Language is powerful. Word is law. In our culture, the association of femaleness with weakness and other undesirable traits is so pervasive, we don’t even notice it. It is in the media, it is in our language, it is even in Roget’s Thesaurus.

And I quote:

Femininity: syn. Sissiness, prissiness, weaker sex, bitch, slut, doll, chick, kittenish, maidenly, soft, chicken.

Compare that to Roget’s description of the male gender.

Masculinity: syn. Virility, potency, vigor, gentlemanly, cock, stud.

For me, coming of age in the mid-1970s and early ‘80s meant rejecting anything that seemed too “feminine,” i.e. weak, prissy, not to be taken seriously. After all, to be “female” is to be moody, unreliable, and vacuous (vacuous means stupid, sweetie).

If I lacked evidence of this in my personal environment, there were plenty of examples in the media. Beautiful women without position or power were like Crissy, the bubble headed blonde on the popular TV sitcom Three’s Company. Women with power got it from their husbands and then abused it. Like the wicked Alex on Dynasty, strong, smart women were portrayed as wielding power underhandedly and getting what they want by being sneaky, seductive, manipulative and backstabbing. The women who have claim to “legitimate power,” who are successful in their own right and upfront about what they want, are labeled as “bitchy” e.g. Barbara Streisand and Madonna.

Outwardly, women have progressed socially, economically, and many have, by law, attained the basic natural rights to life, liberty and property afforded to our brothers for centuries. Yet no matter how much we act as if the world has changed, women are still, as Alice Walker put it, “the niggers of the world.” For no matter how far we progress in improving our outer circumstances, we are growing, working, loving, living and dying in a context where femininity is held with contempt, disrespect, and fear.

The clue to how this works, and the key to transforming it, is in the language. How we “hear” the terms for feminine: female, girl, womanly, directs our interpretation instantaneously, and we relate to the idea based on our internalized notions of what feminine means. It is not our logical mind that responds to those words, it is our conditioned mind and our emotions that immediately call up specific impressions.

Let me give you an example.

“You play like a girl!”

What’s your reaction? Did I insult you? Do you feel like you messed up or got too emotional? Do you feel the urge to distance yourself from this label, to be ANYTHING BUT a girl?

Try this one on:

“Take it like a man!”

What happens to your body language? Do you sit up straight and get a “stiff upper lip”? Do you sense an opportunity to be strong and honorable?

Let’s go back to Roget’s Thesaurus and look at another descriptive term for the feminine: Womanly.

Womanly: syn. changeable, delicate, modest, reproductive, sensitive, shy, soft, tender, twisty, vixenish, weak.

Do you hear the qualities of an effective leader? Does this describe an equal partner or a valued friend?

Let’s check out manly.

Manly: syn. bold, brave, confident, daring, dauntless, dignified, fearless, firm, gallant, heroic, powerful, resolute, robust, self-reliant, strong, undaunted, vigorous, virile.

Now, that’s the guy we want! Give him the key to the executive washroom.

In child development, gender roles are most profoundly defined during adolescence. Each adolescent girl looks for clues to figure out what it means to be a woman. What is it to behave “womanly?” How are women different from men?

For my mother and her mother the expectations for women’s behavior were longstanding and obvious: marry, defer to the husband, have babies, care for families, and keep a warm, orderly and loving home. Being feminine clearly and overtly lined up with being “sensitive, soft, and reproductive.”

In the late 1970s and early 80s, women declared new social roles and expectations for themselves. The role of the modern woman appeared to be dramatically different than the 1950s and early 60s. I was encouraged to get an education and be career minded. Young women, like men, were taught to work for financial independence first; then see to the roles of spouse and parent.


“A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”—Unknown

I got my first period at age 14 in 1978. The same year the push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment peaked in momentum before tumbling into oblivion. During this era, the feminist movement put a lot of emphasis on demonstrating parity between women and men, arguing that women can and should do anything men can do, the same way as men, and even better than men.

It’s no wonder women viewed the path to power as adopting more “masculine” qualities.
To exhibit the quality “feminine” as it exists in our language was bound to engender a patronizing, untrusting response. To get ahead in a man’s world, women chose to embrace the defining qualities of “masculine”, so we rejected “soft, twisty and weak” and took on “daring, strong and undaunted”.

We called the movement Feminism, but it would have been more aptly named Masculinism because it perpetuated the worship of masculine qualities and the degradation of the feminine. The feminist movement was and still is acting under the supposition that masculine qualities were more desirable, more reliable, and more powerful.

In our efforts to fit in and succeed in a “man’s world,” we pretended the key to power is to become more “manly.” Becoming manly women has helped us in many ways. There are more women executives, more women in Congress, more women earning salaries equal to or above their male partners. But no matter how many job promotions we get, we are still living under the tyranny of the language. Femininity is still heard the same way it has been since before women had the right to vote.

Femininity continues to be shunned, degraded and considered a quality that is not to be trusted. As feminists, we not only failed to promote the authentic feminine, we abandoned it, creating fragmentation inside ourselves and distance from each other.

In late September, 1966, right after my second birthday, my mother rejected the role for woman that she had be raised to fulfill. She divorced my father and moved us several hundred miles away. She went back to school, first completing her B.A., then her Masters’ Degree, and finally, got her Ph.D. in 1980. She always worked at least two jobs until I was a sophomore in high school.

