Last night, I was the keynote speaker at an event celebrating International Women’s Day. It was such an honour to be invited, and it was a beautiful night. There was a drum circle, poetry, spoken word, singing, and the night had a palpable sense of strength and joy.
To those who sat in the audience and clapped after I spoke until I thought they might never stop, thank you so much for coming, and for your beautiful hugs afterwards. For those who could not be there last night, these are the words I said:
Hello everyone. It is lovely to see you all here today, to talk on the theme of Womanhood in words. I am excited to hear all your stories and to be part of this lovely celebration tonight.
Rike, the director of the South Coast Writers Centre, invited me to give this keynote speech back in August, last year. So, as you can imagine, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I might say! Since then, I have taken pages of notes and spent hours pondering, I have read articles and written thoughts on my iPhone in the middle of the night, and — to be honest — over the past few months I have found myself thinking, Who am I to give this speech? I am just one woman, and womanhood is a world. It is an endless library of women’s stories. How do I capture a word and a world that belongs to billions of others? How can my words do justice to what this word—womanhood—means, when it has an infinite history and limitless layers of meaning?
At some point my brain groaned. Womanhood too big! it whimpered. Me so small!
But of course, neither of these things is true. Womanhood is not so big a word that I can’t claim it for myself, carry in my pocket, keep it like a talisman, a lucky penny or a feather found in the bush. And as for me, my story matters. It is enormous, important, as are all our stories. Plus you see, I am made of star stuff, so I have the whole universe inside me.
I decided I would make my way into the word of Womanhood—this infinite, pocketable, enormous and personal thing—with a question.
I asked my friends and myself this. I said:
“What do you think about when you think of the word Womanhood?”
Many friends answered with a single word: Strength. Others added, resilience, potential, sisterhood, empowerment, a privilege and a burden. Others spoke of labels and the constant need to break down barriers. One young friend said, “Womanhood is when you grow up into a woman and become sensible.” My mother’s first thoughts were, “It’s the history of women’s roles in society and how that has changed. It’s a positive, strong word with no negative connotations.” A young man I asked said, “Motherhood.” One of my writing students said, “It’s a continually changing label which women are trying to use to positively define our gender and break down stereotypes of the past.” Nice.
I asked my daughter and she said, “Well, I think of the word like this: WOMANHOOD! Raargh!” (Fist pump!)
I loved that.
I asked myself the question, and the word that kept coming into to my mind was community. Womanhood as a neighbourhood—of women, and those who support women. Womanhood as a collective, holding women up, listening and supporting. recognizing and valuing,
Ask someone what womanhood means to them and you will unearth countless, unique stories—stories of history, societal change, rage, injustice, inspiration, motherhood and personhood, sexual and gender identity, stories of inequality and the fight for equality, kindness, empowerment, connection, survival and strength.
Womanhood is huge but it is also a single, personal story. We will be hearing some of those tonight. I shall start with one of mine.
When I was asked to give this speech, I immediately went and told one of my dearest friends, Anna. She was so excited. We began to talk about the topic: Womanhood in words, and about the idea of womanhood in relation to words. We spoke of the power words have, and Anna mentioned the philosophers and writers she would reference if she was to give this speech. She spoke of the ways women can be disempowered by the construct of language, and she was fascinating to listen to. I remember thinking, Wow. Her speech would be amazing. It made me think of the billions of other stories that could be told tonight, how extraordinary they each would be, and it made me so excited to come here, and hear what others had to say.
Last November, four months ago, my friend Anna died, after a very sudden and unexpected illness. Anna was my soul friend, the one I thought I’d grow old with, rocking chairs on the porch, that sort of thing, the two of us laughing and remembering our shared, ancient history.
Anna and I were artists together, I a writer, and she a visual artist. We were educators together, both of us passionate about helping others discover their voice, then express and celebrate it. We were also mothers, raising our children, figuring out how to be individuals, artists, and the people our children needed us to be. We were both survivors of trauma, and both of us created art that travelled into that darkness but embraced hope. We connected as dreamers and ‘Imaginers’. We were two sensitive and inquisitive souls, and we resonated because of that. We were women together, vulnerable and powerful at once, with things to say and visions to share with others. We were all the words of womanhood I think of when I think of the word.
When Anna died, I was asked to write the eulogy for her funeral. Anna was so extraordinary and meant so much to so many, I remember thinking, “How do I honour and express the essence of someone this complex and divine? Someone who, a week ago, I thought would be in my life ‘til I was old?” No single piece of writing has ever mattered more to me. I wanted to express who Anna was to me, but also embrace who she was to the others who loved her. I wanted to find words that connected us all. For days I wrote, and thought, and cried; I hardly slept. And then I found the words—pure ones. I spoke of light and colour and resonance. I spoke to a room of a hundred people and honoured my friend, and that moment meant the world.
Afterwards, I realized my words meant the world to others too. My words were something to hold on to. An old man I had never met wept in my arms; strangers lay their hands on me and we looked into each other’s eyes and understood. The words I spoke made a ribbon of connection for us, threading into and around us, binding us. The day was heartbreaking, transcendent.
After Anna’s funeral, quite suddenly, I felt all my words leave me.
In my grief, I found blankness rising, and my very familiar companion, clinical depression found the empty space and lay claim to it.
Into that blankness old unhelpful words piled up around me, moved over me, wrote themselves onto my skin. Words like ‘failure’ and ‘sick’ and ‘never win’ and ‘hopeless’, and all around those words ran: ‘I miss her. I miss her. I miss her’. The words piled up like bricks and rocks until I was in the dark with only those words for company.
So I spoke the most critical word of all in a situation like this: I said, “Help.”
