Masculinity and Femininity: A Changing Perspective Over Eighty Years
Gender stereotypes have been around for hundreds of years. What it means to be masculine and what it means to be feminine has evolved and changed rapidly in the past several decades. Obviously, these stereotypes have had a great amount of influence upon psychological research. First is the problem of how to measure femininity and masculinity since the meaning of each term varies from population to population. However, here in the United States the struggle has been to find a definition for each term, so that it can be applied to research, this endeavor has proved to be very time consuming and misleading. In the beginning researchers believed that all males were masculine and all females were feminine and should innately want to possess these characteristics of their inborn sex, through further research and a change in attitudes it has come to the attention of many researchers that femininity and masculinity are not polar opposites, but yet lie on a continuum (Lips, 2005).
Beginning in the 1920s, it was thought that if you were a male then you were an extravert and if you were female, you were an introvert. Although researchers did admit on the basis of anima and animus that you could have a little of both femininity and masculinity that you could only find it if you dug deep into the psyche (Faithfull, 1927). The common notion of the era was that a male, simply for the fact that he was born a male, would possess certain personality characteristics. The gender roles were extremely rigid in this time and so researchers looked for ways to find differences in the sexes.
Miles and Terman also believed the sexes to be very different from one another. They wanted to find a way to measure these differences and from this point, they came up with scales of masculinity and femininity, thus reinforcing the two to be polar opposites. The research claimed not to be looking to be able to identify a strong man and a weak woman, however because of low numbers of women in the study the women’s average scores were brought down (Miles & Terman, 1929). A later study showed Miles and Terman trying to define masculinity and femininity with a scale (Miles & Terman, 1936). Criticisms of this scale say that femininity points were earned by ignorance and that masculinity points were earned by giving the correct answer. It said if you were male, you were intellectual and if you were female then you were not so bright (Lips, 2005). The notion in this era is still that females are feminine because of their sex and that males are masculine because of their sex. Miles & Terman acknowledge that some people do not quite fit this mold because of physiological reasons (1929). This era is still very big on males being the superior intellectual being.
Quite interesting is the fact that Miles was a woman herself. And it seems she at least embraced the idea that being female meant you were “feminine” and acted a certain way. She was a non-conformist by getting her education, but then you have to look at the male-based and oriented education she did receive. The Women’s Right’s movement was going strong in the 1920s and this reflects the research in psychology. A newspaper article read, “Identical rights for men and women…such a conception of womanhood contradicts all the facts of physiology, psychology, economics, and social science (Regan, 1924).” This further reinforces the attitude of the era that major differences between the sexes exist and that there is no room for a mixture of masculinity and femininity within one human being.
Moving down the timeline to 1946, Weston La Barre has some interesting ideas about femininity and masculinity. Women and femininity is now valued as a consumer and above all else femininity is valued in attractiveness. A man that is overly attractive or takes a job that displays that attractiveness, such as acting, is not being masculine enough. Whereas a woman who is not attractive enough or cannot use that attractiveness to sway her man to consume the goods produced by other men is not feminine enough. Weston looks at femininity and masculinity as a producer/consumer relationship (La Barre, 1946). This relationship is in itself is of the original power structure displayed in earlier decades, but now instead of intellect over ignorance it is producer over consumer. However, obviously in order to be a producer usually one must be intelligent, so it is rather a catch twenty-two. This displays that not much has changed and that masculinity and femininity are still viewed as polar opposites. However, Le Barre admits that these stereotypes of masculinity and femininity are hurting both sexes (1946). Which means that people are beginning to understand that there is no true definition of what is masculine and what is feminine.
