Male, Female, or Whole?

© Warren Wong and Fernando Rodrigues on Unsplash


My sense of myself as an aging woman is that I am increasingly androgynous. I hope so, as this is the condition I want to attain by the end of my life.

I do not mean that I dress in an ambiguous way so that people will not know for sure whether I am a woman or a man. I do not mean that I am a hermaphrodite or a lesbian. I do not mean that I am bisexual or pansexual, that is, biologically attracted all my life to both (all) genders. I mean that for many years I have had both the inclination and the opportunity to develop masculine aspects of my personality with the conscious goal of becoming an independent and integrated person, a whole persona.

After a varied and enthusiastic love life, I took a vow of celibacy at age 53. Perhaps I was able to do that because by then I had become a more balanced and whole person, an androgyne. Carl Jung would say that both anima and animus had matured within my own psyche. Along with what are thought of as feminine traits, I—like many other liberated women nowadays—have some of the capacities and sensibilities usually associated with men: interest in numbers and finance, for example. I have managed my own commercial affairs: buying and selling cars and houses, borrowing and lending money, managing property, living and traveling alone. I have started projects and run programs. I think in terms of systems and talk with men on their own terms. I often take leadership positions. I raised my children alone and survived a lot of hardship.

Reciprocally, I like to imagine that many men my age, in their 70s, have also expanded their capacities: learning to cook, sew, decorate, arrange parties, nurture young people, tend the aged and ill, and live alone in a vibrant way. Notice that last item; women are generally better at living alone in a vibrant way.

The researched facts about midlife hormonal changes in both men and women, which make them more alike as they age, have always fascinated me. Hormonal changes after menopause (including “male menopause”) have substantive effects on the personality as well as on the body, sometimes affording men easier access to their feelings and their gentler inclinations, sometimes allowing women to become more logical and bold. Aren’t we all becoming androgynous?

Or are some of us becoming asexual? Hormonal changes are one thing, but many of us have experienced more devastating physiological changes as surgeries divested us of various parts that used to seem crucial to our identity. Am I a woman if I have lost my uterus, both breasts, and my desire to lie with my husband? What kind of a man am I if I have prostate cancer or if I am struggling with impotence for one reason or another?

These traumas are made worse for us in our older years in America because most of us were raised to think that our sexual identity, perhaps even our sexual performance, was the most important thing about us. If we lose our ability or interest in sexual relations, we think of ourselves as having experienced a great loss.

We may worry that we have become asexual. This is a term not readily acknowledged in conventional American discourse, even though it is probable that some 10 to 15 percent of the population has been disinterested in sex from the get-go. Mostly these people are closeted still. Perhaps the LGBTQ group should add an “A,” or perhaps two, to their acronym, for androgynous and asexual: LGBTQAA.

Why not think of ourselves instead as moving beyond the limiting definitions of gender and sexual orientation and progressing toward a whole-some (hyphen deliberate) condition of androgyny? Whether we are gay or straight or bisexual, we older ones have presented ourselves for decades with a consistent male or female identity. Would it be productive—perhaps even a relief—to move beyond that now?

The ancient Greeks claimed that everyone looked for a person of the opposite gender to complement his or her own character. The Chinese believed that it took the conjoining of the Yin and the Yang to make a whole. Jung seemed to have the same general idea. Perhaps we are now learning that the two capacities, the whole totality, can be held within a single person.

Perhaps sometimes a woman of accomplished years and experience no longer feels that her femininity needs to be balanced by the intimate presence of a strong man in her life. Perhaps during her working years, she acquired many masculine competencies within herself and is very pleased to be living alone. She has not become asexual, just whole.

Perhaps a thoughtful and imaginative, old husband realizes that both he and his wife can open up to a whole new set of physical and emotional intimacies that they never experienced before.

Perhaps after a long marriage, an open-minded widow finds that her androgynous, whole self is now well-partnered by another independent, androgynous woman.

Is there a Quaker testimony that incorporates the ideal of becoming whole, balanced, and integrated within? Is becoming whole as holy as we mere mortals can get?

Elizabeth Boardman

A member of Redwood Forest Meeting in Santa Rosa, Calif., Elizabeth Boardman has written a number of articles and books about Quaker faith and practice. Her latest, a thoughtful and sexy book with chapters on androgyny and leadings, is called Barbara and Elizabeth: Late Life Lovers.

3 thoughts on “Male, Female, or Whole?

  1. I would like to share with Elizabeth, with some joy, that many young and creeping-into-our-40s queers consider our community acronym to be LGBTQIA2 as a way of encompassing so many facets of our community, including sexuality, gender, romantic orientation, and decolonized identity. (LGBTQIA2 = lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer & questioning, intersex, asexual & aromantic, 2-spirit)

    Some people see fit to complain about adding letters, but it feels like an opening, a warm embrace to name my siblings and peg my identity into community with theirs. Together, we are more whole.

  2. Being a transgender woman, and having struggled with gender all my life, telling me, just as I come to terms with gender on the cusp of old age, that in some sense gender doesn’t matter any more or is in some way not important, seems like an invalidation of my entire life. It makes for very bitter thoughts on how I have lived, as self directed rage.

  3. Elizabeth Boardman should be reminded that one of the goals of Feminism has always been the elimination of sex role stereotypes. They are a male supremacist system of hierarchy of male over female and masculine over feminine, set up to control behavior, appearance, and expectations for both men and women to enforce patriarchy. They inherently oppresses girls and women because they function to make the domination by males of females seem natural and inevitable.

    Feminists like me have all our lives strived to live beyond sex role limitations, learning many male-role practices that are not coercive and dropping female-role trappings. Part of the conservative backlash against the many cultural and political changes of the late 1960’s and 1970’s has been a tremendous narrowing and rigidifying of sex role expectations. It is logical for people of any age to rebel against these socially enforced limitations, and the solution is to broaden and change those norms for everyone.

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