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Putting the Sex Back into Gender
A Tentative Theory Of Femininity And Sexuality
by Diana Mertz Hsieh


Date: 6 May 96
Forum: Washington University in St-Louis, Topics in Feminist Philosophy class
Copyright: Diana Mertz Hsieh


Note: Much of the basic thesis of this essay was turned into the essay "Sex and Gender through an Egoist Lens: Masculinity and femininity in the philosophy of Ayn Rand" published in 1999 in the anthology Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand.

Section I: Introduction and History

For the past three years, the issue of a proper normative conception of femininity has intrigued me, on both a personal and philosophical level. When I started my investigations into the subject, I was at a complete loss as to how and why my sex should impact my behavior and attitudes (if at all). Since that time, I have slowly managed to develop the rudiments of a normative theory of femininity and in recent months I seemed to have found something of my own inner sense of femininity.

Because my views at this point are only tentative, I approach this paper as an exploration of some of the issues surrounding normative femininity, from sexuality to gender-based modes of habitation, rather than as a definitive statement of my position. In section I, I examine my own personal history as it relates to my interest in normative conceptions of femininity. In Section II, I use Susan Brownmiller's basic methodology in her book Femininity to bring gender norms into the light of critical reflection. In Section III explores the power of gender norms. In Section IV, I examine the proposal to divorce sex from gender and propose my own theory of gender.

In an article "'X': A Fabulous Child's Story, Louis Gould constructs a hypothetical situation in which a child of unknown sex (except to the parents) is socialized to be gender X, i.e. no gender at all. Despite my reservations about the article, I do feel an affinity with this child who was raised as an X, in the sense that I believe that I encountered much less gender socialization growing up than most individuals.

Being from a family of three daughters, I never experienced differential treatment by my parents due to my sex in any area of my life, from rules to chores to values. My parents never advocated, not even implicitly, the view that there are different "masculine" and "feminine" virtues (e.g. courage and empathy). I attended an all-girls' school from eighth to twelfth grade, which basically eliminated the peer-enforced gender differentiation that is so powerful during that age. I was heavily encouraged by both my parents and my school to develop my intellect (particularly in mathematics), to speak my mind, to be athletic, and take physical risks, which is often not the case for females in American culture.

These examples, a few among many, indicate that I was at least partially insulated from gender socialization in a number of key areas of life, such as intellectual and physical expectations. Although I certainly was not raised as anything like "Gender X," few explicit gender-tied expectations were conveyed to me. I did not grow up with a sense of what it meant to be a woman, apart from what it meant to be human.

My upbringing serves to explain why the issue of normative femininity has plagued me so much since I arrived at Washington University. At the time, I was suddenly thrust into an environment in which there was a strong undercurrent of socialized gender differences. Instead of the independent, strong-willed females that I was used to from home and school, I found females who wouldn't speak up in class or go to dinner without ten of their friends. I found myself to be more similar to the males that I knew than the females in behaviors and attitudes. This lack of identification with my own sex, for reasons that I could not identify, precipitated a "crisis of femininity," in which I struggled to discover the meaning of being a woman, of being feminine.

With that framework, I struggled to develop an acceptable theory of femininity. Despite a strong desire to sort through the issues, I found myself unable to even develop a basic methodology of thinking about how to conceptualize femininity. I suspect that this mental deadlock has its roots in the way that genders are socialized. Unlike with other areas of life (such as developing political and ethical views), learning one's gender does not involve taking a critical perspective on prevailing opinions or even explicit acceptance of certain behaviors, but rather subconscious adoption of attitudes and behaviors that are often little more than implicit in the culture.

Section II: Brownmiller on Femininity

Susan Brownmiller's book Femininity, provided me, for the first time, with a critical perspective on traditional norms of femininity and a partial method for evaluating the legitimacy of those cultural norms. Throughout the book, Brownmiller examines the consequences of traditional norms of femininity, from attitudes to dress to body shape, by (at least implicitly) asking the following questions:

Are they anti-functional? Do they result in restriction movement? Do they cause medical problems or pain? Do they focus attention on inconsequential minutia? Do they seek to unrealistically "impose a uniform shape upon the female body"? (Brownmiller 33) Do they result in dependence and helplessness? Do they interfere with the pursuit of a woman's legitimate goals?

