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#228: Men and Women and the Power Differential

Much has been said in recent decades about the fluidity of gender and young people, in particular, are exploring the many ways in which gender may be expressed. I am not old-fashioned in pointing out, however, that there are some important biological differences which have historically affected the very different lives that men and women lead. An important premise of our book, A Womb of Her Own: Women’s Struggle for Sexual and Reproductive Autonomy. (Ellen L.K. Toronto et al; Routledge. In Press)   is that women’s roles as child-bearers and primary care givers has created a status differential and will continue to do so as long as females continue to fulfill these roles. For a variety of reasons, one of which being that childcare is not a high status pursuit in any society that I know of, women and their sphere of influence have been relegated to second place. Child-birth and childcare have been considered private activities (except, of course, when the government chooses to intervene in women’s reproductive health) and, as such, women have not been able to influence law and policy to a significant extent. We hope that is changing and we have written our book to that end.

In our introduction I write the following:

Before we can comfortably accept the socially constructed nature of gender we need to address as Lynne Layton (2004) states the area of discourse that arises ‘from the content of gender polarities created by gender inequality’ (p. 35). Layton goes on to say that

as long as power differentials continue to exist between masculinity and femininity, any theory that claims to transcend binaries or looks only at continuities between them keeps the power hierarchy intact. It is the power difference between women and men (of all races) . . . that makes the male/ female binary . . . politically and personally meaningful. Layton, L. (2004).  Who’s that girl? Who’s that boy? Clinical practice meets postmodern gender theory. London: The Analytic Press.


 It is a power differential that still exists and is not erased by the attention paid to the acknowledged fluidity of gender. It is this very ground that we wish to explore. McWilliams ( Psychoanalytic Reflections on a Gender-free Case. 2005, p. 114) confirms that ‘during our early development and . . . in the unconscious depths of our souls, we tend to be both categorical and binary’. However intricate our new theories may be, we still live in a binary world and in a binary world women are in second place.

It is curious that we have begun to explore the fluidity of gender and dismantle its polarities before women have been able to explicate fully those capabilities contingent upon their biological sex. Attributes of female experience have typically been seen through the eyes of the dominant male culture and thus not fully defined from a female perspective. Irigaray has observed (Layton, 2004, p. 48), for example, that in a phallic order women have been unable to symbolize their relation to their genitals. Although women’s breasts are often the subject of male fantasy, we have almost no representation of what it means to possess them. Would it be like the episode of Friends in which Joey covers himself with sand and fashions two female breasts for himself? It is clear that he enjoys having them but as objects of desire rather than as parts of his own body. Thus it is for a woman whose relationship to her own body remains invisible and unformulated.

I so hope women readers grew up in a time when their genital area was either unnamed or referred to as “down there.”

#228: Men and Women and the Power Differential

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.

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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2017). #228: Men and Women and the Power Differential. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 4 Jan 2017
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