Serena Williams, the world’s most successful female tennis star, is constantly denigrated for not being feminine enough. Her body has been dissected in countless articles—the size of her buttocks, her muscular arms, and legs—and she has been accused of steroid use. She and her sister Venus have been mocked as “the Williams brothers.” When other women players (paywall) were asked if they were willing to become more muscular to improve their tennis game, many said no, insisting they wanted to still look like women—the glaring implication being that the Williams sisters’ strength makes them unwomanly.
Williams isn’t alone. In the US, black women have often been deemed too ugly, muscular, and aggressive to be feminine. Even Michele Obama, throughout her husband’s presidency, was subjected to bizarre internet conspiracies that she’s a man, says Simidele Dosekun, a media and cultural studies lecturer at the University of Sussex.
In this context, it’s perhaps unsurprising that black women have a different relationship to femininity than white women. Pew Research Center highlighted this difference in a recent study on the role of men and women in US society. Overall, 32% of all women surveyed described themselves as “very feminine.” But when the data was broken down by race it showed that black women were most likely to see themselves as very feminine—46% described themselves as such, followed by 42% of Hispanic women and 27% of white women.
American black women aren’t just more likely to identify as feminine; research shows they are also more likely to embrace feminism. This was highlighted in a 2007 study that found that black women were more interested in traditionally feminine behaviors such as wearing attractive clothing than their white counterparts, and also were more likely to describe themselves as feminists. The researchers point to decades of previous studies showing that black women tend to identity as feminists more than white women.
The paper’s authors suggest this is due to black women’s experience of racial oppression in the US, which they argue sensitizes them to issues of sexism. Interestingly, researchers found that for black women, placing a high level of importance on wearing feminine clothes was a significant positive predictor of feminism, while for white women it was a negative predictor of feminism.
In a separate 2002 study on black parents, a black mom said she was teaching her 11-year-old daughter to be both a “warrior” for racial justice, and to “act like a lady by carrying herself well.”
“It doesn’t surprise me because for black women ideal femininity was out of reach for so long,” says Lauren Fannin, who researchers the intersection of race, gender, and class at George State University. Ideals of femininity and masculinity are based on the images of whites, Fannin says.
Like black men, enslaved black women were dehumanized. Women slaves were raped, had their children ripped away from them and sold, and toiled in the fields alongside men. Stereotypes of black women—that they were loud, lewd, rude, ugly, barbaric, and sexually promiscuous—were used to justify the atrocities committed against them.
Many of these stereotypes continue to plague black women today.“Embracing femininity is a way to resist those stereotypes,” Fannin says.
In a society that has deemed black women incapable of being vulnerable, warm, beautiful, and graceful, it can be a powerful to choice identify as feminine, says Adia Harvey Wingfield, professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, citing examples such as the natural hair movement. “That idea of black women embracing aspects of their natural beauty very much is still a radical act,” she says.
Of course, embracing femininity is not necessarily a distraction from feminist organizing—historically it has complimented it. Fannin points to the black women’s club movement, which began in the 1890s as an offshoot from the white women’s club movement. While the latter focused primarily on social and educational gatherings for middle-class white women, members of the black women’s club movement were also civil rights activists.
Fannin says these women, who were largely a part of the black middle class, were “devoted to their femininity and their family.” Their attire and sense of self very much challenged the perceptions of black women at the time. They were also “very politically and socially active,” Fannin says. The black women’s club movement fought for the right to vote, organized anti-lynching campaigns, and worked on getting better access to education for their community.
In contrast, “white women have historically been the default when it comes to mainstream, cultural ideas of what femininity is and what it looks like,” Wingfield says, adding that white women don’t have to assert it, or even think a lot about being defined or seen as feminine. While black women embrace femininity to overcome a dehumanization that can be traced back to slavery in the US, white women’s disavowal of femininity is rooted in second-wave feminism, which sprang up in the early 1960s and focused on challenging gender roles in the family and workplace, as well as reproductive rights.
As a result, “the way we understand femininity between black and white women is similar,” Fannin says, but “the way we respond to it and embrace is different.” Fannin said she is critical of “the idea of white women halfway rejecting their privilege, while still benefiting from it.” It’s one thing for a white woman to not identify with femininity, but it’s another to try “to deconstruct in a way that all women of color can benefit,” Fannin adds.
And while the black feminist struggle hasn’t excluded femininity, “it can only do so much,” Dosekun adds. Femininity, and the notions of beauty it entails, is important for black women’s sense of self and sense of value. But black women still need to continue to fight to broaden the movement to ensure it is inclusive and welcoming of those who are not interested in defining themselves as feminine. “You have to balance those two things,” Dosekun says.