The Freedom to be the Woman of One's Own Choosing
by Ute Carson
St. Andrew's Review, Issue No. 25, 1983

"If I bear burdens
they begin to be remembered
as gifts, goods, a basket
of bread that hurts
my shoulders but closes me
in fragrance. I can
eat as I go."

Taking stock of a movement in progress is an arduous task. This is no less true of the contemporary women's movement. Pessimists among us point to all the unfinished business, remind us of the discrepancy between passed laws and lived realities, and, with some justification, lament the return of a certain acquiescence to the status quo now that the initial battles on personal fronts and in the political arena have been won. Optimists count their good fortunes and concentrate on those places where the struggle of women has opened new paths which are ready to be walked on even if they still need some cementing. They show how a general awareness of women's worth and their knowledge of their own rights has given them confidence and the capacity to choose a novel way of living.

As a contribution to this general assessment, I want to look at three traditional role images in which women have been portrayed: woman as life- giver, the independent woman, and woman as lover. With reference to a few literary works I will make some observations on how these roles and our images of them have changed. Evidence points to the need for contemporary women to combine several of these roles which traditionally have been either exalted or denied. The desire to unite several capacities into a fulfilling lifestyle is many a woman's applaudable goal but it also lays bare her unique dilemma. It is my conviction that the choice of one role will necessarily involve compromises, that any choice has consequences in that any gain brings a loss. But the novelty of our time rests in the fact that choices are possible and that more and more women are making them. This essay tries to show why the departure into a particular way of life necessarily bypasses, even if only marginally, other desirable roads. There are many ways of being a woman today, but the multitude of possibilities does not take away the anguish of choosing the "right way." My argument will be that there is no longer a single right way but that in the midst of contemplating choices we can at least triumphantly assert that an individual life can be led rather than an impersonal predestination lived out.


"Can nothingness be so prodigal?
Here is my son.
His wide eye is that general flat blue. He is turning to me like a little,
blind, bright plant.
One cry. It is the hook I hang on.
And I am a river of milk, I am a warm hill."

Images of woman as life-giver, as the great mother, can be traced back into ancient mythology. The central symbolism of the feminine originates from the body which is the vessel that is inclusive of the world and extends into all of nature. But from its beginnings that image combines contradictory elements. As elementary character we designate the aspect of the Feminine that as the Great Round, the Great Container, tends to hold fast to everything that springs from it and to surround it like an eternal substance. Every thing born of it belongs to it and remains subject to it; and even if the individual becomes independent, the Archetypal Feminine relativizes this independence into a long essential variant of her own perpetual being.

Ambivalence is present in that image since the Great Mother is provider of life as well as procurer of death. We too feel uncertain in our attitude toward that role of motherhood provided for us. Being conscious of the two-pronged character of that role, one of the two usually becomes dominant. In spite of the doubt, the transforming, sustaining, protecting qualities gain the upper hand. In mother hood we seek fulfillment as organisms; we are bodies, not just have them.

Through all of Sylvia Plath's work runs a profound uncertainty about the possibility of reconciling womanhood and intellect. Curiously enough, it is her husband, Ted Hughes, who has related her poetry specifically to her experience of maternity.

With the birth of her first child she received herself and was able to turn to her advantage all the forces of a highly disciplined, highly intellectual style of education which had up to this point worked mainly against her, but without which she could hardly have gone so coolly into the region she now entered. The birth of her second child . . . completed the preparation.

In her poem, Three Women, which is set in a maternity ward, Sylvia Plath has the first voice say, beautifully, what it means to be a woman in a most elementary way and what the experience of pregnancy and childbirth can teach her.

First voice: I am slow as the world. I am very patient,
turning through my time, the suns and stars
Regarding me with attention.
The moon's concern is more personal:
She passes and repasses, luminous as a nurse.
Is she sorry for what will happen? I do not think so.
She is simply astonished at fertility.
When I walk out, I am a great event.
I do not have to think, or even rehearse.
What happens in me will happen without attention.
The pheasant stands on the hill;
He is arranging his brown feathers.
I can not help smiling at what it is I know.
Leaves and petals attend me. I am ready.

