What Do We Mean by “Masculine” and “Feminine,” Anyway?

Posted on November 8th, by Elizabeth Debold in Blog, Cultural Evolution, Culture, Divine Feminine, Gender, Integral Philosophy, Uncategorized. 23 comments

228-problem1_masfemQuick: “masculine”–take ten seconds and say the words that come to mind that describe masculine. Next, do the same with “feminine.” That was the first exercise that my friend and colleague Cindy Wigglesworth and I asked participants to do in the breakout session that we led at the Integral Leadership in Action conference (October 15-18). What did the participants say? Innie and outie (hence the photo that I put at the top of the blog). Yin and yang. Active and passive. Driving and yielding. Assertive and receptive. Thinking and feeling. Eros and Agape. Rational and emotional. Hard and soft. Pointed and embracing. Strong and… You know, the ususal opposites or polarities that are often associated with men and women. While some describe (or infer) the different bodies that we inhabit, others reflect the different roles and opportunities that women and men have had in culture. “Masculine” and “feminine” don’t each describe one thing–they are a kind of grab bag of stereotypical gender qualities. Cindy and I wanted to encourage these representatives of the integral movement to put a temporary halt to their use of these terms and instead speak much more specifically and precisely about what one really is referring to.

The ILiA group is pretty much focused on business and organizational applications of integral theory (usually, Ken Wilber’s integral theory), and these organizational change agents often work to transform businesses and business leaders from being overly “masculine” to embracing more of the “feminine.” In our postmodern times, the “feminine” has become a buzzword for the kinder and gentler qualities that we want to see valued more in culture. Fine. But labeling those qualities “feminine,” which means “related to females,” seems problematic to me. Masculine and feminine are such value loaded terms–asking a man to be more feminine, or telling a strong woman that she should express more of her feminine side is often confusing, suggesting that somehow either the individual should be more of the other gender or is doing gender, which is one of the deepest aspects of our identity, wrong. If you want someone to change, being more precise about the change you’re looking for is much more helpful to him/her. Speaking about being attentive and listening more is a much clearer direction than asking an individual to be more feminine. Moreover, isn’t it more likely that our culture is more likely to change by adopting values that refer to general human qualities or competencies (listening, assertiveness, compassion, rationality) rather than to whatever the feminine means as a whole?

Cindy and I spoke about how our ideas of gender have changed as human consciousness and culture have developed. There really wasn’t a sense of masculine and feminine as we think about it now until the late medieval period–those words weren’t even in the English language until the fourteenth century. They really are concepts that emerge with modernity, when the entire social world in the West was divided by gender into the male public sphere and the female domestic sphere.

Cindy likes to think about the polarities that we associate with masculine and feminine (like agentic and recpetive) as comprising a system in which both qualities are needed. She was drawing on Barry Johnson’s important work on polarities and how to work with them. She also suggested that we might think about when gender/sex matters and when it doesn’t. Certainly, gender/sex matters when you want to make babies! But in many, if not most, spheres of life, gender or one’s sex shouldn’t matter. Maybe one needs to develop certain competencies–such as in being more connected in relationship or more willing to take risks–but these are not really about gender, even if, at this point in human cultural development, men may often have more experience and comfort with risk and women with a certain connection in relationship.

One of the points that I hope that I made well was that using the term “feminine” to refer to the change we want to see in others or in organizations (and society) ends up hurting women. Believe it or not. It suggests that we women have no developing to do. And, given the crises we are facing, we ALL need to be doing all we can to develop and to consciously evolve. We women don’t have a lot of experience or mettle with standing up and staying together under pressure. Men, actually, are often better at that and we can learn a lot there. Moreover, pushing men to be more “feminine” (rather than coaching them to develop certain skills that are important to us all), too often creates distrust and a deep sense of separation, rather than the unity that we so badly need. Your average sensitive guy might not say anything–he knows better–but, given a chance to talk about it, that sentiment is right on the surface.

Our solution, for the time being, is to ask all integralists to put the words “masculine” and “feminine” on furlough for a year. Let’s see what happens when we stop using those words in business or in relation to personal growth or change. My hunch is that we’ll all be more effective at bringing about the changes that we want to see. Can we all give it a try and then compare notes next year at the ILiA conference?

23 responses to “What Do We Mean by “Masculine” and “Feminine,” Anyway?”

  1. Jon says:

    Yes, the use of the masuline/femine words has got a bit too common. There is nothing wrong with the words when they are used to refer to the collective attributes but when used for the purpose of growth they are far to vague.