In the 1960’s researchers were still trying to find a common definition for the study of masculinity and femininity because most researchers were still using the assumption that gender norms are fixed and constant (Lips, 2005). Karen Vroegh took to studying preschool children and her findings were consistent with the current male/female stereotypes (1968). The most masculine boys were found to be extraverted whereas the most feminine girls were found to be introverted (Vroegh, 1968). This was congruent with Faithfull’s research on the topic (1927). Vroegh’s research admitted that there were variances in masculinity and femininity within their assigned sex (1968). Therefore, the attitude is moving toward a continuum, but it is still putting the sexes at opposite ends of the spectrum. The conclusion is that femininity and masculinity cannot be defined in such a way that would generalize the concepts across time and age and culture. The issue is also brought up that these characteristics end up being mostly male/female because of socialization. The stereotype sticks because of socialization and what is socially appropriate for a male/female to act like (Vroegh, 1968).
The research from the 1960s helped to further convince researchers that a definitive answer to what was masculinity and femininity was far out of reach or maybe impossible. Instead of giving up the researchers of the 1980s turned their focus on the definition of femininity and masculinity to be something self-reflective. Richard Coan worked to further the knowledge on this new way to look at femininity and masculinity. As stated by Coan, “As we commonly think of them in psychological theory and research, neither masculinity or femininity is a unitary trait, and the two in combination cannot be adequately conceptualized as the opposite poles on a single continuum (1989, p. 817).” Although his results came out with the same stereotypical traits associated with each concept of masculinity and femininity, the findings further supported the notion that masculinity and femininity are socialized concepts based on time and culture (Coan, 1989). The self-reporting method of researching these concepts adds to the full body of research that divided the concepts into opposite concepts. The self-reporting method marks the beginning of a bridge between masculinity and femininity. Coan being an anthropologist based a lot of his research on Jung’s principles of logos and ergos (1989). And if Jung’s theories are true then femininity and masculinity have never been “naturally” divided by being born of either sex.
Fast forward to 2001 and the work of Rebecca Glover reveals that masculinity and femininity are know grouped together and called “gender role” and are declared separate than personality traits. The research was to find out if masculinity and femininity had anything to do with moral orientation. The answer proved to be that no gender roles had less to do with moral orientation than other personality traits (Glover, 2001). The implications of this research show that no matter what you score on the masculinity/femininity scales whether you are male or female that does not have a lot to do with your moral reasoning. This is a huge step forward by separating personality from gender role and sex. Furthermore, a woman with a masculine gender role does not have a moral reasoning affected by her gender role. Glover does not come out and say that masculinity and femininity are on a continuum instead of polar opposites, however, the Bem Sex Role Inventory was used in her study (Glover, 2001). This inventory was the first to make masculinity and femininity two separate entities allowing people to score a variety of scores on each entity (Lips, 2005).
In conclusion, the way that masculinity and femininity has been studied over the past eighty years has changed a lot. It has gone from two separate concepts to one concept on a single continuum. It is now called gender role and your personality is now separate from that instead of your gender role dictating your personality. The stereotypes still exists, but it is a lot easier for one to break those stereotypes and step out of what is supposed to be normal for their sex. It is a lot easier for women to step outside these boundaries than for men, because the gender roles for men have remained a lot more traditional and rigid than those for women.
Coan, R. (1989). Dimensions of masculinity and femininity: a self-report inventory. Journal of Personality Assessment, 53 (4), 816-826.
Faithfull, T.J. (1927). Bisexuality: an essay on extraversion and introversion. Oxford, England: Bale.
Glover, R.J. (2001). Discriminators of moral orientation: gender role or personality? Journal of Adult Development, 8 (1), 1-7.
La Barre, W. (1946). Social cynosure and social structure. Journal of Personality, 14 (3), 169-185.
Lips, H. (2005). Sex & Gender: An Introduction (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Miles, C.C. & Terman, L.M. (1929). Sex differences in the association of ideas. American Journal of Psychology, 41 (2), 185-206.
Regan, A.(1924). Should women have identical rights with men? The Congressional Digest.
Vroegh, K. (1968). Masculinity and femininity in the preschool years. Child Development, 39, 1253-1257.