FEMININITY AND FEMINISM
In the opening pages of ‘Femininity’, the fifth of his New Introductory Lectures (1933), Sigmund Freud poses the ‘riddle of the nature of femininity’ as an unresolved question that ‘people have knocked their heads against’ throughout human history. Commiserating with one sex and winding up the other, Freud goes on, tongue-in-cheek, to separate and gender the subjects and objects of the interrogation: ‘men’ it seems have not ‘escaped worrying over this problem’ but ‘to those of you who are women this will not apply — you yourselves are the problem’ (Freud 1973: 146). Yet as Freud knew very well, women had been ‘worrying’ over the problem of ‘femininity’ at least as long as men. For although femininity may be defined as a set of attributes ascribed to biologically sexed females, what exactly those attributes are, and the extent to which any given version of femininity is natural or cultural, have been debated long and hard by women themselves. When, for example, Charlotte Бготё^ heroine, Jane Eyre, speaks passionately to the reader of the gendered division of emotions: ‘Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel’, she is challenging the commonsense understanding of femininity in the 1840s,
and, by implication, its scientific as well as its social basis (Бготё 1987: 96). In life as well as in fiction, one can both ‘live’ a gendered identity in all its complexity, and hold its received definition at arm’s length. In fact, the analysis of femininity by women has a long pedigree in its own right. Later in the chapter we will turn to some key moments when femininity was under particular pressure and scrutiny, exploring them through both women’s fiction and feminist theory and criticism.
Before we come to that history we may need to remind ourselves of how easily femininity in its everyday use naturalizes and genders so many other terms. In ‘Femininity’ Freud asked his readers to reconsider their automatic association of passivity with women, and activity with men. He points out that it is ‘inadequate. . . to make masculine behaviour coincide with activity and feminine with passivity. . . Women can display great activity in various directions, men are not able to live in company with their own kind unless they develop a large amount of passive adaptability.’ ‘Even if,’ he argues, one were to say that psychologically femininity gave preference to ‘passive aims’, ‘a passive aim may call for a large amount of activity.’ He warns his readers that to give activity and passivity crude gender alignments serves ‘no useful purpose and adds nothing to our knowledge’ (Freud 1973:148—9). The opening theoretical move in ‘Femininity’ is to suggest not only that the conventional binaries that designate gender are convenient but mistaken social fictions, but that all humans are potentially bisexual — that their choice of sexual object is the result of an often impeded and difficult psychic trajectory. Whether the emphasis is on gender or on sexuality, Freudian theory makes femininity an outcome not an origin. We might add that to be a ‘woman’, biologically, psychologically and socially, is not necessarily to be thought ‘feminine’ in whatever local and customary sense that may be understood. A promiscuous qualifier, ‘feminine’ can and does attach itself to almost anything: cats, cars, colours, handwriting, home furnishings — and men. Yet as an aspiration or an accolade, a despised or wished for descriptor, ‘feminine’ always evokes ‘woman’.
It is not uncommon, of course, to hear women described as ‘unfeminine’; supposed coldness, aggression, ambition, neglect of children or high intelligence can quickly bring this accusation upon them. But even so-called unfeminine women are inscribed, we might argue, with a femininity, if not always the one most valued by a particular culture. Femininity, the noun, is never quite the sum of its adjectival parts, which are in any case likely to be in conflict. The saucy flirtatiousness of a pleasure-loving young woman and the selflessness of the devoted mother — to take two common stereotypes — may both be considered ‘feminine’ qualities, but they have historically been seen to belong to very distinct stages of a woman’s life trajectory. Mothers and prostitutes, little girls and old crones, women of different classes and ethnic identities and sexual orientations — all these supposedly discrete ‘types’ of the female — may be thought to ‘have’ femininity, but both within one lifetime and between social and cultural differences the cluster of attributes thought to make up their gendered identity may vary widely. And while we may first of all see masculinity and femininity as defined through their complementarity and opposition, it is equally important to see them as internally divided and moralized: versions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ femininity — blondes and brunettes; mothers and prostitutes; white women and black women; straight and lesbian; middle – class and poor — have also been set up as binary terms. While femininity is always associated with femaleness it has been a common racialist strategy to ascribe feminine traits or femininity to non-white or other supposedly inferior ethnic groups as a whole. The men in those groups in particular — the Irish, Jews, Asians, Native Americans and Africans have all been so depicted — although what marks these men as feminine varies from supposed excesses of feeling to passivity to a degree of nurturance thought inappropriate in Anglo-Saxon masculinity. Homosexual cultures have their own rhetorics of ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ traits and behaviours, and value them differently than the homophobic and heterosexist societies that observe them. In the twenty-first century femininity persists as a contradictory constellation of meaning that can refer at once to normative, flawed and even ‘perverse’ categories of the human. That is why it is perhaps more useful to think of femininity in the plural — femininities — and to see femininity both as an umbrella term for all the different ways in which women are defined by others and by themselves, and as a semi-detached property of the self, not identical with the biologically sexed body. Indeed in its most removed but perhaps most ubiquitous sense femininity is a trope — ‘luck be a lady tonight’ — the figurative bearer of meanings that may only have a contingent and metaphorical relationship to ‘woman’.
