The Future is Femme:
The Rise of a Non-Binary but Feminine Feminism
Since Hillary Clinton announced her second presidential campaign in April of 2015, the phrase has been everywhere: “The Future is Female.” While it was initially coined by the lesbian-separatist founders of New York City’s first feminist bookstore, Labyris, “The Future is Female” spread like wildfire during the hopeful time for many American women of Clinton’s campaign (WaPo). Emblazoned on t-shirts, plastered on laptops and cars, and scrawled on hundreds of posters at the worldwide “Women’s March,” the phrase is meant to be an empowering one: even after the disappointing election, it still encouraged its users that one day, women would hold an equal portion of the power in our society that men do. Still though, and as many feminist critics of mainstream media have noted, the phrase is problematic: in the 21st century, the general public is still conflating gender and genitalia, seeing the biological term “female” as an equal substitute for the more culturally significant “woman.” Whereas Foucault spoke of the “perverse implantation” of moral standards on sexuality, the same can be said for gender: as a species, humans exhibit very little sexual dimorphism, meaning that males and females of the species are not significantly different in terms of body size or physical attributes (such as teeth shape, a common divergence between the sexes of many other species). However, in many societies, and in America especially, the unnatural implantation of gender roles has been embedded and fueled by all number of oppressive societal forces. In order to resist these forces and allow each individual to experience the fullness of humanity for which feminism strives, the constructs of gender have to be unwoven, paving way to a future that does not use gender as a significant categorization for individuals. At the same time, however, those traits considered feminine which have been long socialized into females — community-building, peacemaking, gentleness, listening, humility — must be more highly valued for a harmonious and egalitarian society to be created. Although elevating femininity while deconstructing gender may seem somewhat contradictory, it is this nuanced future of feminism that will allow American women (and men and non-binary and genderqueer people) to prosper in a responsibly gendered society. I would propose an updated phrase to encompass the complexities of this view of feminism-to-come: “The Future is Femme.”
Before going further with this argument, sex and gender must be discussed. As many authors, theorists, and scholars have discussed, sex and gender — and their relationship as well as conceptualizations of each individually — have shaped much of feminist discourse. As Cordelia Fine explores in her 2010 Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, both sex (the biological distinctions) and gender (the resulting social categories/the differences created by society) are far more variable and less dichotomous, even scientifically, than thought even just a decade ago. While much of neurological research does still produce sex-skewed results (for a number of procedural issues and biases that Fine unpacks), a growing section of the literature is showing how the mind is not so much an entire, impenetrable, totally self-determining organism, but rather “is a structure of psychological processes that [is] shaped by and thus [is] closely attuned to the culture that surrounds [it].” Fine, a psychologist herself, describes how neural pathways — how sensory nerve cells feed information to the brain from every part of the body, external and internal, allowing the brain to evaluate the data and to direct subsequent action — are forged by repeated exposure (much like what happens when one is born and raised in a culture). As such, our surrounding culture’s values regarding gender will necessarily determine our brain chemistry and thus our behavior, creating cyclical non-proof for the idea that men and women have distinct brain structures and thought patterns. As such, there is already significant scientific evidence supporting natural gender neutrality, if only our culture can be changed to support it.
