What Does It Mean to Be Feminine?

Gustav Klimt painting of woman

Painting by Gustav Klimt

Let’s get this out of the way: My answer to the title’s question is I don’t know. I don’t know with certainty any more than I could pinpoint what it means to be masculine. Yet I think it’s worth considering. After all, I am a woman. I’m supposed to be feminine.

Whereas the dictionary definition for masculine includes such traits as strength, boldness, and bravery, feminine is defined as “having qualities traditionally ascribed to women, as sensitivity or gentleness.” Am I sensitive? Am I gentle?

I look at women of the Bible like Dorcas who made clothing and helped the poor; Ruth who promised to stay with her mother-in-law and care for her; and Sarah who was praised in 1 Peter 3 because she “obeyed Abraham and called him her master.” Hmmm. I am no domestic diva, and if I called my husband “master,” he would assume I was being sarcastic.

Never one to avoid a challenge, however, I started looking at women of the Bible more closely — beginning with Hebrews 11, also known as The Hall of Faith. The writer mentions by name those who lived “by faith.” As I scanned for women, I came upon Rahab. Rahab??! Now there’s a gal I can relate to! A woman of ill-repute turned believer and defender of God’s people, she even appears in Jesus’ bloodline.

So rather than focusing on a single female, I want to look at several Biblical women — their character and their “femininity.” Note, however, that personality plays an important part in how these are expressed. Indeed, Greg commented on my masculinity post with a fabulous equation:

Godly character + God-given personality + male -> true masculinity
Godly character + God-given personality + female -> true femininity

And now the women.

Hannah. Hannah longed to have children. She prayed fervently to God, was given a child, and presented him (Samuel) to serve at the temple. Each year she made Samuel a robe/coat and brought it to him with the annual sacrifice to the Lord.

Rahab. Rahab was a prostitute in the city of Jericho and hid two Israelite spies. She lied to the Jericho king and sent his men on a wild goose chase while she sneaked the spies out of the city. In return, she asked them to spare her family when Israel conquered the city by the Lord’s might.

Jael. Jael lived during the days of another biblical woman, the judge Deborah. When the Israelite general refused to enter battle alone, Deborah relented by going with the army but foretold that victory would go to a woman. Meanwhile, Jael was hanging out at her tent doing the usual thing (oh, the piles of laundry!) and saw the enemy’s leader escaping. She invited him in and gave him covering, a drink, and a place to rest. When he fell asleep, Jael grabbed a tent peg and drove it through his temple.

Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite married to the Naomi’s son. When both were widowed, Naomi decided to return to her homeland. Ruth left her own home and accompanied her mother-in-law. Ruth worked to keep them both fed and then flirted with Boaz, thus securing a marriage proposal and provision for her and Naomi for years to come. Ruth is also in Jesus’ bloodline.

Esther. Esther could have been crowned Miss Susa because she won the beauty pageant that King Xerxes held to choose his next wife. One of the king’s nobles, Haman hatched a plot to kill all of the Jews and got the king to sign on. Esther risked her own life to approach her royal husband and unveiled the wickedness of Haman, thus saving her people.

Mary, mother of Jesus. Called “highly favored” by the angel Gabriel, this young woman was chosen to be Jesus’ mother. When the angel  pronounced Jesus’ coming, she replied, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” Afterward, she visited her cousin Elizabeth to care for her in pregnancy; she treasured in her heart the unusual happenings of her Christ-child as he grew; and she stood at the cross as Jesus sacrificed his life.

Dorcas. Dorcas was “always doing good and helping the poor.” When the apostle Peter came through her hometown of Joppa, she had died and the widows showed Peter the clothing Dorcas had made. Peter prayed over her, and she rose from the dead.

Lydia. Lydia is described as a “dealer in purple cloth” (rich). She was a “worshipper of God,” but when the apostle Paul passed through, she responded to his message and was baptized. She then  “persuaded us” (Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke) to stay at her house.

Do you identify with one or more in particular? Is there is a thread that runs through their stories? Of course, they exhibit godly character, and that is the most important part. It is what Jesus referred to as the one, better thing when Mary of Bethany “sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.” (Luke 10). But I note three traits that seem more feminine than masculine:

Relational. There is a focus with their actions on people. Men tend to be more task-oriented, and women more people-oriented. What did Rahab care most about saving? Her family. Why did Dorcas sew clothes? To help poor people. Why did Ruth follow Naomi? She cared about her mother-in-law. This relational focus has been demonstrated by studies over and over. It’s isn’t simply gender stereotyping. Give a girl a couple of dolls and she will create a community; give a boy a couple of dolls and he will fashion them into weaponry. These approaches complement each other in society, but we are often different in our focus.

Nurturing. Biblical women took care of others. Women are often considered nurturers, and we are. Lydia provided a place for the disciples to stay, Ruth cared for her mother-in-law, Dorcas helped the poor, Hannah provided a robe for Samuel year after year. Certainly men care for others, but we gals are typically more in touch with meeting the physical needs of people around us. That might involve cooking fabulous meals or running through McDonald’s, but we do it.

Verbal. Biologically, God has made women more verbal. The average woman speaks 20,000 words per day, while the average man speaks 7,000. So it’s interesting to see how these women use their command of words to achieve godly ends. Jael doesn’t simply whack the enemy’s general with a tent peg when he walks in (what most men would have done); she woos him inside with her words, makes him feel safe, and then wham! Esther approaches the king and makes her case to save her people. Lydia persuades the apostles with her words. And take a look at the expressions of faith in Hannah’s prayer (1 Samuel 2:1) or Mary’s song (Luke 1). Women generally talk more than men, and we can use that verbal gift to His glory.

