Question: Feminism and Androgyny

Tea asks…

How do I reconcile my passion for feminism and my desire to be genderqueer? I support smashing gender roles to pieces and expressing diversity, but I secretly worry I only want to be androgynous because of the daily disrespect and hurtful media messages I get as a woman.

If I identify as something other than a woman – if I were to tell people “I’m neither a man nor a woman, because those words really mean hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity to me, which are equally harmful, confining and were invented as means of oppression” – am I a traitor to my cause? In saving myself am I abandoning women, or lighting a path?

Please post your response in the comments below.

» Ask Genderfork «

Posted by on October 12th, 2011 at 04:00 pm

Category: questions 46 comments »

46 Responses to “Question: Feminism and Androgyny”

  1. Als

    I don’t have an answer, but I do want to say that this:

    “those words really mean hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity to me”

    rings true for me. I feel that many people have a very definite and confining idea of what man and woman mean, and that idea is often different to everyone else’s. Why not give it up entirely, since no-one can agree on what man and woman do mean or should mean? Words. So tricky.


  2. Elle

    I am not a feminist scholar, so I may be wrong about this. But wasn’t feminism originally intended to provide gender equality for women in a male-dominated society? I don’t know anything about men or women, but providing gender equality for all people of all genders is a movement I feel I can support.

    Sometimes society needs to be reminded that women can do anything a man can, and should have the same rights. But sometimes society needs to be reminded the opposite as well, that men can do anything women can and also deserve the same rights. And I think we’re still at the point where society always needs to be reminded that some people who don’t fall within those strict categories can do anything that a woman or a man can do, and that we ALL deserve the same rights.


  3. Brett Blatchley


    I wonder…feminism seems to mean some different things to differnet people these days, but didn’t it start-off trying to redress the social and cultural imbalances between the sexes (and now, the genders, since we recognize gender as independent of sex)?

    Seeking equality in stature, value, respect, and opportunity among all people along the sex and gender continua seems like a noble thing for any of us to participate in.

    For those who want one to be more equal than another, they may consider you a traiter, a threat, but in this wider sense, you would be perfectly suited. Maybe this isn’t ‘feminism’ rather it might be thought of as ‘genderism?’ Could that be something of what Genderfork is about?

    There is still a terrible need for social equality in the world, because female and feminine are still undervalued and abused in so many places and cultures.


    Elle replied:

    Genderism – you rule!


    Elle replied:

    How about equalism?


    Brett Blatchley replied:

    Ha! That could work! :-)

  4. radical/rebel

    oh goodness. feminism can sure mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. one of my basic feminist instincts is “patriarchy is bad for everyone.” this means that I think it’s equally damaging when a girl is discouraged from studying math as when a boy is teased for liking to cook. patriarchy is the systematic structuring force that we contend and grapple with: feminist analysis and practice are ways that we can start trying to live outside of this imprisonment.

    feminism is not irreconcilable with being genderqueer, or being transgender, or being a man, or being straight. feminism is irreconcilable with misogyny, racism, classism, and heterosexism.

    see: Kate Bornstein, Judith Butler, or hell, most of the profiles of people on this site who are FEMINIST in their beliefs and ideals and GENDERQUEER in the expression of their genders.

    from the place when I started thinking about these things, the first thing it helped me to realize is that most feminist philosophy discards the category of “women” as empty and meaningless. “woman” and “man” are genders, and therefore artificially constructed ways of looking at people who exist in the world.

    my advice: go deeper into what feminism means, invent yr gender radically as you see fit, don’t be sexist against women, and you should be on yr way to finding some kind of solution.


    Elle replied:

    But wouldn’t a matriarchy be just as bad as a patriarchy? What if there was a movement for gender equality called masculinism? Just by its name feminism promotes one side over the other.


    radical/rebel replied:

    patriarchy is what we live in. men govern, men write the books, men hold the power, men dominate. men have male privilege.

    feminism is about challenging this. your comment is really shallow.


    Elle replied:

    The word feminism offends me. Feminism may be about a lot of things, but what it is often about is revenge. Two wrongs never make a right.

    Show me how “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” isn’t divisive. By that logic, no one needs anyone, and we’re really all alone.