Examples of devices to alter the female body, such as the Western corset and Chinese foot binding, provide the most dramatic examples of irrational cultural standards. Of these "painful device[s] of immobilization," Brownmiller states

"Each device of beautification restricted her freedom and weakened her strength; each provided a feminine obstacle course through which she endeavored to move with artificial grace. Each instrument of discomfort was believed by her to be a superior emblem of her privileged position and a moral requisite for correct behavior, and each ingenious constriction was sentimentalized by men as erotic in its own right, apart from the women that it was supposed to improve. (Brownmiller 33)

The fact that women today recoil in horror at the thought of foot binding and or having to wear a corset is certainly no cause for rejoicing, however. Women's bodies are still manipulated out of their natural form, by the less than healthy methods of yo-yo dieting and high heels, for example. In concluding her chapter on the body, Brownmiller writes that "appearance, not accomplishment, is the feminine demonstration of desirability and worth. In striving to approach a physical ideal, by corsetry in the old days or by a cottage-cheese-and-celery diet that begins tomorrow, one arms oneself to fight the competitive wars." (Brownmiller 51) More precisely, feminine attractiveness, however narrowly defined, however unrealistic, however unhealthy, is itself regarded as an accomplishment at which no good girl or woman ought to fail.

Even though I often disagreed with the particulars of Brownmiller's analysis, her methodology of essentially asking whether certain behaviors and attitudes are to the benefit or detriment of an individual's life and flourishing is a powerful one. As a basic tool of critical reflection and evaluation on gender norms, four virtues of this methodology stand out. First, it does not rely on preconceptions about what gender norms ought to be (or even if there ought to be any), thus allowing for a dialogue between individuals with strongly divergent perspectives about femininity. It does not require knowledge of or investigation into the motives of men who find the ideals of femininity desirable, but rather only knowledge of the effect of certain values and traditions on our own lives. For example, we need not even speculate (as Bernard Rudofsky has) "that men find deep sexual excitement in the hobbling of women." (Brownmiller 33) Additionally, the methodology has a broad-reaching application, such that an individual can critically examine both the norms of femininity that she has adopted and those present throughout a culture. Finally, the methodology can illuminate ways in which women can make their "feminine" behavior and attitudes more healthy, such as by focusing on building muscle and losing fat than than on shedding pounds in the attempt to trim one's figure.

The answers to these questions that form the basis of Brownmiller's methodology do not, in and of themselves, establish the rationality or irrationality of gender norms. A focus on certain minute details of life is not by itself harmful, such as in the Japanese tea ceremony, in which it is the focus on detail which gives the ceremony its beauty and meaning. Practices which give a positive answer to one (or more) of the questions can be warranted by the pursuit of a higher value, if that higher value itself can be justified and if there is no less detrimental way to pursue it.

At the very least, one must admit that women have subjectively perceived compelling reasons to engage in destructive ideals of femininity that have existed throughout history. Without doing so, the only explanations for women's allegiance to the "compelling esthetic" of femininity are sheer irrationality on the part of women or complete mind control by men of women, neither of which is a plausible explanation. (Brownmiller 235) A stronger hypothesis (if only out of respect for the metal capacity of women) seems warranted, namely that there are good reasons for adopting norms of femininity in some cases, even when those norms have harmful consequences. It is this hypothesis that I will explore in Section IV.

Section III: The Power of Gender Norms

Brownmiller's book does not go into significant depth regarding the reasons why gender norms, despite their often-harmful consequences, are so influential in our culture. To say that the norms are commanding because we are socialized in a particular way fails to explain why gender norms have changed radically through time and why individuals often reject the values with which they were raised. In short, such an explanation, in which we only to account for rewards for conforming to gender norms and the penalties for violating them, ignores the human capacity for self-reflection and the willingness to endure the disapproval of others for more important values.

