Caitlyn Jenner has been a source of much controversy in the past year, so it was no surprise that sparks flew recently when she said that the hardest part about being a woman was “figuring out what to wear.” Maybe that’s the case if you’re a reality TV star living among the Kardashian clan, but pretty much every other self-respecting woman on earth (and some men, too) was less than thrilled with this gross simplification of what it means to be a woman.
Perhaps the one good thing about Jenner’s comment is that it has allowed us the opportunity to really consider womanhood.
When I think about what it means to be a woman, I admit that I tend to think about femininity and how we express that. What does it mean to be feminine? Is it wearing pearls and nice dresses? Staying at home to care for children and tend to the house while your husband works? Is it our mannerisms—dainty waves, coy smiles, batting lashes? All of these images hark back to visions of femininity as a specific external style and dress—ones which may have been in style more in the past than today. In that sense, Jenner was on to something in that our external expression matters.
But given a view of femininity—and by extension, womanhood—that is associated with gender roles and adjectives that we largely reject today, it’s also easy to see how some may be tempted to throw out the entire notion of “femininity” as outdated and constricting. But what if we thought of femininity not in terms of looks or words such as sensitive, passive, weak, dependent, submissive, and helpless? What if femininity was understood as something more enduring and timeless—the simple quality of being a woman?
Femininity means more than a role or an aesthetic; it’s not simply dressing the part, so to speak. It’s an essence, something inherent. Even now, we’re crafting new meanings of femininity and reconfiguring the roles that women can play in the modern world. And yet, as women, we seek to understand what that unique distinction means for us and how to embrace what we are. To be sure, traits such as tenderness, even weakness, are not flaws. We should not be ashamed of sensitivity. Nor should we confine ourselves to outdated stereotypes of what being a woman means. Both traditional and modern-minded women can agree, there’s power and privilege in being a woman.
A 2006 report titled “Gender Identity and Perceptions of Femininity in Everyday Life” examined the lives and views of well-educated, professional women of middle-class backgrounds, ages 25 to 30, residing in Oslo, Shanghai, and Sydney. These women most associated feminine behavior with “stoicism, empathy, and care for the welfare of others,” the authors wrote:
“Additional feminine behaviors include effectively juggling numerous roles, such as earning a decent living through paid employment, bringing up children, and maintaining a clean and tidy home. In sum, informants’ responses suggest that a feminine person should be able to show vulnerability but at the same time be strong enough to maintain multiple feminine roles in everyday life.”
“Young well-educated American women regard their ideal selves as comprising a mix of fifteen to twenty masculine and feminine traits,” the report said, referencing a 2000 study that included Americans. “Of these, eight are traditionally masculine traits, notably independence, individualism, defending one’s beliefs, and self-reliance. Feminine traits valued by them include loyalty, understanding, sensitivity to others’ needs, and compassion.”
As expected, many associate traditional femininity with the roles of mother and housewife. But questions of gender roles make for quite contentious discussion these days. Men and women and our respective roles are not so black and white as they used to be. Women can be housewives or working moms, just as men can be breadwinners or stay-at-home dads. We’re adopting a more fluid scale of traits, temperaments, and capabilities, and we’re having to change our methods of self-evaluation in the process.
In a 2013 survey, more than two-thirds of people ages 14 to 34 agree that gender does not determine a person’s identity, and six in ten said they believe that men and women do not have to conform to traditional gender norms. Another study found that 79 percent of Americans believe we should not revert to traditional gender roles of women as homemakers and men as providers.
Americans still like the thought of stay-at-home mothers, but the ideal isn’t always practical. Sixty-four percent of mothers with young children work, and 72 percent of these women work full time. According to the Pew Research Center, most Americans believe it’s in the best interest of young children and women themselves that mothers work part time or not at all, compared to those who believe that working full time is the “ideal situation.”
For many women, the paths of family life and career life converge at some point. A 2015 survey by Pew Research Center found that family size has increased among highly educated women; likewise, fewer women with postgraduate degrees are remaining childless. Rather than foregoing motherhood, many educated and career-minded become first-time mothers in their thirties, their careers already established.
How we express ourselves, as feminine women, is changing in many respects—the way we dress, how we communicate, and so on. What these studies, and others, show is how just one aspect of our femininity—the way we approach motherhood—is evolving. Women are still reveling in the gift of motherhood but in a way that allows them to also pursue other things.
But just because we are defying our former stereotypes doesn’t mean that traditionalists are in the wrong. True evolution comes in recognizing and accepting many views on what it means to be a woman. Our culture lacks “a proper recognition of the unique value of femininity and its crucial mission in the world,” says modern philosopher Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, who has written prolifically on “the privilege of being a woman.” For me, her writings have illuminated what it means to embrace traditional feminine values as a modern woman.
Many women today “fail to understand that their true mission is to swim against the tide,” Dr. von Hildebrand writes, but by comparing ourselves to men’s standards, we’re swimming with it.
Women have often been called “the weaker sex,” but the term doesn’t do us justice, Dr. von Hildebrand says. “To be conscious of one’s weakness,” she writes, “is the way to authentic strength and victory.” The very attributes of femininity to go under fire—such as nurturing, self-giving, vulnerability, and sensitivity—can actually be our greatest strengths.
“Femininity is the linchpin of human life; once it is uprooted, the consequences are disastrous,” Dr. von Hildebrand writes. By dismantling gender norms, our culture has compromised femininity in the process.
Dr. von Hildebrand’s insights are great reminders of how we should be confident and comfortable with femininity and that being empowered women should mean embracing our femininity rather than rejecting it. True feminism does not undermine femininity; true feminism supports women, including those who identify with gender norms and choose to live out their femininity as such.
We can cling to clichés, or we can create a positive, empowering definition of what femininity can mean for modern women. Femininity encompasses sweetness and strength, human weakness, and will. It’s being gentle and generous, kind and brave, in our own ways. It’s passion and grace. Depth and lightheartedness. It’s confidence in who we are, the courage to be vulnerable. It’s in our capacity to love and nurture. It’s a definition that varies from woman to woman, one we’re writing and rewriting every day. These identities only scratch the multifaceted surface of what it means to be a woman, but they’re worth celebrating.