Girl Talk

Feminist or Feminine? Oh Wait, They Aren't Mutually Exclusive

Apparently this is a conversation we need to have, so fine. Let’s have it. There is a question that keeps popping up, like a mosquito zooming around the room when you’re trying to sleep:

Is a woman who embraces her femininity harmful to feminism?

. . .

And all the townspeople LOL-ed. We can talk about this for hours, but the simple answer is: of course not, that’s ridiculous.

Being feminine is not harmful to women – the idea that femininity is synonymous with submissiveness, is, though. Asking whether women being themselves is harmful is perpetuating a problem instead of moving past it. As Caitlin Moran wrote, “the purpose of feminism isn’t to make a particular type of woman.” It’s all inclusive – the only thing you need to be is on board with feminist ideals, and the great thing about abstract ideas is that they lack aesthetic definition.

If I fight for my belief that I have the right to be an equal citizen without being gendered, if I reject the male gaze and challenge patriarchy, it doesn’t make a difference if I do it in jeans or polka dots, while listening to electronica or twee, eating a burger out or baking vegan cupcakes at home in the pretty ceramic muffin tray I got on sale last month. When we’re battling a rape culture that tries to tell us that women who wear short enough skirts deserve to be sexually assaulted, it is really, really counterproductive to talk about whether the dress I’m wearing is too archetypically feminine for my ideas to be valid.

The idea that women cannot express their femininity and be autonomous is really saying that women must emulate men to have a voice, when in fact, the goal of feminism is for every woman to feel empowered as a person instead of feeling gendered. My femininity is my preference – I was a tomboy well into middle school, have always refused to match my aesthetic to anyone’s expectation, and didn’t really wear dresses until after college, when I realized how much money I could save on combing a handful of dresses and cardigans instead of buying components of entire outfits.

More importantly, I don’t owe anyone this explanation, because it has nothing to do with the validity of my ideas and intellect as a person, a feminist, and as a woman. The bow on my belt should not need to have a sign attached, explaining that I have a degree in Cultural Studies from a reputable New York liberal arts college, despite my love of nail art (because it’s not in spite of it, the two can happily cohabit my mental space). There is no such thing as a feminist aesthetic, and trying to exclude any women from feminism goes against its very tenets.

So no. There is no such thing as a harmful feminist. You’re either a feminist or not. You either believe in female empowerment and gender equality, or you don’t. I believe I deserve equal rights and equal pay, I believe I have a right to bodily autonomy, I challenge the male gaze, body image, and rape culture daily, and reject patriarchal dominance, and if I have to do it with a f*cking bow in my hair in a Betty Draper dress surrounded by puppies eating the cupcakes shaped treats I home-baked them, just to prove the point that any and every woman should be taken seriously regardless of bullsh*t stereotypes, then I will. Come at me.

**Update on 4/2/2013 — As pointed out by a commenter below, I would like to add that in referring to “femininity” I refer to the traditional Western definition, which does not take into account issues surrounding gender norms and the gender binary. In defining femininity, there is an inherent urge to define what “female” is — this is harmful both to feminism, and the choice of each individual to self-identify in any way without gendered definitions being imposed on them.

Featured Image via Tumblr

  • Caitlin S Griffin

    Preach! This is wonderful. Thank you.

  • Casey Callis

    Amen sister! Saying that womanly women are a threat to feminism is the same as saying that you need to be a manly woman to be a feminist–which I’m sure would greatly downsize the feminist population. Keep the ribbons, bows, hearts, nail polish and lip gloss flowing!

  • Caitlin Heidbrink Sipe


  • Amber Copeland

    Hell yes!

  • Rachael Layne

    Right on, I could not agree more!!! 😀

  • Tristan Collicott

    I’ve never thought a “girly” woman couldn’t be a feminist, I’m surprised there are people who do.

  • Sjors Blomen

    I’m going to argue the opposite by stating that women being masculine harms feminism. Feminism is a battle for gender equality, the right to be a woman, not the right to be a ‘man’. You don’t get respect for women by dressing like a guy. If anything, I think, a lot of men will see a woman acting like a guy as an affirmation that women see themselves as weaker. That the only way you can get respect as a woman is when you get mistaken for a guy. That if you just tuck away your breasts and trim your hair short, you will be accepted as an equal. I say “F. that!”. Be a woman, be feminine. If anything be extra feminine. Be that and show that you are strong and deserve respect and recognition. Because if you don’t respect the female image, why would men do?

    • Cheyanne Reese Howe

      You know, that’s actually a great point!

    • Madeline Qi

      Amen to that!

    • Laura Koles

      Good man!

