Today we celebrate Mother’s Day, and I have been thinking a lot about the feminine. When I refer to the feminine in this context, I don’t refer to gender or biological sex. Rather I refer to a caring, relational, and life-giving way of being in the world.
Philosopher Audre Lorde suggests this feminine is, at its core, “rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling”. It is a spiritual plane within all of us, she argues, that pushes us towards fullness and depth of feeling. This enriches our own person, as well as everyone around us.
The feminine is that part of all of us that always hopes and longs to give birth to vibrance and flourishing in all areas of life, public and private.
This pertains to our morality.
Recently I read a thought-provoking article in which philosopher Sandra Harding argues that there are both feminine and masculine expressions of morality. Both are equally valuable and necessary.
Harding suggests that these different expressions of morality are not bound to gender or biological sex (although cultural conditioning can certainly encourage such gendered expressions). Rather, these expressions are two different ways through which we relate to each other and the world. When we lose either the masculine or feminine expression of morality (individually or politically) we become imbalanced.
Harding argues that a masculine way of being in the world emphasizes individual rights, fairness, and abstract and logical moral reasoning. In contrast, the feminine mode of being in the world emphasizes relationship, community, and sensitivity to context. It also values empathy, emotion, and intuition.
It may seem like the distinction between masculine and feminine modes of being in the world is mere philosophical speculation with little practical application.
I beg to differ.
For instance, this distinction can help us better understand our recent public debate regarding immigration, a debate which often focuses on legality and right.
On the one hand, the U.S. certainly has laws that govern immigration and the rights of citizens vs. non-citizens. We need such laws. They help us maintain certain standards of security and fairness. And when considering the immigration issue solely from the standpoint of the law, it seems obvious that undocumented immigrants (who are breaking U.S. law) should be deported.
On the other hand, consider this scenario:
A woman and her husband are Mexican citizens and own a business in Mexico. They have two older sons and three young children. Drug cartels force local business owners to pay the drug cartels a cut of their profit. These same cartels have bribed the police, so it is futile for business owners to appeal to them. This woman and her husband decided to stand up the cartels and refuse to pay them.
In retaliation, the drug cartel murders the husband and the two oldest sons. They also threaten to kill the woman and her young children if she refuses to pay. The woman, fearing escalating violence from the cartels, crosses a hot and dangerous desert with her three young children and illegally enters into the United States.
Did this woman break the law? Of course she did.
Is this fact the only or even most salient issue in this situation? It is not.
If we are to make a fully moral decision about this woman, we must note the context of her illegal immigration. In this case, a brave and desperate woman, suffering horrific loss and violence, fearing for the life of her children, crossed a treacherous desert, seeking asylum in a wealthy, spacious neighboring country.
To turn her away merely because it is the law would be a serious failure of morality. Certainly laws, rights, and fairness are necessary. If we don’t have laws, people (rulers and citizens alike) often act according to naked self-interest, no matter how destructive it is to other people.
But laws and fairness exist for the sake of human beings and their dignity, not the other way around.
Thus, if keeping the law makes us tone deaf to the dignity of human beings, it is time for us to moderate the law, change the law, or mitigate it with other principles rooted in care and empathy. We must notice context. In the case of the undocumented woman entering the U.S. with her children, a holistic morality would ask us to consider more than just the fact that she is an undocumented immigrant.
It would ask us to take her tragic circumstances and the los she has suffered under consideration as well. These things deserve careful consideration, as do the rights of the individuals in the U.S. Certainly we can forge a creative and caring solution sensitive both to right and care. However, we can only do this if we draw on both masculine and feminine ways of viewing the issue.
Photo by Andrea Ricketts, courtesy of Unsplash
As another example of imbalanced masculine thinking, consider that when we focus merely on the law, we end up excusing social practices like slavery and apartheid because they are “legal”.
A feminine morality, characterized by empathy and sensitive to the suffering of others, helps us here. It reminds us that laws which crush human dignity and treat people as manipulatives are illegitimate and must be overturned.
And lest it seem like I am solely picking on the Right or appealing to historical examples, consider the way in which contemporary debates like abortion suffer when they focus solely on rights. Surely rights are important, and we must work for the rights of everyone, especially women who have historically been disenfranchised.
Nevertheless, as philosophers Rosalind Hursthouse and Judith Jarvis Thompson point out, when moral discussions of issues like abortion focus solely on rights, they suffer. Namely, they fail to recognize that while there are certain things that people do and should have rights to, this does not entail that those things are always the moral thing to do in every situation.
