Femininity, revisited

Perhaps the greatest challenge to thinking women is the challenge to move from the desire for safety and approval to the most “unfeminine” quality of all — that of intellectual arrogance, the supreme hubris which asserts to itself the right to reorder the world.

— Gerda Lerner

What we ought to see in the agonies of puberty is the result of the conditioning that maims the female personality in creating the feminine.

— Germaine Greer

On my old blog, I had a series of posts entitled “In defense of femininity.” This was my round-about way of saying that it’s not sinful or necessarily anti-feminist to express certain forms of socially defined ‘femininity.’ It’s undeniably true that the constructs of femininity as a whole are central to female oppression.  I understand that it’s painful to think about the social roles and costumes used to constrain women’s behavior and define ‘woman’ as a particular kind of social actor. It may be easier to dismiss the whole mess and declare yourself radical. But this emotional short cut is not helpful to women. Total renunciation of all feminine characteristics is an oversimplification of a very complex phenomenon. It is theoretically lazy, but moreover, it is politically ineffective because it doesn’t offer women practical, real-life instruction.

Feminism should give us analytical tools that we can apply to own lives. In order to do this, we cannot treat femininity as a monolithic concept, experience, or alleged choice. Being a ‘woman’ is the cumulative effects and embodied experience of being molded by an entire lifetime of feminine social conditioning. It saturates every aspect of life under patriarchy. Expectations of feminine behavior and appearance taint every relationship, every social interaction, every professional opportunity, every fear, and every desire of humans socialized as girls from birth. It’s in our speech patterns, our hand writing, our laughter, our mannerisms and movements. It’s emotionally difficult to unpack. But this is a challenge we cannot turn away from. The extent to which female humans are conditioned to embody and internalize various forms of ‘femininity’ is exactly how seriously we must take feminist analysis of these practices. It will require much more than dismissing women for wearing mascara and leggings or for wanting to be nice and resolve conflict. Feminism should provide women with criteria that we can use to evaluate, form judgments, and make decisions about the potential value of ‘feminine’ conduct. One of feminism’s tasks is to interrogate the unique harms and benefits flowing from each and every different manifestation of ‘femininity.’

For example, it is undeniable that high heeled shoes are both uncomfortable and the direct cause of many wearers’ physical deformities. High heels should be avoided and criticized accordingly. It is objectively provable that certain “beauty” products contain dangerous carcinogens— especially when applied directly to our skin, lips, eyes, and scalp day after day, month after month, year after year. It is appropriate to criticize and resist the social coercion placed on women to wear make-up because it comes at our great personal expense. Sheila Jeffrey’s 2005 book Beauty and Misogyny offers an incisive critique of many practices associated with the “beauty” industry, from lipstick to labioplpasty. I highly recommend it.

By comparison, the color pink is objectively harmless. It is not pink itself, but the cultural association with women and femininity, that is dangerous because it marks the wearer as weak and, therefore, as a potential target for sexual harassment or attack. Women are also pressured to identify with the color pink. We are strongly encouraged to wrap ourselves in pink with everything from our underwear to our technological devices. But it doesn’t make pink bad; it is the judgment that is incorrect. Similarly, wearing long hair is no more or less healthy than short hair, but within our deeply gendered context, long hair is associated with people who are fussy, soft, dramatic, and emotional. In other words, it is associated with women. But we should not give this specious association very much importance for we know it is unsupported by reason and because it attaches to things with alternate, objective benefits.

Women’s collective health and understanding of femininity-as-oppression requires that feminist analysis be able to differentiate between physical versus cultural harms, and inevitable harms from conditional ones.

We can make a similar evaluation of the behavioral characteristics associated with femininity. This dissection is even more complicated and difficult because so-called feminine “virtues” have been systematically leveraged against women; they have been used to guilt women into subsuming our own needs and desires in the service of others. Girls are groomed from birth to act in passive, supporting social roles as wives and mothers to men and children. Women have been shamed, manipulated, coerced, physically beaten, and even raped into feminine submission. We have been told that our capacity and willingness to comply is a direct reflection of our worth as human beings. We have been told that ‘femininity’ is as natural as our genitals; femininity is divinely ordered; it is what humans in female bodies are born to Do and Be. Hooray!

