What Does It Mean to Be a Woman?

February 12, 2012

Upon request, today’s post is going to be about an informal study I conducted last semester for my sociology class. The study was a comparison of two groups: the first, a group of ten female Russian students from Yaroslavl State Pedagogical University, and the second, a group of ten female American students from Middlebury College.

Each group was asked, “What does it mean to be a woman?” I analyzed the responses by looking at each one individually and categorizing the themes that were mentioned. Here’s what I found:

Russian and American Concepts of Womanhood Since it’s a bit hard to read that tiny print, here are the most popular themes from left to right: motherhood, housework, social role, family, sexism, looks, strength, fluidity, comparison to men, and gender. The themes, again from left to right, are ordered from the greatest difference to the smallest difference of how many times the group mentions a theme. You can see from the graph that the Russian students brought up motherhood and housework far more than the American students, and that the Americans brought up  sexism and looks far more than the Russians. An interesting note to make that isn’t a “theme” per-se is that the Russian students tended to talk about what a woman “should” be doing, whereas the American students generally talked about what they observed their peers doing.

I came up with this study to answer questions I’d had about the people around me. I saw that Russian women did all the same work Russian men did, but on top of that they ran homes, raised children, grew and preserved the food at the dacha, and all the while remained made-up and dressed to the nines. Don’t believe me? There are high-heeled slippers for sale here. At first I interpreted this as attesting to the incredible strength of Russian women (and I still do), but I also came to realize that a lot of what the women did was out of necessity and adherence to a long-cultivated social role. There seemed to be a very formulaic timeline laid out for women: school, college, marriage, and family–maybe a job if you can juggle it all, but family first!

Hearing my peers talk about how they were worried about not finding husbands (they’re 20 years old; the clock is ticking!) or even about how they were already married presented a huge contrast to small talk amongst girls at my home college. I began to wonder: what does being a woman mean to a Russian woman? Is it really all about being stunningly beautiful, snagging a good guy, and raising a family? How might this all differ from an American conception of womanhood? Would it?

If you want to learn more about my study, feel free to ask questions in the comments box. I’m happy to send the study to anyone who might want a peek, however I feel obligated to warn you that it’s 36 pages in Russian!  The study includes more graphs, a much deeper analysis, and the anonymous student responses.


7 Responses to “What Does It Mean to Be a Woman?”

  1. Looks like women share the same experiences all over. Even over in Malaysia, I hear woman whinging about finding a husband, settling down and having children. I find it odd that these are educated (with degrees at the very least) and intelligent women but ultimately, they are still bound to the traditional gender roles that have persisted since time immemorial. Makes me almost wonder … if higher education is wasted on women since all they really want is a man and breed. Maybe they should just enrol for cooking, parenting and domestic skills classes if this is what they truly want. Not saying this is wrong but if these are the MAIN or ONLY goals of most women (as opposed to changing the world for the better, leading giant corporations, making meaningful contributions to society), maybe they should just spend their time preparing themselves for the roles they really want to take on.

  2. nateinsiberia said

    A few points.
    1) Just today, my host had a female guest over, who cooked lunch for us. When we were finished eating, she left. Right before this, my host (a male) tried to wash a plate, and the woman said, directed at him, “Oh, Natan, look at what a fine hostess you have here!”
    2) You mention the possibility of being able to hold down a job among all of these non-financial concerns. I don’t know if you’ve looked into it in Yaro, but out here I know at least Ben’s host had at one point done all her “womanly duties” while holding down THREE jobs. This apparently was nothing out of the ordinary.
    3) I follow Nicholas Kristof, the Pulitzer-winning NY Times journalist that spoke at Midd in 2010, on Facebook. For what it’s worth, he claims that the most important issue facing today’s world is women’s education.

  3. So many questions…

    How did you deal with the language difference? How did you separate differences in language from differences in culture?

    Also, what is fluidity?

    There was an interesting Atlantic article last fall that talked about how in many countries one of the biggest factors shaping the life of women is the decline of men, in an economic sense.


    The article talks about how women increasingly have to ‘marry down’ as the rise of women and the decline of men has dramatically changed women’s marital prospects. There is even an interesting discussion on impacts of World War II on Russian marriage traditions.

    If one applies the theses of the article to your study, it would suggest that women in Russia are a lot less sanguine about their marriage prospects. Maybe.


    • sarahinthegoldencircle said

      How I dealt with the language difference: This study was conducted in Russian to the greatest possible extent. The exception, of course, was with the American students. The Americans were contacted by email in English and asked to respond to the question, “What does it mean to be a woman,” for an informal study. Their responses were translated into Russian, and both the original English and the translated Russian responses appear at the end of the paper. While the language difference did not pose much of a problem while addressing themes, it did pose some trouble for the word cloud portion of the study where I compared the most frequently occurring words for the American and Russian groups. In this case, I used the original English responses and later translated the most frequently occurring words into Russian.

      How did I separate differences in language from differences in culture: I’m not sure I’d want to do that, to be quite honest. I see language as a very significant part of culture and identity; it’s an integral part of our worldview and human experience. While finding a well-fitting translation may stump you for a moment, I don’t feel that there was a need to try to separate language from culture here.
      However, just tossing out an idea, I do think that you could attribute some of the approaches of responses to language. For example, I mentioned in this post that the Russian students tended to state what a woman should be doing while the American students tended to describe what women around them were doing. Could this be attributed to the Russian language’s more passive construction, where the dative case so frequently has things happening to you (Мне холодно, lit.: “It is cold to me”, fig.: “I’m cold) that might shape a worldview as seeing things as “set” or “done,” while the more active English construction may give stronger agency to the subject? For more information on this, try google-ing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

      What is fluidity: I used the term “fluidity” to try to encapsulate the idea that women frequently float from role to role, and that not all women will occupy the same roles. It’s an obscure label, of course explained in more detail in the study, but the general idea is that women take on and flit from many different social (and even typical gender) roles, and it isn’t going to be the same for every woman.

      Great article! And, sad to say, that holds quite true with the opinions of most Russian girls and women I’ve spoken to about this topic. The general attitude here seems to be that as soon as a man is successful, he moves to Moscow or abroad. Who do they have left? There’s just a very small pool of men, in their opinions, who make “suitable” husbands, and not every woman will be able to get one.

      Thanks for the questions and reading!

  4. Аня said

    Hi Sarah! I would love to have your paper! send it to annaberzon@gmail.com please.

  5. Sarah this is a fascinating topic – well done for researching it in further detail! Attitudes about womanhood and what that means to Russian women was one of the first things that struck me as different in the fall – not good or bad, just different. And it’s not just Yaroslavl! 25 is positively old maid material, even for the highly educated in Moscow, and finding a Russian man who makes decent money, doesn’t drink excessively and is attractive? Those ones get snapped up immediately in the high-stakes competition that is dating here. I’ve heard from a number of different women the idea of competing with other women to hold onto a good man – which I think fosters a very different idea of sisterhood among women here. Definitely send me the full paper!

  6. […] United States (for details on this, see Hillary’s post on Women’s Day and my post on Russian vs. American concepts of womanhood). However, I am happy to say as an American girl, that I have now experienced, appreciated, and […]

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