Masculinity and femininity: crossing the Divide


My wife is reading one of the best books I’ve read in recent years, Nora Webster, by Colm Toibin. It’s the story of a recently widowed woman living in a small Irish village, trying to keep herself and her family afloat in the face of daunting obstacles. When I was walking past Rosellen’s chair on the way to the bathroom, she looked up and said, “You’re one of the few men I know who could appreciate a book like this.”

There’s a whole class of fiction which tends to be labelled feminine books. They are filled with details of domestic life and relationships; they lean more toward description and emotion rather than action. Think about writers like the British novelist Margaret Drabble, Ann Tyler or Alice Munro, for example. We’re talking in shamelessly broad stereotypes here, but men who read and write books like this are likely to be gay, like Toibin himself. So, what does that mean about a heterosexual man like me?

In my time as a clinical psychologist, I encountered a number of personality tests that included a masculinity/femininity scale. The most popular and well-researched one is the MMPI, whose full name – the Minnesota Multiphasic  Personality Inventory – is a real mouthful. The scale is constructed out of responses to a hefty bank of multiple-choice questions and comparing those responses to those of particular populations. 

No reason to go any deeper into the weeds of creating reliable and valid psychological tests. My main reason for introducing the MMPI into this conversation is that on this test and other similar personality tests, it’s always been a source of pride to me that I score consistently high on measures of femininity. That’s an outcome that might be more common among some homosexual men, but less so for my fellow heterosexuals.

I’m tiptoeing through fields mined with stereotypes, but here goes. I like the way women move through the world. On the whole, they’re less aggressive, more committed to building relationships, more collaborative, more reflective and self-aware. That’s the team I want to be on. The crudeness and insensitivity that is more common among men embarrasses me, and I try to distance myself from it whenever it rears its head. I say all this with apologies to all the wonderful men who defy these descriptions and probably also occupy the femininity end of that M-F scale. Those are the men I gravitate to as friends.

For most of my adult life I’ve inhabited women’s worlds. At home with my wife and two daughters, I was the sole male presence.  Even though my family of origin was evenly divided – my father and me on one side, my mother and sister on the other – I believe that my father would have scored even higher on the femininity scale than I, in the unlikely event that he encountered one. He was a gentle man, not afraid to display his emotions, often accompanied by tears. He held my hand on our childhood walks.

The bulk of my work life as a teacher, school director and teacher educator was spent predominantly among women. It was a world I was comfortable in. The ground rules fit the contours of my personality more than most other settings and occupations. In my leadership roles, my collaborative style was sometimes perceived as weak, though I like to think of it as tending to the more feminine.

Most of my doctors are women. I feel comfortable in their hands. They listen and are responsive to my queries and needs. In his book Listening for What Matters: Avoiding Contextual Errors in Health Care, our friend Dr. Saul Weiner documents the frequency with which shortcomings in the way doctors listen to their patients results in poor diagnosis and treatment. I don’t recall that he breaks his findings down by gender, but I’m betting that these problems arise more often with male doctors than women.

I know this could sound too self-congratulatory, but my “femininity” makes me more attuned to slights and microaggressions that women suffer. Who gets called on first? How many men in a row speak before a woman is recognized? Who gets talked over in a discussion? Reaching back into my childhood, I was aware from an early age that my sister was treated differently than I by my parents. As I’ve written about elsewhere, her desire to attend college was not respected, while mine was expected. I saw it all, but I didn’t have the words or the courage to advocate for her.

Make no mistake about it, I benefit from my male privilege as much as my whiteness. If I needed any reminding of that, there it is in a wonderful book by Emily Klein and Monica Taylor called Our Bodies Tell the Story: Using Feminist Research and Friendship to Reimagine Education and our Lives. What they call the “embodiment” of their feminism is something I can never share, just as my whiteness can make me an ally to people of color onlyfrom across an unbridgeable divide. Klein and Taylor do a powerful job of demonstrating how deeply every stage of their development from girlhood to adulthood has been affected by their gender. As a bonus, the book is readable in ways that so many academic-sounding books are not.

So, my style, my sensibilities and my beliefs align me with women, even though I never can fully share the experiences of women. My bookshelf will always have a healthy representation of books like Norah Webster that elicited the compliment Rosellen directed to me. I consider it a badge of honor.

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Marv Hoffman

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