Home » Family » Androgyny


Whenever I talk about androgyny in class, many of my students are surprised to learn what the term encompasses. They have often seen it presented in an unattractive light, believing it to say something about a person’s lack of femininity or masculinity, kind of an elimination of anything that defines an individual as male or female.  This is a misunderstanding of the term, however, and I’d like to do my part to clarify its meaning.

First of all, androgyny is not an eradication of being female or male. It has nothing to do with your sexuality. It does not dictate the way you dress, or whether or not you wear make-up or have a beard. Being androgynous, rather, means that you have characteristics commonly associated with the female gender as well as those commonly associated with the male gender. (Note that while behaviors are often associated with males or females, most behaviors are not inherently male or female, but are more likely learned through the socialization process.)

For instance, you might be aggressive when playing football, but nurturing with a friend who is going through a divorce. You might be a strong leader, but also work well as part of a team. You might be independent financially, but allow yourself to depend on your family for care during an extended illness.

An androgynous person is capable of behaving in ways called for by the situation, not merely according to a stereotypic gender role as defined by our culture. Androgynous individuals have an array of behavioral possibilities at their disposal, allowing them to respond in a way that is appropriate given the situation.

Androgyny is advantageous across a variety of situations. Within the home, husbands and wives can respond more effectively to one another. For instance, I definitely feel safer knowing my husband is in the house when I think I hear someone in the backyard at night. But I equally value his caregiving when I am sick. I’m typically the one to make a dessert for dinner, but I’m also the one who disputes bills when they are in error. My husband appreciates both the desserts and my assertiveness (which, I might add, has saved us a great deal of money over the years).

Likewise in the church, androgyny has benefits. We might be called on to organize an event or take on a position of leadership, then sit with a family at the hospital while they anticipate bad news. Leadership skills and compassion are both needed in the church, sometimes from the same person.

In any of these situations, having a restricted behavioral range would limit our ability to serve.

Of course, no one can be all things to all people. Androgynous persons have their limitations as well. But those with a broader behavioral range are generally better equipped to meet the challenges each situation presents.

Are you androgynous?

Has it been an advantage?

Are there times you wish you had a broader range of behaviors?

Please share your experiences. I would love to read about them.

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  1. Kathleen Langridge
    Comment #96655 posted September 6, 2012 at 4:58 am

    In leadership I can be very firm but I hope fair yet have been called on this behavior as being too male in my attitude.I am generally straight forward in communication with people without being flowery and have again been called too male. Yet when I preach I am both straight forward while being sensitive and inclusive. At times I have struggled with being androgynous feeling as though there were two different people within me. Sometimes my passion about a subject leads me to tears in a discussion and am viewed as too emotional/female. Only as God has encouraged me to care primarily for His opinion and not the world’s have I matured into a meaningful stability of mind and heart. I now appreciate that I have both a strong male and female view of life and His peace reigns.

    • Comment #96737 posted September 21, 2012 at 8:17 am

      I realise this comment is a bit late but I’m expecting my second child (I already have a boy, don’t know what the next will be) and have been discussing this issue with my partner a lot recently, so am glad to have read this. If we have a girl, we’ll definitely be reusing our son’s clothes. We hate all the I’m a little princess rubbish. Even with boy’s clothes, though, you have to be careful while there’s a lot of stuff that’s just on being active and productive, there’s some which seems to endorse getting an early start on being a disruptive moron just because you’re male (hey, I’m such a noisy, messy, boys will be boys, isn’t it hilarious and adorable! Er, no). I think it’s untrue that most mothers today truly go for this stuff. Most I’ve met at baby groups hate it too (interestingly, a new range of clothes in one UK store, with black / grey clothes for girls plus a blue babygrow with girl on it is selling out fast). A big problem is surely that an awful lot of the baby stuff you get as a first-time parent comes from grandparents, who have to make a big deal of all this gender nonsense since they’ve lived/sacrificed their whole lives by/to it.

  2. A sister
    Comment #96656 posted September 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    I score (-16) “nearly masculine” on the androgyny test :-)

    • Liz Liz
      Comment #96669 posted September 8, 2012 at 7:02 pm

      Just printed off the questions and we will do it later but…..as always, they have listed what are thought of as ‘typical’ female or male characteristics. How do these things get decided ?

      One can do surveys for just about anything but as regards male and female the survey would have to be across many countries, social stratas, financial situations etc. etc.

