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What’s Masculine, What’s Feminine, and What Am I?

Posted on March 7, 2008 by
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Author: Mollie Curry
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #138

“It was so cool seeing you cut down those trees the other day—you rock!”
I’d heard those words before. Yes, I am a woman who knows how to run a chainsaw. In fact, I know how to fell trees. A lot of this kind of work needs to be done in my former community—a forested ecovillage—and most of it gets done by men. In our culture, this kind of work is seen as “masculine”: a certain amount of strength, focus, and bravery is needed to do it well. Doing such work inevitably brings me praise.
But I actually feel a bit strange about the kudos sometimes. There are a lot of issues and emotions mixed up in it for me, and I have many questions and very few answers. Still, I find the exploration compelling.
Sorting it Out
There are lots of good reasons for me to fell trees besides providing lumber for my community. Women doing “masculine” work helps bust the gender stereotype that says we are weak and fragile and shouldn’t take physical risks. My tree-felling gives other women an example, inspiration, and permission if they need it, and shows kids that women can do this kind of thing. It’s great that I get encouragement and praise for it—much better than discouragement, concern, or telling me outright that I shouldn’t.
So why do I feel uncomfortable about it? Partly because I’m getting appreciated for doing “men’s work,” which means that it’s the (stereotypically masculine) job and the qualities needed to do that job that are valued. Why should these qualities be valued more than “feminine” qualities?
Yet, like others, I do value this job and these qualities. It’s important work that should garner praise for anyone who does it. That’s the other reason for my discomfort: it bothers me that the men who do these jobs often don’t get as much recognition as I do. People just assume men will do that kind of thing.
The special admiration I receive points both to the continuing reality of inequality and to the lack of proper respect for men when they do difficult, dangerous jobs. If the genders and their qualities (both culturally and biologically determined) were equally valued, perhaps I would get no more recognition for felling trees than men do.
To be fair, a softer (more “feminine?”) part of me has also been honored and nurtured in my community, which had a lot to do with why I stayed at the beginning.
When I first arrived, thinking I would learn a little natural building and be on my way, I was deeply hurting from a breakup and cried over and over again in our check-ins. For the first time in my life, I felt that people not only allowed my tears, but valued them. People thanked me for crying, saying it opened their hearts and made it easier for them to share what was going on for them. This blew my mind. Sobbing like that had not been acceptable in my upbringing—not even for girls. Not even when someone died. (When I cried at my grandfather’s funeral, I was criticized for making it hard for my grandmother to “keep it together.”)
I felt at times that many aspects of my personality were encouraged in my new home. My rational intelligence was appreciated, as well as my abilities to see all sides of an issue and to have compassion for others. In many ways, both my masculine side and my feminine side have been honored and valued in my community.
Still, despite “women’s lib” and feminism, I think even in our subculture we carry a lot of old cultural baggage. That first year, I noticed that women tended to do more of the mundane, “invisible” maintenance and sustenance tasks (gardening, cooking, and shopping), while men tended toward the more visible, lasting things, like building a composting toilet. Sometimes I cooked because the men who had said they would cook were obviously not going to think about it until they were ravenous. They resented stopping “work” to cook.
But What Does it All Mean?
Our culture, a bubbling mudpot of traditions and opinions, supposedly defines what is considered feminine and masculine. But although there is a sense of general agreement—we know what we mean when we say these words—pinning down a definition is tricky. So many of us carry an emotional charge about these concepts, stemming from a history of gender inequality, defensive reactions to women’s lib, and the confusion between maleness/femaleness and masculine/feminine characteristics.
Often I am not sure what is “masculine,” what is “feminine,” or whether it matters. I’ve engaged in thought-provoking conversations with both men and women who articulate a variety of viewpoints on the matter that rarely overlap. I have sought a definitive list of traits and failed to find one. Most of the articles I have read neglect to spell out what they mean when they say “masculine” or “feminine.” Now I know why: it’s hard.
Further muddying the waters, it is obvious to most people that each of us possesses both masculine and feminine characteristics no matter our gender. I believe we each need this balance of masculine and feminine within us, but I have a hard time separating these qualities from the gender they are associated with—and from the gender issues of our society.
My Journey
I notice that I highly value some “masculine” traits and strive to develop some of them within myself; for instance, I’d like to be more focused and goal-oriented at times. All well and good, except that I’m aware of our culture (and myself) undervaluing more “feminine” qualities. This makes me wonder whether I’m playing out something within me that wants so much to be valued that it is willing to “act male” (use chainsaws, build houses, and be more goal-oriented) at the expense of other qualities. Am I unintentionally suppressing the feminine within myself?
I’ve spent a lot of time in my life denying my feminine side—hiding my emotions, talking tough to fit in with the guys, thinking rationally, acting assertively, hating pink, not paying attention to my appearance, and doing “guy things” like building plastic models, playing baseball, and building houses.
As a small child I never really wanted to be a girl. I have three brothers, and it looked more fun and free to be a boy. So I was a tomboy. I played sports, hated dolls, and was pretty tough sometimes. I came of age in the 1970s, when some ground had been gained in the equality between males and females. Title IX, which gave equal access to sports for girls and boys, meant that I played on boys’ baseball and soccer teams until girls’ teams were established.
In high school and college, I read about women’s rights and the sexism of our language. I learned that some jobs in our culture earned plenty of money (usually jobs dominated by men), while others—“women’s work”—went unpaid or underpaid. Not wanting to get stuck in that trap, and wanting to be valued as a person, I acted masculine as much as possible. But there was no escaping my complex, multifaceted self. Ultimately, despite working in a male-dominated profession, I am never going to be a guy.
A Big Girl Now
Lately, I’ve been realizing that I like women’s work. This discovery comes as a bit of a shock. My body, having less testosterone, smaller bones, and so forth, is not holding up as well under the strain of physical work as a man’s body might. I am very emotional, and I value that—although I do feel crazy sometimes. I like cooking and growing food and flowers. I enjoy paying attention to the emotional and physical states and the needs of the people around me. And when I look deep inside myself, beneath all the cultural and historical layers, I find that I also value these things highly— whether despite or because of their “femininity.”
So what does that make me? I guess it makes me me—my own peculiar blend of qualities and traits. And it makes me a woman. A woman who cries a lot and also knows how to use a chainsaw. Now, is that so strange after all?


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