One explanation for why gender norms are so powerful is that they serve a deep psychological need to regard oneself as sexually efficacious and attractive to the relevant sex. (In times past and in some American subcultures today, regarding oneself as a good spouse or potential spouse was/is the overriding value sought.) Through cultural sexual symbols and behaviors, i.e. by letting our outward appearance and our body language convey information about who we are as a man or a woman, we gain a sense of self-esteem and sexual visibility when others respond favorably. Given the importance of sexual interaction in our dealings with others, the desire for this feeling of sexual efficacy is a powerful one that can and does determine much of our behavior. The methods of conveying sexual information (by adopting different gender norms), as well as the information that it is desirable to convey, vary widely with time and cultures. Indeed, during sexually repressive eras (such as the Victorian era), conveying a woman's chastity and modesty was of utmost importance, whereas today being feminine is significantly more sexually suggestive.

Although the reasons why destructive gender norms have so frequently arisen is outside of the scope of this paper, we can say that the fact that sexual attractiveness is sexual attractiveness to someone else, i.e. is dependent upon the perceptions of others, makes people particularly susceptible standards that they would normally consider unrealistic, harmful, or irrational. In the case of feminine norms, the perceptions of others can have a particularly strong pull, since femininity often "requires reactions from other people," in the sense that frequently the virtues of womanhood (e.g. empathy, attentiveness to the needs of others, passivity) necessitate another person which whom to interact. (Weitzman 167) Male standards, on the other hand, tend to focus on self-reliance and often "can be developed alone." (Weitzman 167) Those male standards are hardly as benign (to the self) as Brownmiller assumes in saying that "while the extremes of masculinity can harm others (rape, wife beating, street crime, warfare and a related inability to concede or admit defeat), the extremes of femininity are harmful only -- only! -- to women themselves in the form of self-imposed masochism." (236)

The cultural norms of masculinity are often inwardly directed (as in the case of steroid use to "bulk up") or cause physical harm (as in violent sports like football and ice hockey). Additionally, we cannot say that the norms of femininity harm only women, since a substantial portion of men find the traditional "feminine" traits in friends, lovers, and wives completely undesirable. So it seems that, for either sex, weakening the power of gender-tied mores would be beneficial.

Section IV: Deflating Gender Norms

One commonly-advocated method of reducing the power of gender socialization is complete separation of the concepts of male-masculine and female-feminine, thus allowing the concept of gender to be a way (unrelated to sex) of describing a constellation of characteristics in a non-normative fashion. (Conway-Long) Gender socialization grounded in sex is regarded as wrong, regardless of the content of that socialization.

This proposal has three basic problems, two substantiative and one pragmatic, which justify its rejection. First, the concepts of masculine and feminine are left too broad, encompassing unchosen physical characteristics (e.g. amount of facial hair), chosen physical characteristics (e.g. hairstyle and manner of dressing), outward behaviors (e.g. assertiveness), and learned skills (e.g. empathy). It is not clear why there should be a single distinction running though all of these aspects of a person's being or why we would even need the concepts of masculine and feminine, rather than describing traits more precisely and directly with well-defined terms like "empathic" and "assertive."

The second problem with freeing gender from sex is that the assumption that gender norms are bad per se is unwarranted. Difference, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. In the case of gender socialization, it is the way that those differences are instilled and enforced and the consequences of those differences that carries the normative weight. Indeed, if females are taught to be more aware of the emotional states of others than males, it has allowed them, for example, to be much better horseback riders, which requires a keen awareness (often through barely perceptible channels) of the emotional state of the horse. If girls are taught this skill at the expense of, for example, learning how to throw a football, it can hardly be considered a loss. There are, after all, only so many things that can be taught during childhood, and in many cases teaching based on gender is no less arbitrary than any other method of selective teaching.

On a more pragmatic level, I suspect that individuals who do not understand or embrace the independence of sex and gender (which will be the vast majority of individuals) will not divorce sex from gender in their own minds, and thus still regard the labels "feminine male" and "masculine female" as pejorative. Without questioning the basic assumption that traditional norms of gender are "natural" by attempting to drastically reduce the scope of those concepts, I fear that irrational gender norms will only become more entrenched.