      To suggest there are typical gender type behaviours usually does more harm than good IMHO

      • Liz Liz
        Comment #96670 posted September 9, 2012 at 1:09 am

        Have just done the questionnaire and found it so typical. To suggest that one gender ‘loves children’ maybe more than the other is annoying as are several of the assumptions.

        I read the bio of the author and her attempts to complete ‘what feminism began’, but starting at this sort of questioning always reinforces the stereotypes no matter how honestly we attempt to answer.

        Susan Howell’s lectures would be far more helpful I would think in showing how enculturated some of our expectations can be.

        • Michelle
          Comment #96678 posted September 11, 2012 at 2:01 pm

          I’m not sure what you find annoying about the assumptions made and how you find the questioning reinforces the stereotypes.

          I have not read anything about the author, though.

          I thought that the point of the questionnaire is that common sex/gender stereotypes are false, so…the assumptions made by the questions and scoring scheme of this questionnaire *should* be “so typical”, and would indeed be annoying to anyone who recognizes that the stereotypes simply are not true: They are not the complete human picture.

          I am a woman who scored “nearly masculine”.

          Bravo for this brave post, CBE! I was puzzled when I first became christian as to why “androgyny” was considered evil, when I just considered it to be the way humans are (and then I understood it was linked by some exclusively with being gay or lesbian). Thank you!

          • Liz Liz
            Comment #96682 posted September 11, 2012 at 5:58 pm

            The annoying thing was that the questions were like so many other questionnaires of this type which just reinforce the expected ‘norms’. The one I mentioned was the love of children and there is the obvious thought that a person (female or male) may not love children as much as another person. Stereotypically, women love children more than men which of course is not true (some may, some may not) Probably didn’t explain it all that well :-)

  3. Adeliq
    Comment #96658 posted September 6, 2012 at 8:16 pm

    This is a description of a well-balanced personality or human. Thank you, Susan for a good explanation. I wish I could take one of your classes.

  4. Don Johnson
    Comment #96660 posted September 7, 2012 at 6:00 am

    I never thought of the term in this way. Thanks!

  5. Liz Liz
    Comment #96663 posted September 7, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    I agree, Don. The word androgynous has always been used to denote a person who is neither female or male (genderless) and we have been accused of promoting androgyny when talking of biblical equality. Just shows how words can be used to make a case against someone when the premise is incorrect anyway.

  6. Susan
    Comment #96667 posted September 8, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    Thanks, Susan H. for a new look at the idea of androgyny. And @ a sister, I scored as androgynous, so . . . I guess now I know what that means. : )

    Still, while I believe the ways gender is discussed here is very helpful and important, I have questions. God did create us male and female and that has to mean something, I think. I continue to have difficulty reconciling the freedom we should have regardless of our sex and grasping the important reasons we are male and female.

    In one very elemental area – the family – it is clearly important. Children need a mother and a father. I understand that my father may enact his fatherhood differently than your father. But is there something essential and common in the ontology of being a father? Or a mother?

    How do we honor God and affirm his creating us as male or female?

    • Susan Howell
      Comment #96679 posted September 11, 2012 at 2:06 pm

      Great questions Susan. I don’t know that I have great answers. I do believe though that my being androgynous (e.g., being assertive and yet a good nurturer of my children) doesn’t mean I lose my femininity (e.g., you can look at my clothing, hair style, choice of jewelry, tone of voice, etc. and know that I’m female). My husband is androgynous, but is still masculine. For each of us, we define what it means to be feminine or masculine differently than our culture defines it. Don’t know if this clarifies or muddies the water!

      • Susan
        Comment #96693 posted September 12, 2012 at 9:07 pm

        Just looking back at this and I’m reminded of the phrase I first heard from Carolyn Custis James, “the blessed alliance.” Is there a way that male and female complete each other that uniquely honors God? I’m not suggesting stereotypes. Instead think Esther and Mordecai, David and Abigail, Ruth and Boaz.

        That is, does the importance of male and female have something to do with the unique way men and women give and take – give strength, take advice, give grace, take courage – and the self sacrifice in integrity required to accomplish something?

        Is it the unique reflection of the unity in diversity of the Godhead that is important in the male/female dance? In other words it isn’t that I’m the nurturer and my husband is the protector, but that through love and mutual submission, we work to match our particular strength/weakness sets to form a unique unity?

        Is this obvious? Am I overthinking? : /

        • Susan
          Comment #96694 posted September 12, 2012 at 9:10 pm

          I guess that’s what you mean by androgyny!

