When did we all become women?

Critics of feminism once predicted it would masculinize women. Guess what: It's done the opposite. And by the way—Nice pants, guy.

Hang around the zeitgeist long enough and a pattern will emerge. You flip on the TV and there’s a young woman announcing that Eagle Hardware is her social life. Change the station and see the newest Nike ad: no more the command to Just Do It, but now a ringing paean to self-esteem: I Can. Maybe another station will be broadcasting OlympicGames human-interest stories; maybe the winning American wrestler will be weeping lavishly.

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Or maybe the vice president of the United States will be the one weeping, standing on the dais of the Democratic convention relating the tragedy of his sister’s lung cancer. You open a men’s magazine and read about the Nine Steps to a Toned Derriere. You log on to the Internet where designer Donna Karan reports that the top fashion trends are not wide lapels or sheer skirts, but “Compassion. Caring. Embracing.” You go to church and pray to God the Mother. You flee to a restaurant for a scotch and a steak, but find yourself in a cafe with wine and low-fat beefalo.

You wonder when we all became female.

If you cast a critical eye backward, you will see that it’s happened over the last three decades, in a shift as gradual and inevitable as the changing tide, surging over everything from business, education, and religion to politics, fashion, and interpersonal relations. One of the great cultural revolutions of our time, it’s also been as invisible as the air we breathe, shifting the default position of our behavior to “feminine” as imperceptibly as our evolution toward light eating, self-empowerment, and public intimacy.

Think of feminization not as the promulgation of characteristics belonging to women—whatever those would be—but as the promulgation of those characteristics traditionally associated with women. Think of values like nurturing and caring, emotion and sentimentality, connection and community, passivity and submission, vanity and appearance, cooperation and equality, openness and access, manipulation and influence. These are the values on the ascendancy in our public and private lives. It’s a phenomenon that stands in stark contrast to the doomsayers’ prediction that the sexual revolution would masculinize the “fairer sex.”

And the phenomenon shows no sign of abating, even as it propels us into a world we may not entirely want. Though it’s not difficult to identify the forces which have driven the feminization, it’s considerably trickier figuring out what to make of it. As feminine qualities increasingly define the benchmark for correct human behavior, other social goods—the manly virtues, even feminism itself—may fall by the wayside.

They may already have.

Vanity and the American male

A handy cultural yardstick of feminization can be found in the men’s and women’s movements, the most vibrant and ascendant branches of which encourage feminine qualities. The late ’80s contingent of the men’s movement emphasizing a return to manliness has faded, as drumbeating devotees of Robert Bly’s Iron John have given way to a less sweaty pro-feminism highlighting male sensitivity, caring, and intimacy. Both the wax and recent wane of Promise Keepers, the Christian male leadership crusade to address (in the words of one of its evangelists) the “national crisis” that is the “feminization of the American male,” testifies to the diminished masculinity, or at least the perception thereof, among men.

Conversely, the first-wave feminists who fought for equal opportunity naturally focused on a woman’s ability to compete in a man’s world, thus highlighting the qualities which rendered her classically masculine: independent, aggressive, strong, capable. In the ’90s, feminists began to realize that the leaderly traits which served them so well in their public lives were not nearly so useful personally, where they frequently felt like lesser feminists for wanting to look good or attract men. A new sex-positive feminism allowing women to reclaim their femininity, articulated by thinkers as disparate as Camille Paglia, Naomi Wolf, and Suzanne Gordon, began to take hold and supplant antique stereotypes of feminists as sexless hags.

In short, feminization has come to represent the way of progress—for both men and women. This shows up with particular clarity within realms once predominantly feminine, like fashion. The point can be made in two words: floral ties. Mens’ clothing stores used to resemble a sea of blue and grey. But in the early ’90s designers began applying trends in women’s accessories to men’s accessories. Unthinkably female items began selling to men, everything from wide belts to colorful neckwear. Men have been “heading for the manicurist and the hair salon,” sneered The Economist in a 1996 article reporting that the market for men’s hair color products is growing by as much as 20 percent a year.

Media messages targeted at men reflect this newly open concern with appearances. All it takes is a thumb through Men’s Health magazine. Between pretty ads for Tiffany for Men and L’Eau D’Issey pour L’Homme one encounters Cosmopolitan-style articles on losing fat and toning thighs. In response, male institutions like Esquire are replacing much of their cultural coverage with more service pieces and vanity features.

