What if women and men really are in a war? What if men feel the need to dominate women—not for historical reasons but as a quest for power? What if woman represent the “Other”–the outgroup that must be controlled? That is the opinion of Juliet Mitchell whom I have quoted below. I don’t know if I agree but it is a possibility.
Of necessity we will face the possibility that the radical view described by Juliet Mitchell as “primary oppression” is accurate. In Women’s Estate (1973) she declares that the most extreme perspective is not that women’s oppression arises within an economically exploitive society but rather that is an oppression that is separate from any historical context. It is out of a need for power that men must dominate women. This perspective assumes that we are in a war, unnamed but pervasive, in which men as a group feel compelled to dominate the other half of humanity and have attempted to do so since the beginning of time. The sexualization of women in the media, the statistics on the universality of rape, the existence of human trafficking throughout the world, the status of women in many parts of the world and the evidence in the United States for a “war on women” are all factors which support that view.
We will, in addition, need to untangle our belief from earliest history that women are a subcategory of men—Adam’s rib. Simone De Bouvoir writes about the category of “other” being as primal as consciousness itself. Men and women are seen as a totality, united by a biological bond. If the couple is a fundamental unity with the two halves riveted together,the cleavage of society along the lines of sex becomes impossible. “Every individual concerned to justify his existence involves an undefined need to transcend himself, which he does in part through domination of the ‘other’.” (The Second Sex, p. 58) Males nurtured and raised by females have related to women, beginning with their mothers, as self-objects. The female body, perceived as available from infancy through adulthood to satisfy men’s needs, has been viewed not as belonging to a separate person but as an appendage that men may control at will.
Silverman elaborates upon the idea that men respond to women as an extension of the self and that their view of women is idiopathic. Woman is viewed as an object or possession, lacking separate human qualities that would necessitate empathy or recognition of important differences. The idiopathic approach may be familiar to us as a kind of cultural narcissism in which only those traits that mirror and reinforce the self-image of the subject are acknowledged. From this perspective women’s experience has not registered in a cohesive world view as proscribed by law, religion, or morality. Men as dominant have been shaped by countless cultural prescriptions to acknowledge women only as they support and strengthen their dominance.
I don’t know about you but I don’t like being Adam’s rib—merely an extension of another person: Johnny’s mother; George’s wife; or the lady that ate the apple and brought sin into the world!
The heteropathic perspective, (Silverman) a perspective that acknowledges the separateness of the other, does not presuppose an imaginary unity and is able to assimilate important differences. But it has been difficult to embrace in the relationship between men and women. It is as if men at the cultural level possess disorders of the self so that the essential self is either chronically depleted of self-esteem or unrealistically heightened in self-acceptance. Dependence on women as love objects prevents fragmentation. If women were to act independently as agents of their sexuality and reproductive capabilities, the illusion of merger would be dismantled.
Ellen Toronto, PhD is a clinical psychologist in Ann Arbor, MI. She co-authored A Womb of Her Own: Women’s Struggle for Sexual and Reproductive Autonomy available on Amazon. See additional information about Ellen and her practice on her website; to schedule an appointment email email@example.com or call her at 734.761.5501.