically and professionally, philosophizing about “true feminism,” by which I really meant being as un-girly as possible without being crass.
But no matter how hard I tried to ignore it, that underlying flaw was always there, mysterious, disruptive, undeniable. I still did everything “like a girl” because, quite simply, I was a girl!
Being a woman is supposed to be easier today than it has ever been. Modern feminism has opened the way to political rights, higher education, strong careers, “liberation” in just about every sense. Women, we are told from our earliest days, can be just as good as men, even better. Nothing should keep us from our ambitions and dreams—no male chauvinists, no sexist comments or workplace preferences, no inconvenient truths about sex and babies, and—most importantly—no repressed girliness. Paint your nails, read fashion magazines, and talk about boys, certainly, but never “settle” for being a woman. Always aim higher.
Two years into my career, I listened to one young mother in my office tell another, younger mother who had just come off a three-month maternity leave that “it gets easier” to abandon your children to daycare. I watched another young woman kill a relationship because it didn’t fit with her education and career ambitions. And I caught myself more than once shaking my head in disapproval over my female peers who worked boring, dead-end jobs because they didn’t want careers at all, but only to pay the bills until they found someone to marry.
Women in the 21st century may have an easier time of it than ever before, but it’s also confusing, especially for women of faith. There are so many pressures that didn’t exist before—the pressure to be like men, and yet to be attractive and feminine so as to be liked by men; the pressure to succeed in school and go on for higher education, but to be ready for marriage and kids if they happen; the pressure to throw ourselves into careers but also to find husbands so we can enter the vocation of marriage.
This is not to say we ought to go back to the pre-suffragette era, but only to point out that modern womanhood is a delicate balancing act, especially for the Christian woman. To maintain our footing we have to center ourselves on the fact of our womanhood. This may look different for each of us, but an old spiritual director of mine gave me the best centering tool years ago. He said:
"Just look to the Blessed Mother. She'll teach you how to be a woman."
Even women trying to live godly lives have to fight to keep from losing ourselves in a futile race to be better than men. We have to rise above the lie that we have to squelch our deeper longings in order to meet our ambitions. At a certain point we have to accept that it’s perfectly okay to “throw like a girl.”
Being a woman isn’t a flaw, it’s a gift and an opportunity, if only we can learn to live up to it.