Is it feminist to wear lipstick? There are four possible views on the position that feminist thought should take with respect to expressions of conventional femininity in patriarchal societies: 

  • Expressing femininity is actively good
  • Expressing femininity is actively bad
  • Women should do whatever makes them feel most comfortable
  • Femininity is a distraction - masculinity is the problem  

These different views express a combination of different views on the mechanism by which patriarchy operates, the most effective way to advance women's liberation, and the duties which women have to their gender. 

How does patriarchy work

There are three competing views of how patriarchy might work. Patriarchy could be a result of gender socialisation. This theory goes that the way in which gender is socialised holds women back from holding power, achieving status and having good life chances - or some combination of all three. In contemporary Western Europe this mostly manifests as relatively soft norms where, for instance, women are more harshly punished for expressing anger. Probably the most important substantiation of gender socialisation as preventing women from achieving power and status - although not necessarily good life outcomes - is the norm where women sacrifice their careers when raising children with a male partner. In less gender equal societies this can take on a much more extreme form, where the common pattern is the barring of women from the public sphere. This describes societies such as classical Athens or 19th century Pashtun farmers where women are excluded from commerce and politics - the things that give men power.

The competing view is that patriarchy is defined by a value system rather than a set of norms. In the former theory what was deemed to be high status things - the axis along which inequality should be measured - was taken as a given. It was participating in the public square. Under this other view however, patriarchy comes from the work women do and femininity per se being defined as less valuable than the work men do and masculinity per se. 

There’s a strong version and a weak version of this claim. The strong version says that it really would be fine if women stayed within the private sphere if that work was valued equally to the work in the public sphere. To make this concrete, and staying within the context of capitalist societies in Western Europe, we could pay women equal amounts to the average male salary for care work that women disproportionately provide, both as a way of concretely giving women more power and better lives, but also because money is a key way in which these societies express who has, and what roles, are high status. This could be extended to other forms of traditionally female work in the public sphere, such as nursing and cleaning. 

However, there’s also a weaker and subtly different form of this claim. This version doesn’t argue that women should keep to their traditional roles but that these roles should be higher status, it argues that women should keep to traditional versions of femininity and society should change to value these traits more highly. For instance, rather than women adopting the risk taking attitudes of men, society should change to value lower risk more highly. 

The final view is that it’s nothing women do that’s the problem - it’s male power and often specifically male violence. This is the logic behind the focus on male violence against women despite the fact that much are much more at risk from homicide. In this worldview, male violence against women isn’t simply a tragedy it’s a part of how the patriarchy controls women. Murder is only the most extreme form of this. Domestic violence and sexual violence are probably the next rungs down the ladder, followed by sexual harassment and right down to, for instance, interrupting women. There’s also a more specific phenomena of women who don’t follow gender norms in some respect being harmed by men because of this. A good example of this is instance Margret Thatcher being portrayed as a man on spitting image, the joke being that she was domineering like a man so lets portray her as a man to take the piss haha very funny. Outside of a contemporary Western European context, honour killings are an extreme substantiation of this. 

Should feminists wear lipstick?

These three theories of patriarchy have very different implications for whether feminists should wear lipstick - i.e the degree to which women should express their femininity and much more generally how we should structure policy. The first view - where women are socialised to not challenge men’s position in the public space - implies that we should aim for a breaking down of femininity and gender and more generally. Gender itself is the rope that binds women. To put this in more concrete terms, this would imply that, for instance, we should be pushing back hard against little girls wearing pink and going to dance classes. For a more policy relevant example we should be extremely heavily incentivising men to take paternity leave with the goal of bringing men as equally into the private sphere as women so that women can take their fair share of the public sphere. 