    Anonymous replied:

    Elle: I think perhaps what you describe is what feminism has become…And, yes, it is often fueled by anger…but I think that fundamentally it just aims for the equality of all parties and works to make that possible…It’s in the practical execution of this “work” where things get messy.

    Elle replied:

    Thank you. I agree that this is what feminism has become, rather than what it started out as or was intended to be. Now my question is what can we do about the situation? That’s why I like Brett’s suggestion of genderism or equalism.

    Rhonda Dangerfield replied:

    the bicycle quote was by gloria steinem, who also often made quotes that women need men to join feminists, in fact, we “are dying for it” literally. Only men can stop the violence.

  5. Anonymous

    Your definitions of “man” and “woman” are frustratingly judgmental for a site that’s supposed to be positive.

    Women are allowed to be as butch as they want and still identify as women. Men are allowed to be as femme as they want and still identify as men. That goes for trans men and women just as much as cis ones. (For that matter, there are genderqueer people who have stereotypically male or female traits, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Nor is there anything wrong with men or women who fit some stereotypes for their gender, when it’s naturally part of their personality rather than imposed on them by the broader culture.)

    If you’re genderqueer, great. Be genderqueer. But don’t be a man or a woman who has decided to appropriate someone else’s label rather than challenge your own limited notions of what those words mean.


    Elle replied:

    One of the difficulties with using the words man/woman or feminine/masculine on this site is that by stretching the boundaries as we have, we don’t really have a working definition of those words anymore. What is a woman? What is a man? I’m not trying to be a smartass here, I really don’t have a good definition anymore. The closest I’ve been able to come is that a woman is a person who says she is a woman, and a man is a person who says he is a man. Everything else is just stereotypes.


    Anonymous replied:

    I’m a fan of the conclusion from this post, which discusses the problem of coming up with a definition that’s not self-referential:

    “Female: one who either possesses (and is content with) or wishes to attain (for whatever reason) or self conceptualizes more closely with the bodily structure commonly created by the XX triggered developmental path.”

    Replace XX with XY for male, and presumably with “neither” for various types of genderqueer.


    Elle replied:

    I like it, but although better worded it isn’t much past the basic conclusion I’ve come to myself. A woman is a person who says she is a woman, and a man is a person who says he is a man. It’s better, a contentment with or a desire to attain a certain bodily structure is enough of a definition for me, but any non-physical qualities that we assign to masculine and feminine are just stereotypes. Many men may be (this), but I know lots of females who are also (this), just as I know many males who are (this) quality usually assigned to females.

    Physical qualities can be changed or obtained (sometimes with great effort or cost, but still possible) to the satisfaction of the individual, but assigning mental or emotional or spiritual attributes to certain physical qualities will never be absolute. Physical sex is real, be it male or female or intersex or trans or anything else, but gender is an illusion. A trick, a joke, a social convention. A choice.

    Brett Blatchley replied:


    I think there is a great deal of truth that gender is socially based (we are social creatures), but I think is it a mistake to assume that gender is *only* social.

    There was a famous twin experiment that trumpeted exactly the idea that we can socialize anyone to any gender regardless of their birth sex. This idea was ‘fixed’ in the minds of the medical establishent (and the popular mindset) through merely one experiment! The problem is that the experiment went tragically wrong and destroyed the Reimer twins, and the researcher continued to report success. I had heard of this case, then I saw a documentary about it recently. You can see it too:

    In my own case, my parents tried to socialize me as a boy, but I never identified myself that way. I am not a ‘man’ and never have been, though my body is largely male. But, I am not a ‘woman’ either, though that is how I identify inwardly, and I was never socialized that way either, yet people perceive me to be deeply feminine, but not ‘effeminate.’

    It’s all so complex; there does not seem to be a simple answer to all this and for everyone…


    Elle replied:

    On the topic of gender as biology I’d like to suggest the book Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. Another book I found useful was Pink Brain Blue Brain by Lise Eliot.

    Brett Blatchley replied:

    Thanks Elle!! I’ll have to check into these works!! :-)

    Rhonda Dangerfield replied:

    That boy committed suicide and had horrible life. There is another twin story though, that was not surgical, where one girl because lesbian, and the other very hetero, proving that the susceptiblity to imprinting might be recessive gene or just timing, nurturing, trauma, whatever.

