Thoughts on Femininity and Feminism

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?

Genderless Child-Rearing II

Almost two years ago I wrote a post about genderless child-rearing which introduced a Swedish child named Pop who didn’t even know what sex s/he (it?) is. Now that s/he’s almost two years older I wonder how that’s turning out for him/her. Of course, s/he still hasn’t started school yet. That’s when it will really get difficult to maintain the pose that this child is genderless.

Yes, I wrote “the pose.” I could as easily have written “the fiction.” Because I think that’s all genderless child-rearing will ever be: a social experiment where one’s own child is the guinea pig.

Now there’s a new family in the news, this one from Toronto, Canada, which has decided to raise  its newest child gender-free. See the video below:

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89% of over 52,000 people who responded to a poll about this story thought that genderless child-rearing is a terrible idea. That doesn’t surprise the expert who was interviewed on the show because “most of us are conventional and like to put things in a box.” But is that the only reason we think children should be raised according to their genitalia?

You’d think a feminist would be all for this idea. After all, the most radical among us have argued that gender is nothing but a social construct. The logical conclusion of this belief is that a child who is raised gender-neutral will eventually pick his or her own gender identification. That’s what baby Storm’s parents believe. They got the idea to keep Storm’s sex a secret from the way their older children are responding to their parents’ willingness to let them decide what they like to do, wear, and play with. Their oldest son sometimes wear dresses. The youngest is often mistaken for a girl. The kids don’t seem to mind.

I might be a feminist, but I’m uncomfortable with this. Just because we often go too far in shaping gender identity (forcing trucks and baseball on boys and dolls and dance lessons on girls, for instance) doesn’t mean that knowing which sex you are is not an important part of your development. I think it’s enough to teach our boys that they can be  nurturing and our girls that they can be aggressive. To blot from our vocabulary the phrase, “Little boys/girls don’t do that.”

At the same time, I recognize that it’s awfully easy to slip into gender-imprinting behavior. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to. And the fiction won’t be sustainable once children hit puberty.

The real problem is that in our attempts to teach our children to identify with their sex, we teach them to dislike the opposite one. The worst epithet that males can hurl at each other is, “You’re such a girl.” Girls are taught that boys are smelly and dirty and loud  and that they in turn have to be fragrant, clean and quiet. If we could somehow convey to our children that the opposite sex is just as important, interesting and acceptable as they are, we’d go a long way toward erasing sexual discrimination.

In a way it’s easier to raise a child without gender than it is to teach our boys and girls that the opposite sex is not some kind of alien condition that they cannot possible relate to.

Let’s raise our kids to respect and enjoy each other no matter what sex they are. We need to prevent them from thinking that one sex is better than the other. If our kids ask, “What does it mean to be a boy/girl?” we can tell them that there’s very little difference between the sexes, except for their role in reproduction.

We don’t need to obliterate gender identity; we just need to expand it.



Does Pink Nail Polish on a Boy Create Gender Confusion?

You may be aware of the controversy over a mother painting her five-year-old son’s toenails neon pink in a recent J. Crew ad. One pundit called it “blatant propaganda celebrating transgendered children.” Psychologist and author Keith Ablow advises the mother to put money aside for her son’s future psychotherapy. Here, Jon Stewart weighs in on The Daily Show:

I wrote a post a couple of years ago about this topic (“Pink is for Girls“) but even then I didn’t seriously consider that people would cry “Transgender!” if a boy painted his toenails. (Or is it that they’re pink that’s the problem?) And what’s with all the blame being heaped on the mother for seeming to encourage this behavior?

One of my readers directed me to an article in Mother Jones about the “pink problem.” In it, the author points out that until the 1920s, the gender-assigned colors were reversed: pink was for boys and blue for girls. And boys used to be dressed like girls (long hair and all) until they graduated into short pants.

