Feminine and Strong

“Muliebrity”: An important word to add to your vocabulary.

Source: The Daily Mail

Muliebrity. I bet that’s a word you don’t know.

Our minds like to put things in easy categories, and gender is, for most of us, a very handy way of defining these categories. We tend to perceive “strong” as going in the “masculine” pile. A word like “soft,” on the other hand, goes in the “feminine” one. Research indicates that this tends to happen whether our beliefs run along sexist lines or not. Do you mentally associate cats with one gender pile, and dogs with the other? Many people do. What about something as abstract as odd and even numbers?  Some people do. The ancient Greeks thought that even numbers were feminine since they can be divided by two–compared to odd numbers, which stand more firmly!

So thinking about femininity and strength, together, is an uphill battle. We have to mix up the piles. Our brain habits get in the way.

And our culture and language certainly gets in the way, too. Our culture tends to associate femininity or womanliness with lack. Women are, for example, often thought of as lacking that one, apparently all-important, organ.  “Virility” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “manly strength and vigour of action or thought; energy or force of a virile character.”  If a man lacks virility, we say he is “emasculated.” Tellingly, another synonym for unmanly is  “effeminate,” which means acting in a womanly fashion.  If strength, vigor, energy, and force define manliness, and we think of womanliness as the opposite of manliness, where are we?  Womanliness seems to be about weakness and passivity.

But thinking in binary opposites can make us stupid.

When we think of a body being strong purely in terms of weight-lifting, yes, we picture a man, due to men’s greater advantage, on average, in that area. But if we think of strong bodies as those that live the longest, women have the longer average lifespans and are, in this sense, stronger.  The photo (above) of yoga teacher Betty Calman was taken when she was 83! It also takes considerable strength, vigor, energy and force to bring new life into the world, and care for it. Or to live any kind of a good life. Femininity and strength are not mutually exclusive.

So I’d like to resurrect the word “muliebrity.” I first came upon it, way back in the pre-internet days, in an old Webster’s print dictionary I had lying around:

muliebrity (n.) The state of being a woman or of possessing full womanly powers; womanhood; — correlate of virility.

Note the use of the word “powers.” Note that muliebrity is a “correlate”–that is, something parallel and complementary to–masculine virility. This definition is not about lack. Muliebrity refers to distinctively feminine strengths. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to exist a word meaning “a lack of muliebrity.” Let’s coin the term “emuliebrite” to indicate a lack of enduring, generative, womanly power.

Did I mention we face an uphill battle?

Nowadays, your word processing spell-checker is likely to flag muliebity as an unknown word. (I’m seeing little red dots underneath, myself, each time I type it…). And if you google “muliebrity,” you will likely get some variant of this Oxford English Dictionary definition:

muliebrity (n.) The characteristics or qualities of a woman; womanhood, womanliness (opposed to virility). Also: softness, effeminacy.

Yuck. Now we’re back to womanliness being “opposed” to manliness, and an association only with squishy effeminacy.

I would like to rehabilitate the word “muliebrity,” in its positive, strong sense. So please use it, till it gets back in common use! If you’re a word geek like me, please also tell the OED to include the definition that doesn’t treat women as lesser beings.

Author: Julie A. Nelson

Julie A. Nelson is a writer on gender, ethics, economics, ecology, and Zen; a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a Dharma Holder and Teaching Coordinator at the Greater Boston Zen Center; and mother of two grown children.

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