  6. Tilley

    This is a problem I worried about too when I first started exploring my gender, but I realized that feminism isn’t just for women, it’s for men and women all along the gender spectrum. Feminism is a movement that strives for equality of all people regardless of their gender. So, being genderqueer (as I am) does not mean that you are turning your back on your sisters, it just means that your identity is evolving and that is a beautiful thing!


    Elle replied:

    If feminism is a movement that strives for equality of all people regardless of their gender, why does it specify a gender in its very name? Would a movement called whiteism suggest that it’s about equality for all people regardless of their skin color?

    Words have POWER. The words we use to define a concept shape how we think of that concept. Words that promote one side of a binary will always debase the other side.


    Anonymous replied:

    Whoa, hey, that’s not a good analogy at all. White people are on the top of the racial oppression pyramid. Women are not at the top of the gender one.

    And even an anti-racism movement that specified only one oppressed racial group, such as the NAACP, can still be interested in equality for all people. They just happen to have a specific focus.


    Show me how “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” isn’t divisive.

    Because the phrase was created in reaction to a culture whose assumption was “A man doesn’t need a woman, but a woman DOES need a man to be complete. She can’t be trusted to vote, own property, or have a career on her own.”

    It’s about putting women on the same playing field as men. It’s about equality. The same equality that many young people take for granted, thanks to the feminists of generations past who fought to win it for us.

    The lack of attention to genderqueer people was an existing part of the patriarchy, not something feminism invented. It isn’t always on the radar of feminist movements (and it’s fair to critique this), but that doesn’t make it feminism’s fault.


    Elle replied:

    Some men are misogynist and patriarchal. Some feminists claim that no man can ever be a feminist, or that transwomen aren’t *real* women, or that transmen are traitors.

    Some of the people in power who are men actively work to oppress women. Those people hate women, or are afraid of women, and do not consider women to be the equal of men. Those people promote men over women and encourage others to share their views. This does not constitute a patriarchy. I will concede that in many cases these people are the majority of those in power. What I hope to do is suggest that the words we are using cause many of the divisions we face. Words have power. And promoting one side of a binary opposition subjugates the other side by default.

    Elle replied:

    “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”

    This slogan is often attributed to Gloria Steinem. Other claims for origination point to Flo (Florynce) Kennedy, or to an anonymous author who painted the slogan on a wall at University of Wisconsin in 1969.

    Gloria Steinem had this to say in a letter she wrote to Time magazine in autumn 2000:

    “In your note on my new and happy marital partnership with David Bale, you credit me with the witticism ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.’ In fact, Irina Dunn, a distinguished Australian educator, journalist and politician, coined the phrase back in 1970 when she was a student at the University of Sydney. She paraphrased the philosopher who said, ‘Man needs God like fish needs a bicycle.’ Dunn deserves credit for creating such a popular and durable spoof of the old idea that women need men more than vice versa.”

    This slogan is often attributed to Gloria Steinem. Other claims for origination point to Flo (Florynce) Kennedy, or to an anonymous author who painted the slogan on a wall at University of Wisconsin in 1969.

    Gloria Steinem had this to say in a letter she wrote to Time magazine in autumn 2000:

    “In your note on my new and happy marital partnership with David Bale, you credit me with the witticism ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.’ In fact, Irina Dunn, a distinguished Australian educator, journalist and politician, coined the phrase back in 1970 when she was a student at the University of Sydney. She paraphrased the philosopher who said, ‘Man needs God like fish needs a bicycle.’ Dunn deserves credit for creating such a popular and durable spoof of the old idea that women need men more than vice versa.”

    Irina Dunn later confirmed Steinem’s version of events, in January 2002:

    “Yes, indeed, I am the one Gloria referred to. I was paraphrasing from a phrase I read in a philosophical text I was reading for my Honours year in English Literature and Language in 1970. It was ‘A man needs God like a fish needs a bicycle’. My inspiration arose from being involved in the renascent women’s movement at the time, and from being a bit if a smart-arse. I scribbled the phrase on the backs of two toilet doors, would you believe, one at Sydney University where I was a student, and the other at Soren’s Wine Bar at Woolloomooloo, a seedy suburb in south Sydney. The doors, I have to add, were already favoured graffiti sites.”