          (duh! sigh)

        • Comment #96698 posted September 15, 2012 at 2:08 am

          Then again…you could be the protector and your husband the nurturer. Stereotypes suggest that it must always be a certain way, at all times and circumstances.

  7. Michelle
    Comment #96668 posted September 8, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    Is there anything in scripture that would give us ideas about how we should honor God and affirm God’s creating us as male or female?

    • Susan Howell
      Comment #96680 posted September 11, 2012 at 2:12 pm

      Michelle, I don’t know of anything specifically. But just in general, maybe a healthy respect for our own bodies (their strengths and frailties) and a healthy respect for the other sex’s strengths and frailties would certainly be consistent with scripture telling us to treat our body’s as a temple, etc. Striving for Christ-likeness while inhabiting the body (male or female) while fulfilling whatever gifts God has chosen to give us would also be consistent with scripture.
      Would love to hear from others on this!

      • Michelle
        Comment #96681 posted September 11, 2012 at 2:28 pm

        Thank you!

        I confess, I don’t see anything in scripture about this, specifically, either. ;) Christ-likeness is the goal for women AND for men. This is all I see.

        I think we carry baggage into our religious practice from our culture, and then our religious teaching and practice can reinforce what our culture started, making these things doubly (at least!) difficult to let go of.

  8. Comment #96672 posted September 9, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    As I study Scripture more and more, I see that God’s Image has both female and male characteristics. As we are all created in the Image of God, we honor this by being transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit into an androgynous being. I am more of a masculine woman and when I became a mother, I had to learn to be more nurturing. My husband and I practice mutual submission and we lead through our Spiritual Gifts plus our other strengths. We have been married for 32 years and raised two children and now have 7 grand children.

  9. Michelle
    Comment #96692 posted September 12, 2012 at 7:43 pm

    I thought that was kind of the point of the questionnaire.

    Stereotypes are annoying.
    The questionnaire deals with stereotypes.
    I don’t know what sorts of options/questions are going to be on a questionnaire dealing with stereotypes other than annoying ones, because that’s the very nature of what’s being tested or pointed out: stereotypes.

    This is not an academic questionnaire, but it deals with stereotypes, as well. Its title is “What racial stereotype do YOU fit?”

    In order to point out the fallacy of stereotyping, one must first name the stereotypes, and then identify how (or whether) they apply. Apparently one of the things that was notable about the androgyny questionnaire at the time it was created (according to the article about the author) is that it “…allows individuals to be both feminine and masculine, unlike other tests which are restrictive to only one.” So it was apparently considered news that many people’s scores, answering the test honestly, would come as a bit of a surprise to them, as they would not fall exclusively in the masculine category or exclusively in the feminine one. Obviously there are exceptions to that, and that may have been the case for you.

    I may just not be following you. I’m sorry.

    I can see the quiz as potentially a useful tool in conjunction with other materials, but I agree that on its own it is merely a novelty for someone who actually buys into the idea that feminine characteristics belong to women only (what of Christ’s compassion and the emphasis he placed on relationships?) and that masculine characteristics belong to men only (what of Huldah, the prophet, who was consulted about a message from God, and delivered the Lord’s warning to the King–without mincing words, and with authority?).

  10. Liz Liz
    Comment #96731 posted September 20, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    Having just read this article on ‘Arise’ I realise I haven’t answered Susan’s questions at the end of her post…….sorry.

    Are you androgynous ? Yes and happy to say that now I know the real meaning of the word.

    Has it been an advantage ? It has been good in marriage and in relationships with people who are not threatened by strong women but…..more often, in church life it has been seen as a problem. So many people seem to love putting others in boxes and want stereotypical behaviours.

    Are there times you wish you had a broader range of behaviours ? Not that I can recall.

  11. Shirley Barron
    Comment #96732 posted September 20, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    Thank you, Susan, for presenting androgyny in a positive way. I’ve known myself to be such nearly all my life, having often wished to be seen as just human, not specifically gendered. Unfortunately, androgyny seems to be a bad word in the church, which is a shame. Let us all be what we are, not a stereotyped gender. Truly, men & women have much more IN COMMON than we do as a gender. I just wish the church (in general) didn’t want to emphasize the polar extremes.

    • Michelle
      Comment #96740 posted September 21, 2012 at 11:21 am

      Yes! I’ve always seen myself first and foremost as a *person*.

      (Rather than as a woman.) I’m not ashamed to be a woman, it’s just that…I’m human, and that’s the predominant characteristic, to me.