    • Fernanda Mariscotti

      As much as you’d like to celebrate a woman’s personal choice of style by linking it to their courage to go out into the world looking like the second class citizens other people assume they are, it has BS to do with their activism. I’ve been ‘femenine’ for a few years now and lately I decided to trim my hair and wear less padding in my bras (wired bras are too constricting and look funny with low-cut silk tops and shirts), seeing beauty in androgyny and having a preference for it aesthetically doesn’t make me less of a woman. Saying “I’m not a woman, I’m genderqueer” or “I’m actually a man and no, I won’t undergo surgery” would make somethiing other than a woman, nothing more.

      • Fernanda Mariscotti

        Being an acceptable woman =/= being accepted by heterosexual males.

  • Emma Jones

    Thank you!

  • Madeline Qi

    “I want to be a fucking feminist and wear a fucking peter pan collar! so fucking what?!” ~Zooey Deschanel

  • Fajr Muhammad


  • Jasmin Billinghay

    The thing is though, the word “feminine” doesn’t really mean anything. It’s a social construct designed to designate women as the other, as naturally different to men. When you use the word “feminine” to describe things like wearing dresses or baking, you reinforce gendered stereotypes. If a person identifies as female, then any behaviour performed by that person is feminine, regardless of society’s views. Gender is a myth, perpetuated by our heteronormative, patriarchal society. No behaviours or clothing are specifically masculine or feminine, and to describe them as such only serves to further differentiate between men and women and perpetuate the myth of essentialist gender – a powerful instrument of patriarchy. Your argument should not be “I can be feminist and feminine”. It should be “I am a feminist and your heteronormative ideas about gender binaries do not change that”. You are not feminine because you wear dresses, you are feminine because you identify as female. No one is saying you can’t be a feminist because you wear dresses. I imagine the resistance you find is because of your designation of wearing dresses as specifically feminine. Being aware of the connotations of the language we use without thinking is a huge part of feminism. When you refer to “expressing your femininity” or “emulating a man” you reinforce patriarchal and heteronormative ideas about gender – you say there is one way to be a woman and if you don’t conform to that you must be trying to be a man – which is ridiculous. I wear the clothes I wear because I like them, because they express my taste and style. I am no less feminine because I buy clothes from the men’s department and don’t like skirts and dresses and your gendering of dress and clothing only serves to reinforce the gender myth. My sex does not determine my behaviour. Yes, you can wear dresses and bake and be a feminist, but you should also understand that wearing dresses and baking do not make you more feminine than any other person who identifies as a female, regardless of the way they choose to dress or behave. As long as you believe that women and men are equal and deserve equal rights you are a feminist. But if you want to actually affect change you need to understand that the language you use is problematic.

    • Sjors Blomen

      If gender is a myth then why be a feminist? Why not be ‘equalist’ or ‘antigenderist’?

      • Jennifer Edmondson

        Gender is real. I don’t understand when people say that there is no such thing as gender.

        • Jasmin Billinghay

          The concept of gender is real, but only because we perpetuate it. Read Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. She explains it far better than I can on an internet comments section. When I say gender is a myth, I mean that it is socially constructed. The ideas we have about gender only exist in our minds, it’s an illusion, it’s not based on any kind of fact. My biological sex does not determine my performed gender or any behaviour I display. The idea that it does is a fallacy proliferated by the patriarchy to add weight to ideas that women are best suited to child-rearing and housework.

          • Sjors Blomen

            But animals have gender roles and I doubt that is because they live in patriarchies. The fact that we as people can overrule our natural behavior does not mean we dont have gender roles. Not to burst your bubble but the fact that you can lactate and show better social skills makes you better child rearers than men. Men run faster and throw more accurately, which makes us better providers and defenders, a woman couldn’t go hunting on her period because it attracts predators. You can deny genders or gender roles, but I think it is wishful thinking. Again, ‘feminism’ explicitely recognizes ‘the female’, if you want to deny gender differences, I would opt for a less discriminating title than ‘feminist’.

            • Jasmin Billinghay

              Ugh. You didn’t read the link did you. Here it is again:
              Part One – says everything you need to know about why Feminism is called feminism. (here’s a hint, in case reading is too much of a struggle: the name refers to the marginalised class)
              Also – animals? Really? That’s your argument? Animals also eat their young and practice cannibalism. Female lionesses are the primary hunters. Apes fling their faeces at each other. We are not animals. We are evolved. And just because I possess the biological qualities which make me capable of bearing a child does not mean I am maternal in any way and definitely does not mean that I would be better at raising children than a man. And who says I show “better social skills”? Female children are told from birth that they are somehow nicer and more emotional than men – they’re given baby dolls to mother too – it’s a construction. I know plenty of men more in touch with their emotions than me. We are just taught by the patriarchy that it is feminine to show those emotions. We are not Neanderthals. We have evolved. Hunting has nothing to do with it. Wake up. Or just continue reading articles about nail art. What do I care? I’m sure we’ll dismantle the patriarchy without you.

