The Historical Dynamic in Personality
The historicity of personality has been recognized in social theory mainly by constructing historical typologies of character. A particular character type is supposed to be dominant at one period of history and then is swept aside in favour of a new type in a new epoch. The classic sequence is David Riesman’s ‘tradition- directed’, ‘inner-directed’ and ‘other-directed’ character types in The Lonely Crowd. Other typologies are Charles Reich’s ‘Consciousness I, II and IIP; John Carroll’s ‘puritan’, ‘paranoid’ and ‘remissive’; and countless renditions of the ‘traditional’ versus ‘modern’ theme. Paul Hoch’s typology of masculinity in White Hero, Black Beast has an alternation instead of a sequence. His masculine character- types, ‘puritan’-and ‘playboy’, chase each other through some 3,000 years of history.
A subtler approach can be found in the work of the Frankfurt school on the psychological bases of fascism. Erich Fromm in Fear of Freedom argued that the authoritarian character structure was a psychological solution to problems of alienation created by the economic and cultural development of capitalism – but not the only one. In The Authoritarian Personality, as already noticed, the rigid and prejudiced character is contrasted with others produced in the same historical setting. The general argument in chapter 9 for the existence of multiple paths of gender formation suggests a multiple pattern of personality at the end.
The historicity of personality can be understood as the reconfiguring, by the dynamic of social relations, of the points of tension in personality development and the politics of personal life. It is not necessary to suppose a succession of dominant character types to analyze changes in motivation and personality organization. This can be done by recognizing emergent sets of pressures and possibilities within which the actual diversity of personality is composed.
The application of this approach to the analysis of sexual character is clear in principle, complicated in practice. I would like to illustrate both the complexities and possibilities with a line of thought about the recent history of femininity.
Bim Andrews, whose autobiography was quoted in chapter 8, posed the question ‘which was the right way to live?’. Though the alternative femininities she perceived are interesting in themselves, the most notable fact of all was that she saw them as a choice. Bim’s world did not present her with one pattern as her natural character or inevitable fate. As the daughter of a domestic servant and coming to adulthood in Cambridge in the 1920s, she did not grow up in a hotbed of feminism. Nevertheless the taken-for – grantedness of gender relations and femininity had been disrupted in southern Britain during the previous generation. Agitation by the women’s suffrage movement was only its most visible expression. Others were the literary debates over the ‘new woman’, the reemployment of working-class women in heavy industry during World War I and the mobilization of some groups of women workers in unions and in the co-operative movement. Perhaps most important, there was now a mass education system which working-class girls had to attend at the elementary levels, and through which a few had access to secondary schooling. One was Bim Andrews, who ‘endured the acute embarrassment of always being top of the class’ and who stayed at school till she was fourteen and a half. This experience seems to have combined with her mother’s ‘firm intention to keep me out of domestic service’ to distance Bim from the conventions of the ‘embryo wives and mothers’ who were her schoolmates.
Her experience was exceptional but it was not isolated. It was part of a historic shift in the construction of femininity in the richer parts of the capitalist world. The same shift can be traced in some detail in Australia as a result of recent work by sociologists and social historians including Kerreen Reiger, Jill Matthews, Michael Gilding, Ann Game and Rosemary Pringle. This research documents a complex of institutional changes over the first half of the twentieth century affecting gender relations in the family, state, labour market and professions. Among them are exactly the changes that affected Bim Andrews: the expansion of girls’ education and the redefinition of its content; changes in the composition of households and the domestic division of labour which soon obliterated ‘service’ as a mass occupation; and the increasing availability of office work for women.
In combination, these institutional changes redefined the issues in young women’s lives that needed to be resolved in the construction of femininity in adolescence and early adulthood. Two issues appear particularly important. The first was the choice of vocation, which now replaced the issue of resignation to women’s lot versus protest against it. ‘The new woman’ was essentially a woman with a vocation outside the home. But the main issue was not a choice between jobs, rather about them. The key development was the construction in the early decades of the twentieth century of the ‘housewife’ as a vocation. Among other things this involved the growth of ‘domestic science’ as a segregated curriculum for girls in schools. Whether married women worked for wages or not had previously been an issue of respectability (to the nineteenth century labour aristocracy and small-business owners, withdrawing a wife from earning was a mark of the husband’s success), or of simple need. It now became a question of rejecting the vocation of housewife.
