Monday, September 12, 2011

Masculine and Feminine

Thanks to a Friday night conversation, my mind has been on these words all weekend. I'd really like to get a discussion going, but to being I'd just like to know how you all define these words and what images or attributes they bring to mind:

Masculine, Feminine, Womanhood, Manhood, Feminist, and "Gender roles".

You can respond either in the "comments" section, or by sending me an e-mail at



  1. I'm going to think about it and email you :)

  2. Yay! I'm just thrilled I got a response! I'm looking forward to reading it!

  3. Ooh, fun. Possibly explosive, but fun. :)

    My love for gender differences and complementarities extends even to an affection for the pronouns he and she. I love the thousands of images they can raise. But don't think I'm all football players vs. frills about it. While the word masculine makes me think first of strength and the word feminine makes me think first of beauty, I do quite a bit of thinking about the strength of women and the beauty of men.

    Also, I rarely like frills.

    Perhaps it's the way I grew up, but feminist makes me think first of women who seem to despise men and traditionally male strengths and tendencies. Gender roles refers my mind to the debate over said roles, which I don't enjoy at all.

    Womanhood and manhood suggest to me concepts of what it means to be masculine or feminine.

  4. I think it's fascinating that "gender roles" brings to your mind the debate and not the roles themselves. I think that might be a sign that (at least in some circles) the debate has become more important than the object of debate, which is a bad sign. Have you read Kathleen Norris' The Quotidian Mysteries? (have I asked that before?) she talks about writing an article on hanging laundry and how it sparked a debate about whether laundry was an appropriate topic for an emancipated woman to write on, but it also sparked a lot of conversation, amoung women and men, about laundry traditions and the healing aspect of daily tasks. I think you'd like the book.

    I agree that the words, especially masculine and feminine can bring to minds thousands of images and thoughts. Out of those thousand though, what do you think are some positive and negative ones that stand out to you? Strength, for men could be a positive or negative, beauty -in my opinion can only be positive.

    My relationship with the word feminist is kind of complex, at the end of this discussion, I might post a whole blog on it...

    Luckily, I don't think I have enough responders to make it explosive, but I'm looking forward to learning a bit either way!

  5. You're onto something with that point about the debate having become more important than the roles themselves. I am so over that whole thing. I haven't read the Norris book; it sounds great though. The idea of healing aspects of daily tasks is beautiful.

    I think strength only becomes bad when paired with things like aggression or control. But then, even beauty becomes twisted when a woman (or a man!) starts using it to get their own way at the expense of others. Or if the beauty itself doesn't, the once-beautiful person does. But then is strength bad, or is the strong person twisted when they become too aggressive? I think strength and beauty are both innately good things that can be used powerfully either for evil or for good.

    Here are a few of the images raised for me, positive first:

    The power of the male form lifting a weight that I can hardly move. The unearthly beauty of broad shoulders and sturdy hands at the piano. The craggy lines in the aging mountaineer's face. The father with the child on his shoulders. The restless animal energy that surfaces, now and then, even in the quietest men.

    The breathtaking loveliness of the female face and form. The strange awkward glory of pregnancy and birth. The tenderness of a woman caring for the young, the ill, the injured, the aged. The love for all things beautiful and the desire to spread beauty.

    The physical strength that woman cannot match, used by one man to protect, by another to abuse. The ability to lead and gain followers that men seem to possess far more often than women, no matter that women quite frequently outdo men in certain management skills.

    The strange mix of dependence and capability that exists inside nearly all women. The way couples' dances, when done properly, naturally spotlight feminine beauty and grace. The ferocity of the lioness lurking beneath even the gentle and the domestic spirit.

    Brutality, violence and rage. Physical abuse. Animalistic slavery to instinct and lust. The incredible darkness of some men; the willingness to hurt not only others but themselves, to the grief of mothers and lovers and daughters.

    Cattiness, unbelievable meanness, insatiability. The hater. The wearing monotony of nagging and morose moods. The extreme selfishness of the chronic flirt and the homewrecker.

    You'll find gender crossover with some of these qualities, of course. But it's still slightly different, tinged by innate masculinity or femininity.

    That's a start....

  6. I (heart) laundry. And Kathleen Norris. And this blog!

    I sent you an email with some answers, the main point of which was that I tried to be a Wiccan in high school but couldn't stomach the gender essentialism. Also, I had awesome parents. You know of what I speak.

