Defined by Breasts

“She was outraged at the thought that people would even consider that the letters might not be from Mariana, and I thought of the times when, as women, we are not heard and how after 300 years, Mariana, whose words have changed so many lives, is not allowed the most basic of rights, to claim her own voice.” (Myriam Cyr, “A Note from the Author,” Letters of a Portuguese Nun, xii)

“Be prepared,” my friend Jackie said as we sat working on projects in her fabulous Blue Box Art Studio. “Some artist think that you can only really be an Artist if you’ve taken the proper technique classes, and they will also judge you as a woman.”

I’m just dipping my toe into the world of art right now, and I’m really not doing it because I want to be known as an “artist”. Projects, words, and ideas have all been flooding into me lately, and I’m simply embracing them and then finding ways to express them. This personal journey that I am on is exciting and terrifying and opening me up to so many possibilities.  I don’t really care if  Artists (with a capital A) think what I am doing is Art.

I can’t say the same thing, however, about the Woman issue. If you read my recent post called The Power of Women’s Voices you know that I am fascinated by the stories of women who have pursued their passions and dreams despite society’s expectations. In that post I talked about women historically, but more and more I have come to realize that nothing has really changed for women.

I know, I know. Women hold higher positions throughout the world and have more equality, and yada, yada, yada. But, the reality lies in a subtle manipulation of language that does not allow women to be equal. A woman is almost always defined by her sex: a woman writer, a female artist, a congresswoman, the first woman to run for president. (Yes, yes, I know–Obama will forever be known as the first black president. This subtle manipulation of language to assert power or difference is not exclusive to the description of women).

So, I suggest we change this by our own manipulation of language. How, you ask? Well, here are some examples that have popped into my head:

  • William Shakespeare, perhaps the most well-known non-female playwright of his time . . .
  • Hilary Clinton, who served as Secretary of State under the male President Obama
  • Non-female talk-show host, David Letterman swapped jibes with Ellen the other day, and of course lost (Now . . . I’m making all of this up folks, as examples. This is not intended as a serious statement of fact.)
  • One of the funniest non-female bloggers Mark (aka The Idiot) battles Tori Nelson to a duel of witty banter causing a medical emergency as blog readers every keel over with extreme fits of laughter and tears.  (Okay, I’d really like to see that).
  • The Tony Award goes to newcomer Lisa Kramer who defeats the better-known non-female directors . . . (I told you this is fiction, now bordering on fantasy)

I hope you get my point by now. If we turn the tables, will it reverse the expectations of what is the “norm” or the “ideal”? Or do we continue to stand by and let the “norm” be defined as “white, male, heterosexual etc.” which we all know is a fallacy of the highest order. As long as we continue to define people by their gender/sexual identity/race we reinforce the perception that somehow only certain people define the norm.

So, now I’m moving on to the more “serious” or academic part of the discussion. Feel free to stop reading if you would like, although I hope you won’t. After all, despite the fact that I am a woman, sometimes I actually have valuable insight.  😉

I realize there is value in identifying ourselves by our gender, our sexual identities, our races, and our religions. I myself would be really interested to know the numbers of bloggers who are female vs. the number who are male. I know that most of the blogs I follow happen to be by women, but I wonder if that is simply because they write things that I am more interested in reading, or because there are a greater number of female bloggers out there. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were more women, because we all know the reality that it is hard to get published, and I think it is even harder for females unless they are writing in specific genres. Of course, I don’t have evidence of this, but I’m sure it could be found.

Myriam Cyr’s quote from Letters of a Portuguese Nun shows that, historically at least, anything that surpassed expectations and “threatened to upset the delicate balance of power between men and women” (xviii) could not possible be written by a woman. Apparently, the debate over this issue still rages, led by French scholar Jacques Rougeot and Frederic Deloffre who say

“Admit that the Portuguese Letters were written in a convent, by a nun with little if any instruction, having never known the world, is to believe that spontaneity and pure passion inspired a woman to write a superior work of art over and above what the best minds of the greatest period of French literature could offer their public.” (Cyr xix)

I know there were some French female writers from the time period, but I wonder if the objection is more based on the fact that the nun was a woman than on her training (since she clearly was educated to some extent in the nunnery).  Those who disagree, attribute the letters to a male French aristocrat.

Can we even tell the difference between things created by a man and things created by a woman? I mentioned earlier that most of the blogs I follow happen to be written by women, but how do I really know? Identities can easily be faked in this strange world of web technology.  And, I guess it doesn’t really matter if someone is hiding his identity behind the facade of a woman if I enjoy the blog. (Why anyone would do that, of course, is beyond me). In past Comp classes I’ve conducted an experiment with my students. As a class we pick a topic, and then they write about it with a time limit. They hand these papers forward and I read them out loud. The students then need to guess whether the writer was male or female. I can usually (but not always) by the handwriting or the color of pen (for some reason guys rarely choose purple pens, go figure). Sometimes the students can guess, and sometimes they can’t.  When it comes down to writing about the same things, it is often hard to tell the difference.