The fact is, there are many strands in the process of gender socialization and color is probably the least significant. How we talk to, handle and play with our children has more to do with how they perceive their gender. That’s why many parents with children who prefer to “cross-dress” don’t seem to be unduly concerned. Do a Google search on boys loving pink and you’ll be surprised at how many parents report that their perfectly normal boys are enamored with the color. There’s even a Facebook page titled “My Son Likes Pink.” Sarah Hoffman writes about her son looking great in a dress in a article.

Why are we so concerned about little boys dressing like girls and not the reverse? (Although there has been some media speculation about Shiloh Jolie-Pitt and her tomboy ways.) A woman has to go really butch to get people second-guessing her sexual identity, but all a man has to do is wear hot pink.

And these assumptions are buried deep. It’s the rare person who doesn’t feel discomfort at a man in a skirt, for instance. I once attended a blues concert where the performer wore a long pleated skirt throughout the entire show and I honestly didn’t know what to think of it. I’m still puzzled. (The performer never mentioned his attire.) But why should I be? Women wear pants, don’t they?

An alternate question might be, what harm does gender socialization do anyway? Isn’t it important for a child to be clear about his or her sexual identity? For one thing, small children might “know” their gender, but don’t view it as set in stone. Many children wish they were the opposite sex at some point in their development. Some even think they will change at a later date or that they’re free to choose. It’s not until a child hits preadolescence (ages 8-12) that his or her gender identification— and adjustment to it — becomes critically important.

Caring which way your child goes has more to do with discomfort about transgender and homosexuality than anything. Because the bottom line is, so what if your child identifies as the opposite sex, or is only attracted to the same sex? We do our children a great disservice when we force them into boxes they may not feel comfortable in.  (See tomorrow’s video, “The Man Box.”)





It’s Not Fun Being a Girl

I don’t eat Cap’n Crunch cereal and I don’t have little ones living with me anymore who might clamor for it, so I didn’t see these “trading cards” for kids on the back of the box until I read this post. At first glance they look innocuous; just silly cartoon characters made to appeal to little kids. But when you read the fine print, you discover that there’s a bit of gender indoctrination going on.

It’s not clear if Smedley is a boy or a girl, but it seems safe to assume that he’s male because of the information we’re given:

Name: Smedley
Age: 12 years
Height: 18′
Weight: 2 1/2 tons
Hobbies: Jumping rope and riding bikes
Greatest adventures: Jumping 15 cars on roller skates; escaping elephant hunters

However, there’s no doubt that Magnolia Bulkhead is female. Here are her “stats”:

Name: Magnolia Bulkhead
Age: How old do you think I am?
Height: 5’10
Weight: A woman never tells her weight
Hobbies: Daydreaming of Cap’n Crunch and his delicious cereal
Greatest Adventures: Almost marrying Cap’n and having him all to herself

I’m not sure if little girls would identify with Magnolia, because she isn’t svelte or pretty. But they are still being sent subtle messages about womanhood: a woman spends her time mooning about a man, she is too vain to tell her age or her weight for fear that either might count against her, her only hobby is to daydream about the man she’s got her eyes on, and her greatest adventure in life would be to get married. Not only that, but a woman’s desire for marriage is portrayed as grasping and selfish (“having him all to herself”). This only reinforces the idea marriage is a trap that women set and men try to avoid.

But the other thing these cards teach boys and girls is that it’s a heck of a lot more fun to be a boy. Boys get to jump rope and ride bikes and skate and have adventures. All girls get to do is sit around and wait for boys to notice them.  Oh, well, they can run, too—when they’re chasing boys!

I remember in grade school conferring with all my friends about which boys were the cutest and thinking up ways to get their attention. Even when I was in kindergarten I liked to dress up for a boy I had a crush on. (I even brought my purse to school one day, thinking that would impress him—make me seem more like a woman?— but he was home sick that day. I was so disappointed!). In the sixth grade my best friend and I would ride our bikes around the neighborhood all day, hoping to “accidentally” run into some boys. We never quite knew what we would do with them once we found them, but it seemed awfully important to try.

Meanwhile the boys were off playing sports or exploring the neighborhood, too busy having fun to pay attention to silly old girls.

What does it do to little girls when we tell them they’re supposed focus on boys instead of themselves?