“The thing women must do to rise to power is to redefine their femininity. Once, power was considered a masculine attribute. In fact power has no sex.”
— Katherine Graham, journalist, publisher of the Washington Post.
I’ve heard it said that Lucille Ball, despite being in charge of a hugely successful TV production house, would start each board meeting by making sure she was spotted cleaning the boardroom table.
Lucille Ball, I quote, demonstrated that a woman could be beautiful and silly, and that she could perform the most outrageous of slapstick routines and still be feminine.
Still be feminine. Phew. Lucky save.
So what’s that mean exactly?
What is femininity?
According to NECESSARY DREAMS: AMBITION IN WOMEN’S CHANGING LIVES (Anna Fels), femininity is defined by relationships to others. They take as the basis for this assertion studies done using the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI). Given 60 traits to classify as either ‘feminine’, ‘masculine’ or ‘neutral’, the words that wound up most often in the feminine basket included, say: yielding, compassionate, sympathetic and understanding. Traits impossible to utilise without the presence of someone to whom you can be yielding & sympathetic.
Also feminine is this label: flatterable. Thereby implying women’s inappropriate & likely ill-founded interest in recognition. Flattery. As opposed to praise. Because praise implies the recipient’s worthiness.
Masculinity, alternatively, takes possession of* words like these: self-reliant, independent, individualistic and ambitious. Traits that celebrate self & require no one else. Traits that wind up being useful for promotion & career.
“Other early women of achievement [snip] minimized role conflicts by removing themselves from customary caretaker roles: before the mid-twentieth century, most women of accomplishment did not even try to combine the traditional female roles of wife and mother with their vocations. Among women writers — one of the professions most hospitable to women — prior to the mid-twentieth century, a hugely disproportionate number were single or childless: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Edith Wharton, Emily Dickinson, Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and Katherine Mansfield, to name but a few.”
— ibid. pp. 165.
Times change. Slowly, but they do. The new challenge is not to choose one role & stick to it; it’s how to combine roles. Maybe, then, what we need is more androgyny.
“The concept of psychological androgyny implies that it is possible for an individual to be both compassionate and assertive, both expressive and instrumental, both feminine and masculine, depending upon the situational appropriateness of these various modalities. And it further implies that an individual may even blend these complementary modalities in a single act, such as the ability to fire an employee, if the circumstances warrant it, but with sensitivity for the human emotion that such an act inevitably produces.”
— Sandra Bem, Bem Sex Role Inventory Manual
Good work, Ms Bem. An interesting & praise-worthy concept there. ;)
* Yes, the active/passive phrasing was on purpose.