I spoke to people who cared about me—family, friends, my psychologist and doctor, people in my ‘safety net’. I called out for help because I wanted, very much, to live. I wanted to find new words to keep me company, words that didn’t feel like stones in my pocket, words that might help me rise.
Slowly, slowly, and with help, the darkness shifted and released me, and I walked out into a new space. This new space doesn’t have Anna physicially in it, but it does have words like hope and beauty and art, laughter and colour, love and stories, and ocean. It has two words Anna gave me before she died: “Keep going!” she said. It also has the words I’ve been for years, the words that even in the darkness, I never stopped being. Mother, writer, dreamer, artist and mentor, not quite a grown up, listener, kindness-ninja, and friend.
Words are so powerful. They can claim us, undo us. Others use them to try and define us, pin us down, but the best words, the words that we need most, are the ones that help us rise.
So now, today, I would like to speak of the words that I and many others think of when we think of womanhood. Words that heal us, lift and strengthen us.
These words are: Survival. Equality. Strength. Community. And Empowerment.
That’s the thing you do when history has been up against you since before history began. You—seen as the smaller, the lesser, the one who holds others up, the one who is not supposed to rise. Look at you, clawing your way back from darkness, from being upended, stripped of your power, coming back after being hurt and made tiny. Look at you, choosing to keep on, to keep rising in spite of everything laid on your skin, all the words planted in you as ‘truth’, rising in the face of doors slammed, walls raised, labels given, you surviving in spite of spite and in the face of no.
Look at you in that spaceship, in board rooms, in race cars and on the rugby field. Look at you, brain surgeon, rocket scientist, stay at home mother, working mother, doctor, builder, game designer, girl in school.
Look at you speaking out for equal treatment, fighting for an equal wage, for recognition, for a place at the table. Look at you, claiming no less than you deserve.
We have come so far, but there is always further to go. We get to keep fighting for this.
Look at you, made of steel, sitting in the café with your baby at your breast even though some one has come and leaned over you and told you shouldn’t have your boob out in public. Look at you in that same café with all the other mothers, other women with babies at their breasts, nursing in protest because someone tried to make you small.
Look at you, telling your doctor you won’t see that gynaecologist again because his demeaning, women-are-so-silly patronization of you made you sick. Look at you on instagram, freeing the nipple or showing your first day at engineering school. Look at you on Youtube, performing that incredible song about domestic violence that helps others feel heard and visible and brave. Look at you, sharing who you are and what you care about—in your writing, art, and songs. Look at you, calling out in your voice, being bright and true, even though it terrifies you sometimes.
Look at you, choosing not to cut yourself down today. You, looking in the mirror and choosing to say, You are beautiful. You are a worthy, magical unicorn. You are important and you have spirit and you are someone who deserves happiness, good things. Look at you, lifting yourself up, being kind to yourself and telling yourself you are extraordinary. You are.
Look at us, here, together, listening, sharing our stories. Here we are in homes and work places, in clinics and offices and online, offering cups of tea, hugs on couches, offering help to victims of violence, to those in crisis, to those with nothing, to those who feel invisible and unheard, and those who could just use some love.
Here we are, in our womanHOOD, offering to listen, offering an arm to lean on, a safe place to sleep, showing a way out, a way free. Here we are, telling our stories so that others can connect and feel inspired, so people don’t feel so alone.
Here is kindness and empathy and support, a thousand beams of light.
Here are our safety nets, held out for us. Doctors, psychologists, and social workers. Parents, partners, and children, teachers and carers. Here are the friends, the neighbours who don’t care if you call at two in the morning. You need help? Here it is. If you ask for it, the help will come. If you can’t ask for it, or don’t quite know how to ask, here it is, anyway.
Look at us, caring, listening, sharing. Offering small things and large, so others can keep moving, keep rising, so they can stay alive.
Look at you. You unique, wondrous thing.
You are someone. You are visible. You matter.
Look at you, choosing an identity for yourself and refusing to let others limit you. Look at you, breaking barriers, redefining your role, believing truly, madly, deeply in yourself. You get to be your own fluid thing now, weaving in and out of definition, refusing to be pinned. You are gorgeous.
And look at you, claiming the very words others use to put you in your place, choosing instead to paint them in your colours.
Yes you are soft! Yes you have dolls, wear dresses, like the colour pink, like to cook. Yes you are passionate! Yes you are sentimental, yes you love the smell of babies’ heads and yeah, you cry in every single Pixar movie you watch. Yes you are vulnerable and tender. But this does not make you less. You are not less because of your softness. You are not less for being bold, or fierce or hard or strong, or sensual. You are not less if you shout, or march, or ask for more. You are not less. You are not less.
Look at you. Look at us.
Telling our stories. In blogs and articles, in books, in music and on stage, and in our living rooms to our children.
We speak because we must. We speak because we matter. We speak so our grief and rage and joy have a voice. So our survival has a voice. We speak so that we are visible. Here we are.
Look at us, finding inspiration in other’s stories—those who have gone before, and those who are here, all standing up and speaking their truths, teaching us, encouraging us, making us feel like we could roar if we wanted. Like we could fly.
Look at us. Learning.
Young self, old self, learning the history of women, discovering and exploring more deeply words like feminism, misogyny, parity, privilege, and intersectionality, learning how much there is still to do, learning the worth of womanhood.
Look at us, letting that worth, our worth, seep into our bones.
Womanhood. It is all these words and more.
Womanhood. It is gossamer and fire.
It is compassion and fight walking hand in hand. Womanhood is voices lifting others up, a community of carers, lovers, children, partners, mothers, artists, CEOs. It is a banner raised, it is people connecting and connected. It is love, and it is friendship.
Womanhood is our endless library of stories. It is where we live, even when we don’t think about it. It is our superpower and our safe place to land. Womanhood — it is all the words that make us rise.