All these uses of femininity are interconnected, and their interface is most often their contradictory evocation of femininity as at once sexual, transgressive, even threatening, and as inferior, weak and dependent. Does ‘lady luck’, we might ask, reward the gambler by her propriety or her compliance? When, for example, Virginia Woolf opens a 1927 essay on ‘The Art of Fiction’ with the conceit ‘that fiction is a lady and a lady who has somehow got herself into trouble’ she makes just such an oblique metaphorical use of femininity, playing knowingly with the kinds of ‘trouble’ that women, and even ‘ladies’, might get into or up to, and so conjuring up the cultural misogyny that such a situation might invoke, while mocking, at the same time, the archaic chivalry of male critics: ‘gentlemen’ who ‘have ridden to her rescue’ (Woolf 1992: 121). Woolf’s essay was written in the decade that British women were given the vote, a decade in which their new access to civic freedom was constantly attacked in the media for encouraging women’s independent, and therefore promiscuous, exercise of their sexuality. Questions of gender and sexuality are especially difficult to prise apart when femininity is under discussion. Elaborating her metaphor, Woolf explores the plight of fiction through other, less risque, stereotypes of the feminine. Fiction, she argues, has been unfairly and condescendingly seen as the ‘humble’ domestic drudge or dependent wife of the arts, unaesthetic, ‘feeble’ and a ‘parasite’ (Woolf 1992: 124). The trope of femininity gives Woolf a flexible weapon with which to attack the lapses and prick the pretensions of literary criticism, but it is a weapon that can easily turn on its wielder. The figurative strategy of ‘The Art of Fiction’ depends on the prevalence of the cultural misogyny which it both invokes and derides, deflecting in passing the chauvinism that might greet the woman critic and writer herself.
Woolf was, on the whole, an optimist when it came to the future of gender politics, but reading her literary and feminist essays now reminds us how tenacious have been the attitudes that she described. The more that formal legal and civic discrimination against women in the public sphere have been eroded in the West, the more clearly we can see the shadow that persistent cultural misogyny still casts over women, a shadow that often seems longer and darker precisely in relation to the advances and rising expectations that legislative equality has achieved. These negative associations of inferiority and worse, which so stubbornly cling to the subjective and objective representations of woman, have been one of feminism’s strongest raisons d’etre, but they have also provoked its most strenuous theoretical disagreements. Feminism continues to argue about what is natural or biologically given and what is culturally constructed; it remains divided, although perhaps less absolutely so than in the past, about how to analyse the psychic and the social components of female subjectivity. (Indeed, as with sex and gender, the divide between the social and the psychic is never hard and fast.) One recurring strand of feminist analysis of femininity has highlighted the supposed female virtues of social sympathy and nurturance, seeing in femininity an enlarged capacity for supportive human relations with caring motherhood at its centre. Lynne Segal, writing in 1987, worried that the increasing fragmentation of the women’s movement and its social and political agendas had given the conservative idea that female difference should be understood as both natural and desirable a heightened attraction that ironically threatened to become the new ‘“common sense” of popular feminism’ (Segal 1987: 2). Nevertheless a strong majority among feminist theorists have been sceptical about linking femininity to those feelings and practices that have long been associated with innate gender difference and which have historically determined women’s subordination, preferring to see most aspects of gender as potentially mutable and ripe for reinvention. And even the bleaker interpretations of femininity past and present, those which emphasize oppression rather than resistance, have also provoked feminism’s innovative, utopian imagining of the future of gender. When women have considered the ‘problem’ of their gender, they have drawn on both analytic pessimism and creative optimism. Over the past two centuries women have, in their writing, visual art and music, developed a rich cultural account of femininity and affect, an archive from which one might derive a critical history of gendered feeling. It is unlikely, however, that all feminists would be in agreement about either its theoretical underpinning, or its highs and lows.
