penis envy

♀ The Functional Freeze, the Feminine Protest, and Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead

This is the sixth post in my chapter-by-chapter analysis of The Feminine Mystique, as I read the book for the first time in an effort to educate myself about the roots of modern feminism. You can read the other posts here.

Yesterday I had a conversation about innate differences between the sexes—specifically: do they exist, beyond the obvious biological level? Since one tactic of feminism is to at least minimize the attention given to any differences between men and women, feminists tend to operate on a practical level as if those differences do not exist. And maybe they don’t. I remain skeptical about the whole thing, since I think most of the available evidence we have on the subject is tainted by sociological assumptions. Conclusive evidence may be practically unattainable. I do think, though, that society as a whole overemphasizes any differences that do exist, which I suspect to be at least fewer and less significant than most people assume.

In the previous chapter of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan covered Freudianism and its contribution to the marginalization of women. In chapter six, she moves on to functionalism, the school of sociology that developed as Freud’s ideas moved into the mainstream. The functionalists attempted to make sociology more scientifically credible by “studying institutions as if they were muscles or bones, in terms of their ‘structure’ and ‘function’ in the social body.” (Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique. Norton & Company, 1997, p. 127) This resulted in little actual progress, though:

By studying an institution only in terms of its function within its own society, the social scientists intended to avert unscientific value judgments. In practice, functionalism was less a scientific movement than a scientific word-game. “The function is” was often translated “the function should be”; the social scientists did not recognize their own prejudices in functional disguise any more than the analysts recognized theirs in Freudian disguise. (127)

While the functionalists moved beyond Freud’s view of “biology as destiny”, they only got as far as “societal norms as destiny”. Despite accurately describing social structures, they never critiqued them, contenting themselves with telling people how to “adjust” instead. (129) In this, they may actually be more culpable than Freud, who at least thought he was expressing a scientific, unchangeable reality. The functionalists acknowledged the potential for equality but dismissed it for reasons of convenience.

For example, functionalism correctly identified the social purpose of complementary roles in marriage—the husband responsible for earning money that would keep the family and household operating, the wife responsible for the actual operations. But it never moved beyond this fairly obvious insight to a deeper analysis of the system, except to point out that if the wife stopped taking care of operations the husband would no longer be free to fulfill his role:

When men and women engage in the same occupations or perform common functions, the complementary relationship may break down. (Bowman, Henry A., Marriage for Moderns. New York, 1942, p. 21)

This ignores the possibility of achieving a better future at the cost of short-term inconvenience or upheaval—a process I think may actually be underway right now.

The most influential of these thinkers, at least with regard to the role of women in society, was Margaret Mead. (Friedan 135) Mead completed extensive anthropological research among three different tribes in Papua New Guinea: the Arapesh, among whom both men and women displayed traits traditionally considered “feminine”; the Mundugumor, both of whose sexes were “aggressive” and “masculine”; and the Tchambuli, whose women Mead claimed were more dominant and independent (this claim has since been disputed). (136) Despite these findings, though, Mead did not (in general) advocate equality or eradication of gender stereotypes. In some of her writing, she hints at the possibility of gender equality:

Just as society now permits the practice of an art to members of either sex, so it might also permit the development of many contrasting temperamental gifts in each sex. It would abandon its various attempts to make boys fight and to make girls remain passive, or to make all children fight…. No child would be relentlessly shaped to one pattern of behavior, but instead there should be many patterns, in a world that had learned to allow to each individual the pattern which was most congenial to his gifts. (Mead, Margaret, From the South Seas. New York, 1939, p. 321)

For the most part, though, Mead skewed functionalist, particularly glorifying the reproductive functions in women. She even attributed the male urge to accomplish and create to a sort of “uterus envy”—a subconscious awareness that women were superior because of their ability to create and nurture new life similar to but opposite Freud’s penis envy. (Friedan 140–141) In her Male and Female, she asks:

If little boys have to meet and assimilate the early shock of knowing that they can never create a baby with the sureness and incontrovertability that is a woman’s birthright, how does this make them more creatively ambitious, as well as more dependent upon achievement?

In a way, this reversed Freud’s subjugation of women, portraying them as superior to men because of their reproductive function. But as any good feminist knows, essentializing one aspect of femininity still keeps women in bondage:

In her insistence that women are human beings—unique human beings, not men with something missing—she went a step beyond Freud. And yet, because her observations were based on Freud’s bodily analogies, she cut down her own vision of women by glorifying the mysterious miracle of femininity. (Friedan 145)

Mead’s emphasis on reproduction meant that she retained a belief in the importance of defined gender roles; women needed to be at home fulfilling the ever-so-important function of making and raising new humans. Moreover, because women were privileged with this role, they owed it to men to let them have the less-important but still necessary function of achieving and accomplishing.

