(This is a slightly edited excerpt from my dissertation; it’s part of a longer discussion of women’s voice and agency in a patriarchal culture.)
What our society has for so long considered “women’s work”—the daily activities of nurturance and caretaking—is utterly indispensable to human life. For many of us women, care and feeding of a family preclude any thought of realizing whatever other dreams, goals, and aspirations we may have had as girls and young women, at least until the children are grown. We are taught that this is the natural order of things; this is women’s function in the world. And until women gained some control over their own reproductive cycle, it was women’s fate and function.
For millennia, the patriarchal establishment has fostered this idea, and we women, by and large, buy into it. After all, it feels good to be needed, for all of us—men and women alike. But there is a darker side to being needed, which was brought home to me by the following dream. It takes place in the busy emergency room popularized by the long-running television series “E.R.” and features one of the central characters from that drama:
I’m with Dr. Luka Kovač. I’m crying, exhausted from caregiving. Luka says “You’re working too hard; let them take care of themselves.” I cry and lean against him, saying, “I can’t do that. I can’t stop while there’s one person in pain who needs help. Neither could you!” He looks at me and arches one eyebrow. I notice him pulling out a small case of a white powder and scratching it into the skin of his hand with a needle; it’s cocaine.
The dream suggests that the good feelings generated in us women by taking care of others function as a drug. “Helping others” becomes, in effect, a drug that dulls or transforms the pain we might otherwise feel as a result of what has been denied us by the patriarchal culture: our own autonomy and agency in the world. For many women, myself included, our addiction to this “drug” prevents us from caring for ourselves and our own psychic needs.
A second factor is that following the leadings of Soul is a daunting task, and one that requires a stout heart and strong motivation. Even for those of us who do have a sense of vocation that leads beyond the household, following one’s own path is terrifying. Many women, given the culturally sanctioned alternative to what would be a serious cultural and psychic struggle, turn readily to the “opiate” of helping others in order to dull our terror. And so the least call from the child, the spouse, the sick cat, the pile of laundry, and we cannot resist the lure of the drug to which we have become addicted. The call of the domestic wins out.
The more insidious side of this situation is the way in which the patriarchal culture has supplied us with the very drug that keeps women quiet, submissive, and frequently unaware of their own repression.
We are told from girlhood that men value the angel in the house, the “little woman,” the good little girl, and so we should aspire to fulfill these roles as we grow up. The ideal woman is described as, among other things, exquisitely sensitive to the needs of others, and her finest and truest nature and calling, it is said, is service to others. These are the idealized feminine images that girls to this day receive along with mother’s milk. The patriarchy extols the virtues of this ideal of Woman, idolizes her, puts her on a pedestal. And at the same time patriarchal culture devalues everything that has been so clearly defined as woman’s highest purpose. But our senses have become dulled to the pain of our own repression.
Women must overcome this addiction. Caregiving and nurturing activities are heartwarming, soul-nourishing, and utterly vital to human survival. But we women—and men—must become aware of the essential nature of what has been denigrated as “women’s work” and cease to buy into the patriarchal devaluation of these activities.
I am not suggesting that all who do these jobs are women; nor that all women do these jobs; nor yet that all that women do can be encompassed within these jobs. What I am saying is that the tasks typically described as “women’s work,” and those who perform them, have historically been devalued by our culture; and that many or most women have internalized this devaluation and incorporated it into a sense of self that is shrunken and damaged. In her essay “The descent of Inanna: Myth and therapy,” Sylvia Brinton Perera (1985) suggests that women often have an identity that is based upon “projections hooked onto us” and that we lack a sense of our own truest self:
In the West, women have too often been defined only in relation to the masculine as the good, nurturant mother and wife, the sweet, docile, agreeable daughter, the gently supportive or bright, achieving partner. As many feminist writers have stated through the ages, this collective model (and the behavior it leads to) is inadequate for life; we mutilate, depotentiate, silence, and enrage ourselves trying to compress our souls into it, just as surely as our grandmothers deformed their fully breathing bodies with corsets for the sake of an ideal. (p. 141)
Perera, S. B. (1985). The descent of Inanna: Myth and therapy. In E. Lauter & C. S. Rupprecht (Eds.), Feminist archetypal theory: Interdisciplinary re-visions of Jungian thought (pp. 137-186). Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.