Ursula Le Guin’s essay, Introducing Myself, makes the eloquently sarcastic point that she is a man because that is the only kind of person she’s allowed to be. Strong women are strong because they adopt masculinity and the only way a woman can be powerful is if she assumes the role of men - badly. Of course, I relate. I’ve been badly assuming the role of a man for many years.
Coming out and transitioning was meant to end my fight for my femininity, but I find it’s amplified that struggle because I’m still the assertive, argumentative person I always was. The people close to me do not see that as masculine, but those further away from my personal sphere tend to see me as too direct. To be a woman in their eyes, I must retreat, capitulate, and avoid confrontation. That’s not me - never was.
Growing up, I’ve had the benefit of parents that held their ground against the world. My mother is a fierce woman that will confront people; my father observed in the past that she presents herself in a masculine way. When my mum shared this with me recently, I was surprised. I never saw her as masculine. Forceful, yes. Forthright, absolutely. Combative, occasionally. Angry, sometimes. Masculine, never. She is a strong woman, and she wields her femininity. It’s a trait I like to think I share.
As I’ve transitioned, my mum and I have shared many conversations about what gender means and how people see her in her gender. I’m continually told that people see her as masculine. She attributes that to being around men all the time and learning how to function in a predominantly male setting, both at work at home. She was being a man because, as Le Guin puts it, that was the only thing she was allowed to be.
"I’VE ALWAYS ADMIRED MY MOTHER AS A POWERFUL WOMAN."
I find this difficult to resolve. I’ve always admired my mother as a powerful woman. I always wanted to be a woman like her; her example was and still is my compass, even when things were difficult between us. I wanted to be a warrior, like her.
Last weekend, I was the victim of a minor assault. I was marching along the tail end of my walk - a bid to stop gaining weight - and my path brought me through a group of folk loitering around a low wall at the end of what was attempting to be a park on my street. I had loud music blaring over my headset - Nine Inch Nails of some description - and I met their notice with a confident smile as I marched on through on my way to the pub to get paid before meeting some friends for dinner.
I was aware of footfalls behind me, but I didn’t bother looking back. It’s not a busy road but I hadn’t had any trouble from the locals before so I paid it no mind until my arm was grabbed from behind. I rounded on the person and got my teacher voice on, “What are you doing?” I pulled my headset around my neck sharply and locked eyes with the man, “What.”
As my demand sank in, intent drained out of the man’s eyes. He hesitated a moment. I was bigger than him in every way: broader, taller, more forceful. But it was my lack of fear that genuinely intimidated him; the realisation that he was confronting a warrior rather than a princess. “Oh my god, you a freak!” he managed in a shocked voice, “You a freak!”
“Piss off!” I shouted back as I roughly pulled my headset back into place and walked off.
Of course I was shaken, but years of dealing with angry children taught me to keep that inside me until I was clear of the problem human. Once in the pub, I let myself fall apart a little. There were no tears, but the stunned shock that naturally comes with a person overtaking you and grabbing you in the street was allowed to be expressed.
"I WAS NOT A MAN IN THAT MOMENT. I WAS THE POWERFUL WOMAN MY MUM TAUGHT ME TO BE."
Here’s where I part company with Ursula Le Guin’s sentiment: I was not a man in that moment. I was the powerful woman my mum taught me to be. Some might see my meeting aggression with aggression as manly, but I don’t see it. I did not follow the manly stereotype of suppressing my feelings, I simply waited for the appropriate time and place to let them go. I am a powerful woman, like my mother.
My pre-transition attempts to follow my mother’s lead were plagued by the parallel attempt to adopt the male role I was given. In those moments, I was being a man because that’s what I was allowed to be. My emulation of her ironically made me seem quite a sensitive, if assertive, man. Now that I’m not trying to be a man anymore, I come off as loud and overbearing at times. Perhaps masculine by some. I guess that means I’m doing well in following my mother’s example.
Perhaps the injustice in this is that a woman asserting herself is interpreted as masculine. Why do people do this? Women can’t be men any more than they could be non binary. Men can’t be women. They just emulate stereotypes; there is no way to be any gender but one’s own. When I was assigned the male role, I was bad at it because I couldn’t really be a man. I knew what people seemed to want, but I couldn’t do it how they wanted. My mum is powerful. She is not masculine. She taught me to take my own power. She didn’t teach me to be masculine.
Pioneers like Ursula Le Guin created the stage for this era of feminism: an era of strong female figures making their mark without being forced into a masculine role. It’s not even close to a realisation of the dream. Women are still pigeon holed into masculine classifications for being powerful pretty much of the time. It gives me hope to examine myself and see that my mum raised a warrior; to look around at my female friends and see how strong they are. I can only hope that we can keep hold of that feminine ferocity as the fight for equality continues.