By Carson McCready – The Collegiate Staff
As a feminist, I have continuously pondered what it means to be a person with an active role in society, as well as what it means to be authentically, autonomously, and actively “woman.”
It is difficult to define the leading actions that inspired me to write this magazine article. The most honest answer is that living as a woman is what inspired me. This is my passion project.
I have experienced the milestones of girlhood such as pink bicycles and training bras, and I have begun to experience the milestones of womanhood such as birth control pills and patronization in the workplace. All of these experiences have led me to critically analyze what it means to experience being a woman.
For an opportunity at self-reflection, I interviewed a select number of women around me who I felt could provide insight on what it means and how it feels to be a woman. These interviews are a glimpse into what it truly means to be a woman. It means to be strong, sturdy, reflective, assertive, loving, and so much more.
And in doing so, I aimed to view the different perspectives these women have through their eyes. This leads me to the understanding that all women are drastically unique in their own way, as well as a collective sisterhood of similar characteristics and encounters.
These interviews have taught me that there are many layers of being a woman. For example, it is possible to be both giving and assertive. To be a woman is not to be a pushover, rather it means to express love with an open heart while still understanding your own worth enough so to express your need for reciprocated love.
At times, being a woman means to have the expectation put on us to be perfect in every way yet still patronized like a knowledgeless child. When advocating for the rights of women, our voices become discredited by those who gaslight the rhetoric.
These occurrences can happen in every cornerstone of our lives whether it’s at work, in the home, or in education settings. This expectation on women also contributes to the perpetuation of the glass ceiling.
Whether to remain childless and unmarried, devote your life to as many children as you can have, or any compromise in between, whatever makes a woman healthily happy is her right to chose.
This also leads me to further reflection of who I am as a woman; and how I am a part of the collective that is “women.”
I better understand now how multidimensional every woman is, and that there is no need to battle with my inner self to be a cookie-cutter version of a specific type of woman.
This project leads me to the understanding that as an individual I am motivated, ambitious, curious, and kind. Also, that I am a member of a social group who displays strength, love, perseverance, and thoughtfulness.
This project made me proud to be who I am as a woman.
Logan Scholz, 16, from Grand Rapids
Logan Scholz is a Samoan transgender woman and high school sophomore.
She realized she did not identify with her assigned gender when she viewed the representation of female characters in movies that she wanted to emulate. She further realized this when she began dating people and felt uncomfortable with the masculine connotations of the label “boyfriend.”
“Shortly thereafter I’d come to the realization that I had never really liked it and that at some point in life I wanted to be a woman in the world’s eyes,” Scholz said. “It took me a bit, but about a year ago, I finally came out publicly.”
“I definitely feel challenged when it comes to family,” she said. “Just about every relative that I know of is aware of my transition, but only about a third of them respect it.
Scholz is an involved member of the theater community, which involves the dramatic use of costumes and makeup.
“A failure that I’ve experienced would be the time that I first realized that I’d never be considered a woman in the eyes of some people,” she said. “I had been running a theater event and another person was brought on to help coordinate it. He had this outlook that “men” could dress as women for entertainment or for comedy… but it was wrong that I felt as if I was a woman… that I am a woman.
“I realized that to get people’s respect and attention, I’d have to bring more to the table,” she said. “That being a woman was an uphill battle and so was being trans. In the end, those struggles combined to make me a stronger and more ambitious person. But the negative memory still stuck with me for a long time and still feels like a failure today.”
Scholz does the same as many girls building their identity as young women. “I look to my idols, both celebrity and otherwise,” Scholz added. “I see how they express themselves and apply those formulas to myself...I find that seeing what clothes, hairstyles or makeup people suggest to me helps me to find what I like.”
Scholz uses these items to build a perception called the material self. Philosopher William James defined this as, more or less, using items as tools of self-expression to yourself and others.
“It helps me to pick out aspects of how I want to present myself to the world,” Scholz said.
Scholz said that to be a woman, “means to be your own. To be a feminine part of the world and to feel strong about it from day-to-day.”
