Is 'feminine' a compliment?
WHEN SOMEONE CALLS YOU "FEMININE," IS THAT A COMPLIMENT OR NOT?
"Rarely do you see the queen of the football prom interested in science,
because it's not considered very feminine." -- Los Angeles Times
"Just because you're a WM [woman marine] doesn't mean you can't be feminine--
or that you can't be tough." -- Los Angeles Times
"Looking feminine and pretty is a major social weapon." -- NY Times
What does "feminine" mean today? Sensitive? Delicate? Weak? Bosomy and
sexy? Dressed in ruffles and bows? Is it a compliment to be called feminine?
On what qualities? As used by the people quoted above, the word is
nonspecific. As used by most people, the word has an image problem, and we
think it's due for a makeover. It's time to redefine "feminine" to be free to
describe accurately how women are today.
Webster's _Third New International Dictionary_ defines "feminine" as "female,"
"characteristic of or appropriate or peculiar to women . . . (frilly feminine
fashions) . . .. Passive."
*Passive?* How many women do you know who are sitting around waiting for
their lives to happen? Does being feminine mean you're a wimp? Can a woman
with the brains to be a rocket scientist also be feminine? Are femininity and
power mutually exclusive?
Why should being in control raise questions about a woman's femininity -- her
female identity? Women have changed, but the word "feminine" hasn't caught up
with our changes.
Campbell Leaper, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at Harvard Medical School
who studies language and gender, offers one explanation for why the word
"feminine" doesn't measure up. "'Masculine' connotes qualities that are
highly valued in our culture -- SELF-emphasizing qualities, such as
confidence, getting ahead on your own, competitiveness," he says.
"Connotations of the word 'feminine' are of OTHER-emphasizing qualities --
things like awareness of others' feelings, understanding, warmth -- which our
culture doesn't value, or reward, as highly."
"We've lost recognition that the word 'feminine' can describe uniquely female
*strengths," says Linda De Villers, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology
at Chaffey College in Alta Loma, California. "'Feminine' *could* be used as a
word that connotes productivity, wholeness, being receptive to resolving
conflict rather than fighting," qualities women generally posess and display
more than men do.
Of course, such "female" qualities as empathy, imagination and flexibility are
often highly valued in the workplace. But it's a rare boss who touts a good
manager for her, or his, "feminine" abilities.
Clothes are part of the feminine-definition dilemma. A woman's femininity is
often judged by how she dresses, and too often "feminine" means dressing like
a doll or a sexpot. "It's as though designers try to think of ideas for
femininiity and they have to reach back into a reactionary thing [tight,
tiered, puffed, pink] because no one really knows how to apply the word
today," says fasion critic Kennedy Fraser, author of _Scenes from the
Some designers are restyling "feminine" on their own. Designer Donna Karan,
for instance, has set out to make clothes for women who are feminine in a
modern sense, those, she says who are "freer to be themselves, past the stage
of competing with men by wearing the jacket and bow tie. Women are confident
now, and confidence is feminine. Being yourself is feminine. 'Feminine' is
not a pejorative."
Right. In 1988, femininity is freedom. Authority. Leadership, whether of
one's life, family, a small business or a huge corporation. Let's breathe
this reality into the word "feminine" and celebrate its strengths. It can
describe women as diverse as Donna Shallala, Ph.D., chancellor of the
University of Wisconsin-Madison, and speed-skater Bonnie Blair; astronaut Anna
Fisher, Ph.D., and Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder; _60 Minutes_'s Diane
Sawyer and _Moonlighting_'s Maddie Hayes.
Asked about past definitions of "feminine," a spokeswoman for the dictionary
publisher Merriam-Webster expressed dismay when directed to the current
definition. "I have written a note to our files recommending a revision," she
said. It's high time.
_Glamour_ editorial, summer 1988