    Basically, I don't think masculinity and femininity are very useful categories. They can be more or less harmless (e.g., "I'm going to wear a pretty dress and some earrings, yay") or actively harmful (when used as standards to suppress behavior-- "you can't have that; it's for girls" -- or stereotypes that obscure our understanding of other people or ourselves) -- and they can be just sort of generally useless, like horoscopes.

    I think we had a conversation along similar lines a while ago, about the importance of not having one standard of morality for women and one for men. The comic standard-bearer of this fallacy, in my mind, is that guy on Catholic Radio who so heartily disapproves of the tat-toos on the FE-males, but you get it in more subtle forms as well, obviously. When I see the pair "womanhood" and "manhood," I worry that someone might be about to make that kind of virtue-segregating claim-- which might not be entirely fair, but there you go.

    Feminism is a moral standard I try to live up to. Like all good moral standards, it basically boils down to "people are people; don't be a jerk." Like I said in my email, it's a term whose history is not 100% perfect, but it's decent enough shorthand for "women are human beings and this is important," so that's what I stick with in most cases.

    Gender roles -- I've got nothing. Maybe in the morning, eh?

  7. Jenna~
    Thanks for you images! I had a discussion recently about cattiness and moodiness that made me think a lot about Why these traits are so linked with women, because they are, I (like you) generally think of women when I think of them. Then I listen to the radio or read a woman's magazine and see all the little ways women are encouraged to be this way, and wonder what we would be like without the advertising. :) Same for men, I feel so bad for men, actually, because everything I see on the media puts them in the "dumb caveman", "ignorant frat-boy", or "not-so hot dork" catagories. And because close male friendships are generally discouraged. Thanks for giving me a lot to consider and starting all new trains of thought!

    I do know..awesome parents = failed Wiccan, it happened for me too. Though I think Wicca failed for me primarily because it lacked beauty..and made me feel like a dork. :)

    The morning's come and gone, where are my gender roles? :)

  8. Masculine - I always think of work, strong, silent, tender, fixing, protective.
    Feminine - soft, gentle, alluring, frilly, sensitive.
    Womanhood - I'm not too sure of these "hood categories. They may have applied years ago when woman had more of a set role in society. But today, I honestly would not want to be placed in a "hood" that I didn't check out first. Things have gotten so mixed -up & contrived that I would be cautious. A couple of generations ago, I think we could have had a good sense of these "hoods".

    Feminists - thoughts are - loud, angry, harsh, strong, selfish, & so on. I need to get back to you on this topic. Much to be said.

    "Gender roles" How comforting it is to know what you are created to do on this earth with the equipment supplied by God.

  9. Anonymous~

    Do get back to me on the feminist topic, it does seem to be the one producing the most reaction in people!

    I really liked your response to the 'hoods. From what others have said, you definitly aren't alone in being uncertain or uncomfortable with the terms.


  10. M, I know; more than one morning has gone by! But I honestly don't have much to say about "gender roles." I mean, I'm not sure what the topic even is in this case-- maybe that's the problem? It sounds very general to me.

    I can say that, again, I don't think gender is a sound basis for making judgments about what a person is going to be like or what their capabilities and interests are, any more than race or any other broad incidental category is a sound basis for making judgments.

    I also understand the flip side of this that Anonymous brought up, the idea of being comforted by certainty (When I was little, my favorite books of the Bible were the ones with all the rules). However, I'd be concerned about universalizing sources of comfort-- what makes one person feel safe is not necessarily going to be good for the next person. I think that can be a real stumbling block for some people -- that attitude of "Well, this worked for me, so I ought to make sure all my kids make the same choice," or even, "This worked for me, so anyone who doesn't want it for themselves is wrong and sad and I should pray for them to become less wrong and smile sadly at them when they talk about their lives!"

    (I don't mean to imply that you're saying anything like this, Anonymous! It is an attitude I have seen elsewhere).

    There's nothing wrong with doing things that are stereotypically masculine or feminine (as long as they're not trouble in themselves, like I don't know, getting into bar fights or something), and there's nothing wrong with not living up to the stereotypes, either. What's wrong is (as I said above) when stereotypes become normative, when you start saying to other people, "This is the wrong thing for you to do, because you're a boy and boys are X, Y, Z."

    As far as I can see the whole thing should have been settled a long time ago. Men are people, women are people, people are people. We're good at different things and have different personalities and faults and desires. Gender and attitudes toward gender can & does shape these things, but it doesn't (or shouldn't) contain or define them.

    But I don't know if that's even what you meant by gender roles! So tell me if I'm way off track, ok?

