Please Help Us Keep These Thousands of Blog Posts Growing and Free for All
The psychology of women has undergone many definitions. One recent definition that attempts to encompass earlier ones is this: “the study of behavior (not excluding male gender-role behavior) mediated by the variable of female sex … the psychology of women is also defined as that which includes all psychological issues pertaining to women and their experiences” (Denmark & Fernandez, 1993, p. 4). Why the formal study of woman and her experiences has emerged in the psychological discipline can be understood only from its historical roots.
Historical Context. Traditional beliefs about women significantly affected the lens by which scientists examined women’s growth and experience (if they chose to examine her experiences at all). Woman as intellectually and morally inferior was the prevailing theme surrounding the discussions. Western views of woman as inferior originate in Judeo-Christian traditions and teaching. Common interpretations of the early biblical story cast woman as evil and responsible for introducing sin into the world (quotes cited from Gundry, 1986, p. 21).
Augustine: “The woman herself alone is not the image of God: whereas the man alone is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman is joined with him.”
Aquinas: “As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex, while the production of women comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence, such as that of a south wind.”
Tertullian: “God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and his punishment weighs down upon you. You are the devil’s gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God. It was you who coaxed your way around him whom the devil had not the force to attack. With what ease you shattered that image of God: Man! Because of the death you merited, the Son of God had to die.”
These were authoritative words that have had profound impact on the views of women throughout history. Religion was the first source of knowledge for questions of human nature. Over time science has increasingly taken its place. And yet scientists approach their questions having already been shaped by their powerful cultural beliefs. Of important note as well is the fact that most of the scientists have come from the privileged class.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries two views of women influenced both scientific and popular thought.
Inferior Brains and Wombs. Early scientists searched primarily for the why of a behavior rather than question the assumptions behind the belief. This was certainly true for the research examining women’s intellectual inferiority. Brain size was the popular view for determining intelligence: the larger the brain, the greater the intelligence. The faulty conclusion, therefore, was that women were less intelligent because their brains were smaller. Another view posited (albeit erroneously) that there were limiting vital forces available that had to serve both cognitive and reproductive functions. Women who diverted these vital forces to intellectual pursuits were thus limiting their reproductive capabilities. Potential sterility or at best deformity were the risks women were told they were taking if they explored intellectual ideas. Hence, the brain-womb conflict resulted, a biological argument attempting to explain women’s intellectual inferiority.
Freud on Women. Sigmund Freud considered women a mystery. He even goes so far as to suggest that perhaps poets are the best source of information concerning femininity (Freud, 1961, p. 135). Freud follows his predecessors, however, in his best attempts at understanding this mystery by comparing the woman to the man. This comparison is most conspicuous when Freud attempts to explain the oedipus complex (that important psychic event that results in superego development) via the female’s experience. When the female child discovers she has no penis—in effect she has already been castrated—she develops penis envy, which has many psychic consequences. The task during this phallic stage is twofold: transfer her love object (mother) to other men (initially the father) and most importantly, develop a strong superego (moral conscience). Freud asserts that upon discovering the “wound to her narcissism, she develops, like a scar, a sense of inferiority.” Freud described a masculinity complex, which essentially is a contempt a woman begins to feel for her own sex, seeing it as inferior, and she insists on behaving as a man. Freud cautions that the woman must get over this masculinity complex for her to achieve “regular development towards femininity.”
Freud charged that character traits that had been written about women throughout the centuries, such as women show less sense of justice and are more often influenced by feelings of affection or hostility, could be explained from this phallic period. Little girls are described as less aggressive, defiant, and self-sufficient than are boys. The reasons these little girls are so dependent and compliant is their great need for being shown affection. This affiliative need results in a large amount of narcissism. In addition, Freud regards shame to be a feminine characteristic par excellence, serving the purpose of concealing her genital deficiency. To some degree Freud alludes to the possibility that some of these distinctions may be due to social breeding rather than merely to sexual function.