This is what Friedan refers to as “the feminine protest”—an elevation of what society called femininity over masculinity, in opposition to the “masculine protest” that functionalists claimed led women who envied men to take on typically “masculine” characteristics. (127) In response to functionalism, particularly Mead’s writings, women embraced their “femininity” and ability to create life, making a lifelong pursuit of this gender essentialism. (147)

Mead eventually began to reject the real-life impact of this philosophy, though, lamenting in 1962 the “return of the cavewoman”:

Why have we returned, despite our advances in technology, to the Stone Age picture? … Woman has gone back, each to her separate cave, waiting anxiously for her mate and children to return, guarding her mate jealously against other women, almost totally unaware of any life outside her door… In this retreat into fecundity, it is not the individual woman who is to blame. It is the climate of opinion that has developed in this country…." (Mead, Margaret, American Women: The Changing Image. 1962)

But despite Mead’s contribution to the perpetuation of the feminine mystique, Friedan credits her with good intentions, and even—to an extent—positive results:

Perhaps the feminine protest was a necessary step after the masculine protest made by some of the feminists. Margaret Mead was one of the first women to emerge into prominence in American life after rights for women were won… And she was able to say with conviction: it’s good to be a woman, you don’t need to copy man, you can respect yourself as a woman… It was a step forward in the passionate journey—and one made possible by it—for educated women to say “yes” to motherhood as a conscious human purpose and not a burden imposed by the flesh. (Friedan 147)

♀ The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

This is the fifth post in my chapter-by-chapter analysis of The Feminine Mystique, as I read the book for the first time in an effort to educate myself about the roots of modern feminism. You can read the other posts here.

Because most of my friends and family do not identify as feminists, I occasionally have conversations about gender-normative behavior or gender stereotypes. I’m sure you know the kind I mean—statements like “Women shouldn’t be in positions of power because they’re too emotional, not rational”, “Women are more nurturing, so that’s why it makes sense for them to be the primary caregivers”, “Women are more monogamous than men because [insert evolution-based rationale here]”, or even “Men and women don’t like the same movies because girls like gooey romantic movies and men only like action!” I try not to be that person who constantly corrects people when they make anti-feminist remarks, but in appropriate settings, I say what I think.

People find stereotypes seductive and hard to ignore because stereotypes nearly always have a bit of truth at their core. To take one example from above, women probably do, as a group, tend to prefer romances or dramas—essentially, relationship-based movies—more than men. But even when the kernel of truth is obvious to nearly everyone, most people still make the mistake of assuming it represents a characteristic innate to that particular gender, ignoring the possibility that cultural norms and expectations drive that particular behavior.

In chapter 5 of The Feminine Mystique, “The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud”, Betty Friedan attributes this very mistake to the titular psychologist. Despite his many insights, she contends that Freud’s theories about sexual differences essentialized cultural norms. In turn, gender traditionalists of the 1940s used a distilled version of Freudianism to reinforce the standards of their day, as women felt unqualified to argue with the findings of a revered scientist.

Friedan acknowledges Freud’s gifts and accomplishments, but he was a product of his day, and he reflected the beliefs and cultural expectations thereof. For example, although he married a strong, capable woman, he infantilized her and did not consider her his intellectual equal. Friedan quotes from one of his letters to Martha:

“You are far too soft, and this is something I have got to correct, for what one of us does will also be charged to the other’s account. You are my precious little woman, and even if you make a mistake, you are none the less so… But you know all this, my sweet child….” (Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique. Norton & Company, 1997, p. 110)

Freud expected that women would be happiest and most well-adjusted if they resigned themselves to relative inactivity, being content to serve their husbands or fathers and bear children. If they harbored ambitions outside this role, they would develop neuroses and require therapy. In the Victorian era, this was actually true. Women had little opportunity to shed socially-imposed functions, so any desire to deviate led to frustration. Freud made the mistake of universalizing this fact, attributing female frustration at such limitations to the inherent nature of women and labeling this frustration “penis envy”. (118)