For her, every day is a journey to self-fulfillment. She is empowered by herself every day.
“Femininity makes me feel as though I can be fluid,” Scholz said. “I can change and be okay. I feel strong as a woman when I remember that I can be intelligent, sexy, strong, artistic, anything, and still be respected.”
Leslie Marie Weber-Westorer, 51, from Grand Rapids
Leslie Marie Weber-Westorer is a Jewish mother of four children, two of them grown.
She knew she wanted to care for children as a young woman, so in addition to having four children of her own, she ran a daycare service for many years. She faced slight criticism from her family when she had expressed her passion for childcare. They had told her she “could do so much better” and that she “had so much more potential.” But she pursued her dreams anyway.
She defined the primary role of a woman in her faith “is as a wife, mother, and keeper of the household.” Furthermore, “Judaism has great respect for the importance of that role and the spiritual influence that she has on her family.”
There is rhetoric among feminists that critique women who choose to give all of their time and energy to a family. But true feminism promotes the freedom of choice.
Weber’s doctrine is that femininity “brings freedom to teach, share and show with others, so they may peel off the layers that society has placed on them.”
She explained that to be a woman is “to be a co-creator,” and “to give youth life and nurture.” Weber adds that this philosophy applies to not only her own pregnancies and children, but to all living things.
Specific to her faith, Weber finds and creates her feminine identity by “connecting with humanity,” and to be “a positive, understanding light.”
Tessa Jaime Dearth, 23, from Chicago
Tessa Dearth is a self-proclaimed feminist, activist, and artist. She is a GRCC graduate with a Fine Arts Associate’s Degree and is the president of the Women’s Issues NOW (WIN) club here on campus.
As a participant in the feminist modern movement, Dearth said, “In my opinion, society has many wrong ideas of what it means to be a woman… Understanding what it means to be equal in this world is the first step in understanding what it means to be a woman in this decade.”
Dearth moved to Grand Rapids from Chicago without any friends or family. She was all on her own.
“It was very difficult for me to leave behind the only world I understood,” she said. “Starting new has its difficulties, but coming to Grand Rapids has given me so much more than I expected. I would have never known all the possibilities that lay before me today.”
Dearth seeks to become an Art Therapist and currently works with children every day.
“Being a female artist is empowering to me because I have followed so many inspiring female artists my whole life. Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Cassatt, all artists that inspire me every day to continue to be a female and work in a world where we struggle, women just struggle to be taken seriously,” she said.
As an art therapist, Dearth wants to empower other young women to express themselves. “Either encouraging my own children or teaching children at schools around the country, I can show young children that they can use art to their advantage…,” she said. “Being a female artist has shown me how I can improve our future to respect and embrace women.”
Dearth is an active member of children’s lives and continues to work towards giving them artistic outlets for their feelings.
Julia Henshaw, 46, from Grand Rapids
Julia Henshaw was raised surrounded by religion. She grew up near Grace Bible College and attended there for secondary education. While traveling the United States with her family, she earned a bachelor’s degree in social and political philosophy.
Henshaw described education as “a portal out of a religious landscape.”
This reaction to her upbringing leads to a passion for social justice and issues of diversity, race, and gender “through a humanistic lens to make the world the best we can make it… Human beings only have each other to help one another.”
Henshaw worked as a Legal and Program Associate with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for five years. While working there, she was a paralegal, writer, researcher and community organizer.
During her time at the ACLU, Henshaw found out about many injustices being committed against women. One of them she recalled was the mistreatment of women in prisons committed by the male guards. She described the abuse as “exploiting their femaleness to tap into their own sense of power.”
The abuse includes, but was not limited to, taking away their feminine hygiene products, allowing them to live in bloody, dirty clothes, viewing them naked while showering, not giving them cold water for showers so the water would scald them, and even denying them water to drink.
Henshaw explained that this form of abuse “creates an imbalance of male to female power.”