This is what a feminine mode of being in the world reminds us of. The law and our individual rights are not the be-all and end-all. Care, understanding, empathy and sensitivity to context must play a role in our moral decision-making as well.
I think of the life of Christ in conjunction with the feminine. Christ lived in an ancient Middle Eastern culture that maintained strict public separation between the sexes. His Judaic upbringing also emphasized strict laws about the Sabbath and purity codes, as well as rules about who constituted a righteous person or a sinner.
Nevertheless, Christ continually eschewed a narrow, abstract interpretation of these laws. And he related to others including women, sabbath-breakers, lepers, tax collectors, and prostitutes with contextualized care and empathy. He did this much to the chagrin of his disciples and the larger secular and religious community.
Such folks often seemed focused on the letter of the law, rather than its spirit. Or, pertinent to our discussion, they were much more concerned with abstract judgments, rather than contextualized understanding.
Christ’s life is one of the many examples that show us that we need both the masculine and feminine ways of being in the world. And we need them in all areas of life, both public and private.
Unfortunately, the feminine way of being in the world historically, and often today, is excluded from the public sphere.
Historically, men have dominated the public sphere, and women have been relegated (whether they liked it or not) to the domestic sphere. Sometimes this occurred from biological necessity or choice. Frequently it occurred (and still does) because of prejudice, misogyny, and oppression.
For example, historically men have frequently viewed women as intellectually inferior. Because of women’s household labor, along with physical realities like menstruation, pregnancy, and nursing, men have often historically considered women less rational and more beast-like.
Elizabeth Spelman argues that views like this result from somataphobia, a fear of the body. This view proceeds from a belief that minds are necessarily separate from, and superior to, the body, a view prominent in classical Western philosophy.
This stigma has carried heavier weight for women of Color who have faced the double burden of sexism and racism. Society has historically associated them (because of slavery and its aftermath) even more closely with physical labor.
Philosopher Genevieve Lloyd argues, “From the beginnings of philosophical thought, femaleness was symbolically associated with what Reason supposedly left behind—the dark powers of the earth goddesses, immersion in unknown forces associated with mysterious female powers. The early Greeks saw women’s capacity to conceive as connecting them with the fertility of Nature. As Plato later expressed the thought, women imitate the earth’.”
Historically, the feminine has most often been relegated to the private, and the public sphere has only permitted masculine ways of being in the world. In fact, historically men have often reacted violently to the feminine trying to enter the public sphere.
For example, early suffragettes often suffered violence and brutality, including rape, merely for seeking the right to vote. And even today as more women enter the workforce, people often view emotion and intuition with suspicion.
Men who are very expressive emotionally, or display feminine characteristics, often suffer homophobic slurs. Women who are expressive emotionally or who ask hard questions suffer as well. They often face accusations of unprofessionalism, irrationality, or are mocked by powerful men for being on their period.
And Women of Color, who have historically been forced out of the home to work for men in the public sphere, face even greater censure.
Patricia Hill Collins asks us to consider the negative stereotypes applied to so many Women of Color today, often in very contradictory ways. For example, black women who work and are the head of their household suffer censure for neglecting their children. On the other hand, black women who don’t work, for whatever reason, and stay home with their children often suffer the stereotype of Welfare Queens.
Such treatment of the feminine results from the imbalanced masculine.
When the masculine way of being in the world cuts itself off from the feminine, it develops imbalanced hyper-masculinity: patriarchy.
Patriarchy is not equivalent to maleness or masculinity. Rather, patriarchy is, among other things, an imbalanced mindset that holds masculinity as superior to femininity. And it works to exclude or subordinate the feminine in any area of life—public or private.
We should note that both men and women can exhibit a patriarchal view of the world.
To help us better understand imbalanced masculinity, it is helpful to contrast balanced masculinity with patriarchy.
Drawing on the points made by the philosophers mentioned above, we can say that . . .
Balanced masculinity is appropriately concerned with rights but is also concerned with relationships and community.
On the other hand, patriarchy is solipsistic, emphasizing its own individual rights above every other concern.
Balanced masculinity is appropriately concerned with fairness. It also contextualizes considerations of fairness.
Patriarchy perpetuates injustice by demanding fair treatment even in situations where treating people the same would perpetuate unfairness.
Balanced masculinity views abstract judgment and logic as one important way to solve problems in the world. It is not threatened by other ways of knowing such as emotion, intuition, and mystical insight.
Patriarchy views abstract judgment and logic as the only tool for solving problems. It views with hostility other tools for knowing such as emotion, intuition, and mystical insight.
