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.


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