        • Sarah Rose

          Gender is only real because we’ve made it real. It does not actually exist. It is a framework of ideas created to control behaviour and behavioural expression.

      • Jasmin Billinghay

        Please refer to Part One of this:
        Gender is a myth. Society doesn’t yet understand that. A large part of feminism aims to deconstruct that myth.

    • Julia Gazdag

      EXCELLENT POINT. I had less time to finish this post than I usually do, and even though I read it over several times and made corrections, I failed to point out that I was referring to the Western traditional construct of femininity. You’re absolutely right, and I apologize for not having made that point, especially given how many of my friends are genderqueer. I should have done better with regard to clarifying that while I was referring to fitting traditional norms for what femininity is generally assumed to be, gender norms themselves are bullshit (which can and should be a whole other post in and of itself). Also, that Lindy West post you linked to on is the greatest thing I’ve seen on the internet ever, and everyone should read it — for anyone else reading this, <—- READ THIS PLEASE.

    • Sarah Rose

      Jasmin Billinghay, you’re so awesome! Perfect points.

  • Amanda Walker

    Hells yeah! I love it! This just made my day! And if anyone tries to argue…I’m behind you one hundred percent! I’ll even stop in the middle of my mani-pedi to whoop some ass ; )

  • Robert Sumbland

    I believe in equal rights but I would never call myself a ‘feminist’, in fact some of my friends (who are girls) wouldn’t either. I suppose they fall in to the ‘feminine’ category and like the stereotypical ‘girly’ things, but they’re also confident, open minded people living in the 21st century, so I guess they don’t need to call themselves anything!

  • Jessica Jeffers

    Feminism should be about being whatever the hell you want to be as long as you’re happy.

  • Kristen Haynie

    Yes! Thank you! I’ve been trying to explain this very thing for a long time, and many people just don’t seem to get it. It’s as if my painted nails are perceived as my personal declaration that I’m a submissive female. People are usually quite surprised when I speak out about my opinions and voice my support for equality. I often get “oh wow, you didn’t strike me as that kind of girl.” It’s ridiculous!

  • Hilary June

    Yes. It bothers me that “feminine” seems to be equated with weak, less-than, unimportant, “cute”, not-taken-seriously, emotional, stupid, blah, blah, blah. Men and women are different. If you’ve ever worked in childcare or have children you KNOW that girls and boys behave differently. Girls mature faster, we learn quicker, we are generally more compassionate/nurturing as kids, teachers put boys at tables with girls because the girls tell the boys to be quiet, etc. Boys are often more goal-driven, girls are often more talkative. Girls develop language skills faster than boys, boys are often more physical and rough with each other than girls. These are facts. They are because of the different chemicals in our brains.

    We are different. We are built differently, our brains are built differently. I totally embrace those differences because they are important. I like feminine women and I like masculine men. I believe women and men are both completely capable of all things job-wise (childbirth excluded) however some jobs may be more difficult for women, some jobs may be more difficult for men because of the way we are built but that does NOT mean they aren’t possible.

    I have recently started wearing dresses more and more. I like the way they look, I like feeling pretty and feminine, and I like people to think I am pretty and feminine. I am a feminist and I want to look feminine. My personality hasn’t changed. I go out and drink, have one-night-stands, work in childcare, spend days at libraries, I take photographs and like shopping, I study history and pride myself on being nice. I am smart and politically-aware and have passionate interests and I am polite and I am sensitive. I believe that what I do with my vagina is my own business and does not define me as a person – nor do my pretty floral dresses.

    Being vulnerable does not mean being weak. It takes courage to be gentle and kind. Being a strong woman does NOT mean acting like a man.

    I am an intelligent, strong, self-aware, confident young woman. I am capable of anything I set my mind to and don’t you dare tell me otherwise.

  • Maritza Alva

    Perfect!!!! Thank you!!!

  • Heather Redmore

    yes thankyou, this is because femine is seen as weak and masculine strong. We need to change these ideas and treat both equally. Just because im into nail art, pretty things and cute animals dosnt mean that i dont also have important things to say and am capable of doin DIY. Also im fed up of getting funny looks when i tell people that my brother bakes. ” youre brothers bakes and he does it well !” it dosnt mean that he’s odd or gay it’s just one of his skills. ( FYI he made an raspberry and white choc cake this weekend for my sisters birthday and it ws amaaaazing)

    • Kelsey Holt

      I have a guy friend back home that loves to knit, and he’s always very open about it. Thanks to all of the stereotypes and assumptions, I expected that he too would receive strange looks every time he wore his “I knit” shirt. But, much to my surprise, people respect him for it and it seems everyone thinks it’s awesome that he knits (especially because he knits scarves and small stuffed animals as birthday presents).