Regarding sex and gender, feminists have especially clashed on how to understand how men/males and women/females differ (or do not) from each other. It is this recognition of difference that has created a rift in feminism since the dawn of the term — and has lead to the downfall of many previous iterations of feminism. Liberal feminism, one of the earliest subsections of the term, recognizes no innate difference between men and women, only ones prescripted by society. As such, liberal feminists are primarily interested in “leveling the playing field” for men and women in terms of laws, wages, education, and other existing social structures through reformation rather than revolution. Such views, though, begin on a slippery slope: once women have the vote, once there is equal pay for equal work, once Title IX is passed, there is no other way by which to evaluate the more subtle but just as powerful forms of sexism that pervade our society. In practice, then, liberal feminist ideals can actually advance patriarchal norms and behaviors, stalling true and holistic gender equality. On the other hand, radical-cultural feminists recognize a stark difference between men/males and women/females. As a result, they often suggest that “true” women should be lesbians and/or (re)harness their reproductive powers. These views reveal deeply held gender essentialism: the idea that one should/does act in certain ways solely because of their gender (or sex, as the terms are often conflated by this group). Such feminists, when suggesting that women are only women when having clitoral orgasms brought on by other women or having vaginal midwife-attended births, are also complicit in alarming transmisogyny: “the negative attitudes, expressed through cultural hate, individual and state violence, and discrimination, directed toward trans women and trans and gender nonconforming people on the feminine end of the gender spectrum” (Everyday Feminism). Because not all women can experience vaginal births or clitoral stimulation, radical-cultural restriction of “real” womanhood to these phenomena can also exclude cis as well as trans women. This sect of feminism is so associated with the transmisogyny in their beliefs that a more modern term has been coined and adopted: Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminism, or TERF. The ideal future feminism being proposed here balances these two extremes through a subtle distinction: it is a feminism that recognizes the differences not between the bodies, but between the socializations; such a worldview includes trans people as valid and complete participants in a society so influenced by gender as well as allows room for growth for people of all genders. It encompasses the ability to critique toxic masculinity and not men; it values women for their positive socialized traits and not exclusively their body parts; it includes trans women in a full definition of womanhood; it gives hope for a more liberating future for people of many genders.
Once this deconstruction of outdated, rigid, benefitting-nobody gender roles is complete, the next phase can begin: the elevation of feminine traits and those who embody them. While Enlightenment thinkers saw reason as distinguishing humans, perhaps, in modern times, it is actually emotionality, the ability to empathize, that defines humanity. As understandings of biological anthropology and zoology advance, it can be seen more and more that animals, especially the ones most closely related to humans, exhibit many of the “rational” traits found in humans; what is more rational than using primal instinct in every situation to survive? However, many researchers are beginning to theorize that it is emotionality, and on a larger, community-based scale, morality, that separates humans from animals. In his book Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame, evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm asserts that group-living, a condition nearly exclusive to higher primates (a grouping in which humans are included), brings about certain self-sacrificing patterns that are evolutionarily paradoxical: if there is a natural instinct to further one’s DNA by surviving and reproducing, why would any animal be anything but individualistic? The answer is rooted in very traditionally feminine truths: although group-living does require some sacrifice of individual will to the greater good, it also is a far more efficient way to live. A primate in a group-living situation will have easier access to mates, will be taken care of when it is sick or hurt, will have other adults to protect its offspring. Of course, it must also return these favors when the time comes for another individual to benefit, but these social protections far outway the effort expended. Boehm furthers his argument by making the bold claim that a shame response to betraying this group trust — specifically, blushing — is a primary condition that marks humanity from other higher primates; mostly, when humans know they have acted excessively selfishly or betrayed someone who trusted them for their own gain, they will feel and exhibit shame. Emotionality, then, is rational: the responses of guilt, community love, shame, are all based on empirical observation, a pillar of scientific reasoning, and evolutionary benefit. Such a natural human trait as involuntary blushing is at odds with the masculine systems of capitalistic and ruthless competition that currently govern our society. As such, the future of feminism will embrace the natural (and what society has deemed as feminine) traits of community-building, interdependency, care for one another, and communality and thus transform society. Gender scholar and ecologist Dr. Vandana Shiva further elevates the feminization of knowledge/science as a boon to humans’ worldview: “The feminine principle becomes an oppositional category of non-violent ways of conceiving the world, and of acting in it to sustain all life by maintaining the interconnectedness and diversity of nature” (Science, Nature and Gender 14). By taking a feminine approach to scientific exploration and experimentation, Shiva posits, a more holistic and comprehensive understanding of the world around us can be obtained. While women’s subjective knowledge, about the environment, medicine (specifically regarding their own bodies and childbirth), child-rearing, and community-building have routinely been dismissed under patriarchal norms, they are being rediscovered — in areas as far-reaching as the professionalization of the doula to international political theory — as universal, sustaining sources of knowledge.