Does it matter if something is written or created by a woman? Or by someone with more or less education? Or by a black, asian, mexican, alien with five eyes and a tail. . . It only matters if the creation in some way relates to being one of those things.  It only matters if the creation is rooted in actually living a certain experience. But even then it does not matter . . . because emotions and thoughts can be universal, can’t they?

But maybe I am wrong. Maybe the differences between women and men can be seen in everything we do. If that’s true, then that must be celebrated, because it is difference that makes this world such an interesting place. But difference need not imply one is better than another, Difference simply implies difference.

Art is art whether or not you have learned all the techniques. A writer is a writer even without an extra appendage between the legs. Leaders are leaders even if they happen to have breasts. An artist is an artist, even if the art reflects the feminine divine. A movie star is a movies star even if he/she loves someone of the same sex. [Sometimes movie stars are movie stars despite the fact that they are actually creatures from another planet ;)]

Our reality is defined by language. The question is, does the language control us or do we control the language?


Elizabeth Barret Browning


“A Curse for a Nation”
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1856)

I heard an Angel speak last night,
And he said “Write!
Write a Nation’s curse for me,
And send it over the Western Sea.”

. . . “Not so,” I answered once again.
“To curse, choose men.
For I, a woman, have only known
How the Heart melts, and the tears run down.”

“Therefore,” the voice said, “Shalt thou write
My curse to-night.

Some women weep and curse, I say
(And no one marvels), night and day.
“And thou shalt take their part to-night,
Weep and write.
A curse from the depths of womanhood
Is very salt, and better and good.”

29 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. CMSmith
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 08:53:59

    A subject near and dear to my heart, but that many don’t have time for or can’t be bothered with today. Thanks.


  2. vixter2010
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 09:16:13

    Interesting post Lisa. Thinking about, most books I read and actually music I listen to are by women and the majority of blogs like you. Maybe we just connect more emotionally, we understand their voice betetr because it is similar to our own, they think about the same things. I wouldn’t be put off something by a man but I do tend to be drawn more to women’s works.


    • Lisa
      Mar 25, 2011 @ 19:39:33

      I read both, but I definitely tend to choose works by women. I don’t know why, maybe we just speak the same language.


  3. Heather Henry
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 09:49:44

    Lisa, I agree with you, but I’m also seeing that the media (particularly sitcoms, commercials and movies) portrays women as being strong and men as being weak or stupid and definitely beneath the women. I guess the reason I see this, is because I live in a house full of boys. I want my children to always see themselves as equals, not above nor beneath anyone else. I have to say, I get frustrated with the way men are portrayed, knowing that my boys are seeing it as well. I feel the best that I can do, is to teach my children that we are all equal and we should always treat each other as equals. I really think the best way to make a difference, would be to teach our children to look at each other and treat each other as valuable individuals, instead of always making it a competition. Anyway, just a different perspective I guess.
    I grew up in a house full of girls and now live in a house full of guys, and there is definitely a huge difference. But it’s a beautiful thing to see and experience and I’ve enjoyed both. It’s been a terrific journey.


    • Lisa
      Mar 25, 2011 @ 19:38:58

      Heather, I don’t think it really is that different. I’m not saying that women are superior. I’m saying that we are all different and should be judged by what we do not by the labels people give us. It shouldn’t be a competition, it should be a celebration of life of all kinds.


      • Heather Henry
        Mar 25, 2011 @ 20:33:22

        Lisa, I completely agree. I love people and all the diversity there is in this world, it makes it far more interesting. I definitely think we need to celebrate our differences and at the same time build each other up and encourage each other. You’re a fabulous writer, breasts or not…haha!! 🙂


  4. lifeintheboomerlane
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 10:16:08

    Argh. I hate thinking about this. How the Church decided at some point to obliterate the role of women. How so many people still think Mary Magdalene was a protitute. How some women were forced to write under men’s names to get read. How property rights in places all over the planet are granted only to men. How, in spite of similar educational levels, women are still paid less than men. How women and girls the world over (including the US) are used as sexual slaves. I’ll stop now before I lose my mind completely.


    • Lisa
      Mar 25, 2011 @ 19:37:41

      Sorry if I made you lose your mind. I hate thinking about it as well, but at the same time I think it is important that the issue doesn’t just disappear. I meet too many young women today who don’t see any problems, and don’t recognize the things women still have to fight for. Take deep breaths. Together we can make a difference.


  5. athursdayschild has a long way to go and much to be thankful for.
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 10:18:39

    Excellent post! I started yesterday morning on a piece about differences, male, female, etc. In the ideal world I think both the differences and the likenesses should both be applauded for their strengths. I think the world is filled with dualities both to accept those dualities and learn the oneness of all through them.


  6. Tori Nelson
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 11:07:29

    Now might be the opportune time to tell you… I am totally a DUDE.
    Love this post, particularly the first quote: “not allowed the most basic of rights, to claim her own voice.”… I like to think we have come a long, long, way 🙂


    • Lisa
      Mar 25, 2011 @ 19:35:26

      Not buying it Tori. You have too many intimate details of breasts bouncing in the breeze and hormones waging after childbirth. I think we have come far, but at the same time not far enough.