  7. Elle

    Many of the people who call themselves feminists have done amazing things to promote equality and human rights. I’m not arguing that. What I’m trying to suggest is that the word feminist itself is exclusionary, and that when we use divisive words people will pick sides to create a conflict where conflict doesn’t need to exist. An unfair patricarchal system may be the fault of some people, but you certainly can’t blame men for it. And you can’t blame women for the inequalities of feminism.


    Jae replied:

    Please go read up on privilege and oppression. Not all men actively oppress women, but all men benefit from male privilege in a patriarchal society.

    Feminism is about giving voice, power and agency to a part of society that has historically been denied them. Saying “feminism” is divisive is like asking gay rights activists to not call themselves that, because not all straight people are actively oppressing LGBTQ folk. Or thinking that people who work toward racial equality shouldn’t call their movement “black power” or whatever.

    And the term “feminism” is not exclusionary; it’s an apt description. The majority of female-bodied people identify as women, and are oppressed because of their body and their identity. Girls are denied the right to proper education all over the world, forced into arranged marriages, forced into having sex, getting pregnant, etc. Even in “first world” countries there is a huge wage gape between men and women, and sexism can be seen everywhere from academia to jokes to tv ads. Yes, feminism is ultimately about equality and blurring lines between genders, but while one should keep that in mind, one should also think about the very real dangers of being a women in a patriarchal world. To even suggest that feminism is about “revenge” or that it’s “reverse-sexism” or anything like that is downright ridiculous.


    Elle replied:

    A comment on male privilege: as a society we accept, even glorify the tomboy while denigrating the “sissy”. Male privilege doesn’t mean anything when you care more about art and beauty than about sports and competition, when you want to maintain a home and raise a family rather than earn money and advance a career, when you aren’t willing to react with violence to every confrontation, when you want to express any emotion beyond lust or rage.

    There is privilege, but it has nothing to do with being male.


    Moose replied:

    It’s called male privilege, but sometimes “masculine privilege” could be considered more accurate. But ultimately, it’s all about misogyny.

    Society glorifies the tomboy because a woman is shedding her dreaded feminine aspects in favor of more preferable male ones.

    By the same point, society hates the sissy because he is a man who dares to leave masculinity behind in favor of unworthy feminine ones.

    It’s an example where the systematic hate/fear/disregard/etc of women (aka misogyny) can actually hurt men. The patriarchy, as it is called, is all about policing gender roles, keeping the “powerful” men to one side and pushing the “inferior” women or feminine people away.

    All the same, gender privilege still has a lot to do with your assigned gender. Being masculine while female (a tomboy) will never get you treated as well by society as being masculine while male (a manly man). Manly men still get the spot at the top.

    (As for the term “Feminism”: I do often feel conflicted by it, as you do. However, I find that “humanism” and others movements for equal human rights often seem to overlook the struggles against privilege that feminism faces so directly).

    Elle replied:

    How about we go so far as to call it misogynist privilege? The unfair social situation you’ve described also benefits those women who are willing to toe the line, so to speak, and accept the privileges granted to a pampered servant caste. Women can be just as misogynist as men.

    And I will grant that feminist causes do directly target inequities specifically against women, and that it is necessary to do so, especially when no one else is. Another part of the problem is that feminism is a loosly defined movement, in that not all feminists believe the same things even while working toward the same general purpose, similar to how certain extremists can give an otherwise peaceful religion a bad name. But it’s very hard to see the good when the bad keeps smacking you in the face.

    Elle replied:

    I don’t support organizations that fight for racial equality by promoting one group over another. To use an example, there is a difference between something called the civil rights movement and something called black power. I do support LGBTQ organizations that are working to give LGBTQ people equal rights under the law, while legislation may never be able to create true equality it’s a good place to start.

    As to sexism in the media, I’ve seen frequent examples of both. Women are portrayed as sex objects and men are portrayed as stupid or ignorant. Granted, men who treat women as sex objects are stupid, and so are women who are willing to objectify themselves.