  • Nicolas Courchamp

    “If you’ve ever worked in childcare or have children you KNOW that girls and boys behave differently. Girls mature faster, we learn quicker, we are generally more compassionate/nurturing as kids, teachers put boys at tables with girls because the girls tell the boys to be quiet, etc. Boys are often more goal-driven, girls are often more talkative. Girls develop language skills faster than boys, boys are often more physical and rough with each other than girls. These are facts. They are because of the different chemicals in our brains.”

    That’s actually another stereotype in a way of gender equality. Boys and girls are mostly different because they are educated by parents and people who make them different and support the stereotype of the “sensitive girl” vs. the “tough physical guy”. It’s the simple things like giving barbies to girls and cars and plastic guns to boys (and telling them that dolls are for girls) that support those differences and forbid kids to develop a personality in a “non-gender attached” way. Kids are like that because they emulate adults behavior and that’s why, in order to support gender equality, it’s important not to support those clichés.

    As for “Girls mature faster, we learn quicker Boys are often more goal-driven, Girls develop language skills faster than boys” those are not as much facts as they are generality and statistics. (and you say it yourself when you use the word “often”). I know such arguments are often used by women in order to prove than women have great capacities as well but frankly I always thought it was quite counter-productive because it also support the idea of competition between boys and girls emphasizing on gender differences and on the idea that one or the other is superior.

    • Hilary June

      I’m sorry but no. It’s not a stereotype so much as it is fact. Girls and boys don’t behave differentlt “mostly” because of how they are educated, yes, that may be a factor in some cases but it is most certainly not the primary reason children of different genders behave differently.
      But you’re right, I do say “often” because that is often the case, not always, but often. I had a girl who was most comfortable getting dirty with the boys and there are some boys who play very nicely and nurturing with dolls but most often that is not how it is. You don’t seem to have read and/or understood my comment. I am saying definitively that neither is better, we are simply different and we need to embrace those differences because they both genders are valuable and important.

      “such arguements are often used by women to prove than women have great capacities as well.” …. really? Just …. really?

      • Nicolas Courchamp

        @Hilary June. I did read and understand your comment. I just disagree with the all “we should embrace or differences” idea when you actually point out differences that are, at least in my opinion, simple sexist clichés. I’m not saying the behaviors you observed aren’t true and effective, i’m saying you’re mistaken about the nature of such behavior and the reality of the influence adults have on children. I sincerely don’t think a girl will naturally or genetically be quieter simply because she’s a girl. I think a girl will be shy because she lives in an environment that implicitly makes her believe that girls are supposed to be shy, and I’m saying we shouldn’t artificially create differences at such an early state of development and we should encourage children to develop their personality instead of encouraging them to embrace gender stereotypes through some kind of passive-sexist attitude.

        As for your quote ““such arguments are often used by women to prove than women have great capacities as well.” …. really? Just …. really?” you should” you should not take my sentence out of its context. I’ve never said it was a bad thing for women to point out that they are as intelligent as men, I’m saying that turning such arguments into a men vs. women competition is still sexist and counter-productive when one wants to show that we are equal.

        And yes we are different, but gender equality is not reached by pointing out differences and asking people to accept them (even though it’s still a good accomplishment, that goes without saying), it’s reached by explaining people that such differences are irrelevant in the end, therefore it should not affect our perspective.

    • Kathy Steel-Smith

      They behave differently because you *expect them to behave differently. The very act of putting one sex at a table because they will tell the other to “be quiet” is perpetuating stereotypes. Shame.

    • Rosemarie Parks

      I’m sorry but science has shown that nature is a large factor in this one.

      A study with chimps has shown that females gravitate towards “girl” toys and the males gravitated towards “boy” toys.

      This comes up again and again in my child behaviour and psychology sessions at my college on my teaching degree course. The fact is, the socialist argument – yours, that it’s the parents who bring boys up to like Action Man instead of Ken etc – is not the only reason for children to have the preferences they have.

      The only thing that is wrong is to deliberately package toys in gender-specific ways and to enforce pink and blue straight away – let children make their own minds up, and try to ignore shameful advertising. But don’t be upset if your toddler prefers playing with trains to that one doll you got him.
      Don’t put a boy down if he *does* play with dolls sometimes or the toy oven, and don’t applaud the girl for making “better” choices and play with guns and stuff. (Or act horrified – whichever gender role you prefer them to have). But do remember there *is* (unfortunately, or fortunately, whichever way you see it) an element of pure nature there.

      Where personality traits come in – being quiet, or shy, or whatever. That probably has just as much to do with nature as nurture, tbh.
      There are always exceptions to rules, though.

  • Lupi Nini

    I love it so much, it filled my heart and my soul with an explanation about how I feel daily and what I think about being a woman <3 <3 <3 ty!

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