    The backlash to the feminine movement which has left many men quite unsure where they stand over the last twenty years or more could probably be put down quite substantially to this vague use of feminine/masculine descriptors. Perhaps dropping the terms would help a lot of men find their way again.

    However, i would say that some people, although probably not so much in integrak circles, have a strong resonance with them and when used appropriately in these circumstances they can be really powerful. Use of more specific terms in this kind of scenario might not be quite so effective.

    It would be really interesting to see how specifically not using these words works out.

  2. Hear, hear, Elizabeth! I absolutely agree.

    Human evolution requires us to presence more complex and nuanced understandings of who we are, which inherently means understanding the way sex and gender play out within and between us. Resting in unexamined archaic binary notions of ‘masculine’ (characteristic of man) and ‘feminine’ (characteristic of woman) just won’t do!

  3. Joshua says:

    “There really wasn’t a sense of masculine and feminine as we think about it now until the late medieval period–those words weren’t even in the English language until the fourteenth century. They really are concepts that emerge with modernity. . .”

    Nonsense. We’re talking about something so fundamental to the nature of reality. How could there have been a time in the history of humankind when M and F were not understood in terms of these dichotomies? It’s so basic, and as old as human consciousness–there’s nothing particularly modern about it.

    @Sarah: “archaic” is right. Is that necessarily synonymous with “outmoded”?

    Also, “more nuanced” is a feminine approach. Fine. There are two sides. One is not better than the other, though, because they’re complements.

    Gender does matter. Whatever you are, male or female, you need the opposite to help you balance your one-sidedness. And finding that balance starts with an awareness and acceptance of whichever type you are.

    • Sarah Nicholson says:

      Really, Joshua?

      I’m interested to know where you locate your evidence for gender dichotomy being “funadmental to the nature of reality” and ” as old as human consciousness”.


      • Joshua says:

        In my understanding. . .

        The whole universe exists as one great dichotomy. This extends to all its parts. Everything has an opposite.

        You are asking for “evidence”. Can such things be proven?

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Not so fast, my friend, this is tricky territory! We have a very hard time looking back at history without our predisposition to *read* gender as opposites. But there is mounting evidence that to do so is a mistake–like those old B movies where Hercules was clean shaven and wore a Timex! Take, for instance, yin and yang, which we have interpreted to mean feminine and masculine essential energies. That’s not what the words originally meant. We have strong cultural beliefs today that something called masculine and feminine are cosmic forces, but that has much more to do with what we want to see.

      • Joshua says:

        Nothing tricky about it. It’s simple actually. Gender opposites are no different than other natural opposites: cold-hot, light-dark, active-passive, in-out, systole-diastole… “yin & yang” reflects the duality inherent in all nature; and it applies to all opposites, not just to masculine and feminine.

        I understand about questioning cultural norms. All people should question cultural norms, in my opinion, because they are artificial, man-made. They may be helpful, or they may not. But nature is not like that. It is what it is. To question nature in the same way you question cultural norms is unwise.

        The irony here is that the whole idea of blurring gender differences is a cultural norm right now. It’s in the air, so to speak. So I would say “not so fast” to you and to anyone else who is formulating these new ideas. Where you are going with them is closer to confusion than to clarity and awareness. . .

        • Elizabeth Debold says:

          Right, the postmodern “thing” is gender bending, and the insistence that the feminine is the answer for the planet, for women, and for men. But I’m not advocating that. How, in what ways, are women and men opposites? Aren’t we far, far more alike than fundamentally different? I don’t see man/woman as an equivalent polarity to hot/cold.

          • malcolm Boyd says:

            I believe that Feminine and Masculine are more similar to hot and cold than might be plain to see if one thinks of hot and cold as relative terms. Since many of the qualities attributed to one gender or the other can actually be found in the assigned oppposite. Hairy bodies and smooth, deep voices and high voices, penises and vaginas, large breasts and small, aggressive and passive, the list goes on. However each of these characteristics can be found on either sex but whether it is masculine or feminine to possess either one might really depend on one’s relative experience and be different from place to place.
            Hot and cold is simpler but equally relative. At the south pole, a temperature of zero degrees fahrenheit might seem downright hot for someone who has been through a month of sixty below zero…. However, sixty degrees in Rio de Janeiro causes people to put on jackets, scarves and hats. Up and down the scale of temperature, is a place of relativity that might be compared to the human condition.
            Since we are animals, I think it is helpful to look at the animal world to serve as an unpretentious guide for determining many qualities that relate to being human. Primates, of course, being the most similar, can be a good place to start…… Ask them what masculine or feminine means to them or, perhaps, for quicker results, divine it.
            I like your article and I like this site………

          • Tony says:

            Where the line is between a real, natural difference with respect to these (labeled) qualities, and shifting cultural interpretations of them, is quite difficult for me to pinpoint accurately. But I’m certain that the words “feminine” and “masculine”, in whatever language game they are used in – depending upon social context – don’t always line up to “female” and “male.”

