Sandra Bem on androgyny

Are we all a little bit androgynous? In her book “Bisexuality: A Study”, Charlotte Wolff highlights Sandra Bem’s writings on people who do not conform to gender stereotypes. The person who combines the best of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ traits, Bem argues, embodies the highest standard of psychological health. 

Sandra Bem (June 22, 1944 – May 20, 2014) was an American psychologist known for her works in androgyny and gender studies. Her pioneering work on gender roles, gender polarization and gender stereotypes led directly to more equal employment opportunities for women in the United States.

Excerpt from Charlotte Wolff’s “Bisexuality: A Study“:

In ‘The Measure of Psychological Androgyny’ (1974), [Bem] measured androgyny as a function of a person’s ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ in their own eyes. It is to Sandra Bem’s credit that she criticized the polarization of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, which obscured the meaning of androgyny. … According to her: ‘Androgynous sex role represents the equal endorsement of both masculine and feminine attributes.’


In ‘Sex Role Adaptability: One Consequence of Psychological Androgyny’ (1975), Bem continued the theme of her previous paper. She had been impressed by the argument of the Women’s Liberation Movement that stereotyped sex roles did not encourage psychological health in the individual and society. The real androgynous person, who is flexible in the expression of both his/her ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ sides, will adjust to life situations as they come. She mentioned a paper by Cosentino and Heilbrun (1964), which confirmed that androgynous women scored in self-reliance, self-confidence and intelligence, in comparison with stereotyped females. High ‘masculinity’ in men went with high anxiety and neuroticism.

The two main results of a number of tests which Bem applied to androgynous and stereotyped males and females were the following: firstly, that ‘feminine’ and androgynous males showed more involvement in a playful pursuit than ‘normal’ men, who didn’t know how to react. And secondly that ‘feminine’ women were no more playful than androgynous and ‘masculine’ women. This result was contrary to expectation. ‘Feminine’ women showed less involvement in playful pursuits because they lacked spontaneity. They funked unexpected tasks with obvious inhibition and anxiety.

Androgyny had the best of both worlds. The paper ends: ‘it may well be, as the Women’s Liberation Movement has urged, that the androgynous individual will some day come to define a new and more human standard of psychological health’.

Bem and some other developmental psychologists have underlined the social importance of androgyny and emphasized its significance for the mental health of society.

Wolff, Charlotte. Bisexuality: A study. London; New York: Quartet Books, 1979.

Charlotte Wolff (30 September 1897 – 12 September 1986) was a German-British physician whose writings on lesbianism and bisexuality were influential early works in the field. She was made a Fellow of the British Psychological Society in 1941.

Featured Image: lowkeyqueer


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