I am a feminist.
I thought this would be an appropriate time to jump on the bandwagon, along with Taylor Swift and Beyonce (heck, I’ll jump on any bandwagon Beyonce’s on). That said, I notice that my personal take on feminism does not seem to be the flavor of the month, so I want to take a minute to explain it.
I consider myself a feminist because I support the feminist ‘party line’: equal rights and opportunities for women and girls the world over. But also, I consider myself a feminist because I value femininity. I value my own femininity, and I value feminine thought and action wherever I see it, whether performed by female or male actors.
For the record, I also value masculinity. I believe there is power in balancing the two. When used in concert, masculinity and femininity have a good shot of resolving conflict and creating harmony – a better shot than either quality on its own. Thus, I believe that seeking a balance of masculinity and femininity is a worthy activity for individuals, partnerships, families, organizations, belief systems, governments and societies.
To me, balancing masculinity and femininity has little to do with gender “presentation”. By that, I mean that wearing clothes or performing behaviors that we associate with women (or with men) does not create the kind of balance I’m talking about. A woman can wear lipstick and still be masculine, or fix a car and still be feminine. A man can wear a suit in a feminine way, or kiss another man in a masculine way.
Let me explain.
This is Not About Women and Men
Women are not always feminine, and men are not always masculine. Masculinity and femininity are qualities which can be expressed in infinite ways, and by all people (thus, transgender people, same-sex couples, and organizations or communities who happen to be comprised primarily of a single gender are at least as equipped to find “balance” as anybody else).
So here’s the rub: in the society where I grew up, and in most human societies at this moment in history, masculine qualities are generally considered to be of higher value than feminine qualities. Masculinity is associated with power and success, and femininity with weakness and ineptitude, to such a degree that we experience outrage, shock or disgust when power and success are projected by feminine actors, or in feminine ways. In other words: this psychological hiccup makes it so that we don’t like to see women in power, and we don’t like to see powerful men acting feminine.
I think that one little misjudgment is at the root of a lot of big problems. Luckily, I don’t happen to think that masculinity has anything to do with power, or that femininity has anything to do with weakness. Those associations are worse than useless: they hurt us, and they hurt our kids.
What is Femininity?
That said, I don’t think it serves us, as a society, to seek gender homogeny; that is, to do away with all associations surrounding femininity and masculinity. I believe that the words “masculine” and “feminine” ought to mean something, and that we ought to come to broader (and more thoughtful) agreement about what they mean. So, here’s what they mean to me.
In my estimation, femininity has to do with openness, possibility, and connectivity. To be feminine is to acknowledge complexity and relatedness. Feminine thought makes connections between diverse ideas, and explores the “gray area” between distinctions. Feminine thought is nonlinear and inclusive: it is uninterested in boundaries, it leaps from topic to topic, it speaks in metaphor and symbolism, and it rarely (if ever) arrives at a completion point. Feminine thought is sourced primarily from the invisible world – that is, the world of thoughts, feelings, relationships, and the unknown.
Masculinity is about depth, finality, and division. To be masculine is to seek completion by eliminating possibilities. Masculine thought makes clear distinctions between concepts, in the interest of drawing a final conclusion. Masculine thought is linear: it establishes rules of engagement, proceeds logically from point A to point B, eliminates possible conflicts, and reaches a conclusion. Masculine thought is sourced primarily from the physical world – the world of facts, quantitative evidence, the objective, and the known.
Since I see sex in everything (and vice versa), it’s easy for me to think of masculinity and femininity in terms of male and female sexuality. Because of how vaginas work, female sexuality tends to be broad, fluid (hehe), and infinite. Because of how penises work, male sexuality tends to be focused, pointed (teehee), and finite. (Again, these are not “rules” but “tendencies”.)
(Tangent: There is a body of evidence that suggests that the qualities I’m associating with masculinity are side effects of testosterone. I do think there is some biological basis for the fact that we associate these qualities with men, and I find that interesting, but I think it’s counterproductive to get hung up on the issue. For one, women also have testosterone, and some of us have lots. For two, we humans have many biological tendencies that it does not work in our interest to indulge at this moment in history, such as war, eating raw meat, and having babies every two years from puberty until menopause.)