            A male could have several traits others call “feminine” and the same is true with a female. And it might feel right for them individually, regardless of how others judge them.

            The bigger issue is gender separation, which has accompanied patriarchy throughout the ages (perhaps even earlier, right back to hunter vs. gatherer). Individually, a male may have more in common with other females, and a female might have more in common with other males. For individuals (assuming one believes in individuality as a concept) in any given group, there are just as many differences WITHIN a gender category as between them.

            There are many other factors in solidarity besides gender. Anatomy and corresponding social roles are significant, but as we’ve seen, social roles change. Class, ethnicity, culture, common interests, personality even – these things bind people just as much, and cut across gender difference.

            Myself, I rarely feel the need to bond only with those of one gender or another, unless I’m in a situation where the people around me aren’t comfortable unless they have to fit these tight gender roles, which often makes me uncomfortable too!

  4. Patricia says:

    Elizabeth, great piece. Love the focus on being precise instead of labelling ourselves with terms that are loaded and distort what we are actually trying to say. It is a pity, none the less, that using those terms have negative consequences because they also have very positive connotations. I love to call myself a feminist because I love to be associated with those couragous women who fought so hard for the political and economic rights of women. I have benefited directly from their hard work. But if we are committed to change, there is no time to waste. If we want equal representation politically and economic, lets not tell our girls that they need to be like men, but that they have to work hard, network and find a good mentor in their field because that what men have been doing for centuries to keep in top of their careers.

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Thanks, Patricia. Feminist isn’t feminine…but too many think that it means something that is woman-only. I love your advice to girls!

  5. my GAWD it is so refreshing to see this dialog. o0oooh thank you Elizabeth, once again.

    i utterly agree that these terms are SO overloaded and SO imprecise that they muddy the water rather than help us to clarify who we are and where we want to go as integral practitioners. if you want to say connection and caring, just say it. if you want to say directive, just say it.

    whenever i get involved in these conversations i flog a link to this paper on my blog but it is really my best shot at saying my peace on this subject.


    i admire Elizabeth for attacking the subject again and again so creatively and with such compassion.

  6. Christiane says:

    Would love to know what response you got from the top of the Integralists (those who give seminars, etc) when you proposed to put the 2 words on the shelf for one year. Did you get a deal?

  7. John Shim says:

    The terms “masculine” and “feminine” in many spiritual traditions, especially the great traditions in India, have been used in a larger sense, to describe fundamental characteristics of the Supreme consciousness of which we are all part: Purusha and Prakriti, the Divine Father and Mother, representing typically the Divine Will and Knowledge on one hand, and the Divine Creative Power, the Executrix of that Divine Will on the other. They have never been regarded as separate, but rather different aspects of the same Consciousness, different manners of its expression necessary for the great evolutionary process, the great action of this Consciousness in the manifest universe, the universe we experience. And they exist in all of us. They have little to do with the classification of human psychological characteristics talked about here, the organization which has been useful in creating an awareness of these human psychological traits, but now, as this post argues, largely a hindrance to moving beyond it.

    It seems to me, and I think others as well, that this limited perspective, what has been historically expressed in the various social views of masculine and feminine, is an outgrowth of what was initially simply a natural and necessary division of labor in primitive times, one similar to that of many animal species, which is necessarily oriented around survival and procreation. Men are generally physically stronger, more able to deal with tasks where that is an advantage: hunting, defense, battle, building, farming and so on. Women only, of course, by their physiology are capable of reproduction, a function which almost automatically relegated other related tasks to them, such as rearing of offspring and food preparation. But of course as human civilization developed, the immediate needs of survival and reproduction became less pressing, and these functional roles developed into social divisions, social roles that often had no such purpose, and merely served to maintain whatever social structures that had been formed in various cultures.

    And in much of early civilization the structures appear to have been rather rigid, dominated largely by men due to their strength and the limitations imposed on women by childbirth. It seems to me that the eventual recognition of some of the characteristics that were typical of men and women, or at least typical of their ideals of the time, were in fact the early expression of a pressure to move away from the rigidity of these roles in cultures that were capable of it. That pressure was reflected eventually as the various women’s movements of the 20th century, especially in much of America and parts of Europe, which to a large extent obliterated all but the purely physiological differences separating men and women in many social functions. But of course the influence of these movements has been mixed, with many cultures still reflecting the old stereotypes and restricted roles to some degree. And some of the efforts of various spiritual groups in these cultures has been attempting to change the vestiges of the old stereotypes still remaining.

