The “Masculine Principle”; the “Feminine Principle,” Just What Are These Supposed to Mean, Anyway?

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I have read the terms “masculine principle” and “feminine principle” quite often in the writings of and conversations about Wicca, Witchcraft and Paganism. Although I have been a Neo-pagan for nearly 30 years, I have never come to a satisfactory understanding of what these concepts mean. I have yet to find a source that states unequivocally what constitutes either principle or what characteristics do they have. For example, I recently read a lesson from a Druidic distance learning package that had “The Masculine Principle” as a heading, but the accompanying text never explained what the “masculine principle“ was. It is assumed we all implicitly knew what these terms mean, but I suspect that if you were to ask ten different people to define “masculine principle” or “feminine principle,” you would get ten very different and, probably, conflicting definitions. Yet, you would most likely find that that everyone would agree that “masculine” applies to men and “feminine” applies to women.

Let us look at how the online versions of two widely-used American English dictionaries define “masculine” and “feminine.”

Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary online (http://www.m-w.com/) —

masculine: 1a: MALE; b: having qualities appropriate to or usually associated with a man … 4: of or forming the formal, active, or generative principle of the cosmos.

male: 1a (1) : of, relating to, or being the sex that produces gametes which fertilize the eggs of a female; b (1): of, relating to, or characteristic of the male sex (2): made up of usually adult male individuals; 2 : MASCULINE.

feminine: 1: FEMALE; 2: characteristic of or appropriate or unique to women.

female: 1a: of, relating to, or being the sex that bears young or produces eggs; 2: having some quality (as gentleness) associated with the female sex.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000. (http://www.bartleby.com/61/) —

masculine: 1. Of or relating to men or boys; male; 2. Suggestive or characteristic of a man; mannish.

male: Adjective: 1a. Of, relating to, or designating the sex that has organs to produce spermatozoa for fertilizing ova. b. Characteristic of or appropriate to this sex; masculine. c. Consisting of members of this sex. 2. Virile; manly. Noun: 1. A member of the sex that begets young by fertilizing ova. 2. A man or boy.

feminine: Adjective: 1. Of or relating to women or girls. 2. Characterized by or possessing qualities generally attributed to a woman. 3. Effeminate; womanish.

female: Adjective: 1a. Of or denoting the sex that produces ova or bears young. b. Characteristic of or appropriate to this sex; feminine. c. Consisting of members of this sex.

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If one looks at the definitions of “masculine,” “male,” “feminine,” and “female” given in the online versions of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (M-WD) and the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD), the definitions are almost circular. In M-WD, the first meaning from “masculine” is “male.” “Male” is defined as “of, relating to, or being the sex that produces gametes which fertilize the eggs of a female.” One definition hints at usual characteristics associated with masculinity, but never defines what these are. The M-WD definitions of “feminine” and “female” are similarly unrelated to specific characteristics that are associated with femininity. In AHD, the secondary definitions hint at what might be considered “masculine” or “feminine,” but the emphasis is still on physical attributes of sex.

These definitions strongly suggest that it may be impossible to separate the terms “masculine” and “feminine” from the sexes they are derived from.

I do believe that there is some ineffable quality of maleness that most men have and a corresponding quality of femaleness that most women have. I would concede that these qualities alone could be considered the “masculine” or the “feminine” principle. These principles are inextricably linked with the sex of the persons and they cannot easily be defined or explained.

I have also met men who do not have that quality of “maleness.” They don’t have the quality of “femaleness,” either, but something other. Likewise, I have met women who don’t have a quality of “femaleness,” but they don’t have a quality of “maleness,” either. These people seem to fall into some “other” classification. Nonetheless, a quality of maleness seems to be only associated with males and a quality of femaleness seems to be only associated with females. If we used only used the terms “masculine” principle and “feminine principle to only refer to these types of qualities, then all would be well and good and terms would then make sense.

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The problem arises when we use “masculine” and “feminine” to describe things that are not exclusive to one sex or another. Much of the literature I have read often goes to great lengths to says that masculine and feminine are not the same as men and women. I believe that we cannot separate the two labels that easily. This quote from Cynthia Eller’s The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future describes this situation more eloquently than I can:

… In its place, “masculinity” is as important and valuable as “femininity”; the key is that the two must be in balance, not only in society as a whole, but in individual human beings as well, some say. All “creative and inspirational thinking, all nurturing, mothering as gestating, all passion, desire and sexuality, all urges towards connectedness, social cohesion, union and communion, all merging and fusion as well as impulses to absorb, to destroy, to reproduce, and to replicate” are included in the “universal archetype of the feminine,” say Jennifer and Roger Woolger, but this does not mean that these qualities are closed off to men. Feminist matriarchalists sometime invite men to encounter their “feminine” side or the “feminine within.” Likewise they suggest that women have a “masculine side” with which they are more or less closely in touch. “Masculine and “feminine” thus become congeries of characteristics which, while arranged under gendered labels, have nothing to do with the potentialities of either gender or with physical sex.

