Personal Definitions of Masculinity and Femininity as an Aspect of Gender Self-Concept

Article excerpt

Analyses of responses to the Hoffman Gender Scale (R. M. Hoffman, L. D. Borders, & J. A. Hattie, 2000) questions "What do you mean by femininity?" (female respondents) and "What do you mean by masculinity?" (male respondents) provided a framework for conceptualizing respondents' personal definitions of these constructs. Implications for counseling, education, and research are discussed.

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There is no shortage of instruments designed to assess the constructs of masculinity and femininity; however, it is generally agreed that clarity regarding how these constructs are defined is sorely lacking (Betz, 1995; Constantinople, 1973; R. A. Lippa, 2002; Spence, 1999; Spence & Buckner, 1995, 2000). A tendency to assume that "we all know what we mean" by these terms permeates much of the popular and professional literature alike, despite the acknowledgment that different personal and cultural concepts of femininity and masculinity indeed exist (Hoffman, 2001) and contribute to one's identity as a woman or a man. As Spence and Buckaler (1995) aptly illustrated by the expression "I don't know what good art is but I know it when I see it" (p. 105), one may be unable to easily articulate what masculinity and femininity mean but still remain confident that one can identify these constructs in oneself and others. Counseling professionals and nonprofessionals alike seldom are challenged to explore what these words mean to them personally and thus may inadvertently perpetuate a focus on traditional, stereotypical definitions of these terms that are counterproductive to the need identified by a number of scholars (e.g., Good, Sherrod, & Dillon, 2000; Hoffman, Borders, & Hattie, 2000; Kimmel, 2000a) to recognize and promote healthier, more humanistic, and perhaps more personally accurate, conceptions of masculinity and femininity.

The American Heritage Dictionary (1982) defines feminine as "[o]f or belonging to the female sex" (p. 496) and femininity as "[t]he quality or condition of being feminine; womanliness" (p. 496). Masculine is defined as "[o]f or pertaining to men or boys; male" (p. 769); no definition of masculinity appears. The definitions of these terms, although vague, suggest that "femaleness" and "maleness" might be synonymous with "femininity" and "masculinity," respectively. Indeed, this theoretical perspective was presented eloquently by Spence (1985, 1999) and was integral in the development of one of the more recent gender-related instruments, the Hoffman Gender Scale (HGS; Hoffman et al., 2000). It is important to understand that conceiving of masculinity as maleness and femininity as femaleness does not assume an essentialist perspective (i.e., that women, as a group, have personality characteristics that are innate and that those characteristics are different from those that men innately possess). On the contrary, Spence (1985) argued that there are countless combinations of diverse factors that contribute to various women's senses of their femaleness/femininity and various men's senses of their maleness/masculinity. Similarly, Lewin (1984); Ashmore (1990); Blanchard-Fields, Suhrer-Roussel, and Hertzog (1994); and Hoffman et al. (2000) maintained that each female individual must be allowed the latitude to determine what her femininity (femaleness) means to her and each male individual must be allowed the latitude to determine what his masculinity (maleness) means to him.

Despite the existence of this viewpoint, many have difficulty thinking outside the proverbial box when it comes to masculinity and femininity. Furthermore, despite Sandra Bem's (1974) goal of promoting androgyny through her development of the Bem Sex-Role Inventory (BSRI), the fact that the instrument's items are labeled "masculine" or "feminine" unfortunately reinforces the dichotomy that she was trying to challenge.

As Kimmel (2000b) pointed out, meanings of masculinity and femininity vary from one society/culture to another, within any society/culture over time, within each individual over time, and, perhaps most important, among different individuals in one group at one point in time (i. …