Indeed, this is precisely why feminism rejects gender essentialism. That gendered social roles are the primary basis of female oppression is foundational to feminist theory. Femininity is not female destiny. In the words of Robin Morgan, “Women are not inherently passive or peaceful. We’re not inherently anything but human.” At the same time, and without conceding anything to the falsification of femininity, I don’t see why feminism– radical or otherwise– requires us to reject every little thing that has been culturally coded ‘for women.’ Again, I think feminism’s task here is to carefully analyze the contextual harms versus the contextual benefits, using criteria that function as objectively as possible.

So, let’s ask precisely how and why feminine behavior serves to benefit third parties. For example, domestically care-taking a male (and his children) obviously benefits him in material, concrete ways. But what if a female is the intended beneficiary of that same ‘feminine’ nurturing and domestic care-taking? What if two women take turns caring for each other, domestically and emotionally, as partners? Does such a care-taking arrangement cease to count as ‘femininity’? Why or why not? Do all expressions of ‘femininity’ necessarily have a beneficiary? If so, are there rightful or noble beneficiaries versus fraudulent beneficiaries? And finally, what role if any does the female actor’s intent play in the execution of the so-perceived ‘feminine’ behavior?

Feminist analysis should further ask what harm is caused to women and what sacrifices are made by women who voluntarily express feminine characteristics as clocked by external observers. Do women lose time, energy, money, care, attention, respect, or something else? Are we spending limited or unlimited resources? How much is too much? Do we gain anything in return? If I sacrifice time, energy, and life force attending to other women’s problems, but seem to get nothing in return, should I stop? After how long? Should I ignore the emotional distress of other women because my desire/compulsion to attend to their feelings is–or might be– a result of my own feminine social conditioning from birth? Most importantly, what would happen to our relationships with other women if we refused to engage in any ‘feminine’ interactions with them? I shudder to think.

Women often have stronger, more fulfilling relationships with other women than they do with men– including husbands, sons, and fathers. Women have been conditioned to practice sympathetic emotionalism, sensitivity, nurturing, listening, and care-taking. I believe that women – both individually and collectively– can and do benefit from each others’ practice of certain forms of ‘femininity.’ By asserting this, I don’t intend to idealize all women or even to suggest that these feminine practices are always entirely conscious or voluntary. I am merely suggesting that some interpersonal skills coded as ‘feminine’ can and do help women build and sustain strong, mutually nourishing relationships with each other. These are relationships that we depend on for our personal survival in a patriarchal world. See Janice Raymond’s A Passion for Friends.

Further, behaviors-associated-with-women may also help us avoid the devastation of an anarchistic society where conditions are necessarily such that only the strongest survive. At the very least, some amount of care-taking– including the ability to nurture children– is critical to our survival as a species. Humans lack the claws, thick fur, and carnivorous fangs of many other mammals. Understanding this, humans must generate the skills to share resources and build community solidarity in order to sustain ourselves. This endeavor will require communication and cooperation with other humans over long periods of time (years). The social practices enabling dynamic, egalitarian communities should not be avoided or treated as less-than merely because they are associated with women, or with ‘femininity.’ We need these skills and these characteristics as much as we need some of the corresponding ‘masculine’-assigned characteristics such as independence, assertiveness, and rationality. These are human traits. We need all of them in different doses; their expression should not be restricted to certain kinds of people by virtue of  ‘gender’ or ‘sex.’ Nor should we evaluate them solely on that basis. Certain ‘feminine’ attributes– including sensitivity and diplomatic problem solving– hold value to us as humans despite our woman-hating, feminine-exploiting context.

To be both relevant and effective, feminist analysis should make a closer examination of the many diverse harms and benefits of ‘femininity.’  A deeper and more nuanced evaluation could help us better negotiate conflicts and express the full range of human emotion. And maybe we could do this without dismissing other women as weak, attention-seeking, or as capitulating to men.

Expressions of femininity are not sinful or necessarily anti-feminist if they do not result in harm to the self or others; and especially if they allow us to create stronger, more sustainable community bonds and personal connections with other women.

18 thoughts on “Femininity, revisited

  1. You have developed some seriously excellent questions, thank you!! I have been wondering about these things myself, in relation to something else, and really didn’t know where to start. These questions are perfect, woohoo thank you again!! ❤

  2. To add to this post, I’d like to point out one other thing that, like pink, are associated with women, but should not be shunned accordingly:


    Not harmful (unless you’re allergic), and actively worth celebrating by all humans (male & female).