Here is woman not as individual but as all women. She is a part of nature, passive and repetitive. Death is part of the natural cycle, as is fertility. Giving life is the great event. The body has a life of its own, the woman follows its destiny without control. And through this experience of pain and blood woman learns something no man will ever know‹what resources the body holds and how through the work of her body woman can cry out "I am reassured. I am reassured" about herself as well as about life. The experience of birth culminates in rejoicing: "a red lotus opens in its bowl of blood . . . what did my fingers do before they held him? What did my heart do with its love?"

Pregnancy and birth are events a woman shares with every other woman. They are experiences of herself. Now with the arrival of the child she has to consider another human being besides herself. Loving union is threatened by separation; out of the wonder of unity grows the awe of separable beings. Decisions have to be made. The agony of trying to combine several roles begins. Caring takes time, and if we believe that a constant mothering figure is essential to the growth of an infant, other options are closed for the time being. We may however decide that group solidarity is more desirable than individual initiative and responsibility and follow the kibbutz examples of community-reared youngsters. Thus we avoid the traditional oedipal, or better preoedipal, problems inherent in the nuclear family. But we also forfeit any joy that might be derived from watching the child, if it is successful, move from the secure center of the family into a new independent center of its own in the world. It is of course possible to have both a profession and a family, but they cannot be on equal footing. Priorities have to be set. The quality of time argument may apply to a child but not to an infant, for whom constant availability of and recourse to a mothering figure provide the bases of learned responses.

Full-time motherhood may entail fearfulness when we contemplate reentering the professional world or restlessness when we realize that society still does not provide part-time positions for both men and women in order that they may share in child care and housework. Some may not regard the qualities that motherhood and housework have created as negative. Nevertheless, the prospect that those roles may have shaped us imperceptibly may also arouse fear and restlessness. Doris Lessing lets her main character, Kate, in The Summer Before the Dark express it this way:

What he [ boss] was good at was to be the supplier of some kind of invisible fluid, or emanation, like a queen termite, whose spirit (or some such word‹electricity) filled the nest, making a whole of individuals who could have no other connection.

This is what women did in families‹it was Kate's role in life. . . She was going to fill the role again in Turkey. It was a habit she had got into. She was beginning to see that she could accept a job in this organization, or another like it, for no other reason than that she was unable to switch herself out of the role of provider of invisible manna, consolation, warmth, "sympathy." Not because she needed the job, or wanted to do one. She had been set like a machine by twenty-odd years of being a wife and a mother.

The nourishing and nurturing mother role has made woman adaptive and put her at the constant disposal of others. In submissive service to others many women forget that they are something else besides servants. The demand for a supportive position on the part of men and children has turned into a need to be wanted and needed on the part of women. To be a caring and providing mother we must not lose sight of the need for self fulfillment (which is a far cry from endorsing the swing to total self-indulgence). One needs an outside anchor point to fix one's interests on in order not to be consumed by a primary involvement.

Women are caught in a dilemma. Motherhood is not, as Margaret Mead called fatherhood, a social invention, but a biological condition out of which grows a psychological need. If we decide not to have children, "the valuable inner space"° remains empty and all our lives we may experience a vague sense of missing. If we opt for motherhood, we may be able to keep our sense of self intact by continually feeding on old interests. But in our competitive world the consequences may be that we will have to take second place to men when, after years of intermission, we want to reenter the professional arena.


Women do know something as women
Not entirely different from what men know
But in a different way
In speaking of women as knower
I refer to her potential for possessing
insight and wisdom.

Traditionally, independent women have been envied their freedom but pitied their insecure and lonely way of life. But that has been changing. More and more women embark on professional roads, sometimes with, sometimes without a steady partner, and derive their sense of security from the task they are engaged in rather than from personal relationships. It has rightly been argued that the suburban housewife in her isolation is more lonely than the single woman living in the world. Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and Anais Nin have reflected on the imaginative and intellectual work women produce from three very different points of view.

