A lack of fairness and justice still handicaps women, and the causes for such discrimination run deep into the recesses of the human psyche. Humanity can only progress to the degree that women do. So we need to root out some of the primitive elements of this inequity.
Injustice surfaces everywhere. “Women are still the majority of the world’s poor, the uneducated, the unhealthy, the unfed,” Hillary Clinton said in a speech to the United Nations. “Simply put, the world cannot make lasting progress if women and girls in the 21st century are denied their rights and left behind.”
For the most part, men are not being malicious. Their discriminating reactions arise from psychological influences that are largely unconscious. The “feminine discount” problem stems in part from an age-old mentality that still perceives social relations in terms of who is superior and who is inferior. This mentality, dating back hundreds or thousands of generations, has been acted out by both sexes through religious affiliation (“my religion is superior to yours”), wealth (“my wealth puts me in a better class of people”), race (“my race is superior to yours”), intelligence (“I am smarter and therefore obviously better than you”), political power (“my authority makes me a superior person”), and gender (“as a man, I am more powerful and therefore better than women.”)
This mentality works both ways: while many people of both sexes eagerly believe in their superiority, many others passively accept their alleged inferiority without inner ripples of protest or rebellion. Either way, people are exhibiting a lack of consciousness or evolvement. The missing ingredient is an emotional and mental connection to one’s intrinsic value and goodness.
In the West, oppression against women continues to exist in the form, for instance, of low wages, covert discrimination, or limited access to opportunities. Women are up against two forms of oppression: first, the oppression from men and the patriarchal order, and, second, the oppression they inflict upon themselves in the form of self-doubt and self-denial. (This post deals with the first oppression, and a later post will deal with the second.)
The oppression from men is based, in part, in men’s fear of femininity and of women. This theme was explored by Sigmund Freud when he wrote in his essay, “The Taboo of Virginity” (1918), that men have shown over time—through the taboos, customs, and avoidances involving their relations with women—“a generalized dread of women.” What is this dread? It’s based in the castration anxiety, which is man’s fear that women will take away his strength, infect him with their femininity, and reveal him to be a weakling.
It’s true that, when it flourishes, man’s love for women and our intimacy with them have the effect of making us more tender-hearted and compassionate. So why this continuing fear of femininity and its values? Is it that women, knowing the “baby” in the man, know our hidden fears? Are we getting revenge on Mother for challenging our infantile self-centeredness? Or is it the feeling that, in embracing our softer side, we’ll lose power and dominance, and hence be lesser creatures because of the loss?
Psychoanalyst Karen Horney once wrote, “Is it not remarkable (we ask ourselves in amazement) when one considers . . . that so little recognition and attention are paid to the fact of men’s secret dread of women?” Actually, it’s not so remarkable. Human resistance to exposing deep self-doubt (our emotional entanglement in a sense of worthlessness) is exceedingly powerful. Man is afraid that woman might be his better self. He’s afraid because he doesn’t want to acknowledge his resonance with (or emotional attachment to) a profound self-doubt at the heart of his existence. His primitive instinct is to cover up this largely unconscious part in him by making women out to be the weaker sex and himself the proud agent of mighty exploits. Men are reluctant to share power with women or to encourage women’s empowerment to the degree that, on an inner level, we doubt our own value and power.
Men can also feel overpowered by their sexual attraction to women, while entertaining a sense of insignificance in the face of the natural life-giving power of women. It’s common knowledge that many men are afraid of strong women and avoid relationships with them. Some men, skittish about intimacy, run away from acknowledging their inability (stemming from their entanglement in self-doubt) to affirm over time the intrinsic value of their partner. They frequently refuse to address this fear of “losing themselves” (their sense of autonomy, freedom, or independent standing) in a loving union.
For men to feel more at ease with powerful women, it means we have to grow in ourselves. Otherwise, we’re uncomfortable with their power. Yet our resistance to inner development is remarkable in its magnitude.
Much progress has been made, of course, since Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique arrived 50 years ago. Yet men can still project their self-doubt on to women, “seeing” their own weakness in the opposite sex. We can sense instinctively that, should women become stronger, we’ll be thrown deep into the horror of profound self-doubt. That means we might, even more frighteningly, become conscious of our emotional entanglement in that primal weakness. Our resistance proclaims, “I’m not a real man if I let women get the upper hand. Therefore, I’ll fight and oppose what they stand for and their attempts to assert themselves.” Through this pretext, men can manage to avoid the nagging assertion (from the aggressive superego deep in our psyche) that insists, “You’re a worthless fraud, and you’ll always be one!” Resisting the feminine side and, instead, equating manhood with an acceptance of war, conquest, and economic pillage allows us to escape into forms of denial such as the “glory” of heroism and the reckless pursuit of death.
War and violence (in which women are often the greatest victims) become part of the cover-up for humankind’s profound self-doubt. Glory in war is the manic thrill of riding the beast that ravishes our better self. Men will have this compulsion to destroy as long as they continue, however unconsciously, to project their own weakness on to women and oppose the advance of women.
When men aren’t tapping into the power of integrity, truthfulness, goodwill, and evolving consciousness, the only “powers” they can trust are self-aggrandizement, righteous indignation, and weaponry. With this mentality, we also use money, patriotism, and religion to recognize or proclaim our essential value, affirm our collective identity, and swear to our honorable intentions.
As we begin to recognize the fundamental self-doubt deep in our psyche, we expose our emotional entanglement in this negative impression. Even though the self-doubt is unconscious, we still identify with it. Until men get past this weakness, we will remain fearful of women’s empowerment. Meanwhile, with greater consciousness, our natural aggression becomes appropriate and much more pleasurable as it’s sublimated into healthy competitions, creative activities, and the pursuit of sustainable living.