  3. Thanks, Missa Ndrea. I think they’re important questions, too! And the answers are complicated, so that’s why I didn’t propose particualr solutions. But thinking about them is a good start. I’m all about “intellectual arrogance, the supreme hubris which asserts to itself the right to reorder the world”— LOLOL! In my polka dot cardigan, thank you very much.

  4. I once read a post by a “political lesbian” who for reasons which were incomprehensible to me decided in her middle age to adopt a more “butch” appearance. She seemed to think (and unfortunately she might have been correct) that it would lend her more credibility or “authority” critiquing Jendur in the feminist community. (I’ve seen other feminists do this: super-feminine women who claim OR ASPIRE TO butch oppression in some strange attempt to authenticate their feminist work.) At any rate this woman in her post described how she had to go around and physically remove all razors in the house in order to resist the overwhelming urge to shave her body hair. I was really struck by that. I thought: Just fucking shave! Be comfortable! Why should a woman suffer being that uncomfortable and deny her own comfort even if said comfort is a result of Jendur programming? What difference does her personal armpit hair make in the history of women’s liberation? None.

    But she aspired to be a “radfem leader” and as such she felt obliged to “model” some sort of femininity-noncompliant image, even at the cost of her own daily comfort. She felt that the personal adoption of femininity-noncompliance in personal grooming was “more feminist” than her own daily comfort. I disagree that women should “aspire” to model butch lesbians (who don’t fight urges to shave because they just don’t have them to begin with). I disagree that being butch is a more feminist way of being, or a more authentic way of being. I disagree that eschewing superficial fashion and grooming and haircut norms confers feminist authority. I disagree that butch women are more feminist than other women. Do we have a unique experience and perspective? Yes. That is why there is a word to describe our experience: Butch.

    Butch is not a fashion. Butch is not a Jendur. Butch is not an identity. “Male lesbians” are not Butch. Butch is not a fashion for political lesbians to adopt. Some women are naturally “not feminine”. This has nothing to do with feminism (except for the fact that such women are attacked and discriminated against). Just be yourself for christssakes, even if that self is formed in some way by misogynist culture. High heels are oppressive but exchanging them for neckties is not liberatory. Have you ever worn a necktie? That shit is a noose.

    The funny (?) thing is that the feminists who adopt a “more butch” persona because they believe that butch is a superior state of being (unlike actual butches who give less than a fuck) are often the most butch-hating genderist assholes around. The reason is that these feminists believe that butch women are like them: prioritizing and adopting femininity-noncompliance. We aren’t. We don’t. That is why you can spot a butch in childhood. We are just being ourselves. Being comfortable. No self-sacrifice or agonizing over shaving needed. Agonizing over grooming practices, or femininity, or avoiding femininity, means less than a fuck to butch dykes. Do what makes you comfortable women. Our individual choices are a matter of personal preference. Jesus Christ give women some room.

    Normal personal variations are minutely policed and violently enforced based on sex through the mechanism of Jendur. It is important for women to examine and reject those qualities that have been beaten into us against our wills. But it makes sense that the personal characteristics we all have naturally are …personal. Some of us are utilitarian. Some of us are dandys. Some of us are soft. Some of us are hard. Some find corduroy distasteful. Crinoline repels others. Some love machines. Some love plants and hate machines. Some like both. Or not. Some like babies. Some think babies are gross. Absent Jendur we would all still have various unique styles and personalities and proclivities. One is not better than the other. As a butch lesbian I find JENDUR HIERARCHIES AMONG WOMEN to be OFFENSIVE BEYOND WORDS. FUCK YOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU WHO DO THAT! And ESPECIALLY fuck “feminists” that do it.

    DOUBLE-FUCK feminist posers who privilege superficially “masculine” fashions while framing butch dykes as a “Jendur”. FUCK YOU ALL THE LIVE LONG DAYYYYY. YOU MAKE ME SICK!

  5. You must have read my mind! I was thinking of doing a blog post along similar theoretical lines very soon but got stuck on another subject.

    I still have some points to add, in particular, in relation to the ways in which personality traits have been artificially “gendered” and the relationship between that socialization and the radical feminist movement. I shall now be quoting you when I come to write it (with your permission).

    It’s an important topic for us to explore. Glad you’re exploring it.

  6. What do you think about the use of femininity to create sexual difference? (this idea is from Jeffreys’ Beauty and Misogyny.) Aspects of femininity like leg-shaving and favouring of pink mark women as lower status, even though they don’t actually harm our health.

