Exploring Who We Are as Feminine and Masculine

In human beings, the female feotus is not perfected equally with
the male….For females are weaker and colder in nature, and we must
look upon the female character as being a sort of natural deficiency.
-Aristotle
All of us must practice and develop skill at making
connections — that is, reframing opposing concepts
so as to encompass both ends of a polarity.
– Mary Jo Moran, Ph.D.
The Tao reveals the wisdom of living systems, describing the patterns of
energy within and around us….The ebb and flow of the tides,
the phases of the moon, the changes of the seasons, all are variations on
the cycles that occur not only in the natural world, but in individuals,
families, relationships, institutions, and nations.
– Diane Dreher

A number of years ago, I was invited to offer a presentation on “feminine principles.”  The colleague who asked me to make the presentation believed strongly that in our Western culture we have come to place a higher value on “masculine” principles than “feminine” principles. She believed that the journey to spiritual maturity includes increasing our ability to take a more balanced approach in facing the issues and decisions we encounter in daily life.

The invitation raised a number of questions for me: Just what are principles? How do they operate in our lives? How have we come to label them “masculine” or “feminine?” And, as has now become my custom, I realized I needed to conduct this exploration in the context of our Universe Story. Doing so revealed surprising and helpful insights.

First, I found a helpful to understanding of principles in a description offered by Stephen Covey (1986):

There are principles that govern human effectiveness – natural laws in the human dimension that are just as real, just as unchanging and unarguably ‘there’ as laws such as gravity are in the physical dimension….These principles are a part of most every major enduring religion, as well as enduring social philosophies and ethical systems. They are self-evident and can easily be validated by any individual….They seem to exist in all human beings, regardless of social conditioning and loyalty to them, even though they might be submerged or numbed by such conditions or disloyalty (pp. 32-35)

Covey offers us examples of such principles: fairness, integrity, honesty, human dignity, service, quality or excellence, potential, growth, patience, endurance, encouragement, process.

With a better idea from Covey of principles as fundamental laws that operate in nature and in humans, my next question was: How did our Western culture come to value “masculine” principles over “feminine” ones?

Since Covey suggests that teachings on fundamental principles exist in the world’s religious and philosophical systems, I began to look backward at these traditions for evidence in them of the separation of the concepts into categories of “masculine” and “feminine.” I looked at the Chinese Taoist philosophy of Yin/Yang, at Greek philosophy, and at Western philosophy and psychology.

Years ago, I turned to Taoist philosophy in a personal attempt to achieve more balance in my life. I knew that the concept of Yin was associated in the current philosophy with the “feminine,” and Yang with the “masculine.”  I became curious about the roots of this association. My Internet search led to one article that notes that the two concepts originally stemmed from experiences in nature, not associations with human biology:

“Yin originally meant ‘shady, secret, dark, mysterious, cold.’ It thus could mean the shaded, north side of a mountain or the shaded, south bank of a river.  Yang in turn meant ‘clear, bright, the sun, heat,’ the opposite of yin and so the lit, south side of a mountain or the lit, north bank of a river. From these basic opposites, a complete system of opposites was elaborated. Yin represents everything about the world that is dark, hidden, passive, receptive, yielding, cool, soft, and feminine. Yang represents everything about the world that is illuminated, evident, active, aggressive, controlling, hot, hard, and masculine. Everything in the world can be identified with either yin or yang. Earth is the ultimate yin object. Heaven is the ultimate yang object”(http://www.friesian.com/yinyang.htm)

As this author notes, the “elaboration” of the original experience of light and shadow, grew to include cultural associations with masculine and feminine. A photograph of an ancient Taoist temple illustrates this. On the temple are two statues, one a woman and one a man. Each holds a plaque inscribed with a Chinese character. The woman holds the character for the moon, associated with Yin; the man holds the character for the sun, associated with Yang.

Click this link to view a more complete YIN YANG LIST.