To illustrate that these ways of thinking are not ‘owned’ by men or women, let me point out that Einstein was an extremely feminine thinker. His genius was in drawing connections, and in describing the inter-relatedness of the world (e.g.: space and time influence each other). Ayn Rand, on the other hand, was an extremely masculine thinker. Her genius was in making clear divisions, and defining a strict moral code (e.g.: rational self-interest). Note that Einstein’s masterwork was called relativity, and Rand’s objectivism.
A big advantage of masculine thought is that it is a strong motivator for action. Before you build a building, you have to reach a conclusion about the “best” way to build it. If you’re thinking femininely, you have to acknowledge that there is no “best” way to build a building - the possibilities are endless and thus, choosing one is somewhat arbitrary.
A big disadvantage of masculine thought is that it has tunnel vision. It gets fixated on one thing at a time, and it’s not very good at adjusting for complexity and change. Feminine thought is extremely flexible; the instant that the current assumptions become obsolete, feminine thought is happy to discard them and move on to the next possibility.
So, a society that over-values masculine thought might, for example, be really good at building cities or increasing GDP, but not very good at handling complex “surprises”, like global climate change or impending economic collapse.
I am biologically female. I happen to enjoy many of the trappings of traditional feminine presentation (high heels, nail polish, rom coms), and I happen to have lots of qualities that I consider feminine (for example, I prefer to spend several hours every day thinking aimlessly about nothing in particular (songs are one of the byproducts of this activity).
I also have qualities that I consider masculine: I’m very ambitious and goal-oriented, I’m competitive, and I value (probably overly much) external achievement. When I care about something, I get fixated to the point of obsession. When I’m in charge of something, I am controlling and stubborn. I value quantitative evidence, and I believe that many kinds of decisions (in my own life and in public policy) ought to be based on the scientific method.
I tend to think that certain activities are best served by my feminine qualities (e.g.: songwriting, choosing friends and partners) and others by my masculine qualities (e.g.: balancing my checkbook, voting). When I’m in a masculine frame of mind, I am a terrible songwriter, because I’m too judgmental and narrow-minded to be experimental. When I’m in a feminine state of mind, I don’t attempt to balance my checkbook, because I lack focus, and get easily overwhelmed by competing thoughts and feelings.
So, I find that I’m most effective in the world when I have all of these characteristics available to me, and can choose which to apply to a given situation. I think that we’d all be better off if this was true of more people: e.g., if our world leaders could summon their feminine qualities when handling things like international diplomacy (which calls for an appreciation of relationship and complexity), and their masculine qualities when handling things like Ebola (which calls for planning and precision).
My Kind of Feminism
Here are some qualities that are nongendered: creativity, intelligence, confidence, power, charisma, strength, grace, beauty, imagination, joy, sensitivity, playfulness, sexiness, leadership, genius, anger, empathy, humor, kindness. These are human qualities, and associating them with a gender works in no one’s interest.
You can apply gender to these qualities; that is, you can be creative in a feminine way, or beautiful in a masculine way. But if any of us feels excluded from expressing these qualities because of our gender (or because of our race, or age, or any other reason), we all suffer.
So, like I said, I’m a feminist. This means that I support the pursuit of political, social and economic equality for women. But my kind of feminism also means that I support the pursuit of feminine thinking. I would like to see more women in politics; but I would also like to see politicians (of any gender) who are willing to acknowledge the complexity and relatedness of the problems we face. I would like to see a world where every child is afforded an education; but I’d also like to see a world where education is considered a lifelong experience that is intimately connected to home life, work life, and the livelihood of future generations. I’d like to see every woman have the right to make decisions about her reproductive health; but I’d also like to see a global conversation about sex, pregnancy, and parenthood that acknowledges the nuance of these issues, and the many complicated ways that they affect our society.
My kind of feminism means that I can be a woman who is powerful and assertive and stubborn. It means that I reserve the right to post selfies in which I do not look pretty. But it also means that I am willing to start conversations, like this one, which are open-ended and complex. It means that I value the pursuit of understanding as much as I value knowledge. It means that I’m interested in your response, even if it begins with “I don’t know”. And it means that if I want to stare at a wall and think aimlessly for a few hours, or feel some feelings, or daydream: goddamnit, I’ll stare at that wall. And I’ll consider it an absolutely vital activity, and an excellent use of my time.
If I could ask one thing from the parents and teachers of today, it wouldn’t be to avoid gendered toys, or to encourage your daughters to learn math and science. It would be this: applaud your kids when they reach a goal, get a good grade, or win a contest; but applaud them too for the power and genius of their femininity, in all of its meandering, metaphorical, infinite glory.
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