A poignant vignette that shows the contrasting moods in which such a history might be written opens Ann Snitow’s now classic 1989 essay ‘A Gender Diary’ which reflects on one of modern feminism’s central paradoxes: the ‘need to build the identity “woman” and give it solid political meaning and the need to tear down the very category “woman” and dismantle its all-too-solid history’ (Snitow 1990: 9):
In the early days of this wave of the women’s movement, I sat in a weekly consciousness raising group with my friend A. We compared notes recently: What did you think was happening? How did you think our lives were going to change? A. said she had felt, ‘Now I can be a woman; it’s no longer so humiliating. I can stop fantasizing that secretly I am a man, as I used to, before I had children. Now I can value what was once my shame.’ Her answer amazed me. Sitting in the same meetings during those years, my thoughts were roughly the reverse: ‘Now I don’t have to be a woman anymore. I need never become a mother. Being a woman has always been humiliating, but I used to assume there was no exit. Now the very idea "woman” is up for grabs. "Woman” is my slave name; feminism will give me freedom to seek some other identity altogether.’
(Snitow 1990: 9)
What the postwar women’s movement had done, Snitow suggests, was to take what had seemed natural, imposed and inevitable, freeing up gender identity, redefining it as unstable and mutable, making it open to forms of choice, which she describes as ‘subtle psychological and social negotiations about just how gendered we choose to be’ (Snitow 1990: 9). ‘Negotiation’ is, she implies, the diplomatic and liberating sequel to a more violent and less voluntary experience of femininity. Snitow’s exemplary conversation with her friend hints at a future for gender where choice not prescription would rule. But it also highlights something more recondite and more particular to women: the ‘shame’ and ‘humiliation’ through which many western middle-class women in the latter half of the twentieth century had come to experience their lived and imagined gender. Shame and humiliation are powerfully negative emotions to describe the subjectivity ofwomen who were, after all, enfranchised, educated and ever increasingly entering the professions, even if they still remained in a very disadvantaged position in comparison with white middle-class men. Some feminist writers have appropriated the term abjection to theorize these negative feelings, pinpointing the interaction between the ways in which societies and women themselves too often conceive of femininity. Abjection’s ordinary meaning denotes being thought inferior, either by oneself or by others, something unworthy and vile, or less than human, something to be cast out; for feminist psychoanalysts, like Julia Kristeva, abjection marks out a landscape of feeling by and about women that places them before, below and beyond culture — almost outside what can be represented within it. The evocation of abject feelings by women themselves hints at something stubbornly intractable in the negative inflection of femininity, something not easily shifted by the removal of legal, political and economic impediments to equality. Yet even this residual negativity serves as a galvanizing force, a motive for further exploration and analysis of just what makes female gender such a difficult identity. If the desires of Snitow and her friend to embrace or disavow their gender mirror opposite choices, once choice became an option, what drew them together, what perhaps drew them into feminism, was their common acknowledgement of the degraded value of femininity both ‘out there’ in the dominant culture and in their own psychic life.
The mix of abjection and euphoria that is the psychic condition of modern femininity, and which fuels contemporary feminism, can be thought of as a creative paradox rather than as pure contradiction or simple complement, for the tension between these opposed psychic states has been productive rather than otherwise. Feminist historian and theorist Joan Scott has argued that paradox is constitutive of feminism itself from the eighteenth century onwards. She borrows the self-definition of Olympe de Gouges, author of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen (1791), as ‘a woman who has only paradoxes to offer and not problems easy to resolve’ to describe feminism itself, both then and now (Scott 1996: 4). As Scott reminds us, ‘paradox’ implies not only a term that may be both true and false at the same time, or a statement that is resistant to dominant ideas, but also a linguistic balancing act that is generative of poetic meaning (Scott 1996: 4). Paradox is therefore an immensely suggestive way of posing the ‘riddle’ or the ‘problem’ of femininity, perhaps especially as it confronts the lopsided relationship between female subjectivity and the universal concept of the human. Denise Riley has suggested that we think of femininity as a part, not the whole of female subjectivity, whether collective or individual. ‘There are differing temporalities of “women”, and these substitute the possibility of being “at times a woman” for eternal difference on the one hand, or undifferentiation on the other’ (Riley 1988: 6). For:
any attention to the life of a woman, if traced out carefully, must admit the degree to which the effects of lived gender are at least sometimes unpredictable, and fleeting. . . Can anyone fully inhabit a gender without a degree of horror? How could someone ‘Be a woman’ through and through, make a final home in that classification without suffering claustrophobia? To lead a life soaked in the passionate consciousness of one’s gender at every single moment, to will to be a sex with a vengeance – these are impossibilities, and far from the aims of feminism.