The second voice in Sylvia Plath's Three Women is a secretary who has just had a miscarriage. She reflects:

I watched the men walk about me in the office. They were so flat!
There was something about them like cardboard, and now I had caught it
That flat, flat flatness from which ideas, destructions,
Bulldozers, guillotines, white chambers of shrieks proceed,
Endlessly proceed‹and the cold angels, the abstractions.
I sat at my desk in my stockings, my high heels,
And the man I worked for laughed: "Have you seen something awful?
You are so white, suddenly." And I said nothing.
I saw death in the bare trees, a deprivation.
I could not believe it. Is it so different
For the spirit to conceive a face, a mouth?'

The world of men is a terrifying world and if you, as a woman, are not able to bring forth life, you are in danger of being infected by the emptiness and deadliness of that world. Ideas and infertility go together, and in comparison to the abundance of nature the world of work and ideas will always be found wanting. The woman who works and produces works of art is always only second-best to the woman who gives birth to a child. Men, who are flat, are envious of woman's abilities, but the woman who is unable to contain life is even worse off and feels a greater lack since she stands between two worlds: "I see myself as a shadow, neither man nor woman," says the secretary. Work can be no more than a substitute for woman, according to Plath. An atmosphere of sterility pervades the lives of those women who derive their identity from dead objects rather than living realities.

Not so for Virginia Woolf. In her writing, concern with the nature of woman takes two slightly contradictory forms. One is with women in their relationship with men and society, and the other with the development of women as individuals and artists. Woolf's first concern has to do with the roles that women can play in society, and her view on that is quite conservative. Again and again she stresses the contrast between the two natures, female and male. Wanting women not to emulate men, she insists however on their right to have "rooms of their own" to which equal education and living space belongs. Foremost in her mind is the individual development of woman rather than her political rights. In a work of art woman rises beyond her femininity. For Virginia Woolf the literary mind is of androgynous nature. She lifts the value question concerning women's creative powers above and beyond gender. For her any creation of the mind cannot be interpreted as special to the particular sex of the artist. Orlando, who is a writer and poet, starts out his journey through four centuries first as a man who, just before the beginning of the eighteenth century, is changed into a woman who then marries in the nineteenth century. Here is an excerpt from the encounter between Orlando and her fiancee. It describes their amazement at recognizing in each other the androgynous mind.

In fact, though their acquaintance had been so short, they had guessed, as always happens between lovers, everything of any importance about each other in two seconds at the utmost, and it now remained only to fill in such unimportant details as what they were called; where they lived; and whether they were beggars or people of substance. He had a castle in the Hebrides, but it was ruined, he told her. Gannets feasted in the banqueting hall. He has been a soldier and a sailor, and had explored the East. He was on his way now to join his brig at Falmouth, but the wind had fallen and it was only when the gale blew from the southwest that he could put out to sea. Orlando looked hastily out of the breakfast room window at the gilt leopard on the weather vane. Mercifully his tail pointed due east and was steady as a rock. "Oh? Shel, don't leave me!" She cried. "I'm passionately in love with you," she said. No sooner had the words left her mouth than an awful suspicion rushed into both their minds simultaneously. "You're a woman, Shel!" She cried. "You're a man, Orlando !" He cried. Never was there such a scene of protestation and demonstration as then took place since the world began. When it was over and they were seated again she asked him, what was this talk of a southwest gale? Where was he bound for?'

Since, according to Virginia Woolf, we are all a mixture of man and woman, we need the qualities of the other sex for creation. For that reason woman should engage in works of the mind or with her hands as freely as man and should no longer feel bound to develop her creativity in just one way. Since the work stands on its own merits, it is of no importance whether a man or a woman produces it.

At the other end of the spectrum stands Anais Nin, arguing a most radical point of view. She encourages women to creative work other than childbearing and rearing, but she also insists that women use the gifts they have acquired through long centuries of being mothers and wives. Every work woman produces is, according to Nin, sex-linked. In her diary she writes: Woman's creation, far from being like man's must be exactly like her creation of children, that is it must come out of her own blood, englobed by her womb, nourished by her own milk. It must be human creation of her own flesh, it must be different from man's abstractions.'