The physicist and contemporary philosopher Fritjof Capra (1982) says of Yin and Yang:

It is important, and very difficult for us Westerners, to understand that these opposites do not belong to different categories but are extreme poles of a single whole. Nothing is only yin or only yang.”

Capra blames the separation of these concepts in our thinking on the conceptual framework of patriarchy underlying our Western culture.  He writes that patriarchy “has established a rigid order in which all men are supposed to be masculine and all women feminine, and has distorted the meaning of those terms by giving men the leading roles and most of society’s privileges.”

Capra compares the Yin and Yang of Taoism to Arthur Koestler’s theory of two opposing tendencies existing within all living systems in the Universe. The two tendencies include a self-assertive tendency that helps preserve the system’s autonomy and an integrative tendency that allows the system to function as part of a larger whole. As Capra notes, “In a healthy system – an individual, a society, or an ecosystem – there is a balance between integration and self-assertion.”

Capra categorizes words that describe these tendencies at work. These word categories mirror our Western cultural associations with “masculine” and “feminine”:

Self-Assertive
Expansion
universe1Competition
Quantity
Domination

Integrative
Conservation
Cooperation
Quality
Partnership

Capra also lists words to describe these two tendencies as they show up in our human thinking processes. Again, the words reflect ways of thinking often associated in our Western culture with men and women:

Self-Assertive
Rational
Analysis
Reductionist
Linear

Integrative
Intuitive
Synthesis
Holistic
Nonlinear (pp. 34-45)

The Greek Philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) reflected the thinking of his time and dominated Western thought for over two thousand years. I found it interesting to learn that his concepts of women derived from a cosmology he developed based on observation and reason. Aristotle applied the terms male and female to the cosmos. He spoke of the nature of the Earth as something female and called it “mother,” while referring to heaven and the sun as “generator” and “father.”

Aristole maintained that whatever is superior should be separated as far as possible from what is inferior, thus explaining why the heavens are separate from the lowly Earth. In the 13th Century, Thomas Aquinas relied on Aristotle’s thought to develop his own theology and carried its dualistic measure of men and women into Western modern culture.

Whether we are looking at the Yin/Yang system of Taoist philosophy, at Capra’s two “tendencies” present in all systems in our Universe, the implication now seems apparent. These two dynamics represent fundamental principles that have been functioning harmoniously in our Universe for billions of years – long before sexual differentiation as we know it emerged within Life on Earth. It is we, in our cultural conceptual frameworks, who have separated them, and, as Capra notes, “distorted the meaning” behind them.

In recent decades, we have seen some progress in recovering a balance in roles and expectations for men and women. Still, few could argue that in the dominant Western culture, the successful man still is considered to be objective, intelligent, logical, active, rational, independent, forceful, risktaking, courageous, aggressive, competitive, innovative, and emotionally controlled. We expect women, on the other hand, to be nurturing, receptive, passive, emotional, irrational, intuitive, subjective, compassionate, sensitive, kind, unaggressive, and uncompetitive (Shepherd, 1993, p. 5)

Having witnessed how these principles operate in the vastness of our Universe, I hope that we can now begin to see more clearly that both are of equal value in experiencing the joys and challenges of Life.  As we seek to become more fully human, we must in our thinking and acting draw upon the dynamics of both tendencies, regardless of our physical nature as male or female.


Aristotle. Cited in Starr, Tama (Ed.). (1991). The “natural Inferiority” of women: Outrageous pronouncements by misguided males. New York, NY: Poseidon. p. 36.

Dreher, D. (1997). The Tao of personal leadership. New York, NY: HarperCollines. pp. 2-3

Covey, S. (1989) The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York, NY: Fireside.

Capra, F. (1982). The turning point: Science, society, and the rising culture. New York, NY: Bantam.

Shepherd, L.J. (1993).  Lifting the veil: The feminine face of science. Boston, MA: Shambala.

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