Freud’s theory of penis envy is probably too nuanced to discuss thoroughly in this venue, but here is a somewhat reductive summary: The first time a young girl sees a penis, she realizes its superiority to her own anatomy and desires to have a penis for herself. Whenever, then, a woman behaves as one would expect a man to behave, or displays the ambitions of a man, this subconscious desire for a penis is at the root of that behavior. Friedan quotes from Freud’s lecture “The Psychology of Women”:

“That the girl recognizes the fact that she lacks a penis does not mean that she accepts it absence lightly. On the contrary, she clings for a long time to the desire to get something like it, and believes in that possibility for an extraordinary number of years; and even at a time when her knowlege of reality has long since led her to abandon the fulfillment of this desire as being quite unattainable, analysis proves that it still persists in the unconscious, and retains a considerable charge of energy. The desire after all to obtain the penis for which she so much longs may even contribute to the motives that impel a grown-up woman to come to analysis, and what she quite reasonably expects to get from analysis, such as the capacity to pursue an intellectual career, can often be recognized as a sublimated modification of this repressed wish.” (115)

We now know that Freud had it backwards. Women have ambition because growth is a human need, and they felt envy—conscious or subconscious—toward men because society in both Freud’s and Friedan’s day prevented them from fulfilling this need. Penis envy, if it exists, is the result, not the cause, of women being treated as inferior and having their needs subjugated to men. If women had penises (that is, if they were men), they could do as men do: learn, grow, accomplish, change the world.

Victorian culture gave women many reasons to envy men: the same conditions, in fact, that the feminists fought against.[1] If a woman who was denied the freedom, the status and the pleasures that men enjoyed wished secretly that she could have these things, in the shorthand of the dream, she might wish herself a man and see herself with that one thing which made men unequivocally different—the penis. (117)

Freud knew his limits (to an extent) and believed that after his death his adherents would critique his work, discarding anything that did not hold up to scrutiny. Actually, the opposite occurred, in the short term. Freud’s followers grew more rigid and dogmatic, conforming observation to theory, not vice versa. (120) Thus, while science began to demonstrate that females were in no way inferior to males except by the measure of physical strength, Freudians, now pervading mainstream thought, continued to find women unsuited to a life of equality with men. (118) Reducing Freud’s theories to a few bullet points, the culture of the day codified penis envy into a prescription rather than a description:

It was as if Freud’s Victorian image of woman became more real than the twentieth-century women to whom it was applied. Freud’s theory of femininity was seized in America with such literalness that women today were considered no different than Victorian women. The real injustices life held for women a century ago, were dismissed as mere rationalizations of penis envy. And the real opportunities life offered to women now, compared to women then, were forbidden in the name of penis envy. (119)

Evidence against this rigid application of Freudianism began to pile up, even among psychoanalysts, who found it more and more difficult to apply Freud’s ideas to real-life women. Friedan interviews one of the last remaining analysts to have trained at Freud’s Psychoanalytic Institute:

“I had a woman patient on the couch for nearly two years before I could face her real problem—that it was not enough for her to be just a housewife and mother. One day she had a dream that she was teaching a class. I could not dismiss the powerful yearning of this housewife’s dream as penis envy. It was the expression of her own need for mature self-fulfillment. I told her: ‘I can’t analyze this dream away. You must do something about it.’” (122)

Friedan places the ultimate blame for the perpetuation of the feminine mystique not on the psychoanalysts and therapists but on the mass media and “popularizers and translators of Freudian thought into the colleges and universities”. Reductive Freudianism, prescriptively applied as an ideal, permeated the American consciousness and kept women stuck in rigid gender roles despite the recent gains made on behalf of their rights and freedoms. Ordinary women, even those inwardly seething against these culturally-imposed restrictions, retained such reverence for the “science” at the root of their serfdom that they could mount no meaningful rebuttal. (124–125)

As I concluded in my review of the previous chapter, those in power have an obligation to constantly self-evaluate and ensure that they are doing all they can to equalize the disenfranchised. Conventional wisdom is often our enemy in this endeavor, so we must give careful consideration to whether the assumptions and stereotypes we perpetuate are based on inherent characteristics or simply on cultural expectations. Maintaining intellectual honesty in this regard may surprise us.

I mean, maybe women like gooey, romantic movies because we keep telling them they’re supposed to.

  1. Friedan is here referring to the first-wave feminists.  ↩<

If you appreciated this post, you might also like my new series of fantasy short stories featuring the immortal woman whose adventures we now know only through scattered myths and legends. Read them for free starting at the Her True Name story archives!