What makes a woman a woman? Exploring the gender identities of young female Estonians with higher education



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Tartu Ülikool


To gain a better understanding of how women conceptualize gender and situate themselves in a changing society, the research conducted 12 semi-structured interviews with highly educated young Estonian women aged between 24-35. The interviews were conducted from February to March 2018 in Tartu, Estonia. Participants were recruited through snowball sampling on an entirely voluntary basis. The research inquires into the ways the informants define themselves in terms of gender and the social significance of the elements utilized to construct their gender identities. The results were categorized thematically and analyzed with Discourse Analysis (DA). The study finds that femininity at the individual level is conceptualized, experienced and related to one’s social life very differently. First of all, how “woman” is defined and how one understands the relationship between biological sex, gender and gender identity are already sites of struggle. Secondly, the boundary between women’s essential nature and socially constructed femininities is fuzzy. It is very difficult to claim anything other than female physiology essentially feminine since what makes a woman a woman differs from person to person. Lastly, the perceived importance of each elements of femininity to the participants’ overall self-identifications and their social life varies, which is highly contingent on the socialization processes that the informants have undergone. The empirical research illustrates the diverse conceptualizations of femininity and individual struggles to get rid of traditional gender roles while preserving a sense of belonging to her assigned gender group or her sex category, contributing to existing literature with an in-depth understanding of how gender as a social identity is negotiated at the individual level when different strands of thoughts coexist in society. Yet the research only focuses on highly educated young females perspectives. How other groups of women conceptualize and practice femininity may be interests to future research.