Femininity refers to the stereotypical cultural characteristics of women, including roles and behaviors which have nothing to do with the biological sex.
Unlike biological sex, femininity is considered a social construct that’s taught to girls at a young age through gender socialization. In fact, if we look around the world, we can see that different cultures define femininity in different ways (for a seminal text, see Butler (2002) Gender Trouble).
Similarly, we can see that many men exhibit qualities that may be interpreted as feminine, indicating a disconnect between assumptions about biological sex and culturally-defined gender roles.
Below are some traditional examples of femininity. Please don’t interpret this as my beliefs about how women should act or appear – rather, it’s a sociological dive into culturally-defined traits that are increasingly outdated and stereotypical.
Stereotypical Feminine vs Masculine Traits
|Traditional Patriarchal Femininity||Traditional Patriarcal Masculinity|
|1. Empathy||1. Stoicism|
|2. Nurturer||2. Provider|
|3. Emotionality||3. Logic|
|4. Kindness||4. Strength|
|5. Passive||5. Active|
|6. Submissive||6. Domineering|
|7. Preoccupied with looks||7. Preoccupied with power|
|8. Dependent||8. Independent|
|9. Domestic sphere||9. Public sphere|
|10. Talkative||10. Quiet|
|11. Creative||11. Analytical|
|12. Tactful||12. Blunt|
|13. Shy||13. Bold|
|14. Follower||14. Leader|
|15. Refined||15. Rugged|
1. You are a kind and nurturing person
A nurturing personality is seen by society as a desirable trait of women. Historically, this may be because women have been expected to nurture a couple’s offspring—bathe it, breastfeed it, and ensure it is cared for.
All these are feminine traits somewhat expected of a woman. As such, any behavior that has something to do with care and nurture has come to be seen as feminine.
Conversely, men have historically not been expected to be “care givers” because they have to be busy working to bring food to the table. In crass terms, men were expected to earn the money so women could stay home and raise the baby.
Read Also: 81 Types of Genders
2. Preoccupation with physical appearance
Somewhere in our past, it became an assumption that women should try to look desirable to men in order to secure a husband of high social status and wealth. In turn, the man could care for her.
We can see this across a range of cultures – from French women wearing lipstick to Chinese women binding their feet so they look petite. Women have across many cultures are expected to dress in fancy clothes and bathe themselves with perfume to make themselves look good (Cranny-Francis et al., 2017).
As a result, today we have a huge cosmetic industry targeting women: from make-up to lipstick to botox. It is also why there are so many clothes shops selling dresses and shoes for women compared to what is available to men.
Today, then, any behavior that aims to become physically beautiful is considered feminine conduct. A woman who does not attempt to look appealing (in a traditional sense) to men is considered “boyish,” while men who are vain about their looks are considered “feminine.”
3. You speak and behave softly
It was not common in the past for women to establish positions of power in society. Often, women have not been allowed to speak their minds, or not listened to if they did.
This treatment of women eventually led to an expected behavior that women must speak softly and never challenge authority. It became a trait of desirable femininity to be gently spoken and not stir the pot.
Similarly, boisterous women or women who had political opinions were frowned upon and named ‘snarky’, ‘shrill’, or worse.
4. You are emotional
Pandering to the patriarchal narrative of ‘men are logical and women are emotional’, it became a culturally expected trait for women to be more emotional than men.
As a result, women unfairly came to be regarded as people who cannot control their emotions. The idea emerged that they are vulnerable and need to be protected by strong, stoic men.
This narrative harms women because it positions them as incapable of making logical decisions or engaging in difficult or dangerous tasks. It’s been used as a reason why women shouldn’t be placed in positions of power.
This metanarrative about femininity can also be bad for men. Men have learned not to express emotions or else they appear feminine, meaning they must bottle up their fears and worries and never talk about them.
5. You are empathic to what other people feel
It is also seen as a feminine behavior to empathize with how other people feel. In the long years of human history, men were expected to go to war and do dangerous tasks, while women would stay home and care for the family.
