What does it mean to be feminine?
I’ve sought the answer from others many times. I’ve wished that people who are smarter or godlier or more well-read than I am would talk about it in a way I could trust. I still wish that. But I think it’s worthwhile to try to answer your own questions, to be curious enough to at least do a little bit of work to figure it out. So this is me trying to do that.
Femininity in the Church
Growing up in the church, femininity was often defined by lists of virtues or spiritual characteristics such as the fruits of the Spirit or by functions and roles within the home and family. Sometimes it was even defined by common psychological and social differences between men and women.
All of these approaches held some truth, but I think only clarified part of a much larger picture of what femininity is.
The fruits of the Spirit or even characteristics of godly female examples in the Bible are largely traits that BELIEVERS should cultivate, not necessarily traits that define humans as women.
Being a godly and virtuous human is foundational to being a excellent woman, but these virtues are not what sets us apart as women.
Certainly a woman’s role in her family is important, and we should understand what makes a woman a good wife and a good mother.
But wife and mother is are only two of the many roles a woman may fulfill. And defining femininity solely in terms of family life fails to acknowledge the many single women in our church, some who are longing for marriage and motherhood and some who are joyfully serving God in their singleness, with no expectation for marriage and family.
Being a daughter, sister, and friend are also vital and important roles in the physical family. Further, believing women all have a familial role in their spiritual family, the church.
Being single or childless does not make you less feminine.
Psychological or social differences between men and women may be common, but they are generalizations. And all generalizations have exceptions. They describe the reality of how most women function, not necessarily an ideal to which all women should aspire.
But they are often treated as an ideal. And doing so stunts women in their spiritual, emotional, and intellectual growth, both those who fit the more typical mold and those who don’t.
Femininity in the Secular World
In the secular world, femininity can be described any way an individual wants it to be. Feminism further complicates it. In the largely secular birth world that I often interact within, I’ve been exposed to the very best of feminism. In fact, it is the women in the birth world, both Christian and secular, who have most affirmed me as a woman.
But without a higher standard to conform to, secular definitions of femininity offer ideals that are too fluid to aspire to.
Often, the church’s definitions of femininity are too narrow to be applicable and affirming to all women, and the secular world’s definitions of femininity are too subjective to be meaningful.
I have struggled to find a definition flexible enough for all women to aspire to, but that affirms women as they are created to be and gives them something to aspire to outside of personal fulfillment.
A Meaningful Definition
So if femininity defined by lists of characteristics and roles within the family is too narrow, and femininity defined as whatever you want it to be is too fluid, where does that leave us?
Genesis 1:27 says,
Human beings came into the world, male and female, in the image of God. The biological sex of a human being is meaningful to their purpose in the world and in their accurate reflection of the image of God.
Our biology, our physical characteristics and the functions of our bodies, which are often treated with so much suspicion by the church and disregard by the world, are meaningful in our definition of femininity.
Men’s bodies are bigger and stronger than women’s. Men are naturally more aggressive. Using one’s physical strength to protect and provide safety for one’s family and community is at the heart of being a man.
Women’s bodies are undoubtedly designed to nurture life. Women carry, birth, and nurture babies, the offspring man and woman create together. Giving, sustaining, and nurturing life is at the heart of being a woman.
So I would like to offer this definition, in hopes that it can provide clarity without legalism and be applicable to all women in a way that calls them to a high ideal while still affirming them as the unique individuals they are.
As I write this definition I am immediately sensitive to the fact that I have defined femininity in terms of female biology and that the reality is that many women feel disconnected to their bodies.
And perhaps many more feel betrayed by bodies that have failed to create, grow, sustain, or nurture life, women who have experienced infertility or miscarriage, even women who feel their bodies are inadequate to attract a good mate.
Desires for sex, marriage, and children are natural, God-given desires, so I want to honor those good desires, but I know that the church has often failed to create a meaningful vision of womanhood to single women and childless women, who whether due to choice or circumstance are growing in number.
So, single woman, childless woman, this is for you too.
Let’s flesh this definition out a bit.
Femininity is cultivation. Cultivation is work, hard work. It requires purposeful self-discipline to bring forth fruit. There’s nothing passive or lazy about cultivation.
Femininity is not just about doing what “comes natural” to you as a woman. Your individual, natural tendencies will need to be trained, strengthened, and sometimes killed to become an excellent woman.
Virtues are good and valuable characteristics. I realize this can be a bit subjective, but virtues are characteristics that will help you achieve a high standard in the roles you are called to fulfill. Many will be valuable across multiple roles and applicable to both men and women. Virtues make you a good human, not just a good woman.
I am a wife. There are virtues that I need to cultivate in myself to be a good wife. Many of them don’t come naturally to me. I need to be understanding. I need to be slow to anger. I need to be generous and loyal and truthful and encouraging. And if I were married to someone else, there might be certain virtues that I needed to cultivate more than others.
