IN THE SECOND ACT of The Cherry Orchard, Lopahin, a young merchant, describes his life of hard work and success. Failing to convince Madame Ranevskaya to cut down the cherry orchard to save her estate, he will go on in the next act to buy it himself. He is the self-made man who, in purchasing the estate where his father and grandfather were slaves, seeks to eradicate the “awkward, unhappy life” of the past, replacing the cherry orchard with summer cottages where coming generations “will see a new life.” In elaborating this developmental vision, he reveals the image of man that underlies and supports his activity: “At times when I can’t go to sleep, I think: Lord, thou gavest us immense forests, unbounded fields and the widest horizons, and living in the midst of them we should indeed be giants”—at which point, Madame Ranevskaya interrupts him, saying, “You feel the need for giants—They are good only in fairy tales, anywhere else they only frighten us.”
Conceptions of the human life cycle represent attempts to order and make coherent the unfolding experiences and perceptions, the changing wishes and realities of everyday life. But the nature of such conceptions depends in part on the position of the observer. The brief excerpt from Chekhov’s play suggests that when the observer is a woman, the perspective may be of a different sort. Different judgments of the image of man as giant imply different ideas about human development, different ways of imagining the human condition, different notions of what is of value in life.
At a time when efforts are being made to eradicate discrimination between the sexes in the search for social equality and justice, the differences between the sexes are being rediscovered in the social sciences. This discovery occurs when theories formerly considered to be sexually neutral in their scientific objectivity are found instead to reflect a consistent observational and evaluative bias. Then the presumed neutrality of science, like that of language itself, gives way to the recognition that the categories of knowledge are human constructions. The fascination with point of view that has informed the fiction of the twentieth century and the corresponding recognition of the relativity of judgment infuse our scientific understanding as well when we begin to notice how accustomed we have become to seeing life through men’s eyes.
A recent discovery of this sort pertains to the apparently innocent classic The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White. A Supreme Court ruling on the subject of sex discrimination led one teacher of English to notice that the elementary rules of English usage were being taught through examples which counterposed the birth of Napoleon, the writings of Coleridge, and statements such as “He was an interesting talker. A man who had traveled all over the world and lived in half a dozen countries,” with “Well, Susan, this is a fine mess you are in” or, less drastically, “He saw a woman, accompanied by two children, walking slowly down the road.”
Psychological theorists have fallen as innocently as Strunk and White into the same observational bias. Implicitly adopting the male life as the norm, they have tried to fashion women out of a masculine cloth. It all goes back, of course, to Adam and Eve—a story which shows, among other things, that if you make a woman out of a man, you are bound to get into trouble. In the life cycle, as in the Garden of Eden, the woman has been the deviant.
The penchant of developmental theorists to project a masculine image, and one that appears frightening to women, goes back at least to Freud (1905), who built his theory of psychosexual development around the experiences of the male child that culminate in the Oedipus complex. In the 1920s, Freud struggled to resolve the contradictions posed for his theory by the differences in female anatomy and the different configuration of the young girl’s early family relationships. After trying to fit women into his masculine conception, seeing them as envying that which they missed, he came instead to acknowledge, in the strength and persistence of
women’s pre-Oedipal attachments to their mothers, a developmental difference. He considered this difference in women’s development to be responsible for what he saw as women’s developmental failure.
Having tied the formation of the superego or conscience to castration anxiety, Freud considered women to be deprived by nature of the impetus for a clear-cut Oedipal resolution. Consequently, women’s superego—the heir to the Oedipus complex—was compromised: it was never “so inexorable, so impersonal, so independent of its emotional origins as we require it to be in men.” From this observation of difference, that “for women the level of what is ethically normal is different from what it is in men,” Freud concluded that women “show less sense of justice than men, that they are less ready to submit to the great exigencies of life, that they are more often influenced in their judgements by feelings of affection or hostility” (1925, pp. 257–258).
