Human personality traits, which anyone is capable of experiencing, are assigned to the social construction of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ in order to reinforce male supremacy. From birth, women are assigned personality traits which are traditionally supposed to keep us compliant and controlled, such as co-operation, gentleness, kindness. They firmly place us in a subordinate caste. We are conditioned, controlled and punished unless, and until, we display these traits. From birth, men are assigned traits which will reinforce male superiority such as domination and aggression. They firmly place men in a dominant caste. Men are taught to dominate and dismiss women and to fight with each other over women as commodities in order to determine who is top of the pile. These traits, we are taught, are ingrained in each gender leading to women as submissive and men as ‘naturally’ (sic) dominant. Women adopting masculinist traits leads to a reinforcement of this system because those individuals merely reinforce the whole premise that domination of one human over another is inevitable (or, rather, that individual women can dominate other women). Subversive herstorical feminist projects have sought to turn on its head assumptions that personality traits, which are seen as traditionally ‘feminine’, are to be devalued. Instead, the projects sought to value, respect and elevate particular personality traits assigned to women e.g. empathy, understanding, care-giving. It is no coincidence that motherhood, carers of adults and paid work in the care sector are unpaid/among the lowest kind of paid work possible under capitalism. That is because these traits and conditioned skills are essential for a compassionate society but are assigned to ‘femininity’ and, therefore, are as under-valued as possible. It is feminist, therefore, to value traits and skills which are about social cohesiveness above a male dominated world where men fight, kill, murder and rape in their millions.
We used to think that if only men could cry and individual women could do male jobs patriarchy could be overturned. We now know that it’s far more complex than that – assigned personality traits according to gender are embedded in institutions, structures, societal rewards and punishments ensuring that masculinist ways of behaving are rewarded and ‘femininity’ reinforces female subordination.
Nowadays, many women think that reinforcing masculinist behaviours in themselves, and other women, is a good thing because, they argue, they are breaking free of the bonds that hold them. All that happens is that the concept of ‘masculinity’ as a superior way of constructing society, is reinforced and women as a caste are still imprisoned by it (even if some women find ways of expressing masculinist personality traits and are no longer punished for it). Outside of patriarchy, kindness, compassion, empathy, honesty would be traits which hold communities together; they would prevent ‘otherness’, they would prevent war and rivalry; they enable societies to work together for the common good as opposed to individuals vying against each other. Socialism says little about the role gendered traits play in upholding unequal, masculinist societies. Feminism of old said a lot and women began communities and activist projects which actively sought to tear down male notions of superior masculinist personality traits and behaviours. Away from men, and their conditioned assumptions that domination and control is ‘inherent’, women began finding alternative ways of community-building. The danger for women, conditioned to be ever-kind to those in need, is that part of the package is to put men and others before ourselves and the caste of women. Being stuck in ‘femininity’, as opposed to breaking relevant personality traits free so we can create alternatives to patriarchy, is an ongoing challenge for us.
There is, of course, a second aspect to ‘femininity’ which, these days, is where both feminist activism and queer theory/transgenderism focuses. It’s about the outer trappings of ‘femininity’ – long hair, dresses, any outward social signifiers that someone is a woman, not a man. These trappings such as bras, high heels, tight or short dresses are designed to restrict and control women and are a different method of reinforcing male supremacy over women. If we can’t run because what we wear restricts us, it’s as if we’re held in a trap, ready and waiting for our captors. Radical feminism seeks to abolish all these trappings which is why we are often viewed as ‘gender non-conforming’ when we practice rejection of male-identified ’femininity’ as individuals. Other feminists have written extensively about this so I’m not going to labour the point other than to confirm I strongly agree with a rejection of ‘femininity’ in this context.
One of the many issues we have with transgenderism (the ideology and practice of claiming it is possible for men to transition to become women) is that, too often, it is the outer trappings of ‘femininity’ which dictates that transition. Either they say they’re more comfortable aping these ‘feminine’ trappings rather than those of ‘masculinity’ or that the ’feminine’ trappings are innate within them. And, when they say they ‘feel like’ a woman, they almost always mean ‘femininity’ which (radical) feminists reject wholeheartedly as a tool of our oppression. What doesn’t accompany the outer ‘feminine’ trappings, is personality trait conditioning along gender lines. M-to-F have often lived many years conditioned as boys and men; learning that when they speak they should be heard and that aggression gets them places under patriarchy. That behaviour is almost never abandoned after transitioning and nor can it be easily unlearnt after a lifetime of conditioning. Consequently, abuse, threats of violence, successful silencing of radical feminists about anything to do with female liberation are rife among anti-feminist transgender activists (AFTAs). That is the dangerous context of the male supremacist notion that personality traits should be socially constructed along gender lines.
Some younger feminists, who’ve not been through these years-old debates, such as the ones briefly outlined here, have interpreted all this as me saying that ‘femininity is empowering’. Greenham and other feminist community projects, where we tried to do things together cooperatively, carefully and kindly, seem now to be lost. I strongly urge a move away from radical feminists trying to re-enforce masculinist notions such as hierarchy, cruelty, ‘doxxing’, ‘calling women out’ activism-by-ego, ’trolling’ other feminists, pretence at being ’neutral’ in the face of feminist arguments and the rest. It’s horrific and adds to the ‘toxic stew’ which is patriarchy. This is NOT the same as a failure to hold ourselves and other women to account for anti-feminist behaviours, especially when done in the name of feminism.