Now these biblical women were sensitive and gentle*, but they were also strong. They showed courage. I want to be like that. Wholly female. Wholly courageous. Wholly God’s.

I believe that God had something complementary in mind when “male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). Above all, our Christian character matters. But we are biologically and biblically given a role to play as male or female.

Your turn. What do you think it means to be “feminine”? What do you think of the world’s definition of femininity? How do you think women can uniquely glorify God in their lives?

Thanks to Lori Byerly of The Generous Wife who challenged me to post about femininity.

*Of course, all Christians are commanded to be gentle (Galatians 5:23; Ephesians 4:22; Philippians 4:5; Colossians 3:12).

Comments reminder: I moderate all comments. Feel free to argue with the content of what I or others say, but please be respectful and keep debate to the topic itself. I don’t publish personal attacks because they don’t further our conversation or understanding.

9 thoughts on “What Does It Mean to Be Feminine?

  1. Pearl

    Male and female are definitely structured (duh!) and wired differently. Does nature or nurture cultivate the traits we see as masculine for male and feminine for female? In my ceaseless quest of biological research, the answer is BOTH…..But, you are absolutely right that the Lord made us to be complements! Female strengths can be male weaknesses and vice versa. We bolster each other. Frankly, one’s definition of femininity may differ from another’s. At times I’m a lioness and at times I’m a ewe. But, ultimately, again, you are right, we are to honor and serve the Lord nomatter what gender embodying those traits which are most pleasing to God.

  2. Marisa

    The world ties femininity into sexuality and “being a doormat” many times which is so shallow and disrespectful of the gifts and talents God has given each one of us to use. The challenge for us is to use those gifts and talents in conjunction with the personalities we have been given to glorify God and by doing so, become the women he created us to be. When we do so, I believe our femininity will shine in whatever dimension suits our personality and giftings. I can be extremely competitive, assertive and very blunt in my communication, but when tempered by the Holy Spirit and brought under the authority of Christ, those God given traits can yield a great harvest. I used to be mad at God for the “masculine traits he put in a female body” along with my giftings of prophecy, discernment and exhortation, but have been recently used by Him because of these traits in a very powerful way. So, rather than trying to put ourselves in to our/others/the world’s view/mold of what femininity is and in some cases trying to be someone we are not, I cling to Phil 1:6 – I am a work in progress and strive to cultivate and produce the fruits of the Spirit as well as keeping my heart open and yielded to what God wants to do in and through me.

  3. MrsS

    Mary and Martha are good examples of true femininity, serving the Lord. Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, and after Jesus raised Lazarus, Martha was the first to say, “had you been here, my brother would not have died. Another important aspect of godly, feminine womanhood, is sitting at the feet of Jesus and serving him

  4. Hannah

    I truly enjoyed this post! Thank you! I have been thinking a lot about womanhood…being feminine (vs. feminist) and fully embracing God’s plan for me as a woman.

    I think one part of being feminine is bringing forth life and investing in the next generation whether it is your own kids, nephews and nieces, adoptive kids or kids in the community. Women are also able to sacrifice a lot for other people without thinking it as a sacrifice (at child birth am putting my life at risk for the baby). I am also learning what it means to be my husbands helper…In marriage wife is the help for the husband, not vice versa. It does not make me inferior…i am just trying to be practical about it.

    1. Jenny

      I completely disagree that part of being feminine is “bringing forth life and investing in the next generation.” Not all women were created with the maternal instinct, not all women were meant to be mothers – having kids, biologically or adopted, is the absolute last thing I want and (more importantly) the absolute last thing that I or my husband or my marriage needs. I don’t know what to do with kids, I feel highly uncomfortable holding a baby, I get extremely stressed out when I’m around children. If I were to become pregnant, I would have very few options and none of them are pleasant, because I absolutely cannot get off my medications due to severe mental illness. And yet I am an extremely strong (the people in my life consider me to be the strongest person they know), empathetic to a fault, overly affectionate, unfailingly loving, fiercely loyal, and entirely feminine woman. I seek to have a “gentle and quiet spirit” that is beautiful to God, while at the same time donning a beautiful dress and earrings every day. I am a wonderful wife to my husband, I strive to honor God, but I have no interest in children whatsoever – and that doesn’t make me any less feminine.

    2. J

      Jenny, I agree that makes you no less feminine. However, it is a typical trait for women to be nurturing of children. So I can see both sides here. It sounds like you know what’s best for you and your marriage. Best wishes!

  5. Anonymous

    What a great post! You did an excellent job of bringing out the feminine traits these very different women had in common. Thank you for the challenge to follow God and love people as the woman God called me to be.

  6. Greg

    Not to play devil’s advocate, but outside of Godly attributes and character (which are obviously critical), I do think women have more freedom when it comes to being women (i.e. being perceived as women). The following observation is from a lady who shared this thought with me sometime ago:

    “I love it that being a woman is individual and totally free on the level of “what it means to be a woman.” It’s a major advantage we have. We can wear blue jeans, do our hair, not do our hair (hello six days of the week!), be a waitress, own a company; but no matter what, any woman is the definition of what it means to be a woman. Men have such a narrow definition of “what it means to be a man.” We are born women. Men have to prove they are men socially–at least that’s what I perceive.”

    1. Anonymous

      I don’t follow…I feel we all have to prove ourselves on some level at some point. Society and culture play a large role this and seem to require much from men but women also walk a tight line….I can do anything just as well, if not better than you.

      GOD be praised at my house we strive for equality based on what HE says about us. A man that has relationship with GOD is all man and well proven!

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