    Elizabeth’s point seems to be that the classification of psychological characteristics as masculine and feminine, the classification which to some extent has identified, underscored and thereby permitted the elimination of many social stereotypes, has now become a hindrance to moving further; it has begun to create its own stereotypes, its own overly simplistic view of human psychology and behavior.

    And I have to agree. But I also think that merely eliminating the latest version of masculine and feminine will not solve the underlying issue, or will at best be a limited move towards doing so. In my view the real problem, a much more difficult one for most people, is not moving beyond the male/female stereotype, but beyond the human stereotype, moving beyond the view that we are merely human beings, and that we can be nothing other than human beings in some improved form.

  8. Ram says:

    normally as human one does not remember or form memories till the age of three or four
    years from the date of birth . why so ?

    note. in the answer lies clear understanding

    of feminine and masculine

    put your views or wait till 16 may

  9. Ram says:

    If any thing has to be truth,
    it has to be universal truth.

    if it is true for atom,
    it has to be true for cosmos also.

    energy equation of atom is zero,
    energy equation of cosmos also is zero.


    AT OM


    vibrations of energy converted into sound ,
    the first sound of creation ,

    OM ALLAH GOD and the name one like .

  10. Ram says:


    WHO AM I ?

    zero wants to know zero.





    neutral (like neutron in atom )inhale to
    become one in the center ( like human do before throwing a ball )

    (water calorie is zero and pH neutral with
    heat transforms to vapour no form )
    (like proton in ATOM )


    : BIG BANG :


    Negative masculine cold (water manifests as
    ice )matter ,body (like electron in atom )

    union of proton and electron results as neutrons or zero, so union of soul and
    body,the two opposites,meeting of transparent
    and non transparent creates MIRROR.

  11. Ram says:

    human is the only being and everyone has this
    possibility to become mirror for cosmic zero
    that we refer as OM, ALLAH ,GOD ,or name of our choice or no choice.

    to reach this stage nature took billions of years to evolve forms and their continuous
    refinement to arrive at human forms with brain
    with two parts , right brain and left brain to
    represent soul and body,and with mind as the
    bridge between the two, oneness of soul ,mind,
    and body will create mirror for cosmic spirit.

    as humans do not remember their childhood from
    birth till three to four years of age and a
    child remains in the union of right and left
    brain, the state now or present forming mirror
    to zero, till this union last (no line on water )no memory ,pure blissfulness,happiness,
    with taste of god .

    that why children are our mirror to witness our own childhood and your invaluable chance
    to spend time with little enlightened masters.

    as we grow in age ,shift occurs from zero
    awareness to soul awareness and to body awareness and gap widens between right and
    left brain and journey into the world mind,
    material and memories of joy and sorrow and
    gradual loss of happiness ,that invaluable
    taste of god we want to replenish with values
    of the material world without understanding the nature of zero which is neither positive
    nor negative , neither light nor darkness and
    so on…….

    zero says


    enlightenment is the research of no dimension

  12. Ram says:


    Is emotional intelligence and nature of right

    F = FAIR
    M = MOTHER
    NINE = Magical number represents universal wisdom ,embrace principle of forgiveness,compassion and vibrations of cosmic love, teach us how to accept each other,
    and bridge to many qualities like creativity,
    dedication etc…….


    Is logical intelligence and nature of left

    M = MATTER
    C = CLEAR

    IT also represents perfection,adventure,science, information,
    worship of work , objective technology, body

    Every human has to work with both the brains
    together through mind which is bridge between
    subjective and objective , soul and body .

    woman because of gender has a natural inclination towards right brain which is feminine in nature represents soul.

    man because of gender has a natural inclination towards left brain which is masculine in nature represents body.



    left hand governed by right brain represents
    right hand governed by left brain represents

    fold them together for prayer to experience
    oneness that is present and taste of god.
    that is namaste (eastern greeting gesture )
    to bow to god in you.



  13. Ram says:











    • John Shim says:

      Enlightenment in a trice?
      Why bother with men,
      just use mice.
      Mind or no mind can
      roll the same dice.

      Nature sets her own pace,
      one not run in a race.
      Following that is real grace.
      From it comes solace,
      on the path to God’s place.

  14. Frank Luke says:

    I believe if an “NPR approach” to discussions is useful in that it avoids being too extreme and acknowleges there is another way to see the issue. It may weaken your argument but it makes for a more holistic rather than dualistic way of viewing reality. Yin/Yang, there’s that speck of the other side in each thing.


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