One theorist who described this ideal balance of a feminine androgyny is radical-cultural feminist Marilyn French. Although she has a radically different stance than do I on the origins of masculine-feminine difference (with her believing they are innate and I thinking they are taught), we converge at the evaluation of their contributions to society and to individuals. Her androgyny, in which both men and women equally share the best traits typically associated with each gender, has a distinct feminine slant in how she evaluates them: any trait, she posits, can be used to connect people (in a traditionally feminine way) or to disconnect them (as masculine forces have done throughout time). French envisions a world driven by traditionally feminine version of power — the power to create — rather than the masculine one — the power over others. While she disagreed with French on the end goal of any kind of androgyny, gender scholar Mary Daly furthers French’s negative interpretation of a masculine/power-over by invoking the Abrahamic God, suggesting that he is the ultimate example of the destructiveness of such a power: as Tong summarizes, a deity “so remote and aloof that he dwells in a place beyond earth, suggesting that power over others inevitably leads to separation from others” (59). Even mainstream Christianity, for the due it gives this masculine god, tempers the faith with feminine qualities: the Holy Spirit, the third of the sacred triad of God’s incarnations, is most often described in feminine terms (such as she/her pronouns) and is known as possessing the traditionally feminine traits of innate wisdom, unity, and mysticism. While French’s ideal of a feminine androgynous world would be a total overhaul of our current ultra-capitalist (and thus hyper-competitive) system, it would be one in which all humans had the ability to be affirmed and enriched by all others — the condition that French calls “pleasure.”
Of course, such a feminine-androgynous ideal society is just that — an ideal — for so many reasons. One primary reason is the preference it gives to white folx, and especially those of higher socioeconomic status. Derek Sayer first described the “violence of abstraction” — that is, the harm that can be done on real people when theories not accounting for actual circumstances are put into practice. Naomi Scheman uses the same concept in a feminist lens to describe the ability to assign self-worth and to self-identify: “We are not abstract individuals. We are instead concrete individuals able to identify certain of our physiological sensations … only because we are embedded in a social web of interpretation that serves to give meaning … Apart from this interpretative grid, we are literally self-less — that is, our very identities are determined by our socially constituted wants and desires” (Tong 39). This feminine androgyny requires a self-defining agency only really able to be harnessed by the most privileged in a society, leaving behind (in the American case) Black women and other women of color, trans and queer women, undocumented women, poor women, and so many more. Catharine A. MacKinnon seems to offer a solution in her Difference and Dominance: On Sex Discrimination: “So long as these issues [of gender equality] are framed [in terms of sameness and difference], demands for equality will always appear to be asking to have it both ways: the same when we are the same, different when we are different” (MacKinnon 39). A feminine-androgynous feminism, then, would dissolve these stark divisions of difference, asking not for equality between the sexes/genders, but for the freedom for each individual to piecemeal traits to create a gender composition suiting them in their own intersecting lives and identities, while the society at large promotes the best of feminine ones. This is a weak theoretical proposition to an eternal problem, but it also could be an effective lens through which feminists could be held to intersectional ideals while promoting this future of feminism.
“The Future is Femme,” a dream for a feminine-androgynous feminism, preserves the meaning of a feminism that values historically feminine traits while allowing all members of the society — not just those with a vagina or homogenous sex chromosomes — to hope to be a part of this future. As theorist Alison Jagger says, “human biology and psychology dictate a set of basic human needs, and societies that treat these basic needs as optional cannot expect to survive, let alone thrive” (Tong 39). A “Femme Future” feminism balances these subtleties: the need to recognize difference between the feminine and the masculine, while demanding equity and flexibility between them as well; the near-necessity of a culture to create gendered classifications with the individual agency to self-identify; the differential norms that we can see surrounding us in our culture with the more holistic scientific knowledge that such norms are not innate, but created. A femme-oriented feminism lights the way into a future where all individuals and genders are valued, certainly an end goal of traditional feminism, while also laying the cornerstone for a truly egalitarian society rooted in feminine truths. While I don’t care much about my president’s anatomical construction, I do hope that our nation will one day have at its helm someone who values peace over profit, who can temper confidence and humility, and who can recognize difference while promoting equality. My future, then, for American feminism is femme.