The rise of the Dockers man

Even more telling are the advertisements now in vogue: commercials, targeting men, which show men in thrall to dominant women. The chump in the elevator who doesn’t get the girl; the naïf in the Paris subway left flummoxed by the bombshell’s attentions; the hunk who gets the catcalls from the women. These men are cast in the woman’s traditional role of object: passive, submissive, not in charge. The lodestar here was the famous Dockers ad campaign of the late ’80s, a series of ads for a line of men’s trousers in which snippets of male conversation—about women, mortgage payments, socio-economic status—aimed a straight pitch for a bull’s-eye no advertiser had ever before targeted: the male emotional center.

“It’s always been acceptable for a man to be a success in business,” one of the Dockers marketing execs told The New Yorker last year. “The new thing that men are dealing with is that it’s OK for men to have a sense of personal style, and that it’s OK to be seen as sexy. It’s less about the head than about the combination of the head, the heart, and the groin.”

A spate of advertisements treating men as if they were women might not be so remarkable if advertising weren’t the dead-on cultural barometer that it is. These ads suggest an astonishing truth: that no longer is it as culturally resonant to be dominant as it is to be submissive, compliant, passive. Feminine.

The nurturing boss

Out with the bosses, in with the nurturing managers. Pick up any management text published in the last 15 years and you’re likely to encounter advice like the following, from Megatrends author Robert Naisbitt: “No longer is a manager a barking boss who is a know-it-all… [instead] we have to think about the manager as teacher, as mentor, as resource developer of human potential.” Naisbitt identified a set of homespun management principles he called “Motherisms”; fellow management guru Tom Peters later issued precepts he called “Motherhoods.” In her 1997 analysis of several contemporary management texts, Duke University researcher Nanette Fondas found that each disseminated a clearly feminine ethos, emphasizing shared responsibility over control from the top, empowerment over command, and partnership over hierarchy.

Sally Riggs Fuller, assistant professor at the University of Washington school of business, cites phenomena like empowerment programs and team structures as elements of the feminizing trend. The new caring workplace so nurtures the physical, emotional, even spiritual well-being of its employees—with everything from day care to diversity training to on-site massage—that management pundits have dubbed it “the nanny corporation.” Part-time, flex-time, and telecommuting—the primary employment innovations of the decade—represent classic examples of feminization, each blurring the border between the traditionally masculine domain of work and the traditionally feminine domain of home.

Even the metaphors driving the American economy into the future—the global network of cyberspace, the communications revolution, the rise of the service economy—are feminine conceits, emphasizing connectedness, relationship, inclusion, engagement.

The kinder, gentler candidate wins

In recent years even politics, that quintessentially male arena, has become feminized beyond recognition. Sentimentality is the means, a phenomenon political pundits noted two years ago at both parties’ national conventions, where agendas were topped with sob stories, public tears, talk-show theatrics, and paralyzed actors mugging tragically from their wheelchairs. Some ascribed the melodramatics to the prevailing sensibilities of President Clinton, who feels our pain and weeps to prove it, but the sentimentalization of politics began long before he rose to prominence.

In 1988, presidential candidate George Bush found himself on the wrong side of a 20 percent gender gap—the trend among women, since the election of Jimmy Carter, to vote Democrat. At once Bush’s handlers began feminizing in earnest, honing in on touchy-feely rhetoric (“kinder, gentler nation”) and visceral emotional symbols (Willie Horton) to pluck at the feminine chords of hope and fear. Though policywise Michael Dukakis was unquestionably the more woman-friendly candidate, the victorious Bush was successfully spun as the more feminized candidate.

The upshot, discovered in that campaign and exploited ever since: men vote for policies, women vote for symbols. Handlers found that where men’s voter turnout is dictated by political attentiveness, women’s voting has increased more rapidly than their interest or knowledge warrant. Therefore, women are more susceptible to campaigns waged through potent emotional symbols. Sick of the mudslinging and soundbiting that have since come to characterize political campaigning? Blame feminization.

Feminization goes deeper than business and politics, however. Across the country, police departments are training their finest in forging community ties over wielding force. Legal thinkers are calling for more mediation and arbitration over adversarial court battles. A handful of feminist lawyers have posited such innovations as “caring” judgments in personal injury cases, calling for responsible parties to take personal care of their victims. Education conferences increasingly concern themselves with care, a concept which was institutionalized in the early ’90s as an educational theory of empathy, ethical literacy, and non-competitive learning called “Maternal Teaching.” All the great crises currently rending the church, from gays in the pews and women in the pulpit to priestly celibacy and gender-neutral language, reveal an irrepressible feminization of the patriarchal institution of Christianity; this is a seismic shift one theologian told Newsweek represents “the greatest upheaval in the church since the Reformation.”

