Review of the "Mismeasure of Woman"

(Carol Tavris , 398 pp. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992).

by Pat Duffy Hutcheon

KEY TERMS: Carole Tavris -- feminism -- gender equality -- "eco-feminism" -- Self -defeating Personality Disorder -- Co-dependency -- "woman as victim" syndrome

This is an interestingly presented, balanced and thought-provoking examination of male-female differences. Tavris begins with the observation that our standards of normalcy and universality have, in the past, been set chiefly by the male half of the human group. She says her intention is to point out the unfortunate results of this practice, for both genders. And she notes that her work is guided by the premise that "there is nothing essential -- that is universal and nonvarying -- in the natures of men and women." What she appears to mean here is that women are not innately distinct from men in attributes such as personality, character, values, beliefs and intellectual ability; that observable gender-related differences in these things are likely to be cultural in origin.

Tavris covers the waterfront, and she does it fairly, fingering neither sex as the inevitable exploiter or victim. She moves from the topic of women's perpetual dissatisfaction with their own bodily shapes to modern feminist ideologies that inadvertently shore up the older sexist theories of innate gender differences in personality and competence. She looks at the foibles of the "self-help" movement with its questionable constructs of the "Self-defeating Personality Disorder" and "Co-dependency". And she discusses the misleading interpretation of equality as sameness (of cultural sex-role expectations and limitations) as well as the prevailing myths about female sexuality.

Her proposed solution to the first problem is clearly in the hands of women. After discussing changing fads in the reigning popular perception of female beauty, Tavris concludes that women will never rid themselves of the idea that the female body is perpetually in need of improvement until they stop modeling themselves against an impossible male (or male-imposed) norm. She does not mention it, but a source of frustration for long-time feminists must surely be the continuing enslavement to these norms evidenced by the typically male-adolescent "grungy" and cadaverous appearance currently so popular.

Tavris discusses the increasing popularity of theories of gender-based differences in cognitive and moral reasoning abilities, among feminist scholars as well as certain pop sociobiologists. And she reveals both the lack of evidence supporting these claims, and the strange reluctance of editors of scholarly journals to publish studies refuting them.

She identifies the problems inherent in the "eco-feminism" of those groups whose position stems from a romantic but scientifically unsupported view of the historical primacy of matriarchy and of the role of the "Mother Goddess" in human social evolution. She is critical, as well, of the "cultural feminism" represented by the writings of Carol Gilligan. As she points out, any artificial linking of social/moral aspects such as autonomy and relatedness with gender obscures the fact that all humans exhibit both in varying degrees, and that both features have good and bad consequences in life. She concludes that the "woman is better" school of thought is fully as harmful to women's long-term welfare as is the "man is better" school it seeks to replace. After considering the evidence presented by Tavris, few would disagree that the ideas being propagated by these two groups within the feminist movement play directly into the hands of those who would seek to restrict opportunities for women.

However, Tavris emphasizes throughout the book that, to deny the existence of innate gender differences in cognitive and moral attributes is not to say that men and women do not differ at all. "Of course they do," she says. "They differ in the work they do... [and] in reproductive processes. They differ, most of all, in power, income, and other resources." Tavris is not too clear on how best to counteract the necessarily limiting consequences of these differences in life experience and role-obligations; that is, to achieve greater equality without insisting on sameness of treatment. She is against any changes in legal policy that would result in a freezing of women's present roles as the designated child-rearers and nurturers. She seems to be suggesting, instead, that a policy aimed at rewarding nurturance as well as self-reliance (whichever gender exhibits them) is the way to go.

A stronger focus on equality of opportunity -- rather than of outcome -- might have been helpful here. The former implies more than merely providing the same openings and performance criteria for both genders, although that is necessary. It also requires action to compensate for the inevitable inequalities associated with childbearing, and with a socialization process and system of role-expectations and power relations that are still far from unbiased. Tavris is in favor of such action, but a focus on equality of opportunity at this point in the book would have provided an operating principle that appears lacking in her analysis.

Tavris' treatment of what she terms the "medicalization" of the natural female processes of menstruation, pregnancy and menopause is insightful, and should alert doctors as well as their patients to the harm that could ensue from this practice. The World Health Organization's definition of menopause as "an estrogen deficiency disease" would be laughable to most who have experienced that stage of life, if the consequences of such a move were not so worrying.

More mind-boggling still is the definition, referred to by Tavris, of the "Self Defeating Personality Disorder" which psychiatrists and psychological counsellors are prone to diagnose in their women patients. A therapist called Anne Wilson has apparently explained this seemingly uniquely female disorder as "a disease process whose assumptions, beliefs, and lack of spiritual awareness lead to a process of non-living which is progressive." One can only agree with Tavris that uncovering a disease capable of assuming, believing and waylaying spiritual awareness (and which results in a progressive condition of non-life) is truly a miracle of medical diagnosis!

Tavris reminds us of the power of language in perpetuating sexist attitudes, and of how prone we are to attributing real existence to any linguistic structure that has been "named." She also writes of the significance, for the lives of both women and men, of the "stories" we use to explain observable differences between us. She discusses the "bedtime stories" that tend to communicate erroneous ideas of innate female coyness, or uncontrollable female lust or male machismo. And the story of the female as victim; or as allergic to success; or as prone to depression.

Concerning the "woman as victim" syndrome, she points out the self-defeating aspects of this interpretation, and the fact that it obscures the real social problems that need to be solved, if actual victimization is not to continue. In the case of the other two stories, she suggests that the circumstances of all-too-many women may well be sufficient cause for depression. And that the very real obstacles in the path to power for women may be a sufficient reason for lack of success in what has previously been the "men's world" of business and government.

We can learn many valuable lessons from this book. Not the least of these is the need to be critical of our cultural stories concerning gender: whether these are embedded in tradition or are the products of New Age mythologizing. For, as Travis notes, "Stories have consequences, but stories change, and how and why they do is the heart of the human enterprise." She could have added that discovering and testing more comprehensive and more reliable stories is what authentic social science is really about.