  7. Hi, Catherine! Sorry for all of these words, but…

    Yes, sexual difference is substantially enabled (and exaggerated) by particular feminine practices that highlight the most basic and fundamental social distinction in our world: are you a man? or are you a woman? And of course, being marked as female is a demotion in status from that of the male.

    I don’t believe, however, that feminist elimination of feminine markers would eliminate sex-based *difference*–social or otherwise– because many people are clearly female. They are very petite, or have large breasts, or hourglass figures, or soft jaw lines and full pouty lips. Some people can easily be androgynous, but others simply cannot. So it is not ONLY femininity that creates that immediately recognizable *difference* between males and females. Femininity exaggerates it, but does not entirely create it. We have to account for this natural inevitability (sex identification by external observers) and structure society accordingly.

    I’m arguing that false associations (gendered constructs) should be recognized as such. Yes, we must tread carefully because we understand that social judgment via false association brings major baggage to said thing.

    BUT we run the risk of discarding valuable practices and characteristics if our primary criteria is: “if the man likes it, I hate it/don’t do it.” I think the behavioral examples are the most persuasive here because, obviously, we can LIVE without pink. Or long hair. Or leg shaving. These aesthetic/grooming/appearance things are not necessary to our happiness/survival.

    My suggestion is that we take the time and energy to evaluate the harm/benefit trade-off of EACH and every manifestation of femininity. Generalizations are easy, but they aren’t appropriate here. It’s an exercise in figuring out what “best practices” look like in various different contexts– because context matters. It gets very complicated. Do you want to deconstruct one of the examples you gave?

  8. Gallus, thank you for your long and thoughtful comment about artificializing “butch” as the most authentic way of being a feminist.

    I am not butch, of course, but I agree that there are some women (even irrespective of sexuality) who simply refuse to adapt to femininity– es, even as young children. I don’t know why these girls reject it or what it “means” to them as individuals, but their rejection cannot be denied and it should be respected. We respect it by refusing to layer political intention onto it. Just like political lesbianism: BE YOURSELF AND STOP POSTURING.

    Normal personal variations are minutely policed and violently enforced based on sex through the mechanism of Jendur. It is important for women to examine and reject those qualities that have been beaten into us against our wills. But it makes sense that the personal characteristics we all have naturally are …personal. Some of us are utilitarian. Some of us are dandys. Some of us are soft. Some of us are hard. Some find corduroy distasteful. Crinoline repels others. Some love machines. Some love plants and hate machines. Some like both. Or not. Some like babies. Some think babies are gross. Absent Jendur we would all still have various unique styles and personalities and proclivities. One is not better than the other. As a butch lesbian I find JENDUR HIERARCHIES AMONG WOMEN to be OFFENSIVE BEYOND WORDS.

    Hell yeah. Political analysis of coercive social forces should not morph into prescriptive mandates that necessarily create a hierarchy of jendur. Me good, you bad.

  9. Id say not just gendered roles but the assignment of value to those roles based on gender do we value nurturing in the home more or less by gender? Do we reassess value of nurturing when it is done by a man?

  10. Thanks for your reply, Bess. I’m totally with you on the behavioural aspects of femininity – in fact I remember your post about that from your old blog and I liked it then, too. I also really like the way you suggest evaluating each particular aspect of femininity.

    I’m more interested in the non-behavioural aspects of femininity. Given that they are often not in themselves harmful, but do help to create sexual difference, uphold stereotypes for the sexes, etc. etc., is there any value in resisting them, even when it goes against really strong feelings of preference – as in the example Gallus gave with the woman having to hide the razor? Or is this always a personal choice: something which may or may not benefit one’s own life, but has no wider political value?

    Personally, I have found myself unable to perform pretty much all beauty practices etc. since I developed a feminist critique of them; I find them humiliating and degrading – because they create sexual difference and I feel marked as belonging to a lower status when I do that stuff. But I don’t see it making any changes to anything around me. An argument commonly given is that it shows other women that there is an alternative way to be, but I’ve never observed that happening in my own life, though it may have more subtle effects, who knows? And a further question: if, theoretically, a lot of women were to abandon non-behavioural, non-beneficial aspects of femininity, would the decrease in sexual difference emerging as a result have any effect?

    Basically this is just me trying to see where your arguments about feminism vs. lifestylism go. Thanks for listening!