Thus a problem in theory became cast as a problem in women’s development, and the problem in women’s development was located in their experience of relationships. Nancy Chodorow (1974), attempting to account for “the reproduction within each generation of certain general and nearly universal differences that characterize masculine and feminine personality and roles,” attributes these differences between the sexes not to anatomy but rather to “the fact that women, universally, are largely responsible for early child care.” Because this early social environment differs for and is experienced differently by male and female children, basic sex differences recur in personality development. As a result, “in any given society, feminine personality comes to define itself in relation and connection to other people more than masculine personality does” (pp. 43–44).
In her analysis, Chodorow relies primarily on Robert Stoller’s studies which indicate that gender identity, the unchanging core of personality formation, is “with rare exception firmly and irreversibly established for both sexes by the time a child is around three.” Given that for both sexes the primary caretaker in the first three years of life is typically female, the interpersonal dynamics of gender identity formation are different for boys and girls. Female identity formation takes place in a context of ongoing relationship since “mothers tend to experience their daughters as more like, and continuous with, themselves.” Correspondingly, girls, in identifying
themselves as female, experience themselves as like their mothers, thus fusing the experience of attachment with the process of identity formation. In contrast, “mothers experience their sons as a male opposite,” and boys, in defining themselves as masculine, separate their mothers from themselves, thus curtailing “their primary love and sense of empathic tie.” Consequently, male development entails a “more emphatic individuation and a more defensive firming of experienced ego boundaries.” For boys, but not girls, “issues of differentiation have become intertwined with sexual issues” (1978, pp. 150, 166–167).
Writing against the masculine bias of psychoanalytic theory, Chodorow argues that the existence of sex differences in the early experiences of individuation and relationship “does not mean that women have ‘weaker’ ego boundaries than men or are more prone to psychosis.” It means instead that “girls emerge from this period with a basis for ‘empathy’ built into their primary definition of self in a way that boys do not.” Chodorow thus replaces Freud’s negative and derivative description of female psychology with a positive and direct account of her own: “Girls emerge with a stronger basis for experiencing another’s needs or feelings as one’s own (or of thinking that one is so experiencing another’s needs and feelings). Furthermore, girls do not define themselves in terms of the denial of preoedipal relational modes to the same extent as do boys. Therefore, regression to these modes tends not to feel as much a basic threat to their ego. From very early, then, because they are parented by a person of the same gender … girls come to experience themselves as less differentiated than boys, as more continuous with and related to the external object-world, and as differently oriented to their inner object-world as well” (p. 167).
Consequently, relationships, and particularly issues of dependency, are experienced differently by women and men. For boys and men, separation and individuation are critically tied to gender identity since separation from the mother is essential for the development of masculinity. For girls and women, issues of femininity or feminine identity do not depend on the achievement of separation from the mother or on the progress of individuation. Since masculinity is defined through separation while femininity is defined through attachment, male gender identity is threatened by intimacy while female gender identity is threatened by separation. Thus males tend to have difficulty with relationships, while females tend to have problems with individuation. The quality of embeddedness
in social interaction and personal relationships that characterizes women’s lives in contrast to men’s, however, becomes not only a descriptive difference but also a developmental liability when the milestones of childhood and adolescent development in the psychological literature are markers of increasing separation. Women’s failure to separate then becomes by definition a failure to develop.
The sex differences in personality formation that Chodorow describes in early childhood appear during the middle childhood years in studies of children’s games. Children’s games are considered by George Herbert Mead (1934) and Jean Piaget (1932) as the crucible of social development during the school years. In games, children learn to take the role of the other and come to see themselves through another’s eyes. In games, they learn respect for rules and come to understand the ways rules can be made and changed.
