Thoughts on Femininity and Feminism

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On Facebook today, “Muslim Feminists” asked the question, “What makes you feel feminine?” Apparently there was a discussion about this on a radio show and the women who called in said everything from dangling earrings to being on their periods.

I commented that I feel feminine when I get dressed up to go somewhere. And I feel maternal (which I suppose is a  subset of femininity) when I’m around children (including my own, who are grown). But the rest of the time I feel androgynous. I happen to believe that gender behavior is largely socialized and that somehow I missed out on the training.

But when I thought about it more, I realized that while I don’t feel particularly “girlie,” I do feel like a woman. And I feel more like one the older I get. It’s as if I feel like I’ve earned the designation by all that I’ve been through: puberty, menstruation, PMS, sex, relationships, marriage, birth control, abortion, pregnancy, childbirth, mothering and menopause.

But I don’t think I really started to feel like a woman until I became a feminist. There’s something about being aware of the injustices done to women that makes you begin to identify with them. And that’s not even counting the sense of pride you feel when you realize what women are capable of and have been able to accomplish, despite forces that try to keep them down.

Gender identity is a double-edged sword. If your entire being is wrapped up in your gender identity, it’s easy to feel discouraged when you don’t live up to society’s expectations. But if you don’t identify with your gender at all, you lose a significant part of what makes you feel both unique and part of a group.

(And that’s not even taking into account how you feel if you don’t fit into the gender construct assigned to you at birth.)

Another thing that occurred to me is that no matter what your gender identity is, there are times when you feel like the opposite gender. What if the radio host had asked men what makes them feel feminine? Or women what makes them feel masculine? How many of us embrace the parts of ourselves that don’t fit into our assigned gender?

I can see why some women don’t like to identify as feminists. They think that doing so sends the message that they care too much about their gender identity. They would rather feel free to express both masculine and feminine traits. Or, more typically, they prefer to call themselves “humanists.” (The author Alice Walker is a case in point.)

There’s something to that argument. But it also misses the point of feminism. Feminists are not saying that women are best. It’s not a form of female chauvinism. What they are saying is that we need to collectively support and assist our gender to achieve its highest potential as human beings. So in a sense all feminists are humanists. And all humanists should be feminists.

When do I feel feminine? When I take pride in being a woman, in doing things only a woman can do. But I also feel feminine when I exhibit the gender behaviors that society approves of. The real question is: how much of my sense of femininity is determined by positive forces and how much by negative ones?  Do I only feel feminine when I’m weak and submissive? Or do I feel feminine from a position of strength and self-actualization?

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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