(Riley 1988: 6)
The recognition that one need not be a woman all of the time in all aspects of one’s life at best throws open a world of transformative possibility and creative potential and at the very least poses femininity as a part-time occupation for full-time humans. Yet this very realization can be a catalyst and prelude for women — like Snitow’s friend — to confess to powerfully negative emotions about being female, characterized by that combination of despair and degradation that comprises abjection, or the horror and claustrophobia that Riley says accompany the feeling that one is trapped into always being a woman. Such feelings erupt as women simultaneously try to live up to perceived social models of femininity and attempt to deny, resist or cast them off. Writing from a more psychoanalytic perspective than Snitow, Scott or Riley, but in other ways not at odds with their emphasis on the mutability and instability of gender, Jacqueline Rose asks us to think about ‘femininity’ as part of the necessary ‘division and precariousness of human subjectivity itself’ (Rose 1986: 52). Rose presents this as a question about identity rather than an answer to it, one that expresses a desire that cannot, and perhaps should not, be met. She interprets Freud’s exploration of femininity’s riddle as a double question, the second more searching than the first: ‘how does the little girl become a woman, or does she?’ (ibid.: 45).
How to analyse — and perhaps to smooth — the imperilled psychic path from infancy to female adulthood has been a vexed issue for feminism ever since Mary Wollstonecraft, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) turned her readers’ attention to the way in which ‘females. . . are made women of when they are mere children’ (Wollstonecraft 1988: 117). Wollstonecraft argues that women are made, not born:
Every thing that they see or hear serves to fix impressions, call forth emotions, and associate ideas, that give a sexual character to the mind.
(Wollstonecraft 1988: 117)
In her writing we find a detailed and extended account of the social construction of gender, as she resists Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s claim that femininity is an instinctive set of sexed traits. But Wollstonecraft also, as Barbara Taylor has argued, saw the psyche as creative precisely in its capacity to fantasize, to wish for and invent different scenarios for gender, while believing, at the same time that women were especially vulnerable to the seductive erotics of romantic narrative, and prey to dangerous and self-destructive imaginings (Taylor 2003).
From the late-eighteenth century forwards fantasy, conscious and unconscious, occupies a contested and contradictory position in feminist thought — the sign, on the one hand, of the sway of the irrational, and on the other, in the more respectable guise of ‘imagination’, of the vitality of creativity and radical thinking. Femininity has historically been seen in terms of the difference between men and women’s affective, emotional life, and this supposed division of affect becomes surrounded by new medical evidence as the scientific model of anatomical sexual difference moved from what historian Thomas Laqueur has called the ‘onesex/flesh model’ of the period prior to the Enlightenment to the ‘two sex/flesh model’ which comes to dominate nineteenth – century science and medicine (Laqueur 1990: 8). The historical interdependency of theories of mind and body makes it especially hard to distinguish where sexuality might end and gender begin.
As some aspects of the biological bases of gender inequality came under increasing critique in the twentieth century, feminists have given renewed attention to the way in which women’s mental and emotional life has been theorized. In the past twenty-five years a debate among feminist theorists both about the origins of femininity and, more generally, about the meaning of mental life, has focused on whether that distinctively modern ‘science’ of psychoanalysis has helped or hindered an understanding of sex and gender. From the late 1960s, the first years of the ‘second wave’ of the women’s movement, American feminists such as Kate Millett led the assault on Freud’s view of femininity. Millett’s witty attack in Sexual Politics (1970) makes Freudian psychoanalysis the whipping boy for the general misogyny of the dominant culture. Other feminist writers, following Millett, held Freud responsible for the normalizing and conservative use to which his theories had been put by both therapists and cultural analysts. The analyst’s abuse of power in the patient-analyst relation, when men were the analysts and women the analysands, has been seen to exemplify patriarchal relations. Worst of all, psychoanalysis was portrayed as a theory that drew universal assumptions from the evidence of very local and historically specific cultures, ‘fixing’ gender by suggesting that psychic structures were somehow outside of or immune to cultural influence and thus denying the possibility of historical change.
