How American Women Lost Their Femininity

January 12, 2011

The classic representation of femininity

I don’t know what femininity is. I was raised in an era when American girls were not taught to be feminine in their behavior. Femininity meant using wiles to trap a man into protecting and providing for you, something only a woman with no self-respect would attempt. The disdain of femininity was ushered in by feminism, predicated on the belief that biological differences, where they exist, should be minimized to allow women to prosper independently from men. This worked quite well for women who were not particularly interested in men. But women who longed for love and romance found themselves trying to get the job done with a shortfall of the qualities men find attractive.

What destroyed American femininity?

Susan Brownmiller, a feminist best known for her radical views on rape, wrote Femininity in 1984. Here’s how she defined it:

“Femininity is a nostalgic tradition of imposed limitations on women. Biological femaleness is not enough. Femininity always demands more…

One works at femininity by accepting restrictions, limiting one’s sights, by choosing an indirect route, by scattering concentration and not giving one’s all as a man would to his own, certifiably masculine interests. Femininity is a grand collection of compromises, large and small.”

She goes on to illustrate femininity as “whimsy, unpredicability, emotional patterns of thinking and behavior, including tearful expressions of sentiment and fear,” and notes that all of these behaviors lie “outside the established route to success.”

It’s no wonder that women of my generation did not cultivate our femininity. We were sexual, yes, but suppressed femininity, at school, at work, and in relationships. Not having developed that part of ourselves, when we became mothers we were hardly in a position to teach our daughters about it.

Sheila Rothman, in her 1978 book Woman’s Proper Place: A History of Changing Ideal and Practices, highlights how definitions of femininity have changed over time in America.

Late 19th century: The prevailing concept was of “virtuous womanhood.” Women organized into groups to combat society’s ills, e.g. the Temperance Movement.

Early 20th century: The ideal woman was an “educated mother,” learning and employing all the best available theories of child rearing.

1920-1960: The “wife companion” focused primarily on providing a sexual relationship to her husband, with less emphasis on child development.

1960: The introduction of “woman as person.” Feminists successfully argued that femininity was “an attempt to mold women in ways that are determined by men.”

There may be no stronger divide on femininity than between Americans and the French. In 1920, a Frenchman offered the toast, “Vive la difference!,” which has become the caption that sums up the French appreciation of the differences between the sexes. Kathleen Woodward, in her book French Late-Style Femininity and American Feminism, summed it up this way:

French women tend to wax poetic, fatalistic, and serene, while Anglo-Saxon women tend to wax angry, energetic, and political.

I don’t know about French women, but her description of American women is right on. Born shortly before the Women’s Movement, I have never considered myself particularly feminine – I was always more the feisty tomboy type. I did OK, probably because with a shortage of feminine women around, guys had little choice but to recalibrate their attraction triggers and select from a fairly androgynous pool of females. When I was in college, typical clothing for women students included overalls, painter’s pants, army pants and surgical scrubs. We literally hid our bodies under shapeless garments. And this was in a sorority!

For women of my generation, pursuing the feminine ideal meant turning away from female role models (including our mothers) and toward Madison Avenue, which never stopped selling beauty. The beauty culture provided ways for us to look female and we spent enormous sums on cosmetics, fashion, and plastic surgery. Starving oneself became a way to look fragile, vulnerable, and terribly in need of both protection and provisions. To some extent, this addressed the problem of not looking female, but could not alter the fact that feminine behavior was still politically unpalatable in American culture.

Women in the 80s learned that they could attract male attention by participating in wet t-shirt contests, and by the new millenium femininity meant flashing one’s bare breasts for the TV crews of Girls Gone Wild. Today women display their feminine assets by making out with other chicks for the entertainment of guys, showing as much flesh as possible when they go out, and grinding into guys’ junk every chance they get. Yet many men argue that this aggressive form of sexuality is anything but feminine.

For women, the problem with this approach is that it is not getting them what they want, beyond short-term sexual validation from the male. By aggressively displaying their biological difference, they’ve gone from 0 to 60 mph without any of the art, or “wiles” their great grandmothers used to draw men in, both physically and emotionally. It’s no real achievement to give a guy wood, but to engage his curiosity and pique his interest, and to encourage that interest over time to comprise emotional investment is far more difficult.

What is femininity and how can we recapture it?

In nearly every culture on earth, femininity and masculinity are opposites. They exist on a continuum, and there is considerable variation in the natural population. No straight man wants to be perceived as effeminate, and no straight woman can bear the thought of coming across as manly. However, research does show that prenatal hormones influence brain development, which will influence behavior. Female fetuses exposed to higher levels of testosterone in utero are more likely to exhibit masculine behaviors from birth, and the reverse is also true.

As always, nature plays a role. But femininity can be cultivated to reflect your values and priorities. It can communicate enormous self-confidence as well, as you embrace being feminine, and refuse to be ashamed of “acting like a girl.”

Today women aren’t just complementary to men – we’re also frequently in direct competition. However, being feminine doesn’t mean being weak and dependent. It means embracing your identity as a woman. I believe that smart, strong women can be very feminine.

Is femininity an attitude? A set of qualities? A certain style of behavior?

As a woman, how do you define femininity? Do you aspire to it?

As a man, what does femininity look like in a woman? What feminine qualities do you want in a a partner?

In my next post, I’ll explore the specific qualities of femininity, and how to practice them. I would welcome and appreciate input from all of you in the Comments!