    On the topic of wage disparity, the situation is more complext than saying men make more than women. One book I’ve read recently that addresses the subject is “Manning up : how the rise of women has turned men into boys” by Kay Hymowitz. The title is deliberately provocative but the author has some interesting points to make. On average men make more than women, but much of that has to do with professions people of a specific gender tend to prefer rather than pay differences within that field. More men than women are bankers and more women than men are teachers, and bankers make much more than teachers, for example. I know for a fact that all of my female coworkers make more than I do, even though I have more experience or education or seniority than some of them.

    The physically strong victimize the weak, the rich victimize the poor, the powerful victimize the unrepresented.


    Anonymous replied:

    I’m not sure if your book went into it but it was my understanding that many women took these lower paid type jobs because they pay non wage benefits such as insurance and time off needed for child care which is still seen as primarily a woman’s job.

  8. ScarUponTheSky

    Seems like no one has really given thought to Tea’s actual question but instead gotten into a very lively discussion about zing words and their associated connotations. (I think it’s a wonderful conversation too.)

    @Tea: As a transqueer individual I too have similar thought processes as you do. Sometimes I still wonder if I’m taking hormones because I hate the oppression of women and what not. (this thought as it turns out is me combating the rampant trans*phobia present in the world.) In the end, the only answer I have ever been able to arrive at is to just be yourself and identify with whatever categories feel most ‘right’ to you. If you’re intent is coming from a ‘good’ place, more often than not, others won’t be all bash-y and rude.

    That said, I think it needs to be recognized that while gender roles, gender binary, etc. are damaging to people as a whole, individuals have the right to choose to be a part of the binary as well as having the right to make it safer for themselves and others who want to identify in such a space. :)

    I hope my thoughts help you in some way Tea.


  9. Anonymous

    I sometimes wonder similar things. Is my genderqueerness some internalized notion that all girls must be girly and since I’m not I must be something else? That I’m somehow limiting or betraying women by not 100% identifying as one and stretching that identity to fit rather than finding one that fits better. Sometimes I think labels hurt us as much as they help us. People could just be different in a tie dye mess instead of sorted into groups like the crayola box.
    I’ve decided that I’m still a feminist and hope that my gender will give me the perspective to recognize real equality rather than trading misogyny for misandry or any other dynamic. If I have both in me then I can protect both as needed.
    That and I still have a female body that is subject to the regulations and hazards of any female body. I want to protect that body as much as the genderqueer brain within.
    Yeah, sorry for the rambling train of thought mess!


  10. Masha Makhlyagina

    Okay, I won’t address the semantics of the question, but I will try to answer it as best I can from my person experience…

    As someone who identifies at genderqueer/GNC, but presents as completely conventionally feminine (for now), re-conceiving my feminism has been an issue. The more female-bodied people that stop identifying as pure women we have, the less visibility we have, the more we become allies of a cause we support rather than members of cause that was originated for our own bodies–> at least that was how I felt. Not going to lie, I think that my final decision to express as a woman came down to me not being able to feel anything other than a traitor to my feminism, something that so fundamentally guides who I am, if I began queering myself outwardly. I now see myself as almost a secret agent of change, changing the system from the inside out because I can function with the privilage of passing as a heteronormative, gender-conforming individual. This has allowed me to explore “non-queer spaces” in ways that I don’t think I could have if I hadn’t stayed ten kinds of normal looking.

    That being said, I respect and think it is absolutely necessary for biological males and females (and intersex folks) to keep pushing understandings of feminism and gender and orientation. Without people who “fit in” and people who “fuck the system in every obvious way” working together, our cause would only reach a limited amount of people. So feeling like you’re betraying your feminism by potentially “escaping” your female identity is to be expect, but if it feels right (just like it didn’t feel right to me, but conversely), do not feel ashamed. You fit into this puzzle, this fight, exactly how you best can.

    Hope any of that helped and best of luck <3


    Elle replied:

    “I think that my final decision to express as a woman came down to me not being able to feel anything other than a traitor to my feminism”

    I know I’m taking one part out of a long and thoughtful post. To do the same thing again to the original question, “If I identify as something other than a woman – am I a traitor to my cause?”