The old conception of the body being one's destiny takes a foothold in Nin's art and writing, except that channels heretofore closed now open up. Woman must create children as well as other works in this world in her uniquely feminine way, and her uniquely feminine way is her "close identification with organic life and its perpetuation." For centuries, Nin suggests, women have been nature only and therefore unable to communicate what they know or translate it into practice‹ woman "lacked the eye of consciousness." Today, Nin believes, woman is in the position to create a feminine art because of her connection-making ability and because of her organic knowledge, which Lifton has defined as "the personal participation of the knower in the knowledge he believes himself to possess and which transcends the disjunction between subjective and objective." As Nin herself is creating works in which she realizes her feminine potential, Lifton nudges women on to expand their knowledge into all areas of life. He writes:

It would seem that women have a special relationship to them [ problems of the human situation] that we may do well to explore . . . a relationship based upon her nurturing function and upon her particular capacity to bridge biology and history.'

In these sentences by Nin and Lifton lie the rudiments of a most hopeful and. challenging future for the independent woman.


Once he had seen a heavy storm cloud settled over a twin-nippled mountain, so closely knit, like an embrace and he had said: "Wonderful copulation, the mountain has no arms."

After women began to expose to themselves their need for dependence and security, their terror of being alone and without a man, their fear of being without a place once they leave the home, once they started to uncover all their unlived fantasies‹once their confinement dawned on them, there arose out of the failure to face the self a desperate cry for freedom, the desire to shape one's own life, to achieve fullness as a person. One way to freedom became having a profession; another, freely chosen motherhood; another, the demand for sexual liberation. In life as well as in its reflection, literature, a new type of lover and temptress is emerging. The claim of woman to an enjoyment of her body without shame or remorse, even if that enjoyment runs contrary to social obligations and expectations, can be found in much modern literature. It is based on the rebirth of the body and its passions, and relationships between men and women are founded on sex, not affection or intellectual companionship. Madame Bovary, as well as novels by Lawrence, Willa Cather and Kate Chopin come immediately to mind. In these novels women long for and achieve sexual fulfillment and female sexual powers are praised, acknowledged and used. Then a strange shift occurs in contemporary fiction. We have been used to reading about the discrepancies between the morals and demands of society and individual longings. Often the individual awakens to selfhood only by being condemned by society. Nevertheless the self is found in the process of that development and often another is loved. Today we face a different dilemma. We are encouraged by society (and by studies such as that by Masters and Johnson) to seek self as lovers and to take pride in our female sexuality. But more often than not, even though women live out their fantasies and experience bodily pleasures, they neither find themselves nor reach another.

The heroine Sabina, in Nin's A Spy in the House of Love, moves through one affair after another, to end up not liberated as she desired but fragmented and lost. At first she had hoped to reach independence and anxiety free connections by moving in and out of relationships. "She opened her eyes to contemplate the piercing joy of her liberation: She was free, free as man was, to enjoy without love. Without any warmth of the heart as a man could, she had enjoyed a stranger." But after many encounters like that she realizes that "all her seeking of fire to weld these fragments into one total love, one total woman, had failed."

A sense of failure also runs through Erica Jong's book, Fear of Flying. Unable to free herself from her dependence on security, Isadora returns sadly to her estranged husband. Her dream is, like Sabina's desire, to live out her fantasies with an anonymous stranger with the quickest of transitions from entanglement to detachment. Her journey is one of lonely self-gratification, and the men she meets are either robots like her husband or desexualized antiheroes like her lover who is potent only when he transgresses taboos. They lend each other their bodies but even in their spontaneous actions they experience nothing but desperation. When Isadora reflects on her 3 1 year-old life, she sadly admits: "I see all my lovers sitting alternately back to back as if in a game of musical chairs. Each one an antidote to the one that went before. Each one a reaction, an about-face - a rebound." She calls her longings her "hunger thump, her ravenous appetite for experiencing everything," but whatever else she gains from her adventures, it is not liberation. Is it because love and marriage have been romanticized for so long that love and permanence are shelved as illusions of the past? Is it because we have been bound so long that, without chains, we break?

