Dating back to the late 16th century, the word ‘muliebrity’ is derived from the Latin muliebritas or womanhood, in turn a derivative of ‘mulier’ or woman
Muliebrity (noun), Womanhood, womanliness, femininity, the condition of being a woman or behaving in ways considered typical of a woman. The antonym of virility.
Usage:His mother embodied all the qualities of gentle nurturing, devotion, uncritical affection and fine cooking that he associated with muliebrity.
On International Women's Day, muliebrity is a word worth examining closely. It goes back to the late 16th century, and is derived from the Latin muliebritas or womanhood, in turn a derivative of mulier or woman. There is an adjective form, muliebral, "of or pertaining to a woman". Neither word is widely used any more, but as a valid word in the language, muliebrity can be applied to all women, and to all men who behave like women.
This is where we start venturing into sexist territory, however. What does "behaving like women" mean?
The word's root mulier, "a woman," is traditionally said to derive from mollis, meaning soft or weak. In old legal language, mulier was used as a noun to refer to "a woman; a wife," and as an adjective, to mean "born in wedlock." (A mulier offspring, or just a mulier, was a legitimate child according to ecclesiastical law.) For a while the word muliebrious was used as a synonym for "effeminate" – "that muliebrious fashion designer," for instance. A paid legion of trolls accuse me daily on social media of mulierosity, without ever using the word (which means an excessive fondness for women, but they don't know that and so have to rely on cruder vulgarisms to convey the same charge.)
The problem with the word muliebrity is that it brings a lot of baggage with it, consisting mainly of rather sexist ideas about what is womanly. Muliebrity embraces notions of soft, gentle, "feminine" characteristics that many women bridle at – and that may be far from the lived experience of those men who have grown up with, or are married to, strong women. When the word is applied to men, it implies effeminate ways, heavy makeup, outlandish clothing and the like. The very notion of muliebrity is based on old-fashioned concepts of feminine behaviour that the world has largely outgrown, outside a few khap panchayats in our Bimaru states.
But that may be precisely why the word muliebrity might have a longer run in Indian English than in the West, since we, as a society, are slower to let go of the gender stereotypes and expectations of womanhood that come with it. Bollywood films are still full of muliebrious or over-feminine women, though exceptions have broken through in recent years. And the Sati-Savitri ideal of womanhood is the classic epitome of muliebrity, reinforced in countless cultural tropes over the years.
A friend I tried the word out on – "what do you think muliebrity means?" – understandably thought it meant stubbornness, because of the association of that quality with mules. He would no doubt have been surprised to learn that Vanderbilt University in the US offers the Muliebrity Prize to honour students that "demonstrate leadership in activities that contribute to the achievements, interests and goals of women and girls, or that promote equity." Muliebrity, of course, has nothing to do with mules. But certainly some stubbornness would come in handy when women fight for their rights in a patriarchal system. I remain of the view that the Women's Reservation Bill would guarantee the entry of the irresistible muliebral force that has been largely missing from our male-dominated Parliament.
Interestingly, there is a specifically Indian example of the use of the word. 'Muliebrity' is the title of a poem by Sujata Bhatt that describes the sight of a young girl in our country who spends her days picking up cow dung, and the inherent "glistening" power she has as a female. The poem expands our ideas of what it means to be a woman. Ultimately, of course, your muliebrity is best expressed not by dressing in a certain manner, walking in a feminine way or making your speech and conduct conform to the expectations of men, but by being your own true self as a woman and as a human being. Happy International Woman's Day!