The Female Condition

Being a woman in 2017 is incredibly confusing.To get insight into the experience, we asked a collection of interesting women—WNBA player Tanisha Wright, Reductress co-founders 
Beth Newell and Sarah Pappalardo, organizer Fatoumata Waggeh, filmmaker and writer Paola Mendoza, pornographer and essayist Stoya and activist and podcaster Raquel Willis—about what being a woman means and doesn't mean to them.

IN CERTAIN WAYS the definition of the word “female” is being dismantled—a new generation has been challenging their elders to recognize way more than two genders—to a liberating effect. It’s increasingly understood that women won’t necessarily have babies, husbands, any particular kind of genitalia, or naturally submissive personalities. Yet women continue to contend with gender-based restrictions and persecution every day. Any of us could list dozens of examples, from the wage gap to sexual assault.

We asked women about what it means to be female. How has it shaped their lives, work, politics, and the stories they tell? Our respondents appear to navigate the contradictions gracefully—those who, to borrow a phrase from Vaclav Havel, seem to live as if they were already free. 

Paola Mendoza

Mendoza is an actress, filmmaker, author, and artistic director of the Women’s March.


Tell me the story of how you became a feminist.

My mother—I’m from Colombia—and my mother comes from a long line, and I come from a long line, of strong matriarchs in our family, dating back to my great grandmother, great-great-grandmother actually.

My mom made magic out of nothing every day. My mother raised, in a very patriarchal culture, raised me and my brother very much as equals. So, feminism as a life, I think it’s always been around me.

I started out as an actress, and when I realized that my path was not to be an actor but actually to be a director, I was very clear around the stories that I wanted to tell. I wanted to tell the stories of women that were around me, that were the women I grew up with, that were my mother, were my grandmother, were the women from my neighborhood that actually not given a platform to be full, complicated, extraordinary women in the stories that were being sold to me on TV and in the movie theaters.

This was my own form of activism, was making sure that the women unsung heroes of our society, the women you just kind of walk by and you ignore, because you don’t see them and they just melt into the fabric of what this country is, were actually going to have the light shined on them by the stories that I was telling about them and making sure that those stories were filled with dignity.

I think that’s the most important aspect of those stories, to have these women tell their epic journeys, their infinite epics as I like to call them, with dignity.


Tanisha Wright

Wright is a 12-year WNBA veteran. Played most recently with the New York Liberty and before that, the Seattle Storm. She's a four-time winner of WNBA All-Defensive First Team honors.


What did you learn from being the only girl on a court full of boys, as you often were growing up?

I think any time you’re playing with bigger, faster, strong humans, essentially what is whenever you’re a girl playing with the guys, you learn to be tough, right. Tough skin, mindset changes, cause they really don’t care that you’re a girl.

Sports doesn't care–there's no gender in sports, really. It is the way it is now, but every single body grew up playing against girls, boys, when you look at younger people starting sports, they start it co-ed, they don't start it girls, and they don't start it boys.

I know that by age 14 girls are dropping out of sports at double the age of boys, partially because that's an age where the pressure to fit in and be seen as girly really increases. So how did you deal with those pressures and keep playing? 

I didn't have to break those barriers. I didn't deal with the pressures of makeup and stuff, cuz I wasn't into all that stuff.

I wanted to be good at this, I wanted to play this, I wanted to have fun at this sport, and I did that, plain and simple. 

Beth Newell and Sarah Pappalardo

Pappalardo and Newell are writers, performers, and co-founders of the first and only satirical women’s magazine, Reductress. They are also authors (with Anna Drezen) of How to Win at Feminism: The Definitive Guide to Having It All—and Then Some!


How is it different to make jokes with women, and for women?

Sarah: We can kind of start from a shared truth or—I kind of hesitate to say this but—a shared reality to base out of.  It just requires less explanation for why we think it’s funny.

There’s something that has been shoved in our faces pretty universally in the U.S., and that’s the media, and the way that women’s products and the media are delivered to us and marketed to us so differently from the way men are marketed to. And I think it sets us up to—even if we didn’t fully buy into it our whole lives, we’re all kind of acutely aware of what that effect is on women and how they feel about themselves in the world.

We’re trying to make people more aware and give language to some things that might be overlooked in our society. While we definitely do a lot of sillier content, we do a lot of stuff about gendered microagressions, things that happen in the office, issues of race and sexuality. If we’re doing it right, we’re really finding things that haven’t been spoken about enough and finding a funny way to approach them.

Can you think of any formative moments in particular, where you were like, wow, now I understand what it means to be a woman in the world?

Sarah: I mean, I don’t know. I still don’t think I’ve had that moment. [Laughs].

Beth: Yeah, I’m still looking for it. 