The long-term consequence for superego development differs for women as opposed to men. For the boy, castration anxiety serves as an important motivator to identify with the father; in essence to introject the father and the father’s values. The strength of the anxiety shapes the strength of the superego. The female child does not have that anxiety, since she perceives herself as already castrated. Hence the formation of her superego must suffer; it cannot attain the strength and independence needed for appropriate moral development. Freud knew the impact of his views when he wrote, “and feminists are not pleased when we point out to them the effects of this factor upon the average feminine character.”
Freud discusses the sex differences that emerge from both instinctual dispositions and especially from the resolution of the oedipus complex. He argued that what is ethically normal for women is different than that for men because women’s superegos are inexorably tied to their emotional center.
Freud’s psychology of women resulted in the view that femininity, described as appropriate female development, is behavior that is passive, dependent, nurturant, and desiring motherhood. Femininity also requires a male’s presence that will provide necessary strong moral guidance. These types of traits are readily apparent in the contemporary gender stereotypes: women are seen as concerned for the welfare of others (expressive or communal) and men as assertive and controlling (instrumental or agentic). Men are perceived to be stronger and more active, characterized by high needs for achievement and autonomy, and women are perceived as deferent, nurturant, and concerned with affiliation.
Early Women Psychologists. The presence of women psychologists in the history of the discipline has been rendered virtually invisible. It is the rare text that includes the contributions made by women in the formation of psychology as a scientific discipline. Both their writings and their personal experiences provide not only theoretical nuances but also the realities for women in psychology.
The entry of women into institutions of higher education was accomplished only with difficulty and by overcoming numerous obstacles. It is noteworthy that early women in psychology were attempting to work during the same time as women’s role was being defined along a feminine attribution scale. These notions of femininity and the attendant role prescriptions most often prevented admission of women into graduate schools or, minimally, the allowance of women to take graduate courses for credit. This kept women from achieving the coveted and necessary Ph.D.
Family responsibilities also presented obstacles for women in their pursuit of higher education. Women were most often expected to care for aging parents, and this responsibility is cited frequently in the historical accounts of women professionals. Not surprisingly, women found themselves caught in the conflict of choosing between marriage and career. They were advised that if they chose marriage they must use their heads rather than their hearts. In other words, they were cautioned to make decisions about marriage partners based on the ability of the two careers to mesh rather than from love.
In spite of the obstacles, early women psychologists wrote important texts, headed major departments, and held critical offices in organizations (Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987). Mary Whiton Calkins was the first woman to hold the office of president of the American Psychological Association in 1905 and the office of president of the American Philosophical Association in 1918; Milicent Shinn authored Biography of a Baby in 1893; Ethel Puffer Howes wrote The Psychology of Beauty in 1905, held academic positions at Radcliffe, Wellesley, and Simmons colleges, and became director of the Institute for the Coordination of Women’s Interest at Smith College in 1925; Margaret Floy Washburn was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in psychology from Cornell in 1894, was president of APA in 1921, was the second woman to be elected to the National Academy of Science in 1931, published more than 70 articles in the American Journal of Psychology, and wrote the text The Animal Mind in 1908; Christine Ladd-Franklin was widely known for her theory of color vision and was an international authority on the topic of vision; Kate Gordon Moore taught at Mount Holyoke, Teacher College, Columbia, Bryn Mawr, Carnegie Institute of Technology, and the University of California, eventually serving as chair at UC; Lillien Jane Martin served on the faculty at Stanford University, becoming the first woman to head a department in 1915; Naomi Norsworthy wrote the text The Psychology of Children in 1918.
This list of women includes only American psychologists. This does not, however, preclude the importance of early European women psychologists. Karen Horney and Anna Freud are among the better-known women who have contributed both theoretical and clinical knowledge to the field of psychology.
Current Themes in the Psychology of Women. Prior to the 1970s there was little mention of the psychology of women as an area of scientific investigation. Most psychological research included only animals or white male humans in the population sample. The irony of this lies in the importance the discipline places on generalizability. Research samples must be representative samples. Nevertheless, the idea of male as representative of the norm was so prevalent that principal investigators were unaware that 50% of the population had been excluded. Subsequent to the women’s movement, the scientific investigation of gender has received increased attention and research. The American Psychological Association organized a new division in 1973 entitled The Psychology of Women (Division 35), which spawned new research methodologies and questions. Two weighty issues have guided much of the current research: sex difference and the development of gender identity.
