Almost 225 years ago to the day, Abigail Adams counseled her husband to “Remember the Ladies.” Her tone in their correspondence was playful, yet serious. Treat women as friends rather than vassals or else we will “foment a Rebelion,” she teased, or was it warned? She appealed to the principles of equality and consent of the governed with charming pluck. Hers was a great example of spirited femininity, which combines Americanism and femininity. It is both cultivated by and protective of American principles.
Americans lost our positive understanding of femininity in part due to feminism’s rise. Feminists claim there are no natural differences between men and women and so reject any notion of the uniquely feminine. In response, some conservatives now make reactive arguments that exaggerate or misrepresent the differences between the sexes. Others, when charging men with effeminacy, caricature women as weak. Missing is a substantive and aspirational case for femininity.
Many identify softness and compassion as feminine attributes. There is truth to this, as women tend to be more “agreeable” (compassionate and polite) than men. Still, these traits can be mere impulses or deteriorate into vices (an overly compassionate mother can spoil her children). Virtuous femininity, in contrast, combines feminine qualities with understanding and firmness.
Feminine courage is one such example. Reflective of women themselves, feminine bravery is subtle. Jane Austen’s characters, whose courage rises at every attempt to intimidate them, exemplify it and can be contrasted with the bold and obvious heroics in Homer while being no less admirable. Femininity emphasizes (though is not exclusive to) fortitude rather than ostentatious display. A feminine woman knows what she’s about and will not be swayed.
Feminine compassion too is admirable when undergirded with feminine strength. Like the frontierswoman before her, the modern American nurse encapsulates this well. She can confront the harshness, tragedies, and disappointments of life yet maintain her compassion in the midst of them. This kind of womanly gentleness is a substantive, deliberate character choice. It is distinct from that of the naïve and docile girl whose instinctive compassion has never encountered wickedness and would crumble in the face of confrontation. Such a girl is merely soft and passive. A mature woman possesses spirited femininity hardened by steely resolve.
Politeness is another attribute that can be shallow. It can uphold harmony over justice or devolve into mere conformity. But it is also the case that feminine politeness often does not signal a change in opinion. Ever the multi-taskers, women can be approachable and empathetic while remaining unconvinced. We can smile sweetly while dismissing you in our minds. Rather than engage in an all-out assault, we will wind our way back to victory. As the mother in My Big Fat Greek Wedding quipped, “The man is the head. But the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.” This strategy is anything but submissive.
In its true and best form, politeness is a conscious decision to protect beliefs, manners, and civility, and feminine women navigate and uphold such dignities with easy grace. Manners often reflect underlying principles. Americans, for example, are respectful towards waiters and waitresses because we believe in equality. We’ve all seen how fellow diners react to that person who becomes disproportionately impatient or angry with his server. It is a shameful and uncomfortable scene. Though shift workers temporarily serve us, they are not our personal servants.
A branch of politeness, civility makes possible the American objective of deliberation between equals. We converse and conduct ourselves with decency and have the goodwill to assume new acquaintances are worthy of the same. This is not a show of weakness. We can be unrelenting and forceful in our disagreements without being ugly. Absent such rules of exchange, political dialogue too often devolves into ad hominem attacks, and we forfeit our chance for achieving a consensus. Civility, often enforced by women, is a critical element for building a cohesive community of republican citizens.
This kind of spirited femininity, which combines feminine qualities with strength and courage, encapsulates the character of American women. We are not simply women but American women. We admire the self-reliance, adventurousness, bravery, and resiliency of folks like George Washington, Harriet Tubman, and Tom Sawyer. To us, it’s not only the 19th Amendment that protects female equality; the Second Amendment does, too. Depicting American women as docile misses an essential component of our character.
In addition to being wrong, this depiction is also ineffective. Most modern women describe themselves as feminists. Many credit feminism with important female advancements, such as property rights. Others believe a feminist is the defiant and edgy flapper rebelling against illegitimate limitations. Her American spirit is attractive. She is intelligent, strong, and independent, and intelligence is what women most admire in other women. If conservatives set up a false choice between the feminist archetype and their own meek caricature, many American women will aspire to be feminists.
Contesting feminist doctrine requires femininity: compassionate understanding, graceful maneuvering, and unflinching resolve. Believing in differences between men and women or straying from the feminist careerist track is now counter to cultural elitism. It takes deliberate courage, not impulsive conformity, to resist such pressures. Women cannot be blindly guided by feminists or men, both of whom can be wrong. We must be strong ourselves.
American women are often presented with a distorted dichotomy. They can either be asexual feminists who see themselves as constantly oppressed by men. Or they can be docile and delicate simps who submit to men. Neither is the American way. With rebellious courage and the strength of American aspiration, we can carve out a middle ground. American women can be both spirited and feminine.