Countering this wide-ranging critique, which nevertheless tended to exaggerate both the role and influence of psychoanalysis, and to misinterpret its object of study, mental life, as a totalizing theory of subjectivity, other feminist theorists have defended both the historical intervention of psychoanalysis and the usefulness of its paradigms in understanding femininity. An early and groundbreaking study, Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974) argued that Freud’s view of women was more suggestive and less reductive than that of other psychoanalysts of his time. Mitchell contends that those analysts, Karen Horney and Ernest Jones among them, who set out nobly to amend Freud’s ‘unfriendly’ view of women, found themselves positing female difference ever more distinctly as a separate and unequal identity, grounding it in gendered concepts of instincts and desire. Jacqueline Rose, in an important essay, ‘Femininity and its Discontents’ (1986 ) points out that Freudian theory consistently queried those dominant interpretations of women’s mental life that had become increasingly medicalized and pathologized by the late nineteenth century. While feminists in the 1970s focused their debate on psychoanalysis around its concepts of sexual difference, Rose argues that they neglected the most important contribution of psychoanalysis to feminism — its theories of the unconscious. Through the unconscious and its symptoms — dreams, slips of the tongue, jokes — psychoanalysis has emphasized the incoherence, difficulty and discontinuity in all human identity. In his work on femininity between 1924 and 1931 argues Rose, Freud moved from focusing on the little girl’s meditation on her difference from little boys and its possible violent sources, ‘(“injury”, as the fact of being feminine), to an account which quite explicitly describes the process of becoming “feminine” as an “injury” or “catastrophe” for the complexity of her earlier psychic and sexual life (“injury” as its price)’ (Rose 1986: 91). The work of Jacques Lacan, Rose continues, extended and deepened Freud’s emphasis on a human psyche ‘always and persistently divided against itself’ (92).
Psychoanalysis, like feminism, has, from its origins, put the issue of normative ideas about gender high on the list of its internal disagreements. We would highlight here its productive insights for feminism, not least its recognition that femininity and masculinity are identities which must always, in some sense, fail. Feminists, such as Rose, who hold this position do not imagine that there should or can be a psychically smooth and unproblematic path to ‘stable’ gendered identity, for it is precisely the belief in such a path that naturalizes gender and sexuality, and offers it up to regulation. They are suggesting instead that the radical potential of feminism is in its emphasis on the unstable, contradictory and paradoxical nature of all social and psychic identities. Even within this general position, writers remain divided about which psychoanalytic thinker — Freud and Lacan are the two most often cited — offers the most persuasive critique of fixed or stable identity.
The feminist debate on psychoanalysis has been important, not least because the disagreements within feminism about the character and future of femininity are part of those epistemological and political questions about truth and agency that have become the subject of a much larger set of social and political debates which ask whether there can be an objective, universal ground for knowledge when so many categories of people are excluded from its making. Is a fixed and positive sense of self always the precondition for being a successful actor in the world, or is agency, the ability to take actions on behalf of oneself or one’s group, a more complex concept? As Rose pointed out in her essay on femininity, psychoanalysis paradoxically stands accused of being both a normative, regulatory discourse and one that disables feminist agency through its insistence on the instability of identity. Theories of gender and sexuality are valued or attacked for their ability to encourage or undermine forms of social and political action, as if such action flowed in a simple and unidirectional way from how we understand the grounds of difference. To caution against such vulgar causal arguments is not to suggest that theories are free from politics, but only that the politics of their construction and their deployment are never singular, but always part of a complex constellation of ideas and practices that are specific to different times, places and societies. Within western feminism in the past quarter century quite opposed theoretical positions on femininity have come together in alliances around particular campaigns of action about reproductive rights, nuclear power and pornography. Conversely, in a particular conjuncture a theory of difference may offer liberation and inspire rebellion for one group, while implying that others should by the same token remain subordinate. In the following three sections we will show how this occurs by exploring two historically specific moments in the history of femininity.