Are we really so weak that all we can live for is a lost self which is never capable of the smallest renunciation for the sake of another? Jong's characterization of woman is only partially true to life, but it does lay bare our vulnerabilities. The one is left with in encounters with people like Isadora is that they do not act out of inner necessity‹out of a weak or a strong character‹but that they live out the fantasies that are dictated by the ethos of their culture. It takes courage to try to reenter adolescence beyond the age of thirty. The attempt at liberation often fails because it is not an act of rebellion but one of conformity to a new moral standard which has evolved but remains to be elucidated. The matter in matters sexual imagined being the prerogative of the young is likely to remain in deep conflict with a more stringent moral code embedded in the upbringing of older women.

For the time being, that longed for freedom occurs only in Isadora's dream. The final dream I remember is strangest of all. I was walking up the library steps again to reclaim my diploma. This time it was not Ms. McIntosh at the lectern, but Colette. Only she was a black woman with frizzy reddish hair glinting around her head like a halo. "This is only one way to graduate," she said, "and it has nothing to do with the number of husbands." "What do I have to do?' I asked desperately, feeling I'd do anything. She handed me a book with my name on the cover. "That was only a very shaky beginning," she said, "but at least you made a beginning." I took this to mean I still had years to go. "Wait," she said, undoing her blouse. Suddenly I understood that making love to her in public was the real graduation, and at that moment it seemed like the most natural thing in the world Very aroused, I moved toward her There the dream faded.

For Jong, sexual experiences with men no longer count in a won life, the most important thing is putting those experiences on paper, becoming a writer and poet like Colette, being the independent female artist. But it can further be interpreted as an identification of woman with woman, as love between the opposite sexes displaced by love for the same sex. Maybe it is because real relationships between men and women are portrayed in such disarray that a move toward one's own sex brings security and fulfillment. These 1ong connection-making qualities in women seem to hold in those relationships between women that literature shows us. And what comes easier than under standing and identifying with someone much like ourselves. (We have a moving example of the faithfulness and exclusive devotion of one woman to another in Jewett's story, "Martha's Lady.") But even if one grants that support and empathy can derive from the love of woman for woman, what other relationship is so prone to jealousy and the fear of loss, as Lawrence reminded us quite powerfully in the parable of The Fox? Or one thinks of the despairing and mad love between two women in Djuna Barnes' Nightwood where the insightful doctor who watches and participates in so much human misery cries out at the sight of what a terrible thing love can turn into: "Love of woman for woman, what insane passion or uNinitigated anguish and motherhood brought that into mind?'

What choices, then, are open to sexually liberated women? Personally, we can, without being banned from the midst of our friends or expelled from our jobs or ostracized by society, indulge in loving ourselves. We can learn that love relationships are inclusive and not limited to the opposite sex. And we can try again to sing a love song with a male companion and mate. Literarily, the novel of a strong independent woman in love with herself and her man still waits to be written. Not the novel a la Carol Berge whose heroine retreats into the strength of her spiritual world and has to be rescued from it by a man and taken back into his embrace, but a novel in which men and women find each other out of their present intricate sexual lives.

"If you want to be me, be me . . . if you want to be you, be you. There are a million things to do . . . to be free" goes a popular song. More ways than ever before are open to us, and we will want to travel as many as possible. We will find that not every way is for each of us. There will always be the "unattainable other." We may admit that we only partially succeeded in the task of motherhood or did not quite measure up to the success of our male colleagues or that we are still a few orgasms short of being a super-lover. On the other hand, we may frankly admit that we have become accomplished compromisers! Seldom is a role completely glorious or completely miserable. Human affairs are usually somewhere in between and hold for us their drudgery as well as their reward.

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