If one believes the second then most definitely feminists should wear lipstick but not only that, women not expressing femininity in the public sphere is as anti-feminist as the sexualization of female politicians is under the first theory. By not expressing femininity in the public sphere women enforce the notion that femininity is inferior to masculine traits and makes it harder for other women to follow them. The strong version of this theory takes this argument even further. By privileging the public sphere over the private we’re implicitly subscribing to male values. This would imply that we should be paying mothers and other caring roles that women disproportionately take on as we would pay any high status, important job. 

Finally, the third theory says that the question of whether feminists should wear lipstick missies the point at best and a worst is another way of putting the onus on women to change their behaviour around the fixed point of men. The extreme version of this position argues for curfews on men to allow women to be able to go out in public free from the spectre of male violence. Less extreme ones argue for a shift in policing priorities to focus more male violence against women, harsh penalties for sexual harassment and strong norms against things like men interrupting women (and hopefully not for men writing articles about feminism who haven’t even read anything by Judith Butler.) 

Politics is about action

It’s not enough to merely know which one of these theories best describes how patriarchy works - politics is about action and the best action to take is determined by the constraints you face and your normative judgements. 

I think one of the key issues in deciding what policy course to take is the degree to which gender - and I mean gender not sex - is biologically determined rather than socially constructed. If one believes that it’s likely that women will always have a much stronger urge to spend a substantial portion of their lives looking after their children then it becomes a much higher priority to raise the status and pay of child rearing and care work more generally. To emphasise the point I’ve made a number of times I believe that there are trade offs here. If one believes that gender socialisation is the key culprit then raising the status of women spending a large portion of their lives as caregivers reduces the incentive for women to enter the public sphere and the traditionally male role that that entails and so is actively harmful to women's liberation. 

A second key consideration is how much one believes that what we value now is good. If it genuinely is the case that, for instance, being very willing to take big risks is very socially valuable this should push one towards attempting to change what femininity entails rather than attempting to devalue risk taking. Conversely, one could believe that what we currently value - both intrinsically and in terms of valuable traits - is deeply harmful. In this case, in addition to it being good for gender equality, having society value roles currently associated with femininity will make all of society better off. For instance, working extremely long hours at the expense of your family might be worth it if it’s the only way to create the most innovative products. Alternatively, if people are mostly working very long hours to create better versions of flavoured sugar water, maybe it would be good if society valued spending time with one's family more highly.

The question of how patriarchy arise and perpetuate is of course an extraordinarily complex question that requires careful empirical work and it’s beyond the scope of this post to review that literature here. 

The other core question of politics is normative - what is the right thing to do. I think it’s this lens that justifies the view that women should simply do what makes them most comfortable. This post has been written from an implicitly feminist perspective. The core normative feature of this perspective is that individuals have a special responsibility to reduce gender inequality - in some sense women who don’t are traitors to their gender. In the language of moral philosophy everyone and potentially women in particular have a duty to fight against patriarchy and an action which has gender at its core is only permissible if it reduces gender inequality. The view that women should do what makes them most comfortable is fundamentally a liberal position. Individuals don’t have special responsibilities to their identity groups even if those identity groups are oppressed. It may very well be a praiseworthy thing to reduce gender inequality in the way one lives one's everyday life, but it is not blameworthy if one does not, especially if one is prioritising other morally important goals. Think the busy doctor who focuses on saving the lives of her patients and takes the path of least resistance with respect to other issues. 


Throughout this post I’ve emphasised the need for tradeoffs. But ideally one would practise policies that improve the lives of women regardless of the theory of patriarchy that one subscribes to. This might push one towards policies aimed at reducing domestic violence in high income countries. In low income countries, where because the cost of living is so much lower one can often have vastly more impact with the same amount of money, this might imply improved access to financial services to allow women to be more independent of their male relatives. Politics is about action and effectiveness. This post will have been a success if it, very marginally, helps us take better action.

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But ideally one would practise policies that improve the lives of women regardless of the theory of patriarchy that one subscribes to.

This might also be a good idea if, hypothetically speaking, all proposed theories are wrong.