I am a mother. I need to be gentle. I need to be patient. I need to be self-controlled and disciplined and hard-working and self-sacrificing. Those are the virtues that my children need in me.
But those virtues are not only valuable only in the spheres of marriage and motherhood, nor are they only valuable in women. They will make you a better friend, a better employee, a better entrepeneur, a better boss. They’ll make you a better member of the body of Christ, a better voice in your community. And they are worth cultivating regardless of your familial status.
Skills are learned capabilities. Some will come easier than others. They are practical in all different spheres. They may be professional skills, homemaking skills, or relational skills, and I think there are minimal basic competencies all women should pursue in each of those areas.
They might be learning the duties of a job you are paid for. They might be learning to budget and meal plan and change diapers and breastfeed. They might be learning to manage conflict better or discerning when to push and issue or when to let it go. They might be learning how to listen to a friend in the depths of grief.
Gifts are the characteristics you’re particularly strong in, the skills you’re are particularly good at, the things that perhaps come easiest to you.
These will often be things that are most often associated with femininity. They may be things like facilitating teamwork in your job place, exercising gentleness and patience with your children, creating a beautiful home, offering compassion to the abused church member.
But for some women, their gifts may fit into a more typically masculine category. These may excel in problem-solving, they may naturally be more objective, or they may be very physically and sexually driven.
And if that’s you, it might create a feeling of disconnect with other women, a feeling of defectiveness, a feeling of not being very feminine.
To the end of being…
This means for the purpose of. It’s pretty self-explanatory, but as we cultivate virtues that are valuable to all humans, skills that allow us to fulfill our roles well, and gifts that set us apart as unique individuals, we do so with a goal in mind. The goal of giving, sustaining, and nurturing the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual lives of those around us.
Life-Giving, Life-Sustaining, and Life-Nurturing
These actions of giving, sustaining, and nurturing life are deeply interconnected, and this is the part that most reflects our biology.
When God creates life in our bodies we do the often exhausting work of sustaining and nurturing that life. This nurturing of life of our physical children requires self-sacrifice in every imaginable way. We give up our old bodies, our old priorities, our old habits, for the good of the children God has given us.
But it’s not just about biology.
Even if we are not mothers, we will sacrifice much when we give our lives to whatever task God has called us to.
We nurture the people around us, including our husbands, our co-workers, and our brothers and sisters in Christ, by serving them, by encouraging them, by working with them side-by -side, by lovingly confronting them when necessary.
We nurture bodies, feeding our children, bringing meals to the new mother, bathing the elderly at the skilled nursing facility we work in.
We nurture minds, sharing ideas, reading to our children, teaching the ABC’s to our kindergarten class.
And we nurture souls. Memorizing Scripture with our children, praying for our loved ones, offering the life-giving hope of the gospel to the spiritually dead we come into contact with every day.
I use this word because it connotes strength. We are not weak and fragile flowers, passively floating through life.
Women are strong. And I don’t say that to equate us with men. Our strength is distinctly feminine. But I think both the world and the church has lost sight of that. There are all kinds of reasons, but I believe some of it can be traced back to the disconnect with our biology.
We eat what we want even when it makes us feel like crap.
We routinely numb the emotions we don’t feel ready to face, or perhaps that others aren’t ready to face.
We pump ourselves full of synthetic hormones and accept anxiety and fatigue and disinterest in sex as normal.
When we give birth we “rescue” our bodies from pain and choose not to feel what’s actually happening to us. We forget that women have had the strength to give birth for thousands of years and we are no different.
And with the loss of distinctly feminine strength in our consciousness, we, both in the secular world and in the church, fall victim to two things.
First, we fall victim to judging our strength by masculine standards. We equate femininity with weakness, despise ourselves for it, and spend our lives frantically trying to prove our value in masculine spheres.
Second, we fall victim to thinking we are not strong enough to do the hard things that being a woman, that being feminine, actually requires. We default to what is easy instead of cultivating what is good.
Circles of Influence
This is wherever you are right now, your family, your church, your community, your workplace. Your circle of influence is wherever you are, whether you want to be there or not.
You might be a student working toward a degree. You might be a mother with a house full of young children. You might be a leader in a workplace, a widow in the church, a married woman, an unmarried woman, a woman content and single, a woman single and longing to be married.
Wherever you are, you are there for God’s purpose. And you can nurture the lives around you. You can show others what God is like as you bear His image and influence His creation with your life-nurturing, feminine strength.
Doc&Devo: Masculinity with Paul Maxwell. His clarification of masculinity has been a tremendous help to me as I attempt to define femininity. If you know of a discussion of femininity of that caliber, send it my way!