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Masculinity and Femininity

By Harold Kelman

[In this lecture, Harold Kelman discusses the concepts of “masculinity” and “femininity.” Topics include:

« States that these are cultural constructs not related to sex. These cultural influences begin at birth with the gendered naming of the child and continue throughout life.

These constructs develop because children are reared almost entirely by the women. Women become associated with comfort, love, and nourishment, growth development. "Love is theirs to give and to receive, to withhold and to refuse. Women become not only the greatest source of love but also the deepest source of pain through their refusal to love or be loved."

Because mothers are responsible for "bowel and bladder training" they impart negative connotations to genitals, resulting in "prudishness and feminine attitudes towards sex." Distorts functions of genitals to young women, leaving them unprepared for their role as wife and mother.

Young men, at 3 or 4, will notice themselves different from their sisters. Realize their special treatment by their mothers (who feel a proud sense of "their son" but also resent the easy life they will have in this "Man's world"). Sense difference between girl's world (closer with the mother) and boy's world (being on their own - independent and resourceful). Also the role of bodily conflict and activities, going in the nude in front of other men, "defecating and urinating openly in front of one another is encouraged." "Mutual examination and comparison of the genitals further breaks down the feminine taboos regarding sex."

Mother as the glorified martyr who has lost her looks and figure in service of her family.

Sexual neurosis in boys: excessive action and hostility, neutrality, femininity (Determine the role the boy will take in a homosexual relationship.)

Presents detailed example of neurosis throughout a family - parents and children - and their "reorientation" through the mother's psychoanalysis treatment.

Homosexuality also mentioned.

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection » (quotations from - AKS]

Masculinity and Femininity

NYC Municipal Archives audio recording (hosted on

Monday, April 17, 1950

Good afternoon. For the past six weeks, we have brought to you six lectures dealing with the problems of childhood and their influence on the adult life of the individual. These lectures introduced our series, “Psychoanalysis and Everyday Living.” Today, we will begin our second group in the same series. Our discussions for the next few weeks will be concerned with the role of sex in the lives of men and women. These lectures are presented by doctors who are members of the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanlaysis and the American Institute of Psychoanalysis. Our orientation for the entire series is based upon Dr. Karen Horney’s constructive theory of neurosis.

Many facts have been collected about the anatomical and physiological differences between men and women, and much material has been assembled by sociologists and anthropologists concerning their divergent functions and behavior patterns. But most investigators have overlooked the fallacy of attempting to prove a psychological thesis by means of anatomical and physiological data. Much of the argument is based on invalid assumptions. Among these are what are popularly known as our “instincts” — many of which scientific observation has already proved to be merely the results of conditioned behavior. Another of the popular assumptions is predicated upon the different functions of the sexes in our culture. Nevertheless, anthropology has demonstrated that such differences are completely reversed in other, lesser-known cultures.

It becomes clear, therefore, that we cannot accurately define masculinity and femininity, or even be sure that they really exist, until we are able to determine part played by culture. Consequently, it is necessary for us first to analyze the cultural influences as we see them in daily operation. Only then could we justly conclude that the residual traits were of anatomical origin. At present there is, for instance, no proof that the anatomical differences responsible for menstruation, pregnancy, and lactation in women result in temperamental differences. But, we are in a position to assert that men and women do have the same neurotic character disturbances.

We can also say, with assurance, that what is called masculine or feminine in our society is culturally determined, and can be changed or dissipated in the shot course of a psychoanalysis, or by the longer course of history. For example, a very effeminate man may lose his so-called feminine traits. The significance attributed to masculinity and femininity can be appreciated only in terms of the life history of the individual and against the background of the culture in which he lives. For the individual, at birth, contains within himself a precipitate of his heredity and his culture. The geographical, social, economical, and political components of his culture will not only operate upon him after birth through his parents, and later through his increasing with life about him, but they have been acting upon him before birth — more directly, through his mother. At birth, a particular individual has a penis or a vagina. Immediately, cultural influences begin to operate. The child is referred to as a “boy” or a “girl,” and is called “Peter,” or “Ruth” — names that have quite different connotations. Thus, before the child even knows who he is and that he has a sex, the whole matter seems, quite literally, to have been taken out of his hands. He is obliged to content with the personal biases and idiosyncrasies of his parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, a family history, its social and economic status, the locality in which he lives, the type of government then existing, and the historical approach during which he made his appearance. Before proceeding, it is essential that we come to a mutual understanding regarding certain terms. By “genital,” I mean the actual genitalia — the penis and the vagina. By “sexual,” I mean something broader. The term includes any thought, action, or feeling in which the genital apparatus is a part, whether alone or with another person; and, any other thought, action, or feeling involving the secondary, non-genital, sexual anatomical characteristics. Such characteristics include, on the part of the male, hair on the face and body, the absence of developed breasts, the absence of menstruation and the capacity of giving birth to and nursing children.