Here, we can see that women have consistently been put in positions where they must empathize, care, and nurture. Meanwhile, men are put in tough positions where they must take no prisoners, make decisions that could cause harm to others, and defend their patch against outsiders.
Thus, we have developed a cultural metanarrative of empathy as a feminine trait. If a man expresses too much empathy, he may be seen as a beta male, for example. Similarly, if a woman is seen as empathetic, she is positioned as a potentially good mother and, therefore, a desirable potential romantic partner.
6. You feel sensitive and powerless
Women were put aside in homes for many years. Men, on the other hand, were always put in positions of power. Men fought wars and were expected to be tough.
As such, being sensitive to comments is deemed feminine behavior. Men are brutes and are expected to have thick skin.
It was also rare in the old days to give a woman a job, much less a leadership position. They were powerless. Today, any behavior that shows an inability to fight and lead is often still considered feminine (Sumra, 2019).
7. You feel needy and dependent
Desirable femininity has for centuries been framed as domesticated. The traditional female gender role involved women staying at home while men went out into the world and took action.
This social structure stripped women of power—they could work, but society rarely gave them jobs that could make them earn as much as a man did.
As such, women needed a man—they depended on the husband’s income to survive.
Today, any person who is dependent or reliant on others may be framed as feminine. They are seen as helpless, and they need someone strong to help them survive. This makes them the submissive person in a dominant-submissive relationship.
8. You are collaborative
Women in the past were expected to work together—in the kitchen, sewing rooms, and many other places. They received instructions, and they had to work as a group to advance the general interest of that group.
Men, on the other hand, were expected to dominate and lead. Because of this behavioral expectation in the past, men today who merely follow instructions but do not dominate are considered feminine.
Similarly, this is why leadership is seen as a masculine trait while following is seen as a feminine trait (Sumra, 2019).
9. You are a gossip
Since women in the past were forced into menial work like slicing fruits, cooking, and sewing, they had the time all day to talk about many things in life—gossip. Men, on the other hand, were expected to do backbreaking work like plowing the field.
Today, it is still considered feminine to gossip about other people, as it displays the behavior of women in the past, where they had little to do—and this absence of work gave them idle time to gossip.
Men, on the other hand, were expected not to gossip about someone as it is unmanly. Instead, men were expected to always be taking action rather than passively discussing domestic affairs.
10. You are receptive and passive
Women in many cultures around the world were expected to be meek—they were supposed to obey their husbands (Pilcher & Whelehan, 2016).
Women who spoke against a man were frowned upon. Similarly, it’s why women were for many centuries banned from universities and other intellectual institutions. Because of that, women were forced to be quiet and expected to keep their ideas to themselves.
Still today, when we look into the history books, women were often written out of history. While they surely achieved many great things, the books were written from men’s perspectives about men’s achievements. Women were not written into the books because they were supposed to be passive and subordinate.
Femininity is a social construct. Femininity emerged from social and cultural expectations of how women should behave. Societies in the past treated women as humans with a lower status than men, and they were often framed as the opposite to men. They were assigned the weaker traits, while men were assigned the stronger traits. Patriarchal societies dominated history, and this mindset gave birth to anachronistic ideas about how women and men should be have even to this day.
Recent years have seen a revolution in regards to the concepts of femininity and masculinity. Many people have challenged these norms and started embodying gender-defying character traits that challenge, parody, and undermine cultural assumptions and the above femininity examples.
Butler, J. (2002). Gender trouble. Cambridge: Routledge.
Cranny-Francis, A., Waring, W., Stavropoulos, P., & Kirkby, J. (2017). Gender studies: Terms and debates. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Pilcher, J., & Whelehan, I. (2016). Key concepts in gender studies. London: Sage.
Smith, B. G. (2019). Women’s studies: The basics. London: Routledge.
Sumra, M. K. (2019). Masculinity, femininity, and leadership: Taking a closer look at the alpha female. PloS one, 14(4), e0215181.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]