This is part three in a four-part series on what our contributors learned about themselves in 2020.

In the chaos and quiet of this year, womanhood felt lost to me.

In isolation, my pre-covid life became a curious fascination. One thought that kept circling its way back to me is that being a woman often feels like a performance to me. What is womanhood besides a show to put on at the start of the day, a skin to shed at the end? This isn’t to say that there is truly a good or right way to be a woman, but it’s a lie to say there aren’t set standards for what makes a good or desirable woman.

Desirability is a currency women are expected to garner, and there are those of us for whom it’s already been decided that in our undesirability, we are less than. It’s a fact of our society that’s as old as our nation itself.

As Sojourner Truth asked:

“Ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have plowed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man — when I could get it — and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”

This year has forced me to wonder why I have to live in the preconceived, spoon-fed “right” type of womanhood when it has clearly and continuously failed me and — to degrees, in variation — failed every other woman that has come before me.

I’ve been thinking that maybe gender is a system that was made in brokenness, that there is no fixing it. That like any other unjust institution, it too demands abolition. Of course, this thought isn’t new. And neither are societies that do not limit themselves to the cruelty of binary living.

Our understanding of gender cannot exist without acknowledging that Indigenous and non-Western peoples have long seen a world outside the gender binary.

How much of gender is just a collective delusion we’ve refused to resolve or analyze? How much of our woman or manhood is just endless pacing in endless hallways; how many of us are just dragging our feet, seeing only our expectations in the mirror, protesting what could be new beginnings? How do we become free?

For me at least, it is by giving my womanhood privacy. Making it inaccessible to cis-heteronormativity. That has meant using neutral pronouns when I feel them. It’s finding a place to exist without socially conceived obligation. I’m trying to live my life being the only one allowed to know me as a girl or a woman. I can only really know what that means to me if I can be the one to decide it.

Womanhood began to taste wrong in my mouth when I spent this past summer on the front lines of the fight for Black lives in Breonna Taylor’s hometown (and mine) of Louisville. I was tear-gassed more times than I can count. I’ve been shot with rubber bullets, hit with shrapnel, arrested. I’ve been caught in shootings, and I’ve marched until my feet blistered. None of these things could send me home.

But it was on the marches, outside of tents, even in the dead of night, where I experienced blunt-edged misogynoir — the hatred of my womanhood for its Blackness. It happened all the time in seas of shirts and signs and posters and cheers and chants to “protect Black women.” Somehow, there was more pain in what I endured there, from the community that I should have felt held by, than from the terrorism of the state.

And at home, in the quiet alone, away from the riot line and the megaphone, womanhood has still been lost to me.

This has been a reckoning year for us all. It’s been a year of death and loss. It’s been a year where we watch these systems we put all our trust into collapse. It’s been wondering why we put all of our faith in them at all to begin with.

In the wreckage, there is new freedom to be found if we work for it.

But first, we must grieve and let go of things that have always been broken.

We have to exist as people in community with one another rather than alone in our obligations to normative, Western-imposed living.

This year has shaped my womanhood in ending it.

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