It is easier to define anatomical differences, as well as the acts in which they manifest themselves, than it is to answer the question of their probable or possible influence in determining the separate characters of men and women as we perceive them. For cultural influences are so pervasive and invasive that we cannot assert with any degree of assurance precisely where they end and where the significance of anatomical differences can be clearly established. Our problem, then, is how to examine individuals, male and female, and how to determine what effect their special anatomical differences may have. These interacting, interrelating, and integrating forces can be understood only in terms of interpersonal relationships. Thus, the attitudes that an individual develops for purposes of security, safety, health, and as part of his neurosis, we refer to as his “total character structure.” Our specific interest is in real and apparent masculinity and femininity. The more we clarify and dissipate what is merely apparent, the closer we shall come to knowing what is real. Consequently, we should ascertain how, and at what points cultural influences act upon the individual, and to which he or she reacts in the development of the so-called “masculine” and “feminine” attitudes. As a result of these interactions, each one develops his or her notion of how a boy or girl is supposed to act, think, and feel.

How are our concepts of masculinity and femininity developed? Because, in our society, child-rearing is carried on almost solely by the mother, the feelings, words, and actions associated with love and affection have become closely identified with women in general. Thus, the adjectives “maternal,” “sisterly,” “feminine,” “womanly,” “girlish” have become associated with love, sympathy, understanding, warmth, affection, nourishment, growth, development. In fact, these connotative values have been pushed to such extremes that woman is regarded by some not only as the sacred fountainhead and dispenser of all feelings, but is invested with that rare capacity called “feminine intuition.” This lead to such ridiculous clichés as “Mother knows best” and “Who should know more about my child than I, his mother?”

We may as well admit, at the outset, and at this point, that it is still another question as to who really does know. Since the mother is the main source of giving pleasure and allaying discomfort, the growing child adopts the belief that women are the loving and the comforting ones. Love is theirs to give and to receive, to withhold and to refuse. This view, of course, is double-edged, because, as a result of it, women become not only the greatest source of love, but also the deepest source of pain, through their refusal to love, or to be loved. Consequently, love, with all its dubious and erroneous implications, becomes woman’s greatest weapon — both for and against herself.

With all the functions she must serve the infant, the mother becomes a most complex symbol. She now has further attitudes attached to her unique being. She is complex, mysterious, enigmatic, subtle, incomprehensible, contradictory, warm, soft, sweet, and at other times, stern, reproving, impatient, irritable, and rasping. And so the myth of woman — the enigma, the mysterious — is created. Because of her function in bowel and bladder training, the mother becomes associated with another, quite different set of attitudes. Through various appropriate and not-so-appropriate gestures, she indicates approval or disapproval regarding soiling and wetting. Her negative reactions result in the development of prudishness and the abhorrence of any mention of physiological functions. In this manner, the foundations are laid for what are referred to as “feminine” attitudes towards sex, since the child cannot differentiate the subtle differences in function of everything “down there” — in the region referred to as his private parts” — all these confusing attitudes become associated with sexuality. Being longer under his mother’s influence, the girl continues with these feminine attitudes and has them reinforced at the onset of menses. Because of the still-existing, unhealthy attitudes toward what goes on “down there,” the idea of its revolting and disgusting nature is exaggerated, and so, most of the feelings of revulsion, disgust, and abhorrence about physiological functions are transferred to, or focused on, sex.