Balanced masculinity values both quantitative and qualitative forms of progress as exemplifying both masculine and feminine notions of flourishing.
Patriarchy prioritizes abstractly measurable quantitative progress and often views qualitative progress (and its connection with emotions) with suspicion.
Balanced masculinity balances the tension of individualism and community.
Patriarchy exalts individualism and feels threatened by communal concerns.
Balanced masculinity honors the feminine as its necessary and equal counterpart in all areas of life.
Patriarchy views the feminine as inferior and feels threatened by it. It tries to dominate it through psychological, emotional, and physical violence.
Balanced masculinity, because of the above points, uses violence as a last resort to solve problems.
Patriarchy uses various forms of violence (psychological, emotional, and physical) as its go-to method to solve problems.
When I consider the above contrast between balanced masculinity and patriarchy, it reminds me that we still have a ways to go in the U.S. (where I live), as well as other countries around the world.
We still struggle in our culture with valuing rights to the detriment of care. And we still often prioritize individual concerns above community. Too often, we use domination and violence as our primary tool for solving problems. This locks us into to problems like environmental degradation, growing inequality, and hyper-partisan politics.
As bell hooks notes, “When culture is based on a dominator model, not only will it be violent, but it will frame all relationships as power struggles.”
This problem is nuanced and requires a variety of solutions. One of the solutions is to practice the feminine in both our public and private lives.
Mother’s Day can remind us of this.
Mother’s Day is a big holiday in the U.S., and I understand why. We value motherhood because it is one beautiful expression of the feminine. Of course, there are other expressions of the feminine as well.
I love Mother’s Day, although I am not a biological mother. (But I am a pretty cool Cat Mom). On this day, I especially celebrate the feminine.
I am so grateful for the way both my mother and mother-in-law have cared for, loved, and nurtured me.
And I am also grateful for expressions of the feminine in all areas of life.
I am grateful for all the women and men who took time to see me and care for me as an individual. And I am also grateful for both the women and men who have helped me understand the relational, communal, emotional, and intuitive dimensions of life.
These people have helped me better understand a feminine way of being in the world and, in this way, they acted like mothers to me. And they have motivated me to celebrate and encourage the feminine in all areas of my life.
The feminine is a way of looking at the world that encourages hope, care, and loving communities. Giving birth to this type of world takes time and is painful. But it is our vocation. In this way, we are all called to be mothers.
The Future is Feminine
Nigerian theologian Sister Pauline Marie Eboh writes about African womanist philosophy. It is a philosophy in which women value their relationships with men and see them as partners in liberation. Nevertheless, womanist philosophy springs from a deep source of strength. It springs from a “discovered awareness by women of their indispensability to men”. Alice walker suggests a womanist is “committed to the survival and wholeness of an entire people, male and female.”
This is a philosophy that can guide us. We still conduct our public sphere, in too many instances, according to the rules of patriarchy.
This leads to a tragic state of affairs in which the feminine is celebrated on Mother’s Day but denigrated in practice for the rest of the year. But we should reverence, celebrate, and honor the feminine everyday, everywhere.
The more we do this, the more whole we become.
Happy Mother’s Day. The Future is Feminine.
I would like to thank my students, Savanah and Chearlise (names used with permission). Our discussion and readings in African philosophy greatly inspired this post.
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You might also like this post:
 Harding, Sandra. “The Curious Coincidence of Feminine and African Moralities.” African Philosophy: An Anthology. Blackwell Publishing. 1998.
 This was more so the case when the stress of childbearing (which was exacerbated by difficult historical conditions and a lack of amenities) tied women close to home.
 For example, Aristotle in his Politics notes that women have a rational capacity like men but argues that it is underdeveloped, which (he argues) rightly subordinates them to men. This, unfortunately, is one of the more charitable views of women in classical Western philosophy.
 Spelman, Elizabeth V. “The Erasure of Black Women.” African Philosophy: An Anthology. Blackwell Publishing. 1998.
 Lloyd quoted in Virginia Held, “Feminist Transformations of Morality.” Ethics: History, Theory and Contemporary Issues, 5th Edition. Steven M. Cahn and Peter Markie, ed. Oxford University Press. 2012.
 Collins, Patricia Hill. “Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images”. African Philosophy: An Anthology. Blackwell Publishing. 1998.
 Eboh, Marie Pauline. “The Woman Question: African and Western Perspectives.” African Philosophy: An Anthology. Blackwell Publishing. 1998.