The forces in play: Economics, gay culture…

What’s driving America’s feminization? Initially, perhaps, pragmatics. For business managers, masculinization simply stopped being effective. The 1970s lag in American productivity led theorists to remodel the hierarchical management structure they’d dragged out of World War II. Nor was June and Ward Cleaver’s personal life a ringing success. “The oversimplified gender roles worked out in the 19th and 20th centuries were unnatural and unliveable,” posits Philip Gold, a fellow at Seattle’s Discovery Institute who has just completed a book on American cultural change. “Until the 19th century, the idea that women are the emotional ones and men the stolid ones was never that clear-cut. Men cried like crazy. The 1950s were not the norm.”

The rise of gay culture further conspired to loosen the strictures confining male behavior. Politically, factor in the gender gap, a phenomenon which upped the clout of women and shined a new political spotlight on their issues. “Suddenly the guys started fighting each other to get the best soundbite on family leave,” says Debbie Walsh, acting director of the Center for Women in Politics at Rutgers University. Walsh affirms what the gender gap has long suggested: that women, even Republican women, are more politically liberal than men. Women are more dovelike, more suspicious of power, more inclined toward paternalistic government, and are lower on the socioeconomic scale.

…and don’t forget the liberals

Even as women further liberalism, then, liberalism furthers feminization. In a recent essay in Commentary, conservative thinker James Nuechterlein argues that the American Left has become thoroughly feminized—read sentimentalized—in the absence of any other sustaining political ideology. Thus liberalism itself promotes a politics of compassion, solidarity for the disadvantaged, even love—emotions he believes are inappropriate to the public forum. “What free and equal citizens of a society owe one another in the public forum is not love, but justice,” Nuechterlein writes. “Love, after all, gives without counting the cost, and politics that does not count costs is feckless and irresponsible.”

In Nuechterlein’s view, liberalism was long able to resist its feminizing tendencies—until Vietnam. Then, the fervent moralism that marked both the antiwar movement and the civil-rights crusade created ideal conditions for feminization to flourish, steeping an entire generation in its utopian visions of peace and equality. Now members of that generation are our country’s opinion makers and political leaders, and have disseminated the feminized ethos broadly throughout politics and culture.

The women’s rights movement, of course, played an even more tangible role in promoting feminization: its crusade for equal opportunity vaulted more women into the workplace, the corner office, the corridors of power. Anti-discrimination measures have all but eliminated the male bastion, from men’s clubs to the Citadel.

Women have moved into the economic mainstream in part because the now-dominant service and knowledge industries, as opposed to physical or industrial labor, are realms in which women are best equipped to compete with men. As women infiltrate media once ruled by men—as is happening in advertising and, even more dramatically, public relations—media messages become more resonant to women. As women get elected to political office—as more women have in Washington state than any other, filling 39 percent of the statehouse—debate is forced on issues of greatest concern to women, from domestic violence to maternity leave.

Cultural critic Midge Decter has theorized that one of the forces feminizing men has been this mass migration of women into the workforce. Empowered now to choose between career and motherhood, a woman faces newly formidable life choices, the consequences of which are more biologically extreme than the choices men face. A woman’s lot, therefore, is fraught with more stress than a man’s, and any man who desires the company of such a complex and driven individual needs to bring forth all the nurturing and care he can muster.

She who picks the video, rules

Whether or not female social and economic power makes men more sensitive, it has had an undeniably dramatic effect on American culture, as is evident in the stunning rise in the degree to which women drive commerce. The statistics are plain: according to Ad Age, women now control some 60 percent of all US wealth and influence more than 80 percent of all purchases. In his latest book Tom Peters writes, “Women are opportunity number one,” a trend futurist Faith Popcorn has dubbed “Eve-olution.”

Marketers, these for-profit prophets advise, must therefore feminize their products. Marketers are clearly listening: We see the results in everything from the soap-operatic coverage of the Olympic Games, to hotels’ increasing use of security-friendly card keys, to the Softer Side of Sears.

Welcome to the hardware store, ma’am

Women are now wooed even in areas once deemed exclusively male: TV spokeswomen rhapsodize about the aesthetics of Eagle Hardware, never-before-seen Ford ads appear in Brides Magazine, and pitches for Intel show up in Martha Stewart Living. Porsche has traded its famous “Kills Bugs Fast” campaign for pastoral new images of the speedster en route to a country bed and breakfast.

Ads aren’t the only medium reflecting marketers’ new obsession with women. One publisher quoted in a recent New York Times article called the feminization of fiction in the last five years “a wave that has… risen and surged until it’s swallowed us all up.” Books by female authors, or at least books featuring strong female characters, now get the lion’s share of publishers’ interest; the chairman of Times Warner told the Times that so-called “boy books”—the Clancy’s, Crichton’s, Koontz’s—don’t sell nearly as well as they once did unless they prominently feature females.