It is no wonder, therefore, that sexuality is such a confusing and frightening problem to many women. The normal functions and meanings of urination, defecation, and menstruation — having become, by now, thoroughly distorted in the mind of the adolescent girl — she is confronted with still further confusion concerning the matter of procreation. Either she is told that she is too young to know about such things, except insofar as they apply to the bees, the birds, and the flowers, or else she is given a purely hygienic account — which, by its utter lack of warmth and real understanding, fails to prepare her for her future roles as wife and mother. In fact, all of her training has been concentrated upon superficial matters. She has been taught how to conduct herself in the correct manner with her first date; in how she must proceed in the romantic game of courtship and marriage. However, she has been taught very little concerning our function as a real human being in the ultimate relationship of marriage. Indeed, society — acting chiefly through the mother — has produced merely another quasi-human facsimile of its percepts. It has failed to produce a broadly functioning individual.

Let us now turn our attention to the young boy, and examine the process by which he develops and learns to evaluate his masculinity. Somewhere in his second or third year, a boy becomes aware that he is anatomically from his sister and his mother, and like his father. He notices that his mother reacts differently to him than to his sister. His mother may not realize it, but already she is taking pride in him as her son, even while resenting the fact that he will find life easier in this man’s world. And although he soon will be imbued with the notion of his own uniqueness, specialness, and difference, at the same time, he will become rather painfully aware of his being increasingly removed, detached, and excluded from certain intimacies with his mother which are permitted his sister for a longer period. By the time his father’s influence has become a dominant factor in his life, the little boy has already unconsciously accepted many of the attitudes regarded as feminine. These, naturally, concern all the implications and manifestations of love, and feelings in general, as well as the functions of urination, defecation, and sexuality. Even at an early age, it is made clear to him that there is a girl’s world, which means, among other things, spending more time and being closer with you mother; and a boy’s world, which means being on your own.

Without being at all aware of it, he he has begun to develop a whole series of notions about what being masculine means. In addition to denoting independence and resourcefulness, it means that an emphasis is placed on bodily strength — and, if necessary, the settling of differences through physical combat. He learns, too, that a man is expected to settle honest differences in a forthright manner, and that, in the heat of battle, violent language is allowed, but no tears, scratching, biting, or hair-pulling — supposedly, the traditional prerogatives of women. Through his enjoyment of rough-and-ready bodily contact and conflicts, he naturally assumes a carefree regard for sexual functions, and for bodily activities. Boys undress before each other and go in the nude with healthy abandon. Defecating and urinating openly before each other is encouraged, as well as competitive games involving who can spit and urinate further. Mutual examination and comparison of genitals further breaks down many of the feminine taboos regarding sexuality. And, because of this freer attitude, boys do not, in general, react to puberty with the psychological intensity characteristic of girls. Quite obviously, boy assumes that the attitudes represented by his father, as well as the role he plays, constitute some total of the meaning of the word “masculinity.” And by now he can spout all the hoary platitudes along with the best of them. A man works; a woman merely keeps house. A man earns money, by the sweat of his brow, of course; a woman merely fritters it away. Men have the intelligence; women, the intuitions. Men are brusque, firm, stern, and forthright; they demand and expect obedience; women, on the other hand, are submissive, or else they engage in feline tactics.

Because of the role society has alloted to him, we associate vanity, pride, stubbornness, moroseness, reticence, inarticulateness, coldness, callousness, and tearlessness with the male. In extreme cases, our list may be extended to include include the capacity for brutality, cruelty, inconsiderateness, and harboring a grudge in the grand manner. In our culture, it is considered remarkable for a woman to grow old gracefully. In fact, it is regarded as altogether normal for her to become bitter, petulant, rasping, and domineering. The argument is, why shouldn’t she? Hasn’t she lost her looks and figure in the service of her family? All of this may be, and often is, quite untrue — but no matter. At least she is convinced of her role of the glorified martyr. Nevertheless, isn’t it true that in our culture, the grandmother is usually a more dominating figure than the grandfather?

My discussion so far has concerned the acceptance of the traditional roles imposed upon us by our culture. However, there are many deviations of a neurotic character and origin. Let us consider, what might happen to a boy’s attitude toward “acting like a boy.” It should be understood, however, that what I am about to describe are the neurotic distortions that will result when the various influences in the boy’s life are of an unhealthy nature. If his development were unhampered, such solutions would not be necessary. For his training should have respect, and should have stressed not what kind of a boy he was, but what kind of a person he might develop into. It is the person — the individual — that should be in the center of our focus — the sexual differences merely being included among his or her many other attributes.