Henshaw recalled a patient that broke down sobbing to her years ago who had been subjected to this mistreatment by the “justice” system. She had cried to Henshaw that even though she committed a crime, she did not deserve to be treated so cruelly. She did not deserve to have so much taken away from her to the point where she was denied her basic human rights.
“Every human deserves basic human rights. And I realize that by saying that, I have to include Trump, who challenges my belief system every day,” Henshaw said.
Also during her time working at the ACLU, Henshaw developed two coalitions of women to take action about legislature involving women’s reproductive rights.
While working with the ACLU, Henshaw began to see life from the client’s perspective and understood the immediacy of how legislative policy affects their lives. This began her interest in being a social worker.
“This lead to wanting to work with individuals to help them survive the system and help them find inner potential and inner growth and whatever inabilities they have as a latent function of the system,” Henshaw said.
Henshaw is still an activist for women in her new career as a social worker. “Many women are affected by sexual violence,” she said. “Social work looks for ways to give back power and control over their lives.”
Henshaw recalled a patient who she witnessed regain the ability to paint beautifully in order to overcome her sexual abuse. This was an empowering experience for her patient to be able to paint using colors and images, as it worked to reverse the silencing she experienced as a victim.
Henshaw had struggled with her own personal definition of femininity and how it is empowering. She said this is because the church she was raised under defined femininity as “quiet, submissive, not speaking your mind, not arguing.”
She also emphasized that the church defines femininity as “creating a lovely fiction of a home life and that it is imperative to create and raise perfect children who won’t challenge authority or question values.”
Femininity was defined by motherhood and nurturing spirit. It was centered around women’s miraculous biological function: to make babies.
She explained that she wanted her kids to think for themselves, to question, to argue, to explore, and to have overseas experiences.
As a result of the initial definition of femininity taught to her and the reshaping of the word in her own way, Henshaw defines femininity as “an ongoing rediscovering of reimagining.”
Soonja Kim Koole, 44, from Cedar Springs
Soonja Koole is a teacher for GRPS but is also a GRCC faculty member. She was abandoned at eleven months old at a police station in Korea and was adopted to be the youngest of five children. Koole is also a breast cancer survivor.
“I am fortunate as I look back because I hear stories of Korean American adoptees who were mistreated, abused, or even abandoned by their adopted families, Koole said.”
Regarding the presidency, Koole said. “In a way, the Korean society is more progressive than American society because Koreans were willing to give a woman a chance at the highest political office and America has yet to do that.”
As previously stated, Koole is also a breast cancer survivor. “Experiences like cancer definitely test our ability to overcome challenges,” Koole said.
“I don’t feel that my identity as a woman was questioned or threatened as I went through treatment,” Koole said. “…I was highly motivated to finish. I considered my diagnosis an inconvenience.”
Though Koole may not have experienced identity questioning during her treatment, she reflected that “Being a survivor, I think the definition of a woman represents strength more than I ever believed.”
“Going through treatment and continuing my day to day activities definitely required a level of perseverance that I never had. Women tend to bear the brunt of life, usually without complaint and are seen as the pillars of strength for others.”
But Koole exemplified that being an independent woman also means to emotionally supportive of yourself.
“Being a woman means to be an individual who is not only a nurturer but one who pushes and motivates others to live/work to their potential. It goes beyond the traditional stereotypes of what a woman is and does,” Koole said.
Koole firmly believes that women have come a long way on their stair climb to equality.
“Femininity is empowering, especially in the 21st century because the opportunities are endless,” she said. “Women have taken on more leadership roles and are perceived as more equal contributors to society than at any other point in history,” she continued.
Koole said that it is empowering to be a woman now that “women are acknowledged for their business, athletic, and political prowess.”
She went as far as to say that this “proves that women are changing the world in all aspects of life, especially outside of the home.”
“The fact that I can be acknowledged for my intellect and wit makes me feel strong and influential, especially as a role model for my students,” she said.
To Koole, to be a woman means to be independent, nurturing, and persistently overcoming of life challenges.