One hundred years ago, women were expected to be wives and mothers, tasked with raising good, moral citizens and keeping comfortable homes. Most women didn’t have careers, with the exception of teachers, nurses, seamstresses, maids, and others who performed jobs considered to be appropriately feminine.
While there used to be a very specific model for exactly how to be a woman—how to look, talk, act the part, and sit down and shut up like a woman—those days are long gone. While there are certainly battles still raging over how women use their bodies and conduct their lives, the ways they show up in the world are more varied and nuanced than ever, making the definition of womanhood not universal, but rather specific to each woman herself.
To highlight the many ways there are to be a woman in the world in 2020, we spoke with more than a dozen women to hear about their lives—and what being a woman means and looks like to them. As their stories prove, being a woman is not about genitals, femininity, or fitting one specific mold. Each woman and her experience is uniquely hers.
‘I’m a force to be reckoned with’
“Being a woman to me in my past has always meant being too much. This is what I was always taught in my childhood and adolescence. Whenever someone said I was too loud or too talkative, it would hurt. ‘Too much’ is no longer an insult to me; it is a sign of pride. If I am ‘too much’ for the world in this moment, I am just right for me as a woman.
“Culture has played a very interesting role in my identity and the intersectionality of my identities. There was a time where I never thought I could claim the identities of ‘writer’, of ‘activist.’ Being an Indian woman has often meant sacrificing one identity in order to preserve another. It meant being conservative over being honest. If I wanted to maintain my identity as a ‘good’ Indian girl, I had to sacrifice my identity as an advocate for mental health…Besides being a woman, I am a writer, an artist, an activist, a hustler. I am a force to be reckoned with, and most importantly I’m ‘me.’ I own every one of my identities now. I worked too hard to reclaim them all to only have one.” —Vaidehi Gajjar, 25
‘Womanhood is much more complex than chromosomes’
“I think today we are seeing the very beginning of the acceptance that womanhood is not simply a set of body parts and functions that were never generalizable to all women anyway. That womanhood is much more complex than chromosomes or the ability to carry a baby.
“As a trans woman, it took me decades to understand that, despite all outward physical evidence to the contrary at the start of my life, my womanhood is real. It isn’t just a feeling nor is it delusion. It is a living, breathing, undeniable force that lies deep within me…Being a woman in 2020 is not so fragile a thing that it can’t encompass me or people like me.
“I am not just fighting the patriarchy and misogyny for the equality of women, I am fighting against their effects to be regarded as a woman at all. The net effect is that, for too many, being transgender erases the legitimacy of my other identities entirely. Fighting against that is the most feminist thing I do.” —Melody Maia Monet, 49
‘I feel connected to more women—strangers and mothers and friends—than ever before’
“Being a woman means something different to me now than it even meant a month ago. It means I’m the manager of my family and I feel responsible for keeping us alive [on the macro level], and also helping every day in many little ways to get us through a crisis that is affecting the entire world.
“Being a woman in 2020, before the novel coronavirus pandemic, however, also has had a new, improved meaning, building on the past couple years since #MeToo and Binders and other female-forward initiatives. I feel very visible, and I feel connected to more women—strangers and mothers and friends—than ever before. It’s nice. It’s encouraging.
“More than anything, my identities—a mom, a wife, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a cousin, a friend, a teacher, a writer, a comedian, a musician—come and go at various times. Sometimes being a sister isn’t as meaningful as being a mother, other times it’s everything in that moment.” —Jessica Delfino, 43
‘It means having the choice to be bold and speak up’
“By the end of 2020, I will (hopefully!) be finished with my first semester of college at Barnard College of Columbia University. I’m a first-generation Chinese-American 17-year-old and one of two daughters of a single and immigrant mother.
“Like the hyphen in Chinese-American, I see how my experiences are all due to the intersection of my different identities. I was taught by my extended family to not speak until I am spoken to and to stay quiet about my opinion about current events… Being a woman in 2020 is to be unapologetically myself, especially in unconventional spaces that were not created for me; it means to have choices in every decision I come across and to have the understanding that all of my experiences that have led me to this point are credited to my various identities that intersect. Being a woman to me means having the choice to be bold and speak up not only for yourself but passing your voice to others as well.” —Joyce Jiang, 17
‘I contain multitudes’
“Aside from being a woman, I’m invisibly disabled, a writing instructor at a college, a traumatic brain injury (TBI) survivor, a freelance writer, a journalist, an alcoholic, a sexual assault survivor, a sister, a daughter, a granddaughter, a cousin, and a friend.
“My friends and I always joke around and say ‘I contain multitudes’ when someone finds out something about us they hadn’t expected, but it’s true: We all contain multitudes. For me, being a woman in 2020 isn’t feeling ashamed I thwarted [a person’s] expectations and instead acting surprised they didn’t assume I was a three-dimensional person with more than one story arc.” —Brooke Knisley, 29
‘It’s about solving impossible problems’
“I am the child of immigrants, fat, queer, and live with autism and mental health issues including an eating disorder. Increasingly, being a woman in 2020 is [about] solving impossible problems. Making sure my community is safe and still connected and loved. It’s about boundaries, especially as a mental health professional—giving people support without turning all my friendships and relationships into therapeutic ones. It’s about being vulnerable and strong, and not having all the answers.” —Alicia Raimundo, 30
‘Being a woman is fully badass’
“Being a woman is a really interesting experience in the modern age (and all through history, let’s be real)… I think that for me, part of being a woman means standing up for the values that I hold, and trying to make sure that all of the women, even and maybe even especially those who may not intersect with my life, are able to live their lives in the way they choose to.