On object level, I believe that descriptions of gender relations that see "men" and "women" as two homogenous groups, and ignore the intrasexual competition, are hopelessly wrong. Patriarchy is something that some men and some women do together to all men and all women. (Which suggests that the name is a bit misleading.)

The discussion about value of work seems to ignore the market. For example, taking care of your kids is important, but it is something you do for your own kids. Meanwhile, the person who produces flavoured sugar water, produces it for other people. (If you produce a sugar water at your home and drink it all with your family, the social reward for doing so will be zero.) And you do get some social respect if you raise your kids well. (And some disrespect if you fail at it. And the person who fails at producing the flavoured sugar water will get fired.)

With enough axioms you can reach any conclusion you want.

Could you be more specific? 

You list four "positions that feminist thought should take" and three "views of how patriarchy works", and then distinguish multiple versions of these. Then there are "perspectives" and "extraordinary complexities", but as far as I can see, no idea of trying to move towards knowledge and away from ignorance. There is only endless discussion, and responses to ideas, and confrontation of this view by that view, and so on. There is no evidence, only suggestive stories, real or imaginary. Nothing is ever disproven, nothing is subjected to any experimental test, there is nothing but an endless game of ideas in which the moves are motivated only by the prize of social power.

This is, however, the usual form that thinking takes in the humanities. It is not the sort of thing that can lead towards knowledge and away from ignorance. The very idea seems out of bounds.

Yeah the point of this post was conceptual clarity rather than a lit review of the literature on gender realtions. I think this is valueable because I haven't read something that tries to clearly lay out how empirical postitions on the causes of gender inequality should affect the stratagy that one takes, although I don't have a deep knowledge of feminist literature. 

I like what I think you're attempting to do in this post!

But I don't feel like I'm any less confused about the topic.

It seems like you might have meant to be comprehensive? I feel like, if that is the case, this is missing a lot of references to at least some kind of generic/nebulous 'some other explanation' along the dimensions you mention.

I don't think I agree with this in particular:

The question of how patriarchy arise and perpetuate is of course an extraordinarily complex question that requires careful empirical work and it’s beyond the scope of this post to review that literature here.

I'm not entirely sold on the idea of 'patriarchy' itself. (I think there's something there 'in that direction.)

But, it seems reasonable that how it arose was basically because of the fact of human violence, particularly inter-tribal (or inter-tribal-band), and the comparative advantage that males, especially young males, have at doing violence to other people, particularly 'cultural competitors'.

Razib Khan published some posts about male violence that seem particularly apt for thinking about the 'rise of patriarchy':

Interestingly, 'patriarchy' maybe existed long before what Razib describes, but possibly attenuated (and maybe by a lot). 'Extreme patriarchy' might be (relatively) more recent and a result of a very 'successful' memeplex that was able to spread itself in its environment.

I find ideas along the lines that "we should be paying mothers and other caring roles that women disproportionately take on as we would pay any high status, important job" confusing.

For one, I'm very skeptical that people that propose things like that are actually proponents of 'capitalism' anyways.

Secondly, I think this is a confusing way to speak/write about 'status'. There isn't a role that's 'high status' and also something that nearly half of all humans can do – without being explicitly restricted via, e.g. certification, unions/guilds. Lawyers and doctors are relatively well paid compared to other roles/jobs/occupations/careers, but not at all lawyers and doctors are in fact paid well, let alone to the level of 'high status'. The market mechanisms by which different lawyers and doctors are paid different amounts are, even if complex, pretty understandable. Would there also be market for "mothers and other caring roles" where specific 'buyers/clients' pay the particular woman/mother 'seller/service-providers' and everyone negotiating prices thru the typical market means of doing so?

Or is the idea something like '$X is the average pay of ... doctors; every woman/mother will be paid $X too forever'?

Would there be any kind of 'consumer protection' in any of this?

Maybe these lines of thoughts are loose/casual and they weren't even intended to be considered as any kind of instance of or even analogy too what's often mentioned in these kinds of statements.