Or so the theory goes.

But it is very difficult to disconnect terms like masculine and feminine from male and female persons. When feminists were fighting the battle against the use of generic male terms, they pointed out, quite rightly, that so long as the same term was used to mean both male-specific and person-general, people would continue to “see” the normative person as male and woman as “other.” Surely the same is true of the adjectives “feminine” and “masculine”: apologetics aside, hearers will always call up mental pictures of the requisite sex when these words are in use. If feminist matriarchalists were truly eager to make the point that the characteristics we have labeled “feminine” and “masculine” were erroneously attached to sexed persons where they are actually the property of all regardless of sex, then one would think that would would simply dispense with the terms. The reason they do not is because they are not eager to lose the gendered connotations of the terms (in spite of occasional protestations to the contrary), and it is worth asking why.[1]

Many, if not most, characteristics that are classified feminine and masculine are shared by both sexes and where there are sex-based differences, these differences are usually very small. Variation within each sex is usually much greater than the differences between sexes.

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Much has been made of how differences between men and women are “hard-wired” into us, but when you read the actual science that is supposed to support the existence of those differences, you find that things are not so cut and dried as popular press would make you think.[2] One web site that discusses various components of gendered behavior looks at differences in the cerebral cortexes of men and women and says this about the differences:

Some critics asked why, after a hundred years of research, these findings have only just appeared. … What we are discussing are average differences which are statistically different within a very wide range of individual variation. The investigator must be specifically looking for them, using a large number of subjects.[3]

The following diagrams show how most characteristics that are often labeled as “masculine” and “feminine” are often distributed among the population. As you can see there is considerable overlap between the sexes and the differences, although real, are small in comparison. Of course the distribution for each particular characteristic will vary, but the general idea that the variation within each sex with be much greater than the difference between them.

In other words, men and women are more alike than they are different. While it may be popular to think that “men are from Mars and women are from Venus,” the fact is that men and women are both fellow human beings from planet Earth. If men and women were so different, it would be impossible for them to communicate with each other; they would have to live in truly separate spheres, coming together only for procreation. So there must be something greater than our sexes that binds us together and that is our common humanity.

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If the characteristics of “masculine” can be found in women and the characteristics of “feminine” can be found in men, why define those characteristics so? If both sexes share most characteristics, even if, in some cases, one sex may exhibit a particular characteristics more than the other, are then these characteristics better described as “human” characteristics?

As long as we describe things as being “masculine” or “feminine,” our minds will apply them to the appropriate sex and will tend to think in either/or terms. We will tend to think that men should exhibit only characteristics classified as “masculine” and women should exhibit only characteristics classified as “feminine.” A woman will feel pressured to try to act “like a woman” or a man to “act like a man,” regardless of individual characteristics, temperaments, or inclinations. This limits our possibilities and limits individuals from developing their full potential as human beings. Placing these labels on qualities found across both sexes can make life difficult for women who have some “masculine” characteristics and especially difficult for men who have some “feminine” characteristics.

Perhaps “masculine” and “feminine” should be restricted to describe those characteristics that are exclusively sex-linked, or where there are clearly large differences between the sexes with small variations within each sex. Perhaps, instead of labeling qualities shared by both sexes as “masculine” or “feminine,” we should consider such behaviors traditionally associated with one sex or the other, such as gentleness or being nurturing or being strong or being bold or aggressive as human qualities that one sex, as a group, might exhibit to a greater degree than the other. If we think of nurturing or gentleness as human, then men may be more inclined to develop those aspects of themselves. If we think of boldness and assertiveness as human, then women may feel welcome to foster those aspects of themselves. We will all benefit from having more freedom to be the individuals we are.


  1. Cynthia Eller, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future (Boston, Mass., U.S.: Beacon Press, 2000) 60–61.
  2. Janet M. Bing and Victoria L. Bergvall, “The Question of Questions: Beyond Binary Thinking,” (http://courses.lib.odu.edu/engl/jbing/intro2.html) (n.d., on web as of October 2003) and J. Bland, About Gender: The Cerebral Cortex (http://www.gender.org.uk/about/07neur/75_cortx.htm) (1998).

    In Bing and Bergvall, there are examples of how the press has misrepresented scientific findings about gender differences. For more details on this, see also J. Bing, “Brain Sex: How the Media Reports and Distorts Brain Research ”(http://courses.lib.odu.edu/engl/jbing/brain6.html)
  3. Bland, About Gender. This web page also says that there is still considerable dispute about sex differences really within various structures of the brain and that socialization may still play a great role in how men and women behave. Since we cannot test males and females who have truly undifferentiated socialization, we cannot determine how great a role socialization really has.

    One should remember that a very small difference can still be a statistically significant difference.

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