I think there’s just too many small parts, and things that are so true to some women are just so not the case for others. When we say that we speak for all women, I say that with some hesitancy, only 'cause the more you make content for women, you also realize how different we all are... Even just within our own office the kind of stuff we’ll bring up and half the room will be totally clueless about and the other half will have intimate knowledge of this particular experience. I mean we’re really just constantly realizing, oh yeah, we’re all pretty different.

Sarah: Yeah, feminism is about choice, usually, and it’s when people are getting feminism wrong that they think it’s about having a correct answer to things. It’s easy for us as satirists to make fun of when people are getting it wrong but I don’t think we’re ever going to raise our hand and say we have the right answer. 


Stoya is an alt-porn star, advice columnist, essayist, pornographer.


I grew up  in a church where your body was a temple for Christ.

And then it was a puppet for the choreographer to project their vision on to.

And then it was like this problem to be solved because going outside made the men whistle and honk, but the men whistling and honking freaked out the women. Everything was terrifying.

By the time it was pornography, it was like, well, my body is mine, and it does all of these things, and it can also do them in a capitalized manner. 

When I was a teenager, I was in Northern Delaware. The best bookstore was the Barnes & Nobles. The Barnes & Nobles had books like Cunt, and Annie Sprinkle's Post-Porn Modernist and Jane Sexes It Up. In those books I at least found women who kind of made sense. There weren't any of them around me.

There were boys who were into cars, and boys who were into Dungeons & Dragons, and there were jocks and whatever, and there were girls who were super super studious, and really sweet, and then just like chicks, with their did-something-with-blow-dryer hair, and that way was definitely not for me.

Personally, I'm like, can there just be like an option where, only when I'm trying to have sex is gender entering the picture, and otherwise I could live somewhere? But no. In that world, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

I think a large part of this is me being deeply impatient at the fact that it's 2017 and on all fronts we're still having to have these conversations. I want a world where, “Is lipstick feminist?” is a funny parlor game to play, because we all actually have real rights.

Try our new streaming service for free.
No algorithms. Just the best television + film hand-picked from around the globe.

Raquel Willis

Willis is a writer, activist, and media maven, National Organizer for Transgender Law Center and host of the Black Girl Dangerous podcast.


How did you become a storyteller?

I knew I had this ticking clock inside me. I was going to have to tell my story if I wanted to make my life something bigger than myself. I think I maybe had to do more work to look inside and ask myself these difficult questions of who I was and what I really wanted.

Do you see writing as part of “doing the work” as an activist?

I think what we say is so important, and the words that we use to describe ourselves, to describe the world, to describe each other, are important.

And so for me, particularly as a black transgender woman, we only have so many stories about our experiences out there. As someone who didn’t grow up with possibility models, it is so important to me to be able to be a pathway for other young trans people to be able to see themselves in the world.

We’re constantly engaging with the stories of ourselves. So even if I write a memoir or two or three, or I should say, even if an author writes a memoir or two or three, that doesn’t mean that the story’s been told and that’s it.

No one wants to feel like what they’ve been through, what they’ve experienced wasn’t theirs. And everyone deserves to own their story.

You do activism and organizing in a number of different fields, and you’ve said that the piece holding them together is that you’re working towards equality. Why equality and not say, freedom? 

You know, I’m actually trying to use the word “equality” less, and talk more about liberation.

Fatoumata Waggeh

Waggeh is a civic organizer with African Communities United, co-founder of Smiling Coast Women Empowerment Network (SCWEN), a youth group for young Gambian-American Muslim women. 


The majority of young women that I know around my age in the community are married with kids or recently engaged.

I feel like I can't mess up, because I'm one of the few who has been able to successfully complete her education. I'm very cognizant of what I do, of showing that the education that I'm pursuing is for the well-being of my community. 

Whenever you're the one who strays away from the traditional path, folks are always going to look at you, how you're doing, and if it's "successful". 

If you look in the Koran, the prophet's wife, salallaahu 'alaihi wa sallam, Kadija, was a businesswoman. She was divorced too, and she got married when she was like forty-something. She was a feminist in her own right.

I think it's a concept where our communities make it seem like it's new for a woman to want to be financially independent or for a woman to want to be successful, but it's always been there, and it's a part of our traditions as well. 

I define my community as people of color, then it can go down to African immigrants, then to Muslims, then to Gambians, then to Soninkes, and then woman's in that mix as well. My main community is the Gambian Soninke-speaking community in the Bronx.

I hate when people put me in a box. I hate that. Identity is fluid. When people make it seem like you have to be one thing at once. I cannot just be a black woman right now, I have to be a Black, Muslim, immigrant woman always.

How do you break out of the box? How do you deal with it, when people can’t see you?

I think, just knowing that I'm there, and knowing that I'm expressing my voice unapologetically, that's all I need to do. That's it. I don't let it get to me. My presence, in and of itself, I think, speaks. 

This article was originally published as part of our Off Topic newsletter, where you get an original story delivered to your inbox each and every week. Sign up now.

Share this story