Feminism vs. Femininity

July 12, 2011

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

As a result of the feminist revolution, “feminine” becomes an abusive epithet. 

Wyndham Lewis


My recent post challenging women to “try on” more femininity this summer elicited a variety of extremely interesting responses from women. I thought I’d highlight some of them, because they demonstrate clearly how women have been conditioned to respond to the word feminine.

“If someone doesn’t already act that way, it’s probably not in their nature.”

“What if I’m not interested in living my life for men, why the fuck should I care about these ‘rules’ for being feminine?”

“When I have a baby I will nurture that baby. A grown ass man can go to his mother for nurturing if that’s what he needs.”

“Feminine tone of voice? What the fuck is that? “Yes I’d love to make you dinner while rubbing your feet after your long day at work. Oh my poor, poor man!” Um…no.”

“I remember when I was much younger, I used to think that it was more important to behave like a tomboy, because it seemed like everybody in the movies/mass media gave attention to those girls. They were the independent, rough-and-tumbleweed sort of girls who men found adorable and, once they received male attention, blossomed into feminine creatures.”

“A few years ago, I worked part-time as staff in my school’s gym, and one of my co-workers remarked that I was probably the most feminine girl out of everyone we worked with. I took it as a semi-insult because in my mind, feminine = weak and flirty-stupid. I thought he wasn’t taking me seriously as a person.”

“Androgyny makes me happy; femininity feels like I’m in drag for my own damn gender…So, no, not all women are “naturally” feminine.”

“Women are different, not all women want to act feminine all the time. What we perceive today as feminine is a social construction from a long time ago, it doesn’t really exist.”

“There is absolutely nothing shameful or demeaning about being feminine. At all. I think for a while now being feminine is being perceived as being weak and inferior. You can be strong yet feminine, and equal at the same time.”

“To be or not to be feminine comes down to a choice women have to make regarding which is more important, to be a “silly woman” or to be taken seriously. The way I was raised, I learned that having a job is more important than having a man, that you can only count on yourself.”

“To me, being feminine is beyond behavior or dress. It’s being more in touch with my own emotions. For a long time I believed that men didn’t like women who cried or got upset. Turns out some emotional vulnerability is not only attractive, but required in a genuine, intimate relationship.”


As you can see, there is considerable confusion about the concept of the feminine among contemporary young women, as well as decidedly different political philosophies.

Those who view society through the backdrop of hegemonic masculinity believe that “Femininity is constructed around adaptation to male power. Its central feature is attractiveness to men, which includes physical appearance, ego-massaging, suppression of “power” emotions such as anger, nurturance of children, exclusive heterosexuality, sexual availability without sexual assertiveness, and sociability.”

Laura Kipnis writing in Slate about American women’s obsession with fat, despite feminist efforts to abolish fat shaming:

“Femininity is a system that tries to secure advantages for women, primarily by enhancing their sexual attractiveness to men. It also shores up masculinity through displays of feminine helplessness or deference. But femininity depends on a sense of female inadequacy to perpetuate itself. Completely successful femininity can never be entirely attained.

Feminism, on the other hand, is dedicated to abolishing the myth of female inadequacy. It strives to smash beauty norms, it demands female equality in all spheres, it rejects sexual market value as the measure of female worth. Or that was the plan. Yet for all feminism’s social achievements, what it never managed to accomplish was the eradication of the heterosexual beauty culture, meaning the time-consuming and expensive potions and procedures—the pedicures, highlights, wax jobs on sensitive areas, “aesthetic surgery,” and so on. For some reason, the majority of women simply would not give up the pursuit of beautification, even those armed with feminist theory…Will femininity continue to beat down the feminist challenge? It’s been remarkably tenacious to date.”

In other words, femininity cannot be conditioned out of us, because it is part of our nature. Like it or not, women do want to look and act female, we just don’t know how.  One new study shows that perceptions of masculine = tough and feminine = tender are hard-wired in the brain.

“A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds these stereotypes have some real bodily truth for our brains; when people look at a gender-neutral face, they are more likely to judge it as male if they’re touching something hard and as female if they’re touching something soft.”

My generation was actively discouraged from femininity – we were taught that “feminine wiles” were a shameful way of getting what one wanted. When I was about 15, my mother attended an “Assertiveness Training” seminar, quite a popular thing for housewives to do in 1971. After that, scenes like this were commonplace at our house:

Dad: I’m home! What’s for dinner?

Mom: Are you not capable of roasting a chicken? Will you starve if I don’t get every goddamn meal for you?

Dad: (utterly bewildered) I’ve been at the office all day…

Mom: Oh, look at the breadwinner, kids! Here’s the man who has all the fun, all the power in this house!

