Within my mother’s lifetime, women’s choices and rights have eclipsed my grandmother’s wildest dreams. It’s difficult for a Millennial like me to imagine asking my husband to co-sign for a credit card, being excluded from serving on a jury, being denied admission to most Ivy League schools, or getting fired for being pregnant. Sexism (like racism) still endures in our institutions and culture, but the progress we’ve made over the past century is remarkable.
While women’s liberation has been largely successful on the surface, “feminist” remains a controversial word. The term is still ignored, spit on, dragged through the mud, pilloried, and burned at the stake. Part of the problem is a zero-sum mentality that assumes women gain additional rights at the expense of men and traditional families. This inaccurate framework posits that:
- Women are taking men’s jobs and educational opportunities.
- Women aren’t acting or dressing as women should.
- Women don’t want to take care of children or be nurturing.
Especially among older generations of men, the abrupt shift in women’s opportunities has been startling. It’s natural that they feel confused, threatened, or left behind because there has been less public discussion of how feminism benefits men specifically.
Just as American women’s rights have expanded over the decades, there’s been a quieter, slower expansion of men’s choices and freedoms. The vision feels less realized than women’s recent advancements, perhaps because it has been more difficult to measure. We can compare unequal salaries or health insurance premiums—areas where men have enjoyed the upper hand—but explaining the intangible constraints of traditional masculinity has proved more challenging.
For example, compared to women, American men generally are expected to suppress their emotions. From an early age, they are trained to avoid crying or making themselves vulnerable. Many boys are not allowed to play with girls’ toys, wear dresses and makeup, or perform ballet. Some who break these rules are ridiculed or even sent to gay conversion therapy, which is still legal in roughly half of U.S. states.
These gendered restrictions stem from the American debasement of women and femininity. Misogyny is at the root of homophobia and transphobia. And if traits associated with women weren’t cheapened in our society, boys would feel more at liberty to express their emotions and engage in activities that appeal to them. The work of feminists is to foster a new respect for femininity and women in our culture and institutions, an objective that benefits everyone.
Feminism isn’t about acting like men—it’s about throwing off the shackles and expectations assigned to everyone at birth. It allows for a wider range of thoughts and behaviors, regardless of one’s sex. It’s about celebrating both the feminine and the masculine, letting individuals embrace the traits that feel most natural. It’s also about rethinking our leadership, economic system, and institutions to pay thought to feminine characteristics (collaboration, compromise, nurturing, compassion) rather than embracing almost exclusively masculine values (competitiveness, aggression, overconfidence).
When I talk about femininity and masculinity, I’m talking about traits and behaviors typically associated with these categories—qualities that are not necessarily determined by one’s biological sex. Traditional parents tend to inculcate masculine traits in boys and feminine traits in girls by treating them differently. There are also biological differences in people such as hormone levels (testosterone and estrogen) which can foster traits associated with masculinity or femininity.
In general, here are some qualities associated with masculinity that have been overemphasized in American culture:
- Exploitation of others
- Aggression and violence
And here are some qualities associated with femininity that have been degraded and understated in American culture:
- Cultivation of others
- Expressive communication
Americans have been living out of balance since the founding of our country. There has always been an assumed superiority of the masculine over the feminine. It shapes our language, systems of production, military build-up, and international relations. To be called a “woman” is construed as an insult to half of the population. Our deeply rooted misogyny has stifled our growth and humanity by elevating the masculine at the expense of the feminine.
Some of the evidence for this imbalance include our country’s expensive military build-up (masculine) while our leaders refuse to properly fund education, healthcare, or parental leave (feminine). We enter into international agreements with presumed superiority (masculine) rather than equal footing, shared goals, and empathy (feminine). Many workplaces reward those who overconfidently advocate for themselves (masculine) rather than those who work diligently behind the scenes (feminine). Our country’s policies have privileged the interests of capitalism (masculine) over the protection of our environment (feminine). Our economy pays vast sums to people who work in extractive and exploitative industries (masculine) and pays pauper’s wages to those who educate and nurture our people (feminine).
Our country would be healthier and our people more prosperous if we could achieve a balance between the masculine and the feminine. Individuals would feel freer to express traits that feel most comfortable to them rather than succumbing to pressure to conform to society’s gendered spheres.
To me, this is what it means to be a feminist: fighting to assign equal value to women and femininity that we ascribe to men and masculinity.
Nobody should be constrained by their sex or gender to behave in a certain way. Promoting respect for the feminine holds a better future for everyone.