Peggy Drexler Ph.D.

Our Gender, Ourselves

The Downsizing of Femininity

Why is calling someone feminine open to interpretation?

Posted Aug 04, 2011

Last week I posted a piece about how men are changing, closing with a question: are men less masculine today, or simply more liberated?

The piece drew over 1,250 comments; a bit unusual, I thought, for the middle of the summer and a topic that has nothing to do with heat waves, debt ceilings or Charlie Sheen.

Clearly, the question struck a nerve.

Some cited a passing of the need for tough aggressive men. Others talked about the rebalancing of gender power. Some cited the 21st century reality that to get through life, men and women simply don't need each other, so there is little need to play a role to attract a mate.

One writer argued it's not about gender, it's about humanity: "On a crowded and endangered planet, we don't need brutal, arrogant, cold men any more than we need passive, fluttering, subservient women."

All of that got me thinking about descriptions on the other side of the gender divide:

There is no argument about female change and progress. Look anywhere from professional schools to the ranks of corporate managers to the sinewy warriors on the U.S. Women's Soccer Team to Brigadier General Loretta Reynolds, the new commander at Paris Island, the first woman to be in charge of turning men into Marines.

But as women are free to be more like men, what has happened to their ability to be women -- particularly in the sense of a term that suddenly feels like it's from another time: femininity?

To call a man masculine is generally a compliment. Calling someone feminine is -- at least -- open to interpretation; if not a reprimand in your personnel file.

Many feminists are quite clear on the matter of definitions. Back in 1984, in her book, Femininity, Susan Brownmiller called it "...a nostalgic tradition of imposed limitations on women. She added that it is about accepting restrictions..." a grand collection of compromises large and small."

Even with a less politicized feminist view and a bigger philosophical tent, there is certainly the question of relevance. Even without the hair ribbons, past connotations of the demure and self-effacing people pleaser are as relevant as pantaloons to feisty full-contact competitors in the ranks of female achievers.

But on the road to liberation there are always off-ramps to excess. If you want to take one, spend some time watching the Oxygen Network's Bad Girls Club.

The housemates' pastimes of choice -- drinking, humping and punching -- are punctuated by high-decibel profanity straight from a middle-school boys locker room. To the extent that feminism is about dismantling arbitrary divides between men and women, here is one area where the demolition has left a debris field.

Even in more civilized precincts, there is new and interesting discussion. Earlier this year, a widely reported study found (and I simply report here, not advocate) that assertive women are often less likely to get ahead at work than those who exhibit more feminine traits.

George Mason University professor Olivia O'Neill and Stanford University professor Charles O'Reilly published online in the Journal of Occupational Psychology) that female pushy hard-drivers are seen as not behaving in a traditionally feminine way. So even though they are seen as competent, they are also perceived as less likeable, and hired and promoted less frequently.

The solution, says Dr. O'Neill in Stanford Business Magazine Online, is "self monitoring" -- women dialing up or down their inner Jack Welch as the situation dictates. "The interesting thing here," said O'Neill, "is that being able to regulate one's masculine behavior does not simply put women on par with men, it gives them even more of an advantage."

So: what is femininity in the lives of modern women? Is it sacrifice in the name of soothing males? Is it a lost and lamented facet of womanhood? Is it a tool used to get results where dominance won't? Or is it the behavioral equivalent of wisdom teeth -- the purpose unclear and functionality long past?

This first appeared on the Huffington Post.

Dr. Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, and author Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family (Rodale, May 2011). Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at

More Posts