“Beyond the global approach of being a woman, I think being a woman is fully badass. Women are powerful, and beautiful, and strong, and inspirational, jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring, history-makers, and just really, really cool.” —Cat Wheeler, 26
‘My existence is an act of resistance’
“I would say that as a woman of color, my existence is an act of resistance. Anything I do, whether I want it to be or not, is inherently political. I navigate the world knowing these things…[and] when I have an opportunity to use any privilege I have for ‘good,’ I take advantage of that.
“For me, my job as a writer on a TV show [The Proud Family] about a black family is a huge responsibility. My job in the day is a lot of pitching jokes, but I didn’t set out to do it because I wanted to pitch jokes all day. It was a responsibility for me to create representation in the world. Everything I do is driven by the knowledge that representation matters and belonging matters, and that everyone should have the right to belong.” —Ashley Soto, 29
‘You can’t put me in a little box’
“I was adopted from Vietnam when I was four, and my whole family is white and we live in a town that is less than 4,000 people and predominantly white. Growing up, I was the only non-white person or Asian person at my school. It was kind of like a shock to everyone for me to be there… If you hadn’t seen me and just saw my name and that I’m from Mississippi, you might think I’m just a white woman, but you’d never be able to guess what’s behind the name.
“So I think being a woman in 2020 is breaking all those stereotypes and not being what everyone expects a woman to be. As someone who identifies as so many things, you can’t put me in a little box that other people might think ‘Oh she’s this or that.’ I’m a multifaceted person. That’s what all of us are as women in 2020, we’re all so different from what a woman might have been in the 1940s or 1950s when they were expected to be one thing, whether it’s a CEO, a teacher, a mom. Even if you just want to be a mom to a fur baby, we can proudly be whatever we want.” —Sarah Barrett, 27
‘Women are looking inward now more than ever’
“Being a woman to me in 2020 means self-awareness. I believe the uptick in diversity in terms of gender identity, sexuality, and personal identity is coming from a rise in self-awareness. Women are looking inward more now than ever and investigating all aspects of their identity.
“I try to be as self-aware as possible with critical thinking—I basically try to question the reason behind why I do everything. Why am I reacting this way? Why does this make me happy? Why do I care about this? By asking myself these questions I often surprise myself with the answers, because we never quite realize how much of our thoughts and beliefs are more subconscious than not.
“With that self-awareness comes confidence—no one can tell you what you are or what you are not because you’ve deeply explored that and had those conversations with yourself. That confidence lets us be secure in our identity, but also secure in changing that identification if it feels right for us. Being a woman in 2020 is truly whatever we desire it to be!” —Gabby Beckford, 24
‘I’m claiming ownership over my body and my identity’
“Being a queer femme woman has honestly been interesting to navigate… Before I had a better understanding of my sexuality, I was afraid to dress less feminine because I thought people would think I was queer, which is really just my own internalized homophobia talking. Now that I’m more comfortable with my identity, I look at clothes as an artistic expression of who I am rather than something to be afraid of.
“Being a woman means claiming ownership over my body and my identity, advocating for equal rights for everyone, and making sure women retain the rights to their bodies. Being a woman makes me feel like I can be whoever I want to be and do whatever I want to do, regardless of whether anyone says otherwise. Being a woman means empowerment of both myself and other women.” —Sloan Pecchia, 21
‘It’s both a wonderful and dangerous thing to be’
“To be a woman in 2020 is both a wonderful and dangerous thing to be. Society is starting to listen to what had been ignored in the past: Women are being victimized, women are being paid less for the same work, women are not seen as capable leaders. However, the actual change that comes with acknowledgement seems very slow and frustrating…
“My identity [as a Jewish woman] has definitely changed. In the late ‘90s when I was preparing for my Bat Mitzvah, I had to have a ‘very special talk’ with the rabbi’s wife about what being a woman meant. It was explained to me that the ideal woman is a help-mate to her husband in all things, and was put on this earth to nurture the next generation. This, along with other similar experiences, led me to be less connected to my Judaism. Now, however, with the advent of social media, I find myself becoming reconnected to my heritage. On Twitter alone, I follow a radical rabbi, a rabbi who is a disability activist, and a Southern rabbi of color, not to mention the amazing non-binary, queer, and trans Jews who have opened my eyes to the many ways one can be a Jewish woman.” —Aviva Levin, 33
‘Being a woman means being resistant and unapologetic’
“Being a woman is the first thing I identify with. Women’s rights, empowerment, and equality are the issues that make my blood boil and that I’ll never stop fighting for. I’m also Latina and the daughter of an immigrant, which is also an extremely important aspect of my identity…
“Being a single, 30-year-old, independent woman in 2020 to me means being resistant and unapologetic. I’m grateful for my ancestors who paved the way to allow me the freedoms I enjoy today, but know that globally, women have a long way to go before we achieve equity and equality in society, at work, and at home.” —Lola Méndez, 30
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.