What Do Women Want?

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci ca. 1503,
Digitally restored and color balanced by: 1ax15fastcar, 2019  

At the beginning of the American feminist movement, a distinguished philosophical journal, The Monist, brought out an entire issue on the subject. It included my contribution, “Feminism Without Contradictions.” There I pointed out some of the dangerous rocks, shoals and whirlpools that the good ship “American-Feminism” could run into as it navigated the unknown waters ahead. I warned that foresight would be crucial because “[p]eople may get tired of compensating women for what, after all, they are.”

Despite all those cautionary notes, there was one whirlpool I did not foresee: that people would get tired of compensating women for what [feminists claimed that] they are not. Feminists have stressed that there is nothing essentially womanly about being a woman, or feminine about being female, because such classifications are mere social constructs. If womanliness has been dismissed as a myth or fiction, then hard-won safeguards and barriers that protected women’s unique vulnerabilities could drop away, leaving them defenseless.  

The warnings — that “Feminism Without Contradictions” never thought to issue — would apply equally to sports competitions, locker rooms, bathing facilities and bathrooms, but no need to picture prurient details. You get the general idea.

Reflections like these may occasion curiosity about what life was like for women in their pre-feminist days. All in all, were the sexes in better balance back then? Well, let me call up a few vignettes from deep storage.

There was the well-known woman writer from the South, comfortably taken care of by a man devoted to her, who told me that her mother had passed down to her this fragment of Quaint Life Wisdom:

men are the enemy.

She repeated it twice, in oracular tones, as if to make sure I’d get it memorized.

Another time, I was on a southbound Greyhound bus with a seatmate I did not know who confided her romantic story to me.  

 “I thought he was all mine, he was my little boy! But it turned out he was everybody’s little boy! You know, that’s embarrassing?”

Southern girls had a more definite sense of the unfavorable power dynamic. But perhaps you are thinking that men weren’t always or necessarily “the enemy”? Wasn’t there a time before feminism when men sincerely, if naively, idealized women? Put them on a pedestal perhaps?

In New York, where I lived, Sigmund Freud reigned. People followed their shrinks to Long Island in August so as not to lose a therapeutic day. If you hoped to have an inner life, Freud had got there first and mapped it for you. 

For men, it was relatively straightforward. They had only to recognize their castration fears, suppress their incestuous passion for their mothers, thereby freeing themselves for the climb up the ladder of civilized accomplishment accompanied by the moderate discontents that are the price of sublimation.

For women, however, no such separate peace was negotiable. Women came into the world with a primal defect; they lacked what made the boys so special.  

(Reader, I had no brothers so, at the age in question, would not have known what Freud was talking about. Nude statues of men that I saw at the museum had leaves at the fork in the road between the legs. I probably thought men’s torsos terminated in foliage.)  

Anyway, in Freud’s view, women were doomed to envy the possessors of the mysterious male organ and yearn to dispossess men of it. So men were well advised to regard women as natural castrators! Also to see through women’s aspirations if those went beyond bedroom and nursery. Women’s nonbiologic aims should be viewed as compensations for the male appendage women were doomed never to possess for themselves.

How ‘bout them apples? Whatever you do — or don’t do — you lose! You’re certainly not idealized. You’re both feared and “seen through”! Meanwhile, you had to keep the seams of your nylon stockings straight, wear heels even on the coldest winter days, keep your pointy bra pointed in the right direction and take care never to win an argument with a man.

Riding a unicycle on a tightrope was easier than being an acceptable woman in pre-feminist America.

My own unconscious strategy was probably to model my sense of the womanly future on my mother and her European women friends. Also, the era included a kind of Sorority of the Similarly Stigmatized, which had its own conspiratorial compassion inbuilt.

What effect did feminism have on that sisterhood? Ladies, it’s a long, long story. Probably worth telling, though.

Are women all profoundly liberated now? Well no, not profoundly. Not only have we seen the recent rollback of hard-won rights and privileges, with regard to women’s shelters, sports, locker rooms, bathrooms, prisons – protective privacies of all kinds. But so far, we have not seen any credible replacement for the “social construct” model of sexual difference and identity that has proved notably powerless to prevent that rollback.

Certainly some things are better now. Women can wear slacks. There are more female gynecologists. We aren’t caricatured for seeking to acquire proficiency in fields where our talents lead us.

But … there is an erotic core at the center of human life. It’s not Freudian. Freud knew next to nothing about it. Nevertheless, this is a world of desire. As women, we must learn to ask ourselves afresh, what do we want?

What, ideally —

and in the imagined best case —

do we women want?

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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