On the word ‘feminine’ and how language evolves through oppression

The word feminine comes from the Latin word femina meaning “woman”, which Merriam-Webster defines as “an adult female person”. Colloquially, though, the word feminine has been distorted to mean a myriad of things– most of which correspond to sexist gender roles.

Merriam-Webster defines feminine as 1: female, and 2: characteristic of or appropriate or unique to women. From the standpoint of critical analysis, the second definition from MW seems to be where confusion comes from, and has led to convoluted definitions used and accepted in society, such as the ones that can be found on Google:

  1. having qualities or appearance traditionally associated with women, especially delicacy and prettiness. synonyms: womanly; ladylike; girlish; soft; delicate; gentle; graceful

or Dictionary.com:
2. having qualities traditionally ascribed to women, as sensitivity or gentleness.

or Urban Dictionary:

3. The female gender role. Understanding, empathetic, sensitive, submissive, gentle, modest, willowy, and pretty.

or TheFreeDictionary:

  2. Characterized by or possessing qualities traditionally attributed to women, such as demureness

It’s easy to see where the conflation has occurred between the word and the general understanding of the word. Women have been indoctrinated into a gender roll that requires them to fit these definitions: delicate, pretty, soft, gentle, graceful, understanding, empathetic, sensitive, submissive, modest, and willowy. Feminine is a word that means woman or female, or the traits of women, but it’s best understood in society as oppressive female gender roles.

Image Source: gratisography.com

Image Source: gratisography.com

The reason I started thinking about the word feminine was because I saw a post on Darkmatter, the Facebook page of “non-binary” artists Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian. The answers in the comments section were both interesting and problematic to me. I started looking into the history of the word feminine in comparison to what people think it means/what it’s used to mean. What is the true definition, and what are we implying, when ‘feminine’ describes both “womanly” and “submissive” in the same three syllables?

Another reason, that I hold more dearly: what the hell do words actually mean? How is our understanding of the world being morphed because we don’t see how connotations and misused words affect our perceptions of reality?

I wrote down some problematic answers, namely from men, in order to demonstrate the wildly misunderstood concept and how addressing these topics around gender are becoming abstract, Orwellian cluster-fucks. The post on Darkmatter read, “what feminine part of yourself did you have to destroy in order to survive in this world?”

This is how a word that originally and historically means woman is processed in the minds of misguided men:

“My selflessness”; “The part of me that wrote poems, the part of me that could cry with friends, the part of me who wasn’t afraid of their feelings”; “I had to destroy emotional openness to pass as a boy.”; “I’m doing my best to allow my softness to grow back.”; “My hips turn when I walk naturally.”; “I’d love to be able to wear clothing outside of the shirt and pants variety in public places without being turned into a target.”; “Trust. (not exactly sure if it’s feminine, but giving people the benefit of the doubt seems a bit less ‘masculine’)”; “Trying to reconnect with a lot of it; art, cross-stitch, makeup, and being intimate sans romance with other men.”; “Compassion / expressing emotions other than anger / crying”; “Vulnerability seems to be the one the world has always really been after”; “The desire to wear dresses and makeup”; “The part that wants to be taken care of.”; “Crying when people and situations upset me; being anything but stoic or angry.”;”I’ve always wanted to do flower arranging, I’d be awesome at it”;”Nails and eyebrows”; “Empathy.”

Here we have the colloquial definition of a word which root means “woman” expanded to oppressive gender paraphernalia such as make up, dresses, and eyebrow maintenance, to activities like art, flower arranging, and crying, to necessary and beneficial human emotions such as empathy and compassion.

And why? It seems that oppressive gender roles have manipulated our language as much as they have manipulated the women who are forced to fit into them.

This leaves me with at least this one option- to define it.

From the Dictionary of Charles:


  1. woman

(feminine humans are ovum producers)

synonyms: woman, female, girl

antonyms: male, masculine

2. pertaining to women:

(anything women do is feminine because they are women!)

synonyms: womanly, badass

common misinterpretation: the female gender role

*mistaken for what defines women and what is inherently womanly in regards to behaviors, paraphernalia and attire, attitudes and demeanors, aesthetics, public perceptions, professions (such as child care), and/or hairlessness.

Honestly, though, I would take it either way. It means woman, or it means the female gender role. But I’m sick of them being used synonymously. They are not one in the same.