  11. P.S.!

    Jenna, I think it's really interesting that your first thoughts on these gender topics were so predominately physical. I don't know what it means, but it's interesting.

    Oh, and your hair looks great, by the way!

    M, I too balked at the inevitability of feeling like a dork in Wicca. But the real sticking point was when I was reading through S. Ravenwolf's Dedication Ritual at my homemade cardboard Xerox box altar, and about halfway through it called for me to point in the general direction of my uterus (w/ Sacred Ceremonial Letter Opener) and get all lyrical about my alleged Creative Energies of the Feminine Spirit Moon Goddess Earthvirgin and I was like, wait a second, what is this, this is not my life.

    **To be fair to actual Wiccans, Ms. Ravenwolf is not widely considered the best source by those in the know. W. practice is probably not necessarily as beauty-free as you and I were led to believe by the lady on the silver broomstick.

  12. L.
    I think your response to "gender roles" was right on target as far as how it understood the question. I definity should have been more clear. If you read "gender roles in the woods" or whatever I titled the post on Piekno, you might get a bit of an idea of what I was thinking. I've heard a bit of talk recently about roles, some of which has come for G.K. Chesterton, some from folks I've met, and it's made me think about because I'm pretty much a housewife right now, but my housewify role is not very similar to the feminine role many of my more suburban friends seem to consider the role of women in the home. One woman mentioned the lifting of heavy things as a man's role and I was kind of amused, because a good deal of my "housekeeping" involves the lifting of heavy things..

    I guess, to clarify a bit, do you reject the idea that there are roles in life that only men or only women can fill? Because I can definitly see a few obvious ones, and a few that may be a bit less obvious. Not that each individual man or woman HAS to fill these roles but that a man can't fill a woman's and a woman can't fill a man's. Does that make sense?

  13. M., I had a whole answer written out and then it disappeared! That will teach me to compose in the comment window. I'll be back with an answer to your question; it's a good question.

    Was the book Staking Her Own Claim by Marcia Meredith Hensley? There are a bunch of Women Homesteader books out there.

  14. M.,

    Do I reject the idea that there are roles in life that only men or only women can fill? I think that's complicated.

    Let's talk about the obvious stuff first. Ten years ago, I didn't think it was unusual or inappropriate for men to have Really Loud Opinions about pregnancy, childbirth and related issues because I didn't think there ought to be any gender-based restrictions on what I could talk about, and also because it was pretty far from my experience as well. Now I have very little patience with men who come off all, Hello Ladies, Let Me Explain to You Your Reproductive System. This is because pregnancy is really, really weird, as human experiences go. There just isn't a good first-person analogy to be had; it's not something you can approximate by putting a baby in one of those baby backpacks and carrying it around for a while. This was brought home to me X a million during the recent Year Everyone I Know Had A Baby.

    This is not to say that men can't ever understand pregnancy or talk about it.
    But I do think that any such understanding has to come from a place of humility and deference rather than one of presumed authority.

    So there's one real live anatomically restricted ladies-only role, and a couple of related cultural roles (male deference and female authority re: the whole childbearing thing) that derive from it.

    There's also sexual preference, which is a little more complicated, and a whole lot of gendered junior-high embarrassments-- but those aren't really “roles,” are they? I asked the Resident Male if he could think of a men-only experience or role that was anything like pregnancy in terms of not having a meaningful analogy in women's lives, but he couldn't think of anything. He suggested that “combat” might come up, but neither of us is convinced that this is either permanently or exclusively male. Can you think of any?

    Anyway, there's a distinction to be made here: Are you talking about roles that can or can't be performed in the current culture right now, or roles that are somehow biologically permanent? And is the “can't” a literally can't ever, or more of an “ought?”

    The short answer is, it's complicated. The slightly longer answer is, I don't really know, but I suspect it's a lot more complicated than I think it is.

    And I'm curious about these less obvious examples of yours. Any details?

  15. L.

    Thanks for the thoughts. I'll have to ask my own "Resident Male" for his ideas, apart from the priesthood, which is a somewhat difficult to explain permanent - can't ever, pregnancy, which you already mentioned (btw: did I tell you about the guy I knew in college who was Convinced that the only way a woman ought to give birth was alone at home, just her, her husband, and the baby. Scary thought, especially if he was the husband.)

    I have more to say, but the dog is in the car, and it's time to go home, I almost forgot to check the blogs during this visit!! Silly me.

