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Feminine and masculine

December 23, 2009

The first few times I read Mary Wollstonecraft I was disturbed by her use of the word “feminine” to disparage ideas and behaviors. She calls bad writing “feminine.” She urges women to get a “masculine” education so they can be more manly. What does she mean? If I step back from our ideas about gender and place myself (as best I can) in 1790, I get it. These are not just Mary’s terms. This is how the world she lives in regards masculinity (strong, bold, virtuous) and femininity (weak, timid, and vulnerable). Mary’s angry because middle class women have been relegated to the margins of the world — margins that are traditionally designated “feminine.” So, courtship, dress, romances, romance novels, appearance — these are “feminine” concerns/ female territory. Nonsense, Mary declares. The “masculine” world of politics, art, and religion should also be the province of women.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 23, 2009 9:40 pm

    And yet, I see these same gender distinctions applied — perhaps more subtly, perhaps not — in the present day. There are references to “Chick Lit” and “Chick Flicks” (as in literature and films that women will likely enjoy more than men or that focus more on women than on men) and these categories often carry the meaning that the work in question is “not serious” or that it’s only for laughs.

    Beyond that, how often have I heard some guy disparage another as “screaming like a girl” or some such nonsense? It would be different to describe the person as “screaming like a frightened child” — why is there a need to assign gender to it?

    Even today there is a pervasive notion that a woman who conducts herself well in business or who has strong opinions is somehow no longer a woman. She is described as “having balls” (usually brass ones) in the best instances; in others she is merely dismissed as being a b!tch, an epithet which often implies a woman who is beyond child-bearing years, is unattractive, and therefore full of anger.

    Sadly, this is something women often do to themselves. For example, I work out at a gym. I lift weights because I want to make my body strong. (Believe me when I say that I look neither svelte nor muscular — in fact, I’m quite overweight.) But most women I talk to — even though they admire and appreciate my ability to lift boxes or move furniture without hurting my back — say they will not do any sort of resistance training because they don’t want to “look muscular.” *sigh* Despite all of the gains in women’s rights, we still have a looooooooooooooooooooooooong way to go.

    (Hmmmm…. aren’t I just a ray of sunshine today!)

  2. Ruth permalink
    December 24, 2009 11:49 am

    To add to Judith’s astute observations, in the realm of 5th grade literature, girls will read books with boys as main characters; however, boys seldom, unless forced by their umsympathic teacher, will read a book with a girl as a main character. Not so strangely to said teacher, they generally love the book in question, despite the feminine main character!?!?

  3. December 31, 2009 5:26 pm

    Wishing you a happy new year! This quote from Mary Shelley popped up on my blog today: “Life is obstinate and clings closest where it is most hated.”

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