Another way of restraining gender norms, an approach that I would favor, would be to eliminate the deterministic and collectivistic element in current conceptions of gender. The view that all men and women have certain “natural” roles would be replaced an individualistic perspective focused on authentically conveying one's internal, sexual self to others. Let me unpack this conception of gender one element at a time:

Conveying the internal, sexual self to others: Because of the "problem" of other minds, others must be content to know us only through our outward manifestations of behavior, which convey information about our inner states. Some of that outward behavior will concern our inner mental states about sex, such as our perception of our own attractiveness, the attractiveness of others, and our morals concerning sex. This behavior about one's own sexuality is thus province of gender. And so we see the proper scope of gender drastically diminished, which will diminish a portion of the authoritarianism of masculinity and femininity.

Authenticity: In going about our lives, we can choose to have integrity, to be loyal to the values which we believe to be right or we can betray them. Authenticity is a species of integrity, in which the value at stake is our own inner person. To authentically convey information about our selves is to not hide our inner selves from others through outward deception. For example, in the realm of sexuality, authenticity would demand that a lesbian not pass as heterosexual and that a sexually active young woman not portray herself to her morally conservative friends as uninterested in sex. Unlike traditional gender roles, in which it is the adoption of a certain set of behaviors and attitudes that is normatively significant, in this conception of gender it is the authenticity of those behaviors and attitudes that carries normative weight.

Individualism: The individualism in this conception of gender is, in fact, nothing more than a rejection of universalism, i.e. of the view that there are two and only two legitimate sets of values for men and women to pursue, namely traditional masculinity and femininity. By focusing on the authenticity of sexual behavior, we can easily accommodate variation between individuals and the fact that "the range of differences within each sex is much greater than the differences between the average members of opposite sexes." (Weitzman 168) We will judge a person's femininity or masculinity based on what we know about that person as an individual, not in relation to some abstract, universal standard to which the sexes are supposed to conform.

Although this conception of gender is not universalist, it is also not relativistic in the sense that it does not hold any inner attitudes about sex to be better than any others. For example, the view that sex before marriage is sinful not only needlessly deprives individuals of the perfectly healthy pleasures of sex, but also tends to induce them to marry more quickly (and often less happily). Unfortunately, the acceptable range of attitudes about sexuality is outside of the scope of this paper.

One of the virtues of this conception of gender, however, is that it gives us a more complete methodology for critiquing gender norms. By asking whether the gender norms that we have adopted authentically convey our inner attitudes about sex and sexuality, in addition to using Brownmiller's approach to determine the basic legitimacy of gender norms, we can critically evaluate the benefits and costs of adopting or continuing certain gender-related behaviors. Additionally, the process of becoming feminine (or masculine) on this account is not blind adoption of values implicit in the culture, but rather critical reflection on what type of sexual person one is and how to best present that sexual person to others.

Section V: Conclusion

Gender socialization in American culture, despite all its variations, is remarkably homogeneous when compared to the possibilities. Critical reflection on those norms that inevitably comes with every wave of the feminist movement, has given a huge number of women the opportunity to consider the impact of their attitudes and behaviors on their lives. But the real solution to the problem of gender socialization lies not in attacking the old norms, but rather in reconceptualizing gender so as to build in mechanisms of critical reflection for those who wish to do more than blindly adopt social mores. I do hope that my theory of normative femininity, as I have tentatively laid it out here, is at least a small step in that direction.

Works Cited

Brownmiller, Susan. Femininity. New York: Linden Press, 1984.

Conway-Long, Dan. Guest lecture for Anthropology 221B, The Biological Basis of Human Behavior, Washington University. Spring 1996.

Gould, Lois. "'X': A Fabulous Child's Story." Feminist Philosophies. Eds. Janet A. Kourany, James P. Serba, and Rosmarie Tong. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1992. 43-8.

Weitzman, Lenore J. "Sex Role Socialization." Women: A Feminist Perspective. Ed. Jo Freeman. Palo Alto: Mayfield Publishing, 1979. 153-216.


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