We asked our readers to share personal stories of individuals who have been exemplars as men and as women. In the following reflections, our readers observe the complex and multifaceted nature of masculinity and femininity, sharing stories of role models who have inspired and challenged them.
In middle school, I encountered a camp senior staffer who had a clever mind, a great sense of humour, and a passion for the Lord. She disliked conforming to beauty standards and was sometimes considered—sometimes by me—uncool and prudish. I lived with twelve other girls, ages twelve to seventeen, for weeks together under her leadership. One girl, I’ll call her “M,” struggled, feeling more than a tomboy among us. She claimed she ought to have been born a boy because girls were useless. The staffer never wavered, empathetic. She accompanied M throughout the summer, literally chasing after her one morning when she stormed out after a bully teased her for refusing to wear women’s clothes.
This staffer did daily bedtime devotions with us to talk about holy women of God. She showed us how God is not limited in how, why, or to what end he invites women to be instruments, insisting God loves us as we are. By the end of the summer, she had plugged M into roles where her particular strengths of femininity shined and helped her find a place in this female community. M softened. This staffer’s femininity— her trust in the goodness of the Lord’s design, a heart for true charity—exhorted me in my own struggles with gender and called me to better female friendship.
On March 14, 2023, my father unexpectedly passed away. As his only child, and a son no less, I’ve been contemplating the kind of man my father was. Joseph Nemr was not a hard man. He was soft, gentle, caring, and giving. An artist at heart, he had a creative spirit unlimited by medium. He wept when he hurt. He protected, provided, and was present for the needs of my mom and me in a way that seems unfathomable from where I now stand. My dad and mom were inseparable. They escaped the civil war in Lebanon and challenging personal circumstances while retaining enough hope to want to bring me into this world. Together, while navigating everything that can come with this world, they made a world for themselves, and for me, steeped in love and affection, a slice of heaven on earth. My dad took his fair share of hits—failures, betrayals, and disappointments. He did what he could to live peaceably with those around him and always fought for his family. The deep and profound connection he was able to facilitate among the three of us remains in a very real sense even in his physical absence. It is my hope to be a man like that.
Beatrice—South Bend, Indiana
What does it mean to be a woman? When I gave birth to my first child, my own mother was not able to travel to visit and assist me at the hospital. Instead, my nurse Rachel acted as mother, grandmother, older sister, friend, and teacher. Although she was around my age, in the moment when she taught me how to swaddle my child she fulfilled the role of the older female mentor, passing on wisdom through the generations. During our two-day stay at the hospital, I desperately needed my husband’s emotional support, but I also wanted practical, no-nonsense advice about how to provide for the small, helpless creature that was our son, and I wanted this from someone who was not only a medical professional but, crucially, also embodied femininity. A male nurse may have done the job just as well. But I yearned for a woman’s help, the help of someone who shared with me the potential of bringing life into the world. That, at the end, is the most significant experiential difference between man and woman. To be feminine is To be feminine is to join in the long line of mothers and daughters and sisters and friends, bearing and raising, and, like Rachel, choosing to care for mothers. I still think of her patience and kindness when I care for my child a year later.
I don’t remember seeing my mother cry as a child. But my father? The gruff, bearded, pipe-smoking, Sanskrit-reading academic? He cried. When we watched Where the Red Fern Grows, he cried. When he read the final pages of Return of the King to us, he cried. When we finished Goodbye, Mr. Chips, he cried. I know, without ever having been told, that my grandfather did not cry. His life was hard and he displayed no emotions save anger. But somehow, his son overcame his father’s emotional handicaps. Once, on a road trip through the Pennsylvania turnpike, “Daddy’s Hands” by Loretta Lynn came jingling over the radio. We sang along, all of us, and at the end, we all were crying—and again, without discussing it, we knew why. I have always cherished my father’s willingness to be openly moved by beauty and sorrow. It is, perhaps, the most masculine thing about him.
I grew up with a father who suffered from alcoholism. For many years as a young boy and as a teenager, I was alienated from him because the alcohol made his personality difficult. Because of this, I have the tendency to view all grown men—especially those in authority—as aggressive and lacking the capacity for tenderness.
One night, my father blew up at me for something and I left the house. I knew that if he had been in his right mind we might have discussed things reasonably. The following day when I came home from school I expected the same level of emotional violence. Instead, he walked in the house, saw me, took his shoes off in the foyer like he always did, and hugged me so that my face pressed into his shoulder bone. In that moment my fear melted and I saw the possibility of getting something from him I needed in order to internalize his masculinity. It was not proving to him I could decapitate a bear with a hunting knife that made me settle into my own masculinity. It was his mercy and physical affection for me that made me more into a man myself.
His drinking didn’t stop after that. He suffered from it for many more years. Later when he was still drinking, I came home from a foreign-language contest where I’d won first place in the state, and I wanted to take my sister’s best friend out on a date that night, but I was flat broke. He’d given me his car, and when I found him at the bar to tell him I’d won the contest, I said, “Dad, I want to take Michelle out, but I’m broke.” He gathered his buddies and started a craps game, then took the pile of cash he won and handed it over to me to buy Michelle dinner. I was seventeen, and I knew that whatever flaws my father had, whatever alcohol had done and would continue to do to him, that gesture was the gesture of a lifetime, and it showed me what it was to be a man. It is not in the absence of weakness or, possibly, even terrible flaws that might cause suffering, but rather it is giving all you have down to your last dime for the people you love. It is giving in a way that helps your son or daughter grow up to have a better shot at life than you did.
Grandma’s hands were wrinkly and arthritic as she lifted giant pots of brown beans to the stove. The stove seemed to be in continual use. There was an elegance to her crammed kitchen, and a piece of her identity was intimately tied to this space. It wasn’t because she was supposed to be in this space. She chose this space, and it became the nerve centre of the family.
Grandaddy Joe and Grandma had a sacred submission to other forged by their experience of Appalachian poverty. Tucked amid hardship was a pearl of immense worth. They modelled a complement to one another as they shared the joys and burdens of life. They respected one another, a respect that permeated their family. Appalachian women are both maternal and paternal. They are “Mama Bears” who embody both nurture and protection, and they have shaped my view of womanhood. Appalachia offered me a glimpse at gender with a slant. Though my grandmother’s domain was the kitchen, she was not relegated there because of her femininity. My grandfather never made her feel that this was the space she was to stay. Rather, he respected her role as co-creator of the family. Her area of specialty was the kitchen, a space that she engineered to create and cultivate a family amid Appalachian poverty. There is a dynamism and flexibility to gender that my grandmother exemplified. Our understandings take root in the soil of men and women who make up our lives. Grandma reminds me that gender must always be “enstoried.” Absent story, my grandmother becomes another statistic on Appalachia and gender. Within story, the aromas of her kitchen, the embrace with my grandfather, and the mutual submission that was their lives paint a more beautiful picture.