But it sure seems like maybe it's 'adopting the language of its enemies' or for some other reason difficult to translate into any-kind-of concrete terms.

Femininity is indeed actively bad (for a number of reasons I will try and outline) but I would not call it a mere distraction, it's actually worse than that. I would not say that masculinity is all-bad unless we are talking about extreme manifestations (aka toxic masculinity). This is because masculinity is actually a set of self-actualizing behaviors that have historically been associated with maleness because for much of history people assigned female at birth (AFABs) were considered non-actors, they were only acted upon.

Of course, I do not subscribe to the idea that female-bodied people are naturally feminine. Most behave in a feminine fashion but that doesn't mean these behaviors are innate to them. As the parent of small male and female children I haven't noticed a difference in dominance behaviors, but it's undeniable that my daughter is exposed to a lot more media that reinforces femininity/selflessness/domesticity while my son is targeted with media and toys that seek to amplify whatever dominance/ambition he has within him. 

There are many female-bodied defenders of femininity and I've heard their arguments. I'm sure they're well-intentioned and that we all want the same: for sex to cease to act like a caste and for everyone to receive the same level of respect for similar achievement. But I believe they're misguided because they treat femininity as if it were some type of 'female essence' or instinct (this is by the way a very primeval view) when it is, instead, a set of submissive behaviors that have come to be associated with AFABs due to a history of abject oppression and objectification. Obviously, when someone is considered property and is severely infantilized, they're not expected to be assertive or to lead anyone, in fact that would have put them in danger. If you wanted your daughters to survive to old age, they had to be trained in passivity. Also, being aesthetically displeasing as an object meant a wretched, lowly status, therefore folks wished for beauty in a daughter (there's a reason why fairy tale heroines are always 'beautiful' if nothing else). AFABs can still increase their status (as arm candy, not as leaders of course) by putting in an inordinate amount of time and money into maximizing their looks. 

The collection of behaviors we call femininity are a relic from spectacularly oppressive times. Someone may say, 'well, those times have passed, and women are no longer legal invalids and there are female prime ministers, therefore femininity today can be a good thing.' But I'm not sure this is how things work. Surely, we're not as brutal as when AFABs didn't have full personhood but that doesn't automatically transform femininity (AKA a collection of submissive and coy behaviors that made it more likely for women to survive as object-servants) into a positive force in their lives. The fact is that some of us are still performing submission and self-objectifying is incredibly disheartening. 

For me to say this is AFABs' fault would amount to victim-blame. It isn't someone's fault. Young girls are groomed into femininity from babyhood, just as it is still considered a rite of passage for boys to consume pornography that features masochistic portrayals of female sexuality. And the perks to be enjoyed for performing submission (AKA being feminine) are still real and substantial. What we need is a paradigm shift where we accept that while our sexual organs exist in a material realm, our sexual roles, preferences and fantasies (whether we are more stimulated by the idea of hurting/dominating or being hurt/dominated by a sexual partner, or by the idea of equal participation/dominance in the sex act) are informed by our environment and what we have come to internalize as normal. A feminine identity facilitates our acceptance of a submissive role in bed because we are already performing submission elsewhere. Some radical feminists believe that changing the way we interact sexually is crucial in achieving culture-wide equality. 

Personally, I subscribe to an ideology called gender abolitionism that also takes into account how gender affects boys and men. One just can't deny that women have been the primary losers in the hierarchy of sex. 

I fundamentally disagree with this entire way of seeing the world, I wouldn't quite say that it's evil, but only unhappiness can come from such a rejection of human nature. Femininity, as in beauty, kindness, selflessness and motherliness, is one of the highest goods in the world, and these are all rare and precious virtues every bit as important as ambition, strength and courage. Being worthy of (and able to protect) a feminine woman is a primary motivator for masculinity. As a man, I can feel in my bones a deep desire to have something to protect, and it's not a coincidence that all the qualities that women like in men are quite correlated with the *ability* to protect.