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Monday Classics: Toward a New Psychology of Women

Women’s History Month Classics: In the thirty-five years since its publication, Toward a New Psychology of Women by Jean Baker Miller, MD, has become famous for its groundbreaking demonstration of how sexual stereotypes restrict men’s and women’s psychological development. Wendy Strothman, former Beacon director, called it “one of our books that overturn an entire field.”

Toward a New Psychology of Women is $9.99 during Women's History Month at Beacon.org.

2909The following excerpt is from Chapter 4: Strengths

Today in psychotherapy a central place is given to feelings of weakness, vulnerability, and helplessness, along with their usual accompaniment, feelings of neediness. These are feelings we have all known, given the long period necessary for maturational development in human beings and, in our society, given the difficulties and lack of support most of us suffer during childhood and indeed in our adult lives. Such feelings are, of course, most unpleasant—in their extreme, they are terrifying—and several schools of psychodynamic thought postulate that they are the root causes of various major “pathologies.” In Western society men are encouraged to dread, abhor, or deny feeling weak or helpless, whereas women are encouraged to cultivate this state of being. The first and most important point, however, is that these feelings are common and inevitable to all, even though our cultural tradition unrealistically expects men to discard rather than to acknowledge them.

Two brief examples illustrate this contrast. Mary, a gifted and resourceful young hospital worker with two children, was offered a new and more demanding position. She would lead a team attempting an innovative approach to patient care. It involved greater scope for the team members and for Mary a harder job of coordination and negotiation of the workers’ anxieties and difficulties. Mary’s immediate reaction was to worry about her ability to carry out the project; she felt weak and helpless in the face of the formidable task. At times, she was convinced she was totally incapable of doing the job and wanted to refuse the offer.

Her worry was in some measure appropriate, for the position of team coordinator was a difficult and demanding one that should be approached only after rigorous self-evaluation. She was, however, extremely able and had demonstrated the abilities necessary for the position. She retained some common feminine problems—having trouble admitting to, and easily losing sight of, her strengths. A clear recognition of her own competence would mean the loss of the weak, little-girl image to which she clung, in spite of its obvious inaccuracy. While some fear about the job seemed justified, her reluctance to relinquish the old image exaggerated the fears.

By contrast, a man, Charles, who was also very gifted, had the opportunity to take a higher-level job, and he was very pleased. In its administrative requirements and responsibilities it was similar to Mary’s and was equally demanding. Just before he undertook the new job, he developed some fairly severe physical symptoms; characteristically he did not talk about them. His wife, Ruth, however, suspected that they were caused by his anxieties about facing the tasks ahead. Knowing him well, she did not mention the problem directly, but opened up the topic in the only way she felt able. She suggested that it might be a good idea to make some changes in their diet, hours, and general lifestyle. His initial reaction was one of anger; he disparaged her, sarcastically telling her to stop bothering him. Later he admitted to himself, and then to Ruth, that when he feels most uncertain of his abilities and most in need of help, he can react only with anger—especially if anyone seems to perceive his neediness.

Fortunately, Charles is trying hard to overcome the barriers that keep him from acknowledging these feelings. His wife’s attempts opened up the possibility of dealing with them. He could not have initiated the process himself. He could not even respond to her initiation immediately, but this time, fairly soon after the fact he was able to catch himself in the act of denying it. Ruth easily might have remained rejected, hurt, and resentful, and the situation could have escalated into mutual anger and recrimination at the very time he was feeling most vulnerable, helpless, and needy.

It is important to note also that Ruth was not being rewarded for her strengths. Instead, she was made to suffer for them—by anger and rejection. This is a small example of how women’s valuable qualities are not only not recognized but are punished instead. Even in this case, Ruth was not able to state her perceptions openly. She had to use “feminine wiles.” Important qualities such as understanding of human vulnerabilities and offerings of help can thus be dysfunctional in relationships as they are presently structured and can make a woman feel she must be wrong.

In no society does the person—male or female—emerge full-grown. A necessary part of all experience is a recognition of one’s weaknesses and limitations. That most valuable of human qualities—the ability to grow psychologically—is necessarily an ongoing process, involving repeated feelings of vulnerability all through life. As the example of Charles illustrates, men have been conditioned to fear and hate weakness, to try to get rid of it immediately and sometimes frantically. This attempt, I believe, represents an effort to distort human experience. It is necessary to “learn” in an emotional sense that these feelings are not shameful or abhorrent but ones from which the individual can move on—if the feelings are experienced for what they are. Only then can a person hope to find appropriate paths to new strengths. Along with new strength will come new areas of vulnerability, for there is no absolute invulnerability.

That women are better able than men to consciously admit to feelings of weakness or vulnerability may be obvious, but we have not recognized the importance of this ability. That women are truly much more able to tolerate these feelings—which life in general, and particularly in our society, generates in everybody—is a positive strength. Many adolescent boys and young men especially seem to be suffering acutely from the need to flee from these feelings before they experience them. In that sense, women, both superficially and deeply, are more closely in touch with basic life experiences—in touch with reality. By being in this closer connection with this central human condition, by having to defend less and deny less, women are in a position to understand weakness more readily and to work productively with it.

In short, in our society, while men are made to feel weak in many ways, women are made to feel weaker. But, because they “know” weakness, women can cease being the “carriers” of weakness and become the developers of a different understanding of it and of the appropriate paths out of it. Women, in undertaking their own journey, can illuminate the way for others.

Until now, women who are already strong in many ways still have had a hard time admitting it. Mary, the woman in the example, illustrates this problem. But even when weakness is real, women can go on to strength and ability once they can convince themselves that it is really all right to let go of their belief in the rightness of weakness. Only someone who understands women can understand how this psychic element operates, how widespread and influential the fear of not being weak can become, and how persistently it can hang on without being recognized for what it is. It is very difficult for men, with their fears of weakness, to see why women cling to it and to understand that it does not, and could not possibly, mean the same thing for women as it does for men.

There is a further social point here. The fact that these feelings are generally associated with being “womanly,”—hence unmanly—serves to reinforce the humiliation suffered by the man who has such experiences. Women, in the meanwhile, provide all sorts of personal and social supports to help keep men going and to keep them and the total society from admitting that better arrangements are needed. That is, the whole man-woman interaction thus dilutes the push to confront and deal with our societal deficiencies. We all experience too much danger as we attempt to grow and make our way in the difficult and threatening circumstances in which we live. We all lose in the end, but the loss is kept obscure.

Further Reading

Q&A With Jean Baker Miller for Changing the Face of Medicine.

Jean Baker Miller's Obituary in the New York Times.