Masculinity and gender asymmetry

The index to my forthcoming book is now finished, but compiling it gave an interesting insight into how asymmetric any discussion of gender inevitably is. Though I’ve talked before about the possibilities of feminist indexing, my index tended to gather most of the relatively small amount of information included about women under one index term. I was pleased, however, to have ‘heterosexuality’ as well as ‘homosexuality’ in the index, so that heterosexuality isn’t just an unmarked default, and to include the parallel terms of ‘sexual activity, female’ and ‘sexual activity, male’.

But some terms just don’t come easily in parallels. I had ‘lordship’ and ‘lordship, female’, because ‘lordship, male’ would be disingenuous; lordship is marked in the term itself as being a relationship between men – there’s no obvious ‘ladyship’ form. And despite all that I’ve written on masculinity and gender over the years, I’ve used the term ‘femininity’ only a handful of times.

There’s an interesting asymmetry in these terms when I’ve looked them up in reference sources. The Oxford English Dictionary records ‘femininity’ as first used by Chaucer in about 1386, and gives several fifteenth-century uses, in which it broadly means ‘female nature’. In contrast, their first citation for ‘masculinity’ is from 1748. My Collins English Dictionary, from 1979, has ‘femininity’, but not ‘masculinity’. Yet if you search on COPAC, you get 1911 hits for books with ‘masculinity’ in the title, and 617 for ‘femininity’. To my ears, ‘femininity’ sounds wrong for use in discussing the Middle Ages. Just as ‘manliness’ for me has too many Victorian connotations, ‘femininity’ comes with a sense of a particular form of expected female behaviour that I associate primarily with the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

I think this has something to do with long-term gender biases in Western society. It’s noticeable, for example, that one of the most consistently used gender words in English is ‘effeminate’, which has been used from around 1430, comes directly from Latin, and has almost never been used in a positive sense. Yet there’s no obvious opposite term to this, because for a woman to become masculine has often been seen positively.

In the same way, ‘femininity’ as a positive quality implies an ideal of female behaviour that is absolute – the best that a woman can be. This is summed up nicely in a quotation from an 1835 magazine from the OED entry: ‘She was all that my most romantic dreams had fancied of femininity’. Yet throughout the classical period, the Middle Ages and into the early modern period, the greatest achievement for a woman was to be masculine: from the ‘manly’ behaviour of Roman heroines, through to Elizabeth I’s declaration: ‘I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king’.

‘Femininity’ seems to come to me from a world that is differently gendered: one in which women cannot and should not become like men. Perhaps it’s not surprising that it is one of the key terms attacked by feminist thought, from ‘The Feminine Mystique’ onwards. I still cannot hear the term without thinking of the lines from Hello Dolly: ‘It Takes a Woman’: ‘And so she’ll work until infinity / Three cheers for femininity’. I don’t know whether ‘femininity’ can be rehabilitated as an academic word, but at the moment it doesn’t feel right for me to use the term. All of which just confirms once again how writing about gender combines the present and the past in very complex ways.


4 thoughts on “Masculinity and gender asymmetry

  1. This is really thought-provoking. I’ve been thinking a lot about this since hearing Allan Frantzen’s paper at the Zoo, this really helps to flesh out my thoughts. I was thinking that, to some extent, we can’t get rid of the binary of masculine-feminine, but this makes me think that there is something else going on. It’s almost as if womanhood is implicit, and understood in one way, unless described otherwise — notice is only taken if a woman is a virago, or a femina or mulier X. I think. Maybe. I shall have to come back when the thoughts coalesce.


    • It is one of the things about my charters that I would like there to be a simple explanation for that I might some day grasp, that female transactors or witnesses are often but not always specified as `femina’ (unless they have some other dignity like `abatissa’ or `deo vota’ of course). Why not always? Why at all? Men are of course never described solely in gender terms in these documents. It’s not as simple as one transacting or witnessing; women do both of these things and sometimes are not called `femina’. I continue to puzzle over it.

      There’s one will where a woman leaves a chunk of property to someone she calls `femina mea’ and I’ve always wondered what on earth was implied there. If it were a slave or serf I’d expect `ancilla’ at least, or `liberta’ maybe though I never see that language here. A companion, seems the obvious answer but that isn’t really what’s been said. It’s just as well I don’t have a time machine or I’d spend a lot of time tracking down frightened scribes and demanding “cur hac scripsisti eh?”


  2. I think both your comments raise some interesting questions about unmarked/marked status. At least in the western world, the default generic human is white and male, so that you have conceptual pairings such as football/women’s football or actors/black actors. And Alice Rio and Jinty Nelson were arguing in a recent IHR seminar (which I will blog about at some point), that the ‘se quis’ of the barbarian laws (“if anyone”) is a generic male, encompassing both sexes in the regulations.

    So I think the answer to Jonathan’s question about why women often get called ‘femina’ is that women are by definition not normal, and thus always potentially noteworthy, but that’s it down to an individual scribe at any point whether or not he writes down this peculiar characteristic of theirs (just as someone today might refer to Morgan Freeman as a black actor in some circumstances and not others).

    But then you get the paradox that femininity/womanliness seems to be a less marked state than masculinity/maleness, at least in the classical world and the Middle Ages. I think this has something to do with what being masculine or feminine involved for upper class men/women (who are the predominant focus of the sources). The Roman world was clear than not every ‘homo’ (male) was a ‘vir’ (proper man’), only certain elite ones. I’d argue that Christianity (and Carolingian versions of it particularly) in contrast tended to allow all men the potential to be manly, but there’s still a strong association of (upper-class) manliness with being a warrior, whether literally or spiritually. And that kind of manliness has to be achieved; it’s not a default status.

    On the other hand, the basic upper class female role was to be a wife and mother, and that pretty much was the default fate of a girl once she reached puberty – it took determination not to end up in that state, as some marriage-refusing female saints show. I think femininity as an achieved status is largely a product of the C18 onwards, where the gradual disappearance of dynastic marriages meant young women were having to compete personally to achieve marriage, and thus gain full womanly status. (Though I’d be interested to know if there’s more emphasis on femininity as a status to be chased after in polygamous societies, which are also marked by increased competition between women).


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