Current Approaches Examining Sex Difference. The search for sex difference crosses almost all areas of human behavior. Whether it is to examine brain lateralization, spatial/verbal abilities, or mathematical/intuitive strengths, researchers have compared men to women in hopes of finding or not finding sex difference that can be substantiated with biological underpinnings. This search for sex difference has too frequently been replete with methodological errors and perceptual biases. Additionally, many psychologists concerned with gender question the utility of data collected on sex difference. Hare-Mustin and Marecek (1988) suggest that two types of biases frequently occur when scientists attempt to explain sex difference empirically. They discuss the alpha bias and the beta bias as the attendant result, depending upon whether one highlights or denies difference.
The alpha bias is the exaggeration of differences between groups. Researchers who hold this position work from a framework of celebrating differences, focusing on women’s special qualities. This has the positive consequence of placing value on what has typically been undervalued in our society and labeled a feminine attribute (e.g., caring for others, relatedness). This has also fostered a sense of shared identity for women in addition to spawning new social ethics. The negative results have been to ignore within-group variability and particularly and perhaps most importantly deny dominant/subordinate explanations for group differences. For example, when one is in a subordinate position, one learns to place importance on relatedness, especially when it means being close to the one in power. Additionally, when one celebrates essentialism then one risks supporting the status quo. The argument becomes one of nature rather than human choice.
The beta bias is one of minimizing differences. The positive result from this position has been more equalized treatment between men and women, whether in the work force, academy, or courts. However, there are negative consequences as well. Perhaps the most critical is that this position assumes men and women are similarly situated; in other words, the playing field is level for both sexes. The realities are that there is a power and resource differential between women and men. Only women experience childbirth, and accommodating to this special need is essential and yet lost with beta bias. Another risk is that in denying difference and extolling similarity one may inadvertently reinforce the norm of the dominant group: women can and should become more like men.
Rhodes (1990) offers a third alternative that challenges centrality of gender difference and its organizing premises. Rather than merely comparing males and females as our primary way of analyzing data or even setting up our methodology, this view seeks to reformulate the hypotheses for testing to ones of social relations between and among women and to power distributions as they affect men and women.
Development of Gender Identity. How do we come to know what it means to be female? What forces shape our gender identity? Gender identity refers to a “fundamental, existential sense of one’s maleness or femaleness, an acceptance of one’s gender as a social-psychological construction that parallels acceptance of one’s biological sex … it is inarguable … that gender is one of the earliest and most central components of the self-concept and serves as an organizing principle through which many experiences and perceptions of self and other are filtered” (Deaux & Major, 1990, p. 93). Two leading theories in the field are the feminist psychoanalytic view and the developmental gender schema theory.
Psychoanalytic Views. Chodorow (Lorder, Coser, Rossi, & Chodorow, 1981) argues that the process of being gendered is slow and that gender stereotypes are implanted in children before they are old enough to choose. She identifies the pre-oedipal stage as a critical time for gendering to occur. Due to the fact that mothers perform most of the caregiving functions, boys and girls have intense early relationships with their mothers. When the boy reaches the oedipal stage he realizes how other his mother is from himself. With identification with his father he introjects both the values and the prestige accorded to the male sex in Western society. Along with this awareness comes contempt for women as the boy learns to identify himself as separate. The mother-daughter relationship remains intense for a longer period of time because the daughter does not so readily recognize the otherness of her mother. The oedipal stage weakens the close bonds (symbiosis) but never truly severs the connection. Daughters generally stay in connection with their mothers and other women; identity formation does not require interruption. Therefore, due to the abrupt separation, boys are more prepared for the public arena, in which autonomy and independence is required. Girls are more prepared for the private arena, in which nurturance and closeness is required. Chodorow suggests that dual parenting would prepare boys and girls for competence in both arenas, public and private.