  7. TheIdiotSpeaketh
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 11:24:29

    Women rule in my world! Even without fear of recieving a physical beatdow, I would never claim to be as smart and valuable as my wife. I will gladly concede the witty banter duel to Tori…… she would kick my butt. 🙂


    • Lisa
      Mar 25, 2011 @ 19:31:53

      Okay, if you won’t have a duel, maybe you just need to write a joint post with a conversation between you two. I hope you didn’t mind my using your name as an example. I figured you would get where I was coming from.


  8. Aligaeta
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 13:37:00

    I’m very interested in who the writer is. I want to know what defines their perspective. Where and how much education they have? Their gender? Their marital status? Where they live? And how old they are, okay what decade they were born in? Sometimes their religion makes a difference in their views also. It is not that I am looking to apply prejudices but in knowing this information gives their writing more meaning. When I write a piece about Mental Health, I am interested in the background of my commenters so I can deliver an appropriate reply. Also, it sure feels good when a published writer or one who holds and advanced degree is liking my posts or is a subscriber. It validates my own writing ability and perspective on society. Just another view.

    I’m sure you know from reading my blog that I am big on the issue of women claiming their voice.


    • Lisa
      Mar 25, 2011 @ 19:30:50

      I agree, I want to know who people are and I don’t we think we should hide our identity when creating. It only becomes problematic when the identities become detrimental and position our work because of those identities. Men’s work is not more valuable simply because it is by a male. And, while I completely understand feeling validated by someone whose work you admire or who you feel represents quality, I think I value even more comments from people who I discover. My doctorate (in case you didn’t know I am one of your subscribers with a Ph.D) doesn’t tell you anything about me. Well, I suppose if anyone actually ever read my dissertation it would, but I am not defined by my doctorate. The only thing it really tells you is that I was stubborn enough, and perhaps crazy enough, to jump through all academic hoops set in my path. I know many people who have doctorates who I do not respect in the slightest. So again, its not about the labels, but about the work.


  9. Hilary Clark
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 13:42:02

    Bravo!! I believe we need to embrace our differences (gender, ethnicity, religion) in order to learn and grow, while always, always remembering that
    “we are all made of strength and struggle and connected to each other through a loving and resilient human spirit”. (Brene’ Brown, PhD)


  10. Trackback: “Fan”tabulous Fridays – 3/25/11 « Hilary Clark ~ Pining for Poetry & Prose
  11. Heather Henry
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 20:09:51

    Hi Lisa,
    This is off subject of this post, but I am awarding you the One Lovely Blog award. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I really enjoy reading your blog. You can go to my blog to receive the award!
    Thank you,


  12. nrhatch
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 22:46:49

    Interesting post, Lisa.

    I’ve enjoyed books, music, paintings and blogs by members of both genders. I care more about the work than the gender of the worker. 🙂


    • Lisa
      Mar 26, 2011 @ 08:04:36

      I have too. I don’t really care about gender. Most of the time I am drawn to something because of a title or an image or a certain rhythm. It just happens that a lot of times those works end up by women. I guess that says something about me, although I’m not sue what.


  13. Donna Jean
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 10:34:16

    I’d like to know what you think of bookstores creating “Women’s Literature” sections. I noticed this a few years ago and was infuriated. When are they going to create a section called “Men’s Literature” and stick all the James Patterson novels in there?


    • Lisa
      Mar 26, 2011 @ 11:03:19

      A Facebook friend posted the other day “Why isn’t there a program called Men’s Studies?” Someone responded “Isn’t that HIStory”. It is so complicated, because I believe in the value of Women’s Studies in the sense that history is so often written from the male perspective. So, in that sense, a Women’s Literature sections makes some sense–if the books are written by women specifically for women. But, there should also be a Men’s Literature sections with books written by men specifically for men. The assumption that books by men are for everyone and books by women are only for women is ridiculous. Sigh, will this battle ever end?


  14. Taochild
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 13:10:19

    This is a theme that constantly feeds my powers of creation. How we change the very perception of things with the our choice of words. It is amazing how despite ample evidence to the contrary, many still think woman are less capable and not te be taken seriously! Here is to The Divine Feminine! May humanity once again learn to find her within each of us … and relearn Wisdom!


  15. sparksinshadow
    Mar 27, 2011 @ 02:13:01

    I was actually thinking about this subject, in terms of song lyrics, earlier this week. (Probably because I’ve always wanted to be a singer, and I often ponder what songs would go on my first album.) I was remembering how someone (female) once told me that I should think twice about singing “Friend of the Devil” because although this first person outlaw song is okay coming from a man, if I sing it it would make me seem like a terrible woman, and people might think less of me. I took offense, because why can’t a woman be an interesting and complex outlaw, too?

    I join you in being tired of the arbitrary differences our society makes about so many things, simply on the basis of gender! And I really like how your examples highlight some of the ridiculousness! I think most — not all, I realize, but most — of the differences between the things human beings think and do, is about personality rather than gender.

    Your question, “Does the language control us or do we control the language?” may be, at this point, a lot like the one about the chicken and the egg. There’s so much knee-jerking going on that the only real answer may be for us all to just philosophically decide that we have the control, and then use it to stop. Very thought provoking, indeed!


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