The Clare Spark Blog

January 23, 2014


marlene Start here:  I queried my Facebook friends yesterday about what they thought “androgyny” signified, and got only a few answers. Perhaps it is a sensitive subject, particularly since many Americans believe that the second wave feminism and the gay rights movement were out to destroy the nuclear family, with its traditional division of labor between the father-disciplinarian-breadwinner, and the unconditionally nurturing, domesticated mother.

Many Americans across the political spectrum have not thought deeply about practical matters involving power between partners in either gay or heterosexual attachments (see, also , let alone what constitutes an ideal environment for raising children, or other relevant concerns that lie outside the realm of religion. To even mention Freud’s theory of “polymorphous perversity” is to raise many eyebrows and inspire dizziness, for we ask people to question their own upbringing, which could force them into dangerous, anxiety-provoking, territory.

This is how I see “androgyny.” My parents, being the children of Eastern European immigrants and preoccupied with earning a living, the Depression, and WW2, were oblivious to the challenges of child-rearing. But since there were only two girls (a baby brother died in infancy), and since I was the elder daughter, my father treated me in some respects as if I were a boy with male ambitions to excel at a profession outside the home.  And my mother, absorbed in her own preoccupations, never taught me how to be “girly” (as they say nowadays). I do recall her warning me that men desired their love-objects to be like “cows,” and that women should be interested solely in propping up the male ego. But with all her negligence, it was my mother who urged me to apply for a fellowship at Harvard, and she was ever proud of my independent mind, even when I was vaguely on the Left, which she never was.

So for me, androgyny, meant seeing my brain as an autonomous entity, no worse than the male brain, and with great effort, occasionally superior. Indeed I took pleasure in graduate school in overcoming obstacles to my scholarship whether the professors be male or female.

I never saw myself as torn between male and female roles. During my marriage, I took delight in pregnancy, child-rearing, and homemaking, but then I had help after my second child was six months old, which made all the difference. When the women’s movement erupted in the late 1960s, I was convinced that these were “unnatural” women, and held myself aloof. It never occurred to me that I was subjugated or socialized away from intellectual pursuits until after I was divorced, and especially after I read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Indeed, it took me many years to assert myself appropriately, and it was a long, painful, and gradual process, with which I still struggle.

I shall end this too short blog with this observation: it is a characteristic of authoritarian societies that male and female “roles” are sharply delineated and polarized. And it remains an open question as to whether gender identity is determined by the genes or chosen in the context of a particular life experience. I tend toward Freud’s view that Eros is a powerful drive or instinct that manifests itself variously in different individuals depending on specific life experience and the circumstances of their times.



  1. I wrote on this ‘androgynous’ concept as well, with regard to the 19th-century writer Virginie Loveling: in Dutch (Liselotte Vandenbussche (2008). ‘‘Dat ik de broek aanheb ziet gij.’ Het ‘androgyne’ schrijverschap van Virginie Loveling’. In: Nederlandse letterkunde 13 (2008: 1), p. 69-89. = ‘I’m wearing pants, you see. The androgynous authorship of Virginie Loveling’) and in English (‘Grappling with Evolutionary Theory. Femininities and Masculinities in the Work of Virginie Loveling (1836-1923)’. In: Women’s History Review 20 (2011: 4), p. 543-553).

    Comment by Liselotte — March 1, 2014 @ 5:57 pm | Reply

    • Here’s the abstract in English of the 2008 article: In this article, I discuss the highly diverging ways in which the Flemish writer Virginie Loveling (1836-1923) portrays herself in her private letters, public writings and unpublished works. I illustrate how, paradoxically, she conforms to the allegedly feminine ideal of modesty and reticence, while simultaneously adopting a more masculine attitude of self-confidence and assurance. On the one hand, she refuses to write reviews because of her professed incompetence, she insists on publishing her non-literary contributions anonymously, she never takes the floor and does not permit editors to publish portraits or biographical information. On the other hand, her playful and confident use of pseudonyms, her politically inspired novels and her letters to intimate friends clearly attest to her self-assurance. In a later stage of her career, she publishes an open letter in which she defends her literary choices and even takes on the role of a mentor. Due to changing circumstances, she considers writing reviews on Dutch literature, agrees to sign her controversial political work and even publicly intervenes if it benefits her career. Therefore, I argue, Loveling’s authorship can be classified as neither ‘feminine’ nor ‘masculine’, and even the label ‘androgynous’ does not do justice to her versatile career.

      Comment by Liselotte — March 1, 2014 @ 5:59 pm | Reply

  2. I agree with Tiffany. That and this observation “So for me, androgyny, meant seeing my brain as an autonomous entity…” are powerful concepts worthy of more exploration and a tribute to the writer/thinker who posed them. Really insightful and full of more questions without clear answers. Really what part of us is male according to society’s limited notions and what part female along the same lines. And what does that have to do with whom we love?

    Comment by jill edelman — January 23, 2014 @ 10:55 pm | Reply

  3. Reblogged this on Tiffany's Non-Blog and commented:
    “it is a characteristic of authoritarian societies that male and female “roles” are sharply delineated and polarized” – such a brilliant observation. I think it sort of says it all.

    Comment by tiffany267 — January 23, 2014 @ 8:00 pm | Reply

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