Where do the traits associated with femininity come from?

While it is certainly a combination of biological and social factors that have contributed over the centuries to our western concept of what femininity and masculinity look like, the denigration of characteristics associated with what is female and the assignment of negative attributes to the female identity has been a purely social construction. For example, traits that are assigned to femininity often include sensitivity or emotionality, and while awareness of other peoples’ feelings and an ability to express emotion are not innately negative, western conventionality teaches us that these traits go along with weakness, they become insults. While the origins of the association of, for example, emotional intelligence and women is debatable, the devaluing of this intelligence is a result of oppression and the writing of our cultural history by the oppressors.

In Barbra Ehrenreich’s The Sexual Politics of Sickness, the association between women and frailty is explored through a historical lens. An epidemic of chronic illness among upper class women in the late 19th century appeared to provide proof for the idea of female weakness, when in fact it was symptomatic of wide spread depression and a desire for some autonomy among women who were allowed no power and intellectual stimulation. This is indicative of a greater historical pattern: the oppressors create the conditions under which women are treated as if they are feeble minded and then exclaim that women are innately feeble minded because, hey look at them, wandering around the house all day feeling faint and not being involved in the outside world. The narrative designed by the privileged sex becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when they hold the power to write our cultural and social guidelines.

Ehrenreich, Barbara and Deirdre English. For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Expert’s       Advice to Women. New York: Anchor Books, 2005, second edition.

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