    What does this say about feminism? An system that promotes gender equality but makes those who identify with the movement feel like a traitor if they don’t adhere to a specific gender role.

    So it sounds like the answer is yes. If you identify as something other than a woman you are a traitor to feminism.


    Masha Makhlyagina replied:

    Well, thanks for a) reading my reply and b) saying it was thoughtful!

    I think to reply to YOUR reply:

    My point boils down to the idea that if you think it’s traitorous, it is. If you can rationalize it in a way that it’s not, it’s not. But to objectively examine the issue… that’s impossible.


    Elle replied:

    I definately agree that it’s impossible to objectively examine the issue. I don’t think anyone is capable of true objectivity. We all see the world through our own eyes, think with our own mind created in part by our own experiences.

    I personally don’t think that Tea is betraying anything. In fact, I think that free gender expression is one of the very rights that many people who have called themselves feminists fought to provide for everyone.

    Tea may be able to rationalize a position so that they don’t feel like a traitor, and I hope they can, but would would their feminist peers think about it? It’s hard not to feel like a traitor when people you admire or respect continue to call you one.

  11. Moose

    Growing up (before being introduced to feminism in my 20’s), I definitely felt genderqueer, verging on transgendered. I hated that puberty gave me a very feminine body because I hated the way women were treated in society. I felt like if I expressed my given female gender, I would not be taken seriously as a person.

    When I found feminism I actually finally became comfortable in my own skin. For several years I wondered whether I was really queer at all, despite the fact that it kind of felt right.

    And then I read the awesome book “Feminism is Queer.” It looks at the crossover between feminism and queer theory, and it was like the whole universe finally clicked into place. Being genderqueer is about defying the gender binary, and at its core, so is feminism. They are absolutely compatible.

    So by smashing the gender binary, you are smashing the patriarchy. If you gain male privileges by shedding your feminine aspects, call it out. Let it be an opportunity to open the path for others to follow without fear.

    So do what feels right and rock on.


    ScarUponTheSky replied:

    You stated what I was trying to in much better words. Also, thanks for the book recommendation. :)


    Ronen replied:

    Props to this comment. Beautiful.


    Dorian replied:

    Intersectionality is a beautiful thing!


  12. Anonymous

    I identify as a man even though I’m far from being hyper-masculine.


  13. Anonymous

    Man, I totally understand where you’re coming from. I wonder if my own embrace of androgyny is a backlash.

    Feminism, to me, is about being treated like a human being, along with all the rights that comes with being a human being.
    Not a ‘woman’, a PERSON.

    Sometimes I’ve hated myself for being a woman. Because being a woman means ‘weak’ and ‘less than a person’, it means being an ‘object’ and a ‘possession’. It means being either a whore to be used and scattered on the floor like so much rubbish, or being lifted high as some holy, perfect goddess, something I can never, ever live up to.

    Because I’m only human.

    Seriously, though- how bloody hard is it to understand that I am a human being like every other human being on this sorry planet?


  14. Rhonda Dangerfield

    I never knew Androgyny and Feminism were ever in conflict. When would this have happened? In late 70s i read June Singer’s ANDROGYNY. She did a sequel in 2000. Is not Feminism all about transcending or erasing the gender boundaries? Nearly everything about being a traditional “woman” is a manifestation of what men desire as “sexy”. Even gay men have created our fashions. If you aspire to be more than just a sperm recepticle, then act and dress the part. There is no betrayal in that. We are all pioneers attempting to open new possiblities. I guess we can be thankful we do not live in India or Syria.


Leave a Reply

Can I show your picture? If you have a Gravatar associated with this email address, it will be displayed as your photo. If not, I'll just put a picture of a fork next to your comment. Everybody likes forks.

Be nice. Judgmental comments will be quietly deleted and blacklisted. There's plenty of room for those elsewhere on the web.

For legal reasons, you must be age 13 or older to post a comment on Genderfork.

You can use some HTML tags for formatting, e.g. <em>...</em> for emphasis (italics) or <strong>...</strong> for strong emphasis (bold) or <a href="http://(url)">...</a> for links.

Back to top