The second issue was one of competition with men. In a sense this had been around much longer, as shown by the expulsion of women workers from mining and heavy manufacturing during the nineteenth century. Nevertheless the doctrine of‘separate spheres’, which as Susan Magarey suggests had gone some way to rationalizing such moves, was under pressure at the turn of the century. Girls, for instance, were conspicuously successful in schooling. In Australia their participation rates in secondary schooling were higher than boys’ at all ages from fourteen to seventeen, in the first decade of the twentieth century.
These developments did not automatically construct a new femininity. But they certainly redefined the field within which sexual character was constructed and relations between different kinds of femininity worked out. The extraordinary celebration of the normative nuclear family in mid-century, the apotheosis of the housewife described by Game and Pringle in their essay ‘The Making of the Australian Family’, was an attempt to resolve these issues in a new model of emphasized femininity. The issue of vocation would be resolved by conscious choice of home-making as a path in life, even as a ‘career’, a concept stressed by magazines like Readers Digest targeted on the more affluent housewives. The issue of competition could be resolved by women withdrawing from men’s sphere, compensated by capital investment and cultural boosting in their own, especially in the form of new technology like electric refrigerators. Hence the media emphasized the modern housewife as something new. At the same time a new sphere of life was defined that was very deliberately shared, from which competition was consciously drained. The 1950s popular literature on marriage laid heavy emphasis on ‘companionate’ marriage, ‘togetherness’ and doing things ‘as a family’.
At one level this was a model pushed on women by social interests which stood to gain from such a resolution, not least the domestic appliance industry, using new techniques of mass communication and persuasion. At another level it was a genuine resolution of the issues of vocation and competition which many women made their own in good faith.
It was a resolution that proved historically unstable. By the 1970s women who had grown up in the 1950s were the main force in the new feminism. In The Mermaid and the Minotaur Dorothy Dinnerstein offers a wonderful account of the psychodynamics of this development in the United States. She stresses the ambivalences of liberal parenting that produced the men of the 1960s New Left, able to break with the state and establishment but not with their masculine prerogatives; and the women who, once radicalized in the campus and anti-war movements, would carry the challenge through to their own exclusion from political power.
A somewhat more jaundiced view of the dialectic producing feminism is offered by Faye Taylor, an Australian teacher interviewed during our research in schools. At one point she cast her mind back over her own family history:
My grandmother was the controlling factor in her household. She decided everything that would be done, and I think this was because she was the more intelligent of the two. Her husband worked very hard but she directed him. Which meant that she was in control. My mother from the time she married was, I suppose, controlled in that her finances were limited by what her husband gave her. But she had complete independence in what she wanted to do, how she wanted to use her time, what she could do within that. So that she always did what she wanted to, remembering that her responsibilities came first. So I wouldn’t say that she was ever a second-class citizen. But from my own generation, we could do whatever we wanted to do, remembering that when we left school and got a job, there were certain jobs that were not open to girls. The ones which were open to girls were very limited in pay and promotion, simply because it was expected that when girls married they would stop work. That has opened up. But with opening it up, there’s been more of a definition of roles. Instead of being individual in your own right, you are now pushed into a stereotype inferior model, instead of being a different model. And in fighting for equality, some of the so-called double standards have been accepted where they never really existed before.
This very suggestive passage implies that feminism (liberal feminism strictly, the only kind most teachers are familiar with) is a kind of ‘regulation’ of femininity in the Donzelot-Foucault sense. Breaking down separate spheres has meant a bringing-undercontrol, as women are subjected to direct comparison with men, while being disadvantaged in the comparison from the start.
Whether Faye is correct or not on this point, her family history does illustrate the emergence of competition with men as an issue in the formation of femininity. Though there is no ‘feminist personality’, it seems likely that the femininities formed in the historical dynamic that created contemporary feminism share a position on this issue: rejection of withdrawal from competition as a formative personal strategy. It is also clear that other femininities which do accept this strategy are still produced. Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette’s autobiographical novel Puberty Blues nicely captures this polarity. The book ends with the two heroines, who like other girls have spent their time on the beach looking decorative and waiting for the board-riding boyfriends to come back out of the surf, buying a cheap surfboard and heading into the waves themselves. The other girls stay on the beach.