  12. Marian
    Comment #96739 posted September 21, 2012 at 9:56 am

    Thank you Shirley. My thoughts exactly. I do not think of myself as male nor female – except when someone tries to put me into one of those boxes, usually to limit what I am allowed to do. I used to find that it was in church that gender stereotypes were most strongly emphasised..

  13. Liz Trevor
    Comment #96744 posted September 21, 2012 at 7:13 pm

    Yes, I too would like to think about the questions that Susan put at the end of her post.

    Are you androgynous? I probably fit more into the culturally driven male stereotypes but as I think about this, I’m not phased by doing what is normally considered to be a woman’s work. As an example, if I see dishes on the sink, dust on the floor, smeary windows, children’s hand marks on walls etc. I just get in and tidy up because it’s ‘our’ house and I’m just as responsible. I don’t expect that I should wait for Liz to notice, or remind her that it needs doing, I just do it, so in that sense I am happily androgynous. I too am pleased that Susan has given us a more accurate definition of a word that is derisively thrown at egalitarians.

    Has it been an advantage? Yes, I think it has, from a christian, willing to serve perspective. It has enabled me to think and act beyond my position in society and the church of male privilege. It encourages me to be pro-active and willing to do things that may normally be considered to be left up to the women, like going into the kitchen (at church) and doing the dishes or grabbing a tea towel, mopping the floor etc. At functions men generally hang around together and talk man stuff, leaving the women to talk women stuff, I like to be more inclusive and talk stuff in a mixed group that concerns both genders. Encouraging men and women to hang out together.

    Are there times when you wish that you had a broader range of behaviours? No, but I am thankful that the Lord has challenged me, through the Scriptures, to be more open minded about this and encouraged me to look beyond accepted stereotypical behaviours, especially in the church setting. I’m comfortable with my maleness but open to crossing cultural divides.

    • Liz Liz
      Comment #96746 posted September 21, 2012 at 9:01 pm

      Trevor may fit some male stereotypes re practical work as he is very skilled in all sorts of work around the home and with cars. However, he is not obsessed with sport or drinking with the guys, doesn’t have problems with sharing his feelings and enjoys the beauty of creation. From a young age he observed how women were treated in his family and decided he wanted to do better, which he has, over and above which of course has been a bonus for me :-)

  14. Karen Gritter
    Comment #96747 posted September 22, 2012 at 10:23 am

    Ah, the stories I could tell. But not all over the web.

    I would be happy to discuss this further with you in a more private venue, but suffice it to say, I have fought feminine stereotypes all my life, and also present physically as androgynous, since I am strong and less than curvy.

    My experience is that, although I can see several advantages in thinking outside the box, for the most part my perspective is most unwelcome–as is my person–particularly in more conservative religious environs. I have had the experience of being on the outside looking in, and as a single, am eyed with even more suspicion, having been labeled as gay and shunned accordingly. It has at least made me sympathetic to the plights of those who are LGBT and others who do not fit the “suitable” mold that is a prerequisite for “Christian fellowship.” People are more intimidated by anyone who is different than they wish to admit.

  15. Mary
    Comment #96748 posted September 22, 2012 at 11:08 am

    Thank you so much for your very clear explanation, Susan. I wish I would have seen it 10 years ago. It may have saved me from many tears shed.
    I am an accountant, and used my education to keep the books for our church. No one but a few leaders knew that I was doing all of the work – banking, record-keeping, budget reports, etc..
    Everyone else in the church thought that the man who was the church treasurer was doing it. You see it was ok for him to have that office since he was a man. It was all right for me to do all of the work under him at that time because no one else in our small church possessed any bookkeeping skills. As soon as they were able to find a man to take over they took all of my records, spread sheets, bank books, the whole thing and turned it over to him with a big sigh of relief that now they could be spared from the embarrassment of having a woman doing a man’s job.
    Now don’t get me wrong. I was happy to do this for the Lord. I believe in the “left hand/right hand” principle and I sincerely hope to be joyous in my reward in Heaven when I see my Savior. Now however, I wonder if I wasn’t playing into a serious error in our church – that women, by virtue of being women, are not allowed to be certain things. After reading your posting, I am convinced that the church is playing into the hands of Satan by getting caught up in a “gender war” when that is not the issue. As you say, let’s don’t make things into gender things when they don’t need to be.
    Let’s look at our task to get the Gospel to the ends of the earth as Jesus commanded. Let’s just be faithful to our callings.
    That church is still going and as far as I know women are still put into “roles” that they must stick to. I pray that the truths you are teaching will reach many such churches and then all children of God can get busy to get the task done that Jesus gave us.

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