Janet Lever (1976), considering the peer group to be the agent of socialization during the elementary school years and play to be a major activity of socialization at that time, set out to discover whether there are sex differences in the games that children play. Studying 181 fifth-grade, white, middle-class children, ages ten and eleven, she observed the organization and structure of their playtime activities. She watched the children as they played at school during recess and in physical education class, and in addition kept diaries of their accounts as to how they spent their out-of-school time. From this study, Lever reports sex differences: boys play out of doors more often than girls do; boys play more often in large and age-heterogeneous groups; they play competitive games more often, and their games last longer than girls’ games. The last is in some ways the most interesting finding. Boys’ games appeared to last longer not only because they required a higher level of skill and were thus less likely to become boring, but also because, when disputes arose in the course of a game, boys were able to resolve the disputes more effectively than girls: “During the course of this study, boys were seen quarrelling all the time, but not once was a game terminated because of a quarrel and no game was interrupted for more than seven minutes. In the gravest debates, the final word was always, to ‘repeat the play,’ generally followed by a chorus of ‘cheater’s proof’ ” (p. 482). In fact, it seemed that the boys enjoyed the legal debates as much as they did the game itself, and even marginal players of lesser size or skill participated equally in these recurrent squabbles. In contrast, the eruption of disputes among girls tended to end the game.
Thus Lever extends and corroborates the observations of Piaget in his study of the rules of the game, where he finds boys becoming through childhood increasingly fascinated with the legal elaboration of rules and the development of fair procedures for adjudicating conflicts, a fascination that, he notes, does not hold for girls. Girls, Piaget observes, have a more “pragmatic” attitude toward rules, “regarding a rule as good as long as the game repaid it” (p. 83). Girls are more tolerant in their attitudes toward rules, more willing to make exceptions, and more easily reconciled to innovations. As a result, the legal sense, which Piaget considers essential to moral development, “is far less developed in little girls than in boys” (p.77).
The bias that leads Piaget to equate male development with child development also colors Lever’s work. The assumption that shapes her discussion of results is that the male model is the better one since it fits the requirements for modern corporate success. In contrast, the sensitivity and care for the feelings of others that girls develop through their play have little market value and can even impede professional success. Lever implies that, given the realities of adult life, if a girl does not want to be left dependent on men, she will have to learn to play like a boy.
To Piaget’s argument that children learn the respect for rules necessary for moral development by playing rule-bound games, Lawrence Kohlberg (1969) adds that these lessons are most effectively learned through the opportunities for role-taking that arise in the course of resolving disputes. Consequently, the moral lessons inherent in girls’ play appear to be fewer than in boys’. Traditional girls’ games like jump rope and hopscotch are turn-taking games, where competition is indirect since one person’s success does not necessarily signify another’s failure. Consequently, disputes requiring adjudication are less likely to occur. In fact, most of the girls whom Lever interviewed claimed that when a quarrel broke out, they ended the game. Rather than elaborating a system of rules for resolving disputes, girls subordinated the continuation of the game to the continuation of relationships.
Lever concludes that from the games they play, boys learn both the independence and the organizational skills necessary for coordinating the activities of large and diverse groups of people. By participating in controlled and socially approved competitive situations, they learn to deal with competition in a relatively forthright manner—to play with their enemies and to compete with their
friends—all in accordance with the rules of the game. In contrast, girls’ play tends to occur in smaller, more intimate groups, often the best-friend dyad, and in private places. This play replicates the social pattern of primary human relationships in that its organization is more cooperative. Thus, it points less, in Mead’s terms, toward learning to take the role of ‘‘the generalized other,” less toward the abstraction of human relationships. But it fosters the development of the empathy and sensitivity necessary for taking the role of “the particular other” and points more toward knowing the other as different from the self.
The sex differences in personality formation in early childhood that Chodorow derives from her analysis of the mother-child relationship are thus extended by Lever’s observations of sex differences in the play activities of middle childhood. Together these accounts suggest that boys and girls arrive at puberty with a different interpersonal orientation and a different range of social experiences. Yet, since adolescence is considered a crucial time for separation, the period of “the second individuation process” (Blos, 1967), female development has appeared most divergent and thus most problematic at this time.
“Puberty,” Freud says, “which brings about so great an accession of libido in boys, is marked in girls by a fresh wave of repression,” necessary for the transformation of the young girl’s “masculine sexuality” into the specifically feminine sexuality of her adulthood (1905, pp. 220–221). Freud posits this transformation on the girl’s acknowledgment and acceptance of “the fact of her castration” (1931, p. 229). To the girl, Freud explains, puberty brings a new awareness of “the wound to her narcissism” and leads her to develop, “like a scar, a sense of inferiority”(1925, p. 253). Since in Erik Erikson’s expansion of Freud’s psychoanalytic account, adolescence is the time when development hinges on identity, the girl arrives at this juncture either psychologically at risk or with a different agenda.
