Feminine vs Feminism

Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Society dictates that my shoulders distract my male peers, catcalls should flatter me and when I am referred to so-and-so’s girlfriend, I should be proud. The nuances of daily life reveal that I, alongside other women, are passive creatures—dolls to be dressed up, trophies to be admired and bodies to be owned.


As a teenage girl, I calculate my appearance each day: is the sum of my makeup and hairstyle divided by my outfit greater than the male gaze? Am I dressing up truly for my own confidence or for attention? Is it okay to enjoy admiration? Is it at the cost of my dignity? Does my femininity detract from my feminism?
Three millennia ago, Hesiod created the first woman—or rather, the myth of the first woman, Pandora, and the narrative for all women. In the Theogony, Pandora is a “sheer inescapable snare for men. From her descend the race of women…the baneful race and types”. Women, according to the Ancient Greeks, were beautiful, but immoral; a man’s job, therefore, was controlling the opposite gender and their immorality.


A century ago, the Women’s Rights Movement was at its pinnacle. Despite the massive effort to achieve equality, men in power deemed women inept at politics and finances. Since the beginning of womankind, the battle between beauty and brains has inflicted casualties on female confidence through brandishing glass ceilings and sly remarks as weapons. Women constantly struggle to prove that they are more than a sum of body parts. Some feminists believe that women must deny their femininity—to toss away gender stereotypes, with their mascara and blush. Others want to wield their sex as a power––to hold their beauty and sensuality like a loaded gun up against the head of misogyny. Regardless of approach, women should express themselves however they choose.
Women have demonstrated that femininity does not distract from leadership. Femininity is not a synonym for “servient, coquettish, physically or intellectually weak”, but instead describes an “aptitude for nurturance, for beautifying life or for [a] sensitivity to the feelings of others”. Femininity can serve as a weapon.


Feminist icon, Simone de Beauvoir, believes that “any self-assertion will take away from her femininity and her seductiveness”. She finds herself confused: “It is perfectly natural for the future woman to feel indignant at the limitations posed upon her by her sex. The real question is not why she should reject them: the problem is rather to understand why she accepts them”. De Beauvoir cannot comprehend why a woman would succumb to gender roles: is femininity really more important than self-assertion?
Dolly Parton, also a tireless advocate for gender equality, reverses de Beauvoir’s question. Parton believes that femininity is a form of self-assertion – the two go together. The country music star is completely aware that some believe she looks like “town trash”, but she is also completely aware of the power her sexualized image holds: “I look like a woman but I think like a man. I’ve done business with men who think I’m as silly as I look. By the time they realize I’m not, I’ve got the money and gone”. Parton exploits sexism to amplify her voice and gain a seat at the table. Her power comes from confidence in herself and the strength of her femininity.


Not every feminine feminist is as bold as Dolly Parton; some demonstrate a quiet strength that equally pervades society. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a much more muted version of Elle Woods. However, Ginsberg knew of the greater battle she would face someday, “sheathing her ambition in order to progress”. Despite not parading about in neon pink outfits, Ginsburg found little ways to assert her femininity into the male-dominated world of law.


Once on the Supreme Court, swathed in black robes and misogyny, she took every opportunity to assert her opinion, including through her fashion. Ginsburg wore beautifully decorated collars to silently subvert the overbearing masculine energy of court. She described the standard robe as “made for a man because it has a place for the shirt to show, and the tie,” so she “thought it would be appropriate if [she] included as part of [her] robe something typical of a woman”. Her goal was not to blend in with the men. She was a woman on the Supreme Court— she was going to stand out. After unsheathing her ambition, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was ready to fight for equality. She knew that winning is about persevering in one’s beliefs.


Femininity does not preclude one from the club of feminism. Feminism is about empowering women—all women, whether they subscribe to femininity or not. Whether in tight skirts, sweatshirts, Converse or towering high heels, when women are finally equal to men, we will walk hand in hand across the glittering shards of this country’s shattered glass ceiling.

-Annie Cui ’22

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