- Debbie Dougherty
Women in the Big Tent
Updated: Jan 27
By Debbie S. Dougherty
Has anyone else found the questions about what is a woman kind of weird? I mean, usually people obsess about manhood and what it means to be a man. Women just are. We go about doing our thing, whatever that may be, trying to live our lives in a rich and fulfilling way, whatever that means to each of us. Yet an entire industry seems designed to limit what it means to be a woman. Take for example Matt Walsh’s documentary What is a Woman?, in which a cisgender, heterosexual man works very hard to limit what that word means. I personally don’t have much patience with this type of “gotcha” question. When people ask me to “define woman,” if I feel like answering, I say, “do you feel like you are a woman?” Yes? Welcome to the big tent.
What is this Big Tent?
According to the political dictionary, In politics, a big tent refers to an inclusive party which encourages a wide swath of people to become members. The opposite of “big tent” would be a party which is narrowly focused on only a few issues, or which caters to a particular interest group. There is no litmus test for entry into a big tent party. Instead, there is a general set of interests that members agree are important.
Women and the Big Tent
I am not the first person to talk about women in the big tent. Apparently, this has been a topic of conversation in spaces like Women and Gender history, the Women’s March on Washington’s progressive agenda, democratic women needing a big tent to protect women’s rights, and there is even a political organization that appears to support women in the US, regardless of party affiliation.
To understand my vision of the women’s big tent, you need to understand that I do not limit “women” to biology. Although Wikipedia generally defines woman as biologically determined, I find that definition to be limiting. Honestly, doesn’t it seem like “woman” means more than having a particular set of parts? I also do not limit “woman” to those people I like, to those people who look like me, or to those people who view themselves as women. Instead, I view women in the big tent as anyone who feels like a woman, wants to be a woman, is treated like a woman (regardless of their parts), and faces discrimination because of their gender or their sexuality. In other words, lots of people belong in the big tent.
Gender and Sexuality and the Big Tent
Take for example gender and sexuality. I have written about this in my academic work, so let me share a bit here. Although Scholars talk about gender and sexuality as separate, they are treated in the larger culture as intertwined. Take, for example, this excerpt from my first book, the Reluctant Farmer:
A young woman comes down our driveway, towing he little girl in a small wagon. Behind them tromps a small pack of dogs. The woman has visited before. She is lonely and likes to talk. She wants her daughter to meet the animals roaming about our place. The dogs, however, represent a new addition to her visits. Dogs are not welcome on our farm. They are the most destructive predators for sheep, and we are fastidious about keeping the neighbor animals off the place. Tom (my husband) and I watch as they troop up the road. I tell her “please keep your dogs at home.” She says “I’ve tried but they won’t stay.” Tom interrupts and introduces himself, then walks away. The woman watches Tom leave and then turns to me with an expression that I interpret as horror.
“I’m so sorry.”
I watch my retreating husband with some confusion. I am trying to match his actions with her apology. “what are you sorry for? He’s not that bad.”
"I’m so sorry. I thought you lived here with a woman."
"No. I live here with Tom and two kids."
"I am so sorry. We thought only women lived here."
"No. Two boys, two girls."
"I am so sorry, we only saw you with a woman."
I admit that I am a bit slow, but the apologies were perplexing. And then I got it. “Did you think that I was a lesbian who lived here with my lesbian lover?”
"Yes. I am so sorry. Three different people told me you were a lesbian."
"Don’t be sorry. I have nothing against lesbians. I’m just not one.“
I have no particular problem with being seen as a lesbian, except that sort of perception can get a person hurt out here. I would really hate to be raped and hurt or my livestock sabotaged because of some perverted sexual fantasy played out by my unknown patriarchally rigid neighbors.
There is more to this story, of course, but the point I want to make here is that although we can separate gender and sexuality for academic purposes, they are intertwined in how people are viewed and treated by the larger world. If you step outside of the binary gender expectations for your biological determination, then you will be feminized and face discrimination.
Woman (and associated terms) are used to denote weakness. I recently heard a man call another man a pussy (not the cat, the female anatomy pussy) because he did not want to go to bars trolling for women. You see, those people who don’t fit into a particularly limited and weird notion of masculinity are feminized. To those feminized people, both male and female, I say, welcome to the big tent.
Transgender and Nonbinary People
Transgender and nonbinary people seem to be the focus of a lot of a lot of attention, from J.K. Rowling to conservative politicians. I don’t understand why people make all this fuss, yet, as you know, you face more gender violence and workplace discrimination than cisgender people. Here is the thing. You tell me who you are and I will believe you. If you are a woman, welcome to the big tent. In fact, because you are feminized, you are all in the big tent, like it or not.
Do not misunderstand. Our tent has lots of people. Although, as I mentioned in my last blog, we have a common cause, we don’t always like each other. We will have cliques and we will have conflicts. We will argue, a lot. This tent is not a "safe space." But know that we need to believe in each other’s rights to live lives that please us, that fit our personalities, our capacities—just like those people who are not in the big tent. We must fiercely protect our collective rights to BE. So, if you believe in human rights to self-determination, life, and equity. If you want justice. If you are seeking a place and a community. Welcome to the big tent.
Debbie S. Dougherty is a professor, author, consultant, farmer
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