Ditto movies. Research shows that women choose the movies and rent the videos; studios are responding by feminizing their films. With its summer release of the shoot ’em up Con Air, Disney put into practice its new requirement of skewing pictures to both masculine and feminine interests. Thus prominently featured in the trailer is the motivating love story of Nicholas Cage trying to get back to his wife and baby; the final cut was edited to slash the number of car crashes, dial up the humor, and foreground the romantic subplot.

With the whole weight of commercial enterprise thrown behind luring women, it’s no wonder the world appears ever more tailored to feminine tastes. But perhaps it would appear thus even if not for the feminized substance of the messages. To the extent that American culture is growing more commodified and commercialized, we Americans are increasingly reduced to our identities as consumers: receptive, suggestible, objectified, slavish to appearances. Submission and acquiescence are the Pavlovian responses advertising has trained into us. Consumer culture thus casts us all in the classic role of the female.

But consumerism isn’t the only aspect of American culture beating us into submission. Much remarked upon in recent years has been our increasing fondness for the status of victimhood, a phenomenon nurtured by identity politics, rights-based rhetoric, and a whole slew of lawyers slavering over bonanza settlements. Where consumerism breeds compliance, victim-ism breeds passivity: it locates strength in oppression. Thus disempowerment is a newly powerful place to be. These days a woman can lob a charge of sexual harassment from her cubicle and topple a titan. Perhaps we need no more evidence than this to show how traditionally feminine the very lifeblood of America has become.

But is this what we want?

The question, of course, is whether this feminization is taking us where we want to go. In their 1985 book The Feminization of America, social scientists Elinor Lenz and Barbara Myerhoff crow about an America that, “spurred on by the feminizing influence, is moving away from many archaic ways of thinking and behaving toward the promise of a saner and more humanistic future.” Though it is nearly impossible to argue with a trend that ascribes heightened value to attributes like caring and peace, this patronizing—matronizing?—tone begins to throb beneath the surface of any supporter’s rhetoric: women make better humans than men.

Admittedly, some of this valorization of femininity is long past due for the half of the human race whose achievements have too long been taken for granted, and too rarely admired. Yet actively cultivated in today’s feminized American culture is the inescapable notion that to be fully, meaningfully human, one must be as female as possible. From our increasingly politically correct disdain for hierarchical structures like the military, to the terms by which we define good mental health—communication! intimacy! openness!–the feminized way is the right way.

Ironically, this is potentially damaging to women. As Nation columnist Katha Pollitt has argued, any belief system holding up womanhood as morally exemplary threatens to set up moral superiority as a condition of equality. The adoration of femininity becomes yet another pedestal on which society can place, and thereby displace, real flesh-and-blood women.

To paraphrase cultural critic Barbara Ehrenreich: It lets us become more feminine without becoming more feminist. This has happened before in American history, in the mid-18th century when Victorian women, as the primary consumers and influencers of popular culture, promoted a culture of sentimentalism. As historian Ann Douglas writes in The Feminization of American Culture, the development of this “culture of feelings” didn’t further the equality cause; it furthered male hegemony by marginalizing women.

Some argue that today’s feminization is effecting the same sorry consequence. “Sure, we see healthier lifestyles and the clothing has changed, and men can now shed a tear in public,” observes state senator Jeanne Kohl (D-Seattle). “Yet all the childcare work we’ve done has gone nowhere. Superficially there may be feminization, but we still aren’t funding these things.” Kohl echoes the sentiments of a great many professional women who see the floral ties and the empowering managers and the weeping wrestlers—but too little real change.

Maybe all this feminine posturing really does come down to nothing more than men throwing us a bone. Maybe it’s nothing we want anyway, responsible as it is, after all, for cultural unsavories from attack-dog political campaigning to the rise of the victim culture.

Or maybe it’s simply the path we must take on our way to a better place, society’s overcompensating pendulum swing away from the hyper-masculinized culture of the first half of the century. Perhaps the day will come when thesis and antithesis inevitably resolve into synthesis, when the masculine and the feminine will forge a marriage to affirm and promote the best of each. Then we shall all weep and wear skirts and eat steak and play football, forgetting, one hopes, that it was not always thus.

Related Links:

Robert Bly and the Minnesota Men’s Conference


NOW on the Promise Keepers


The Promise Keepers


Feminist Links


The 3rd Wave~”feminism for the next millennium”


Info on Katha Pollitt



Senator Jeanne Kohl’s page