As a female I'm personally invested in understanding femininity as well as living expansively within that aspect of my identity.
Journey of Discovery
Femininity has been a continuous journey of discovery for me, though often a journey of denial and heartache. And I know that I haven’t completed this journey either, so my understanding of femininity is incomplete. For a long time I’ve had a rather truncated view of femininity, with only a poor impression of what it encompasses. I long thought that femininity necessitated wearing dresses, daintiness, emotional fragility, weakness, and submission, among other negative associations. I was unable to see much of the richness or fullness of what being a woman really means; I saw primarily weakness and bondage.
Over the years as I’ve talked with many women about this topic, been in a fulfilling romantic relationship, and challenged myself to expand my definition of feminine expression, I’ve been able to grow into a healthier and more satisfying femininity. This doesn’t mean that I paint my nails or love wearing pink now (I don’t and no thanks), however, I don’t feel like a weirdo wearing a dress, I don’t feel subjugated when cooking my partner dinner, and I feel more empowered for being sensitive rather than enfeebled. I’ve found that femininity is much more nuanced than I ever recognized. Every woman, though sharing feminine roots (basic, underlying qualities), will express her femininity quite uniquely from the next, as we acknowledge personality and temperament differences. So what do those feminine roots look like? I can only address this monolith of a topic as far as my experience, knowledge, cultural influences, and biases allow. Geronimo!
The dictionary defines femininity as:
1. Of or relating to women or girls.
2. Characterized by or possessing qualities traditionally attributed to women.
I believe the dictionary definition seems so vague because what is considered feminine will vary widely depending on the time period, location, and culture. My idea of femininity has been heavily shaped by my country, my family, the era in which I’ve lived, etc. Thus I want to further qualify my descriptions as non-universal ideas. That being said, I do believe that there are absolute rights and wrongs, and I think that some cultures are wrong in the way they view, treat, and define women. So, although my thoughts may not be perfectly adaptable everywhere, I think they are a healthy foundation for myself and many other women.
The three main “roots” that I see as defining markers of femininity are gentleness, empathy, and sensitivity. These are not just random selections, but are a result of melding my own brainstorming with outside references. Now, before the hackles go up, let me explain. Gentleness ≠ unopinionated. Empathy ≠ servility. And sensitivity ≠ emotional instability. They can mean those things, and often have in different cultures and centuries, but I don’t think a healthy femininity will include any of the latter. Let’s tackle them one by one.
Gentleness (Don't Kill Me for Saying It!)
Gentleness describes the way in which a situation is approached and how a person deals with it. Gentleness is the way you see little girls treat their dolls – with feather caresses and sweet kisses, with methodical swaddling and dulcet lullabies. It’s how mothers cuddle, soothe, and even discipline their children. It’s why women commit less violent crimes and take less risks than men.
Gentleness is the feminine yin to the masculine yang of aggression (not necessarily violence). It helps rein in impulsiveness and risk, increasing compassion and caution. It nurtures, soothes, and pacifies. If the qualities of masculinity are generally simplified to courage, independence, and assertiveness, there is a natural demand for equilibrium. Femininity and masculinity should be able to provide that for each other. Gentleness is often entwined with sensitivity, one leading easily into the other. E.g., If you are sensitive to injury you wish others to treat you with greater compassion and tend to treat others similarly.
It seems that gentleness has been losing its positive connotation, especially in relation to women, being replaced with scorn and resentment as the feminist movement has gained steam. There is a demand that men be gentler and women be more assertive. I’m all for women’s equal rights, but I’m not a fan of female and male homogeneity. Women and men are not the same, but this disparity still allows plenty of room for equality, compatibility, and beauty. Can’t we admit that there are some basic biological features that differ between men and women? E.g., Men have more testosterone and women more estrogen. The presence and amount of these hormones have a direct impact on physical and emotional differences in men and women (I will need to write a separate article for that. I don’t want to nerd out just yet.) If we can agree on these underlying facts, I hope we can extrapolate further into this conversation with a bit of suspension of disbelief to unite us.
Sensitivity (Don't Take It Personally)
The second characteristic I want to address is sensitivity. Again, I will recall to your mind that sensitivity ≠ emotional instability. This word often triggers ideas such as “touchy,” “thin-skinned,” or “weak.” However, I’ve come to view it as a valuable resource. Though there are still times when I wish that I was a bit less so, my sensitivity has inarguably aided me connect with and understand people on a deep level, across wide gulfs of age, culture, background, and personality. Sensitivity is at its core, awareness. It is a fine-tuned awareness of what is going on around you, not just on the surface but especially on the emotional plane. Sensitivity is a prerequisite to empathy -- the final characteristic I will touch on -- because in order to empathize with another you need to first have opened up your awareness to what they are feeling.