What are the solutions available to the neurotically inclined boy who seeks safety from anxiety in what he regards as a hostile world? He can assume, and act out, in exaggerated form, all those traits that are considered more typically masculine — that is, excessive action, fearlessness, and aggressiveness. Thus he strives to prove to himself and others what his culture regards as his masculinity. Included in this attempt at self-indication would be sexual exploits, carried out with the stringent exclusion of anything soft, tender, and romantic. But there is a second type of solution: the more a boy may become less masculine — that is, he sheds, more and more, the so-called masculine traits in favor of a kind of sexual neutrality. He has become a “neuter,” from the point of view of what society expects of him. If you met him, you would have great difficulty in deciding whether he were masculine or feminine in his feelings, thoughts, and actions. A third type of solution will involve renunciation of all, or most, of his masculine traits, in favor of being feminine. Having adopted this solution, the boy becomes feminine in his attitude toward himself and others, as well as towards work, play, and sexuality. However, other factors in his personality will determine whether he will become the active or passive partner in a homosexual relationship.

What about the distaff side in the course of neurotic deviations from culturally-prescribed patterns? As with the boy, the girl, too, may become extremely feminine, neuter, or assume many so-called masculine characteristics. We will understand all of this much better when we see it evolving in the following family situation: at first glance, this family would appear to be a happy one, like so many others. However, on careful scrutiny, we can see much more that lies beneath the surface. The mother was exaggeratedly feminine in some ways, yet almost masculine in others. Indeed, she gave the impression of being a loving mother and a real woman in civic interests. Her façade was that of a gracious and idealistic person. But behind the façade were secretiveness, evasiveness, and sadism. Considering this a man’s world, where women were invariably downtrodden, she was a vigorous feminist, and considered herself a very spiritual person. She exploited a compliant manner merely to lead one on and sabotage one’s best efforts. Her techniques of dishonesty were so subtle and so skillfully manipulated that most people never became aware of them. Her husband was a self-righteous individual with a streak of meanness underneath. They had a little boy of four, and a girl of two.

At the beginning of her analysis — the mother’s — the little girl held a favorite position in the family. She was considered a perfect child by her mother, and was heartily approved of by her two maiden aunts, and had won a somewhat reserved affection from her father and brother. She was cute, charming, and coy. In addition to having a knack for saying pert and clever things, she employed evasiveness and cunning tricks to win her mother’s support against her brother, who was considered a “bad” boy. Indeed, it always happened that when she was innocently attending to her affairs, the bad boy would start to hit her. She would come, screaming, to her mother and aunts, who would placate her, and punish her brother. And, to make matters worse for him, little sister would then approach him in a spirit of generous forgiveness. In the course of her mother’s psychoanalysis, significant changes took place in the girl. Her mother realized that unwittingly, she had encouraged her daughter in the role that she herself had assumed. Once the mother had seen through her own sweetness and light attitudes as well as her dishonesties, she became aware of how she had encouraged the very same attitudes in her little girl. As the mother became more direct, honest, and healthily assertive, she began to deplore many of the qualities in her child, which heretofore had appeared so charmingly feminine. Consequently, in the course of two years, the girl herself developed into a more direct, open, and forthright person. Having seen through her own techniques of needling her husband until he flew into a rage, she began to see how her daughter had used identical tactics with her brother until he reached the state of helpless fury. Once the little girl sensed that this role was no longer valuable, she gave it up, and began to regard her mother as the dominant female personage in the household. The following conversation took place between daughter and mother some two years after the mother’s analysis had begun. The heretofore sweet and charming child had begun exhibiting her latent temper, which apparently was being stimulated, now, by the need to fight for what she wanted. Moreover, she had learned that having a temper was permissible. In fact, by this time, the entire family were expressing themselves more freely, except the maiden aunts, whose importance in the household had diminished considerably, and were having a bewildering time of it, as these apparently cataclysmic changes were taking place. Janie, the little girl, had become angry at her mother, and looking up at her with a winning smile on her face, said, “I could gouge your eyes out, pull out all your hair, and kick you in the stomach!” The following day, she had a slight cold and was kept in bed. One of her maiden aunts came in to play with her. After about an hour, Janie said to her aunt, “I’m tired. I want you to go” — to which the aunt replied, “I just want to finish threading this needle.” Janie insisted petulantly, “But I’m tired of you. I want to be alone!” And, when the shocked aunt retorted, “How will you feel, Janie, if I tell your mother?” — the little girl replied briskly, “I’ll tell her myself!”