Gender Schema Theory. Developmental research shows that from birth, sex-typed behavior is imposed upon infants. Men and women view and describe female infants differently from male infants. Daughters are rated as smaller, with more fine features, softer, and less alert than sons. Sons are perceived as stronger and hardier than daughters, despite the fact that these infants do not differ by any physical attributes. Parents, particularly fathers, frequently attribute stereotypical characteristics to their infants solely as a function of infant gender. To illustrate this further, a study examining whether adults play differently with infants based on their gender found that adults offer dolls to a child they perceive to be a girl and male sex-typed toys (e.g., hammers) to a child they perceive to be a boy. The same child was used in both conditions; the researchers simply dressed the child as male or female, depending upon the condition. These studies assert that adult response is independent of differences in the child’s behavior. The response was governed solely by perceived sex of the child.
When children are approximately two to three years of age they understand that they are a boy or girl and begin to organize information from the environment within their new gender schema. Around the age of four or five, the child experiences gender constancy, the realization that gender is a permanent characteristic. As the child organizes the information from the multiple sources in the environment, he or she translates the information into rules with which to conform. The child internalizes the gender lens embedded in the society, evaluates the different ways of behaving that the culture defines as appropriate, and rejects any behaviors that do not match his or her sex. Children learn very early that what parents, teachers, peers, and the church consider to be appropriate behavior varies as a function of sex; that toys, clothing, occupations, hobbies, domestic chores, even pronouns, vary as a function of sex. As children learn the contents of society’s gender schema, they learn the selective attributes linked to their own sex. Children learn to apply the attributes selectively to the self, which in turn organizes their self-concept. In effect children learn to evaluate their adequacy as a person in terms of the gender schema. Cultural standards become internalized, prompting behavior to conform to the culture’s definition of maleness and femaleness. Cultural myths become self-fulfilling prophecy.
Future Directions. The goal of the psychology of women should be to weave a redemptive vision for men and women in God’s community. The psychology of women has challenged many of our prevailing notions of power and relationships. It has challenged our widely held beliefs concerning reason over emotion, the bifurcation of the mind and the body, the sacredness of autonomy over community and relationships. We are challenged to listen for the silent voices, to attempt to understand the devaluation that has diminished their voices. It has challenged us to listen to the angry voices, to the pain and hurt inflicted because of the differential power base. We are made aware how traditional male traits have served as the human norm.
Christians acknowledge that although we are made in God’s image, we are fallen and desperately in need of Christ’s redemptive vision for gender reconciliation (see Van Leeuwen, Knoppers, Koch, Schuurman, & Sterk, 1990). Thoughtful research in the psychology of women can further the journey toward this reconciliation.
- Deaux, K., & Major, B. (1990). A social-psychological model of gender. In D. L. Rhodes (Ed.), Theoretical perspectives on sexual difference. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Denmark, F. L., & Fernandez, L. C. (1993). Historical development of psychology of women. In F. L. Denmark & M. A. Paludi (Eds.), Psychology of women. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
- Freud, S. (1961). The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 22). London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1923)
- Gundry, P. (1986). Why we’re here. In A. Mickelsen (Ed.), Women, authority and the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- Hare-Mustin, R. T., & Marecek, J. (1988). The meaning of difference: Gender theory, postmodernism, and psychology. American Psychologist, 43 (6), 455–464.
- Lorder, J., Coser, R., Rossi, A., and Chodorow, N. (1981). On The reproduction of mothering: A methodological debate. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 6 (3), 482–514.
- Scarborough, E., & Furumoto, L. (1987). Untold lives: The first generation of American women psychologists. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Rhodes, D. L. (1990). Theoretical perspectives on sexual difference. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Van Leeuwen, M., Knoppers, A., Koch, M., Schuurman, D., & Sterk, H. (1990). After Eden: Facing the challenge of gender reconciliation. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
C. J. Neal
Please Help Us Keep These Thousands of Blog Posts Growing and Free for All