Of course, it nearly goes without saying that taking things personally is most often a mistake. Most of what anyone does/says is a reflection of their own state of being, their own perception, not of you. Unless you’re being an ass of course. Having a healthy level of sensitivity is like having a sieve with the right sized pores -- the good stuff is allowed in and the gunk is left outside. You’re less likely to fumble through life, bashing into people like a blind, delirious animal; instead you’ll recognize the limitations and talents of others, and be able to deescalate conflict and create diverse connections. This more natural feminine quality connects people while the correlating masculine quality - independence - autonomizes them. Again, balance.
Empathy (I Feel You)
The final quality I’m attending to is empathy; remember empathy ≠ servility. Empathy is one of the greatest forces of cohesion that mankind has in its favor. Being able to understand someone else’s viewpoint is integral to healthy communication, which in turn is integral to every relationship whether personal, communal, or global.
Women are more likely to react verbally than physically when angry, they have a greater tendency than men to relate to the pain or joy that another person experiences, and they spend more time communicating with others (especially other women) in order to understand how the other feels. Although this attribute has often been twisted into ammunition against women, I believe that it is a strength and asset. Effective relationships thrive on honest and vulnerable communication -- areas in which men are often under-encouraged -- and many women readily enable such correspondence. Why not embrace it? Pun intended.
Empathy doesn’t mean that you become the world’s vassal, captive to everyone’s feelings, guilty for their reactions, desperate to satisfy all. It should not entail being a doormat, or tethered to everyone’s whim and whistle. Rather, I believe it should bring about the development of healthy communication in relationships, business endeavors, and even global interactions. It should precipitate curiosity and social progress. Empathy is key for a prosperous life, society, and world.
In My Experience...
Having said all that I have on the subject, I propose that each woman find her own internal equanimity. Obviously all women will display these characteristics in varying degrees and forms. Great! It should be that way. But I don’t think that in pursuit of equality we should masculinize women, effeminize men, or make an androgynous mutation of both.
As for me, I grew up on a farm where everyone was expected to actively participate in making it run smoothly. Though I was never expected to physically pull as much weight as my brothers, growing up in a culture where masculine brawn was “rewarded” with tangible achievements and greater job opportunities, I internalized the idea that being female = being weak. I wanted to have the same respect and success as the men all around me. Even many of the religious tenets taught to me proliferated the idea of women being secondary to men, requiring submission and docility. I chafed under that yoke, yet still embedded those beliefs deep in my psyche. Thus I saw myself as weak and inferior to men. Though I’ve untangled some of those knots, I understand that my version of femininity is a representation of where I’ve come from, what I’ve experienced along the way, and my unique mentality of how to deal with all those things.
In this quest for understanding, I suggest that as our society and world experiments with gender and sexuality, we neither demonize masculinity nor idolize it. I suggest that we honestly examine ourselves for the healthiest balance of feminine and masculine traits we can achieve. Because, as I can personally attest, if we do not, not only will our personal identities suffer, but our relationships with others will degrade as we lose confidence in who we are, constantly questioning if we are acting according to someone else’s standards. No matter where you find yourself on the spectrum of femininity and masculinity, make sure it’s yours, and not an artificial imposition.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2016 Emily
Anonymous on September 14, 2019:
Really I think there needs to be a shift in cultural values. Elevating care and nurturing characteristics giving them the value they deserve. It's quite possible we'll need to create systemic change to do that because the market system that defines value in terms of dollar signs has a real tendency to hyper-inflate competitive behaviour, motivating people through rewards and punishments, gain and loss. Life is not a game as such, that the logic of the market would make people believe. Instead we need to honour the common good, working to uplift and nurture each other through valuing community. By recognizing these qualities men and women can embrace gentleness, sensitivity, and empathy. Then by doing that the world would be a much better place.
Antonymous on February 25, 2018:
Modern feminism says both so called feminine and masculine traits are actually more or less desirable traits that exist, in different proportions in most people, not mutually exclusive. The culture demonized the latter in women and the former in men to artificially inflate the difference and fit people in convenient, self limiting roles.
At that time, maybe feminism was less informed on gender identities and their interation with mandated gender norms.
Emily (author) from Oregon on September 14, 2016:
Thank you @kalinin1158. :D It's encouraging to hear another woman speak with pride about her own femininity, understanding the beauty and strength of those qualities. I appreciate your support as well!
Lana Adler from California on September 14, 2016:
Great article! Very thoughtful and astute. I have a lot to say on the subject, but the bottom line is: I agree with you that neither femininity nor masculinity need to be artificial constructs. We're all unique in how we express ourselves through our yin and yang energies, and neither one has to be demonized.
Unfortunately, in our culture feminine qualities are often considered weak or undesirable. But we need gentleness as much as we need courage, and we need sensitivity as much as we need assertiveness. The feminist movement, while pursuing absolute equality, tossed out feminine values in favor of the masculine ones, and that's unfortunate. In my opinion, the world's biggest problems - wars, poverty, mistreatment of the environment - stem from the fact that we prioritize masculinity over femininity, and until we regain that balance we will be spinning out of control.
And I like your interpretation of sensitivity as a form of awareness. Spot on! I'm sharing this.