What changes took place in the little boy? He had received the full brunt of the worst period of his parents’ married life, and in addition, was the first child. The mother had succeeded in emasculating him, in seducing him for herself, and away from his father. She had also succeeded in making him terrified of his father. In pursuing his exaggerated masculine role, the father had unwittingly supported his wife’s seductive manipulations with the boy. When his mother’s psychoanalysis began, the picture I got of the little boy was that of a weak, scrawny boy who was given to petulant outbursts. Extremely tense and sensitive, shy, and withdrawn, he preferred playing with his younger sister, or girls of his own age, refusing to have anything to do with boys. He constantly clung to his mother, and found all kinds of pretexts for touching her, exploring her body, asking intimate questions about sexual differences and about babies. He cried very easily, dawdled in his play and his eating, and suffered from disturbed sleep. The two years of his mother’s analysis wrought a change in this little boy. His sister could no longer get away with her cute tricks; his mother now encouraged his increasing self-assertiveness. His father no longer made impossible masculine demands on him. In short, he was now getting positive support from both parents and cooperation from his sister.

I had the opportunity of seeing pictures of the two children together just prior to, and at the end, of two years of the mother’s analysis. In the earlier photo, the little girl was conspicuously babyish, cute, and pert, whereas her brother appeared extremely shy and dependent upon his mother. Two years later, both children looked like upstanding, direct little people, with more firmness and conviction in their faces — although the little girl still appeared to be mentally the healthier of the two. The following overt changes had taken place in the boy: he now preferred playing with boys, and the more rough-and-tumble, the more he sought them. He took many beatings from these boys, but kept coming back for more. He talked more, and had assumed the gruff, “Hail, fellow-met-well” language of boys. Much less fearful of his father, he would openly and aggressively attack him, in words and while tussling. Although his newly-begotten assertiveness was quite aggressive, violent, and often misdirected, he was feeling his oats. On occasion, he even differed quite openly with his mother — which previously he would not have dared to do. Moreover, he had learned to cope with his little sister, and with girls in general.

In terms of the roles dictated by our culture, we might sum up this family reorientation by saying that the father had become less exaggeratedly masculine, and the mother less exaggeratedly feminine, in addition to having given up many of her so-called masculine drives. The boy had become less effeminate, and his sister, much less the exaggerated little girl. Altogether, the entire family had developed into happier, more human, direct, and honest people. When an individual begins psychoanalysis, he may not even be aware of what role — with reference to masculinity or femininity — he has adopted. Indeed, it usually takes some time before he realizes that he has adopted a role — generally, the exaggeratedly masculine or feminine individual — may feel that he is being spontaneously and naturally masculine or feminine. This would be especially true in those extreme instances where the individual has been completely submerged in the part he is playing. Such people come for psychoanalysis because of the failure of this role to give them a feeling of inner harmony or satisfaction. Nevertheless, their complaints rarely touch upon the real problem: namely, their exaggerated maleness or femaleness. This is equally true in the case of homosexuals. Convinced that they have completely accepted this role, they enter analysis with problems that have no apparent connection with their homosexuality. In short, an individual rarely complains of his own neurotic solutions because usually, they do not appear neurotic to him.

It is easy to see, therefore, that it is not the neurotic role that they are playing, but the failure of the role to succeed in its purpose, that brings people into difficulty. They get into difficulties because they are divided within themselves, and suffer from neurotic conflicts to such a degree that they cannot function to their own satisfaction. Many people get along, and even more live quite satisfactory lives in any of these roles — for it is not the role itself that is important for us, but how it came into being; how it was necessitated by life’s experiences; and what penalties and privations it exacts from us. Consequently, where life has severely, and at an early age, profoundly hurt the individual, a life of constant turmoil and pain is almost inevitable. Some patients come to analysis with the complain that “this married existence, neuter arrangement, or homosexual relationship is not satisfactory to me.” What happens in all analyses, from whatever phase of pseudo-sexuality one may start, is that the patient becomes aware that none of these solutions was or can be satisfactory. He begins to see the necessity for a clear understanding of his neurotic character structure and how it has been maintaining its pseudo-sexual attitude. It is the function of the analysis to convince the patient that the essential problem is not the sexual deviation, but a serious confronting of himself with the question, “How do I want to function as a well-integrated individual?”