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  • Writer's pictureAshlyn Allemand

Femininity as Incompetent: Our Development of Internalized Sexism

“Of course you weren’t validated the way you should have been for your intelligence, because as a woman, you can’t be pretty and nice and smart. It’s one or the other.”

Femininity as Incompetent

Femininity and masculinity are social constructs that associate the norms, behaviors, and roles of people with being a man, woman, girl, or boy, as well as their relationships with each other. Oftentimes identified as the gender construct, femininity and masculinity work to keep the expressions of people separated for patriarchal approval. However, in a patriarchal system, the expression of femininity and feminine attributes or qualities is viewed as weaker — incompetent.

This femininity can be expressed by traits such as sensitivity, nurturance, gentleness, humility and empathy, or stereotypically being emotional, kind, and helpful. Femininity can also be seen in one’s physical expression, conventionally by wearing makeup, dresses or skirts, or delicate patterns and colors. In academic and professional settings, these feminine characteristics enable one to be taken less seriously and seen as less competent by those viewing them.

Even the greatest feminist theorists and scholars have been affected by this belief; men and toxic masculinity frequently use it as an advantage for power and domination over women. With patriarchal thinking being at the root of this domination, it forces women into being socialized to believe their incompetence to be true. You don’t look at a man and think because of his masculinity he is incompetent, but you can look at a woman and think because of her femininity she is. In this imperious society, women are first assumed incompetent until proven otherwise.

The quote above is a response from my gender studies professor after explaining to her my experience with academic validation as a feminine woman. This validation is something I have struggled with for as long as I can remember. As someone who was perceived as feminine, both emotionally and physically from a young age, I lacked validation in academics from those of higher authority — those I needed it from. I was deemed as a nice and helpful student in the classroom, someone who made others feel better about themselves and “always wore a pretty smile.”

Since I’ve gotten older, I’ve been told I’m intelligent in “other ways,” but not the kind of intelligence my male counterparts get associated with. I’m specifically told by men that I “care/try a lot” or “seem like I know what I’m talking about.” People, particularly men, consistently couldn't, and can't see me as intelligent or smart or that I know things — it’s in “different” ways that keep me separated. As a universal experience for people who express themselves as feminine, this ingrained perception about ourselves is deeply connected to internalized sexism; we’ve been socialized by patriarchal thinking to see ourselves as inferior to men. We lack confidence, we lack power, we lack importance, we lack the ability to trust ourselves. By being told we are incompetent by men, we are certain to eventually believe them.

The Depth of Internalized Sexism

Even the greatest thinkers and writers have been victimized by patriarchal thinking and internalized sexism. bell hooks speaks of her time at Stanford University and the notion of femininity as incompetent in her book feminism is for everybody. She explains that she “knew from first hand experience the difference in female self-esteem and self-assertion in same-sex classrooms versus those where males were present. Females spoke less, took less initiative, and often when they spoke you could hardly hear what they were saying. Their voices lacked strength and confidence.”

Growing up in a patriarchy, even the smartest, most intellectual and insightful women suffer from male domination; the presence of men in the classroom reminds us to be small. This socialization enables us to view ourselves as subordinate and inferior to men. hooks connects this subordination to internalized sexism by saying, “to make matters worse we were told time and time again by male professors that we were not as intelligent as the males, that we could not be ‘great’ thinkers, writers, and so on. That foundation rested on our critique of what we then called ‘the enemy within,’ referring to our internalized sexism. We all knew firsthand that we had been socialized as females by patriarchal thinking to see ourselves as inferior to men, to see ourselves as always and only in competition with one another for patriarchal approval.” (bell hooks feminism is for everybody).

The depth in which this socialization is ingrained into ourselves is much deeper than even we (as women) struggle to realize. It doesn’t matter how aware, or smart, or insightful we are, patriarchy affects and socializes everyone no matter how hard we try to pretend it doesn’t. As women, we know that we are only seen for what we look like or the emotions we have, and in an imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, it is considerably harder for us to show that we are so much more than that. There are far more ways than academically or professionally that women are taught they are incompetent, but it’s where we can first believe it to be true — that we lack something men have. The intensity of this harmful thinking is often overlooked or completely ignored, which only benefits the patriarchy more; it's easier to keep this ideology in place when we fail to recognize it. Feminine people effortlessly fall into the trap of feeling like they have to prove themselves to be taken seriously or validated for their knowledge.

What This Means to Me

While getting older I found there was no room for growth once I had been deemed as nice, and pretty, and helpful. I deeply wanted to be seen for my insights and my thoughts, and although I was from time to time, my internalized sexism told me that my thoughts would never be honored the way a man’s are. Once I pursued my passions in college, I was finally able to feel comfortable and confident in academics that truly matter to me, and the validation from men has become much less important. To be socialized into thinking I am anything less than myself and who I am was extremely difficult for me. I felt really small at times, like my femininity was masking my intelligence to be seen by anyone else. However, now that I study feminist theory, my femininity is embraced, my curiosity is encouraged, and my voice matters. Knowing that I am a victim of patriarchal thinking, one that has not only lessened the way people and men view me and other women, but has made us believe we are less, only makes me more empowered to do the work that I do. Finding the power within ourselves, as hard as it is, is crucial when combating the deeply embedded idea that we are incompetent.

Final Words

My femininity is powerful. There is nothing incompetent about the way I choose to present myself or the feelings I allow myself to have. Growing up believing I had to prove myself to people who were of higher authority or male was only a response to the subordination I was noticing and experiencing. I now know that I didn’t have to prove anything, I just was. And although other people struggled to believe that, I knew it for myself, and in a patriarchal society that will continue to fail me, that is enough. I hope it will be for you too.

Ashlyn Allemand is a FEMISH Intern and junior at North Central College majoring in sociology with minors in race and gender studies. She hopes to continue her studies in a graduate program after undergrad. Ashlyn is interested in writing feminist theory and teaching in higher education. Her goal in life is to continue learning and growing as a feminist theorist and remind others of the power within themselves.

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