“How To Be A Woman,” or Why We Like Gender Rules

    From inspirational quotes and images on Tumblr and Pinterest to the strict gender roles enforced by many religions, it is clear that many people like being told how to perform their gender. Self-help books like “Men Are from Mars…”, “Rules of a Lady” graphics, and even gendered advertising create the gender rulebooks that surround us. They tell us how to be a man or a woman, alienating all other expressions of gender and creating an environment in which people are punished for violating these societal codes. Though working against these gender rulebooks has been a major project of the feminist movement, it is not always easy to write off such deeply inscribed roles.

A Crystal Light ad clearly targeting women: “Finally energy for the gender who invented ‘multi-tasking'”.

I am an atheist who fully understands why so many people believe in a higher power. I sometimes wish I was not so vehemently areligious, because I am able to recognize and understand the benefits that religion has for many people. Gender rulebooks have a similar pull for me. Challenging gender roles that have been surrounding you since before you can remember is exhausting, and sometimes all I want is for someone to tell me what to do so I don’t have an identity crisis every family holiday when I realize that I’m helping my aunts and grandmother in the kitchen while all my male relatives are sitting on the couch watching sports on television.

As a feminist, I am supposed to abhor the rules and the stereotypes the society has created for women, but there are many times when I have wished that I had a gender rulebook. We see this struggle play out in popular culture. The rise of appreciation for the 1950’s and 1960’s, influenced by shows like Mad Men and a focus on vintage fashion comebacks, has brought a similar rise in sexism nostalgia. Many people express a desire to go back to a certain era when things were “simpler” and “men did x” and “women did y”. Though we recognize that the Mad Men era was not a particularly good one for a black lesbian woman in New York City, that nostalgia through rose-colored, sexism-blind glasses does illuminate the conflicting struggle of feminism and our personal feelings about gender roles.


It is important for the feminist movement as a whole to recognize this struggle within every individual. We all identify as feminists in different ways.  Our own personal gender expression is often influenced by the gender rulebooks that we either choose to follow or work against. My fourteen year-old sister will not call herself a feminist or accept the feminist ideas that I introduce to her. When I asked her why she doesn’t like feminism, she replied: “I like being girly. I like pink and sparkley things.” If that continues to be the roadblock between young women and feminism, I believe we have a big problem in the growth of the modern feminist movement.


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Filed under feminism, gender, identity, pop culture, Uncategorized

4 responses to ““How To Be A Woman,” or Why We Like Gender Rules

  1. Reblogged this on By The Pin and commented:
    This is a great, insightful piece.

  2. I'm A Commenter

    I think the thing that often goes unmentioned, that causes people to say things like “I don’t want to be a feminist because I like being girly,” is that feminism is about why you do things: for example, if a woman acts “feminine” because she wants to, there’s nothing un-feminist about that. But if she acts “feminine” because she feels she has to, that’s different. So as long as someone is feminine just because that’s how they are, they’re definitely not automatically not a feminist.

  3. Callie

    I think you can still like feminine things and still be a feminist. I spent years in my childhood denying I liked pink and purple because I hated the fact I thought I had to just because I was a girl. It was a simplistic view of feminism but it was still there. Now that I’m older I admit that I actually do like pink and lilac but not because I’m a girl and it’s expected, just because I as an individual do. It has nothing to do with my gender. I just like those colours. They make me feel nice. I hate this barrier that’s put up that makes people feel that if they are cis-gendered, or a feminine female or straight then they can’t be a feminist or LGBT supporter or what have you. It’s repressive in that it stops people supporting things they actually would otherwise want to support but feel like they’re not allowed to, and can even stop people who do support those things being themselves because they feel like they don’t embody their beliefs. eg. Someone who really identifies as heterosexual feeling like they have to be something different to care about the issues at hand. It’s not helping anyone.

  4. Being old enough to have seen bras actually burned along with draft cards, the term feminist still means to me: Equality – pay, work, health access, education – gender neutral opportunity. In the 80s when rusty lumpbaugh started spreading his poison about Femi-Natizies, young women I talked to associated feminism with dirty, manly, angry, men hating women. I looked at one that was in a leadership position (first women at that company), wearing pants to work and with two kids in day care and told her she was a feminist. To this day she will not speak to me. Often, we women are our own worst enemies. My grandmother marched in the 1920s for women to have the right to vote. I’m always surprised when women will vote (with votes or dollars) to keep other women “in their place”.

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