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.