Dad walks to the dining room and pours himself a martini, no vermouth. Mom runs a hot bath and scrawls “Bastard!” on the mirror with lipstick.


Yeah, that was a bad time. I am Sally Draper.

Are you surprised that my generation of women has not even understood whether or how to teach our daughters to enjoy their natural femininity? It has largely vanished from American culture.

Check this email I got from a reader yesterday:

As a 23 year old girl (woman?) I appreciate your blog greatly.  In reflecting on my relations with boys (men?) in my college years, your writing has brought much clarity to my previously-unexamined life.

In particular, I’ve been struggling with embracing femininity.  I was raised as a competitive, proud, tomboy, and while there are plenty of wonderful things I’ve gotten from that (work ethic, team-player, yadda yadda yadda), femininity is not one.  I didn’t know what conditioner was until I got to college, and I didn’t start wearing makeup until I entered the work force a year ago.

Your challenge to be more feminine struck a chord with me, as I’ve been inching that way on my own.  I’ve started dance lessons (and I’m still a horrible follow), and I’m growing out my hair and nails.  That and the cooking.

So I think I’ve got a better grasp on how to look feminine, and maybe of feminine grace, but I am really clueless about how to “talk” like a woman or be subtle, and I’m about as emotionally perceptive as a rock.  I work in the male-dominated field of engineering and the women I work with are, well, practically men.  You wouldn’t believe the way my boss (f) sneers when I wear a (below the knee, gray, pencil) skirt to work!

What I’m getting at is that I don’t really have any feminine role models.  I know that term sounds silly (what am I twelve?) but I was hoping you might have some suggestions: books or movies or places to meet feminine women?

That’s a really good question – my mind immediately flies to Jane Austen – yes, her characters are nearly 200 years old, but they knew how to be female in a way that we do not. I’m not talking about playing the pianoforte or embroidering tapestry – Austen’s heroines conduct themselves with grace and dignity. She also gives us plenty of examples of unfeminine women – Lydia Bennet (silly and graceless), Elizabeth Eliot (selfish and shallow), Augusta Elton (obnoxious and domineering), just to name a few.

I’m hard-pressed to think of an answer for real life. I think we have to find examples wherever we can, and we need to look to women “of a certain age.” Today I was visiting at a local hospital, and while waiting I had an opportunity to observe a large group of women – nurses, physicians, administrators. There was a nurse who looked like a trucker, and spoke like one. There was a woman doc who had the demeanor of someone sniffing something decidedly unpleasant (a real possibility, I admit).

There was one nurse who stood out. She was very feminine. I watched her for a while to determine what set her apart. She wore scrubs, but instead of baggy blue ones, had on slim black pants and a dark green fitted top with snaps. She wore small earrings. She had on no make up, but she looked very clean and fresh. She was smiling, and she interacted with visitors and staff in a cheerful and warm way. There was nothing loud about her, nothing aggressive. She was in her mid-60s, I’d guess. She shone in comparison to all the other women. I hope I can do as well in ten years.


Meanwhile, fellow blogger Bbsezmore took up the Summer Femininity Challenge and filed her first and second field reports today! First, she planned an outing with two friends, including lunch and shopping.

“We had a great time at lunch, enjoying the food and each other’s company. Afterward we went next door to a clothing shop and wandered around. It contained three things that caught my eye: Entre Nous (a book about finding your inner French Girl), and two summer dresses that were modern interpretations of mid-century dresses. They were extremely feminine. The black one had a half-petticoat underneath (!) and the plum dress had ruffles.

It occurs to me that a woman could do worse than study French women for lessons in femininity. They make it look effortless – it’s not of course, but that’s the point. They learn the art of femininity from infancy.

I tried both the dresses on, and thought they worked well. Kate approved of the black dress. Farah approved the plum dress. I bought both, along with Entre Nous

Bb has promised future installments in her quest for femininity, and BbMan is looking forward to the experiment. Sounds like things are already heating up at the Bb house. Check out the FR#1 here and FR#2 here. (Tip: in Field Report 2 Bb helpfully summarizes the key points of Entre Nous.)

I’m not qualified to give advice on how to be feminine. I’m guilty of having nurtured the feisty tomboy persona myself. That’s why I’m all ears when men describe what femininity is and why they value it. It’s clear they know it when they see it. In closing, I’ll share with you reader detinennui32’s first of 10 Commandments for Women:

1. Thou shalt cultivate a feminine demeanor and bearing. Thou shalt not try to be, look like, or act like a man. Thou shalt observe and obey this Commandment above all others.

This is the key point, it seems to me. Don’t be anything like a dude. Be the opposite. I really believe it will feel like coming home.