Femininity creeps up on you when you least expect it. We have all felt it. It is the elegant drape of a flowing evening gown, the gentle touch of your mother’s hand on your feverish forehead, the admiring and sensual look of a man who cherishes you, and the soft expression of the words “I need help”. Femininity is one of the one of those terms that is so subtle and ephemeral, it is nearly impossible to define.
Our society has always struggled with femininity. Betty Friedan in her 1963 book “The Feminine Mystique” stated,
Over and over women heard in voices of tradition and of Freudian sophistication that they could desire–no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity. Experts told them how to catch a man and keep him, how to breastfeed children and handle their toilet training, how to cope with sibling rivalry and adolescent rebellion…They were taught to pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents. They learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights–the independence and the opportunities that the old-fashioned feminists fought for. Some women, in their forties and fifties, still remembered painfully giving up those dreams, but most of the younger women no longer even thought about them. A thousand expert voices applauded their femininity, their adjustment, their new maturity.
Yes, society has changed dramatically since she wrote this book but her description gives us great insight into not only the definition of femininity but also the confines with which it was held. In the decades to come, those confines (the home) were stripped away as women began to enter into the public sphere. My generation was raised by women who were the early entrants into the professional world. They were the first “working women”. As they moved from more feminine professions like nurse or teacher to bankers, media moguls, and corporate managers, they found themselves enveloped in a man’s world. A world where they were told outwardly or otherwise that femininity was an uncomfortable source of tension. It was a distraction, a weakness, or even a threat.
These decades produced millions of women in my society that learned to hold in their emotions and “toughen up”. They also produced millions of daughters who thought the only way to succeed was by hiding our most feminine qualities. If we wanted to be powerful professionally we had to hide our femininity. Then slowly this mandate began to seep into the personal realm and we began to lose touch and, perhaps, became afraid of our most important qualities.
At the same time that women were experiencing the rejection of femininity we were only catching up with many of our male counter parts. A friend (who happens to be a therapist) once said to me “we are born feminine but are taught the masculine.” Most men shift dramatically around the age nine when they are told to “be a man” (there is a beautiful documentary on this subject “The Masks we Live in”) and they learn that crying is not only inappropriate but it can also lead to physical harm if revealed to others. Men are constantly told to hide their emotions and vulnerability in order to secure their place of dominance in the world.
And so we find ourselves in a place where for decades we have pushed our feminine qualities aside, particularly in the public sphere. Yet I believe that there is something changing. Cultural changes, new leadership models, and shifting power dynamics are asking us to reclaim our femininity.
One of the reasons this is happening is that gender lines are blurring. No longer are we delineated along lines of male or female or even gay or straight. As a result, we are seeing a significant decoupling of masculinity from male and femininity from female. This makes it difficult to differentiate which trait holds more power. It also makes it difficult to understand what power is and where the power actually lies.
Second, as men spend more time raising their children, they are beginning to understand the joy, challenge, and effort it takes to be successful at a new set of characteristics: vulnerability, caretaking, and relationship building. Andrew Moravcsik wrote an essay last year about “Why I put My Wife’s Career First”. This essay explores both his role as a stay at home dad but also the challenges he encounters. These challenges have nothing to do with making more money or managing a team. Moravcsik sees his world with a different set of metrics, ones that are rarely articulated and even more rarely articulated by men. President Obama just wrote a piece in Glamour about his role as a feminist after having the opportunity to spend more time with his daughters. This shared responsibility is moving us toward a greater embrace of the power and strength in femininity.
Finally the leadership skills in the professional realm are changing. The qualities needed to succeed in a traditional, hierarchical, dominating career are not as relevant in todays participatory, peer driven, and diverse work place. Qualities traditionally associated with femininity like empathy, listening, inclusiveness, and vulnerability allow you to thrive in the new power dynamic. This phenomenon has given rise to movements that are asking us to see vulnerability as strength. This has given rise to more female leaders but equally important to male leaders who exhibit more feminine qualities.
As a young woman in my 20’s I often wondered, what if I didn’t have to question my feminine qualities but, instead, to embrace them in the work world? What would it feel like if femininity was different but equal? Could femininity really be source of power, and could we lead from that place? Fortunately, I am starting to understand.