  11. Also what I was trying to say (feel free to combine this comment with the above if you like) is that I’m wondering if it is enough to consider whether aspects of femininity are harmful in and of themselves – maybe their contribution to creating sexual difference should be one of the things considered. So all aspects of femininity contribute to creating sexual difference, but for those that are neutral or negative (e.g. long hair and makeup respectively) their role in creating sexual difference could be considered as (another) thing weighing against them.

  12. Hi Tek,
    Yes, we value nurturing differently in men than in women. Men who take care of children are considered heroic. Women’s care taking of children is considered commonplace and unremarkable; expected in many cases. The act of nurturing should be valued for itself, not according to the actor who performs it. That’s what I’m saying here.

  13. Hi again, Catherine!
    Where my arguments go, lol! Well, I think you mentioned a few important points about non-behavioral or aesthetic feminine practices. First, I don’t think it’s totally a personal choice or that it has no political *relevancy.* We are clearly conditioned to enjoy certain things. Leg shaving is a good example, it’s totally weird and unnatural. That kind of social coercion should be examined and criticized. Especially when the idea is that hairy legs–on women ONLY– are gross! I mean, that’s ridiculous. But the harm of shaving itself is negligible compared to most other feminist issues (rape, murder, femicide, prostitution,

    You also said that you don’t see your rejection of beauty practices making any changes to anything around you. I think you mean that you aren’t treated in a more favorable/less degrading manner by others. I believe this is the double-bind that women are in: damned if you do, damned if you don’t! Rejecting femininity it doesn’t substantially improve your social status. See:butch. Which leads one to think: what’s the point, then, of trying to avoid being marked as a woman via femininity? I shrug my shoulders and order another drink. I see no reason to bother.

    Next, no, I don’t see women picking up my “alternate way of being” as an example they want to emulate. I don’t seem them refusing to dye their hair just because I sport my significant silver like a bad ass. Nor do I see them throwing out their make up and heels just because they don’t see me wearing them. As you say, maybe there are more subtle effects, but I mean, how do you measure that or even TEST/confirm that an effect actually IS taking place? You can’t. So there is little wisdom in relying on a lead-by-anti-feminine-example technique as political activism or considering it politically effective.

    And finally, I think this is the most important question: “if, theoretically, a lot of women were to abandon non-behavioural, non-beneficial aspects of femininity, would the decrease in sexual difference emerging as a result have any effect?”
    I really don’t think that sex-based social difference would decrease. At least, not substantially or enough to make a real dent in the inequality problem (aka patriarchy!). Unless we can prove otherwise, I think it’s a real waste of time. And it’s divisive. And victim-blaming. I think we need to attack gender ideologically and institutionally, not by personal asceticism. Criticize the practice *where appropriate* but do not put expectations on women as individuals.

  14. Response to Catherine’s second comment. I think that concern is valid. That’s what I was trying to get at here: “Yes, we must tread carefully because we understand that social judgment via false association brings major baggage to said thing.” But…I guess I find that the negative of highlighting sex-based *difference* in itself (without some additional negative) rarely outweighs an objective positive–even just “because I want to.” For the reasons I explained in my comment directly above. And because *difference* cannot be entirely eliminated. Not for women who are clearly female no matter what they do. We need a full class solution.

  15. Elizabeth, thanks for the topic and convo! I have just found your blog, and have been hungrily devouring it, along with Gallus’, FCM’s, dirt’s, and a few others. I’m being nourished in ways I didn’t know were possible, and am just so grateful.

    You said: “if, theoretically, a lot of women were to abandon non-behavioural, non-beneficial aspects of femininity, would the decrease in sexual difference emerging as a result have any effect?”

    I think the answer to this would be no. I have seen a great increase in the number of fulltime visible butches since the ’70s, but there seems to be no corresponding effect on the dynamic between women and males. The males’ attitudes toward/expectations of women are the same, at their core.

    And to Gallus, I can only say, brilliant! Butch is not something I play at or “adopt”, it is what I am, what I have always been. But ffs, it doesn’t put me higher on some feminist totem pole–or lower, either.

  16. Very interesting discussion. I live in rural America where many women dress quite similarly to men — sneakers or workboots, jeans, T-shirts — and there is no diminishment of sex roles, no lessening of male violence, no lessening of female victimization. But a funny story regarding clothing comes out of Cambridge Goddard in the 1970s. A friend was a student there and she must have worked in the office; she looked in the personnel files and found that the feminists in the program had written criticisms of the African-American office worker because she wore brightly colored dresses instead of The Uniform: jeans, workboots, T-shirts. How depressing human beings can be.

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