I came home to an empty apartment most days after school. My mother would arrive around 6:00 in the evening and cook dinner for us. I could hear her typing for hours after I went to bed, and she got up before dawn most mornings.

My mother worked very hard to make it, and she did. I was proud of her, and at the same time, I felt alone, unprotected, and confused. My mother’s life was hard. My life was lonely. I wanted my mother to be home when I got home, and I wanted her to bake cookies for me.

I was jealous of my friends who had stay-at-home moms, yet I felt disdain for women who were “dependent” on men and stayed home with the kids.

Whatever it meant to be “womanly,” I knew I didn’t want my mother’s experience. I also knew that the Reagan-Era reactionary backlash that was attempting to guilt women back into housewifery was not for me either.

As I moved through adolescence, I tended to choose male friends over females. My select female friends I viewed as more like the boys, i.e. athletic, bright, and career-bound. I had no time or interest for “girly-girls” who I perceived as shallow, superficial, and dumb.

Growing up, I dreamed of a life where I would “have it all.” I wanted to be an independent career woman, a wife and a mom who would be home with my kids after school. How to do it came to me like an epiphany in a catchy jingle from a popular perfume company, “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never, never, never let you forget you’re a man, ‘cause I’m a woman!” That was it. The answer was so clear: all I had to do to have it all was to do it all.

And so I did. I got married, built a successful business, had two kids, nursed them both for a total of 28 months, kept up a great body, had an active marital sex life, and put a homemade dinner on the table most nights. It worked great, except by the time I was 36 years old, I was exhausted, drained and dried up. I shared with a friend that I felt like a giant nipple. I was feeding everyone in my life but me. The map that I thought would lead to a fulfilling and happy life had led to a dead end. I had created a situation where everyone depended on me, no one was allowed to contribute to me, and I was parched and pissed.

I turned my anger toward my husband and directed lots of judgments against him. That he was a “trophy” husband, who looked good and contributed little to supporting the family, that he was weak, that he gave in easily, couldn’t stand up to pressure, that he was flighty, spaced out, not able to think effectively or problem solve, and one day, with a divorce pending, as I was in a counseling session listing everything I “hated” about my husband, I started to notice something. Trophy. Weak. Only worthy if gorgeous. Flighty. Undependable. Dumb. Poor without a provider. Every one of these was a judgment I had unconsciously held against women, against femininity, and as a result, against myself. I wrote them down. One, by one, I listed nearly 40 judgments.

I read the list, over and over, and the more I read it, the more I questioned. Where did I get these ideas? Not from my experience, I was certain. It was as if someone had been at my bedside, since the day I was born, whispering in my ear while I slept until I believed I was hearing my own thoughts. “Womanly means weak” seemed as if it were a fact. I never questioned it, I never even heard it. It was just there, like the sound of my own breath.

As a woman, I had denied my female essence. I was pretending to be an empowered woman while rejecting being “feminine.” I had always known myself to be a “feminist,” yet I pretended that my masculine qualities were what helped me be successful. The result was I felt angry and exhausted. I undervalued the women in my life. I looked to men to give me a sense of value, wholeness and worth. I only considered masculine qualities admirable. I never even looked to find qualities of femaleness that I could admire.

Armed with these realizations, I began to forgive myself for each and every judgment and come up with an affirmation of the truth.

“I forgive myself for judging myself and women and ‘feminine’ as back stabbing: The truth is women are embracing.”

“I forgive myself for judging myself and women as conniving. The truth is women create in flow.”

With each reframe, I could feel myself soften inside begin to appreciate, embrace and cherish other women.

“I forgive myself for judging myself and women and ‘feminine’ as flighty, the truth is women are the roots of every family tree.

“I forgive myself for judging myself and women as clueless, the truth is we hold within us all the wisdom of the universe!”

And ultimately to cherish myself.

“I forgive myself for judging myself and women and ‘feminine’ as ‘victim’: The truth is, I create my experience and have infinite power to heal.”

“I forgive myself for judging myself and women as having no sense of self. The truth is I am the Self.”

Hidden for centuries under a shroud of judgment and misidentification, the real truth is that both masculine and feminine energy are potentially powerful and noble, and both are necessary. To allow femininity its full, authentic expression, to honor the qualities of feminine for what they truly are, to embrace the feminine essence as a resource, to celebrate femininity as a gift is to be human, to be whole, to be healed. We just need to hear femininity in a new way.

Here’s a suggestion for the next edition of Roget’s Thesaurus.

Femininity: syn. abundant, accepting, attentive, benevolent, compassionate, cooperative, creative, earthy, embracing, expansive, flexible, flowing, grounding, healing, life giving, loving, nurturing, protective, radiant, receptive, resilient, resourceful, succulent, tolerant, unifying, wellspring, wild, wise.

Now, breathe.

Author's Bio: 

Robin Hoffman, MA is an author, speaker, radio show host and coach. Tune into her radio show: The Feminine Soul on or check out her latest book, I Take Thee...How to Spot a Romantic Financial Predator and what to Do If You Are Already Involved.