    The book was "staking her claim" I thought it sounded interesting. :)
    ~Masha (who forgot to log in)

  16. (btw: did I tell you about the guy I knew in college who was Convinced that the only way a woman ought to give birth was alone at home, just her, her husband, and the baby. Scary thought, especially if he was the husband.)


    . . . is all I have to say about that.

    I look forward to more replies! Be sure to pet Luba for me and give Y.P. some reassuring facial expressions on my behalf.

  17. So, to continue, apart from actual Fatherhood, which women can't share, in all it's aspects: physical and spiritual, I'm not sure if I can come up with particular male-only roles that can't possibly be done by women, but now I'm wondering, do you think there is a difference in how men & women preform those shared roles. For example, do you think there is a general difference in how men and women would act as doctors, designers, or in childcare?

    Yarrow appreciates the reassuring facial expressions, but Luba needs more than pets to fill the emotional hole in her heart. :)

  18. Poor Luuuuba. *tousles ears across space and time.*

    Complicated again. Men and women probably tend to act differently in the same roles, though not always, but there's also the issue that men and women who act in the same way are often perceived very differently. For example, lack of interest in or aptitude for childcare is often more likely to be seen as a vice in women than in men, sometimes even when the man in question actually has children and the woman has none.

    So there's a difference in how you're expected to be in Role X, and an additional difference in how much and in what direction that expectation shapes your decisions. Then there's a difference in how you approach that role because of your personality and experiences, which in our culture are always shaped by gender to some extent, and there's another difference in how what you end up doing is understood by the people around you, and all that adds up to "yes, sure, obviously."

    That doesn't mean these differences are universal or essential, which in turn doesn't mean they're not real. Real, but not binding. Subject to change.

    Does that make sense?

    . . . so what has G.K. Chesterton been saying now? Also, *knowing chuckle* on the idea of Feminine M. delegating the heavy lifting to her manly consort As God Intended.

  19. I'm finally joining in! (And am I the first male to contribute?)

    My views on masculinity and femininity are best expressed in the following dynamic: a woman gives a man his strength and the man uses that strength to protect and care for the woman. I'm definitely a firm believer that real men get a lot of their strength from the women in their lives.

    Or you could put it that primary masculine virtues are protecting, providing, and leading while primarily feminine virtues are nurturing, caring, and instructing. (Okay, I'm a little more hazy on the primary feminine virtues; I'm still a guy).

    Of course, these virtues and roles are, like you say, neither universal nor 'socially constructed.' (can I just say how annoying I find it that it's apparently necessary these days to always specify that generalizations don't apply to every individual case?)

    Actually, I always thought of combat as the masculine equivalent to pregnancy. As you say, it's not an "exclusive" role, but I think it's a fitting comparison. For one thing, just as the female body is better designed for producing and nurturing children, the male body is better designed for combat than the female body, not only with greater physical size and strength, but also the fact that men can push themselves longer because they sweat more (granted, it's not developed to the same extent as the female body). Also, compare the male/female psyches: the female psyche is more empathetic, more designed for children. The male psyche, less empathetic, is more able to hurt another person without hesitating. And I like the dynamic: the one brings forth life, the other defends it. I think that we shouldn't really expect the 'equivalent male role' to be exclusive, since it's a less obligatory role: life can only exist if it is preceded by pregnancy, but it only needs to be defended on a case-by-case basis.

    Anyway, there are some initial thoughts.

  20. M.,
    Something the R.M. brought up-- where do adoptive parents fit in to the parenting scheme? Is there still something necessarily gendered about fatherhood/motherhood when both parents are raising a child they didn't physically give birth to? And if so, what? (I may be misrepresenting his question here; maybe he'll jump in).

    Welcome! You may or may not be the First Dude on the Thread; there's an anonymous poster further up.

    I'm intrigued by your use of the phrase "real men." Are there fake men? How can you tell?

  21. Okay, it seems I need to clarify something: when I said "can I just say how annoying I find it that it's apparently necessary these days to always specify that generalizations don't apply to every individual case?" I wasn't referring to anyone's posts in particular: I was referring to the custom that makes ME feel the need to specify over and over "this isn't always the case" when I think the very device of generalization implies that. I'm sorry if anyone took offense; I assure you none was meant.

  22. Wow, interesting thoughts!

    L. I think that in the case of adoptive parents, the breakdown would be similar to natural children, with both parents being nurturing, but still falling into mother/father roles, I don't think that the ability to become a mother is lost in adoption.

    B.T. Thanks for joining in! I'm hoping for some clarity about the idea of men getting their strength from women. How, why, and what about men who have no relationships with women, can they still be strong?