The problem that female adolescence presents for theorists of human development is apparent in Erikson’s scheme. Erikson (1950) charts eight stages of psychosocial development, of which adolescence is the fifth. The task at this stage is to forge a coherent sense of self, to verify an identity that can span the discontinuity of puberty and make possible the adult capacity to love and work. The preparation for the successful resolution of the adolescent identity crisis is delineated in Erikson’s description of the crises that
characterize the preceding four stages. Although the initial crisis in infancy of “trust versus mistrust” anchors development in the experience of relationship, the task then clearly becomes one of individuation. Erikson’s second stage centers on the crisis of “autonomy versus shame and doubt,” which marks the walking child’s emerging sense of separateness and agency. From there, development goes on through the crisis of “initiative versus guilt,” successful resolution of which represents a further move in the direction of autonomy. Next, following the inevitable disappointment of the magical wishes of the Oedipal period, children realize that to compete with their parents, they must first join them and learn to do what they do so well. Thus in the middle childhood years, development turns on the crisis of “industry versus inferiority,” as the demonstration of competence becomes critical to the child’s developing self-esteem. This is the time when children strive to learn and master the technology of their culture, in order to recognize themselves and to be recognized by others as capable of becoming adults. Next comes adolescence, the celebration of the autonomous, initiating, industrious self through the forging of an identity based on an ideology that can support and justify adult commitments. But about whom is Erikson talking?
Once again it turns out to be the male child. For the female, Erikson (1968) says, the sequence is a bit different. She holds her identity in abeyance as she prepares to attract the man by whose name she will be known, by whose status she will be defined, the man who will rescue her from emptiness and loneliness by filling “the inner space.” While for men, identity precedes intimacy and generativity in the optimal cycle of human separation and attachment, for women these tasks seem instead to be fused. Intimacy goes along with identity, as the female comes to know herself as she is known, through her relationships with others.
Yet despite Erikson’s observation of sex differences, his chart of life-cycle stages remains unchanged: identity continues to precede intimacy as male experience continues to define his life-cycle conception. But in this male life cycle there is little preparation for the intimacy of the first adult stage. Only the initial stage of trust versus mistrust suggests the type of mutuality that Erikson means by intimacy and generativity and Freud means by genitality. The rest is separateness, with the result that development itself comes to be identified with separation, and attachments appear to be developmental
impediments, as is repeatedly the case in the assessment of women.
Erikson’s description of male identity as forged in relation to the world and of female identity as awakened in a relationship of intimacy with another person is hardly new. In the fairy tales that Bruno Bettelheim (1976) describes an identical portrayal appears. The dynamics of male adolescence are illustrated archetypically by the conflict between father and son in “The Three Languages.” Here a son, considered hopelessly stupid by his father, is given one last chance at education and sent for a year to study with a master. But when he returns, all he has learned is “what the dogs bark.” After two further attempts of this sort, the father gives up in disgust and orders his servants to take the child into the forest and kill him. But the servants, those perpetual rescuers of disowned and abandoned children, take pity on the child and decide simply to leave him in the forest. From there, his wanderings take him to a land beset by furious dogs whose barking permits nobody to rest and who periodically devour one of the inhabitants. Now it turns out that our hero has learned just the right thing: he can talk with the dogs and is able to quiet them, thus restoring peace to the land. Since the other knowledge he acquires serves him equally well, he emerges triumphant from his adolescent confrontation with his father, a giant of the life-cycle conception.
In contrast, the dynamics of female adolescence are depicted through the telling of a very different story. In the world of the fairy tale, the girl’s first bleeding is followed by a period of intense passivity in which nothing seems to be happening. Yet in the deep sleeps of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, Bettelheim sees that inner concentration which he considers to be the necessary counterpart to the activity of adventure. Since the adolescent hero...