In all of recorded history woman has been defined by man—not as a human being, a sentient presence with thoughts, feelings, desires and dreams like his own—but as an object, a thing apart. She is sometimes idealized and sometimes vilified but she is always without real power. In the most influential texts of our culture she is admonished to be either silent (so as not to distract men from their appointed task of running the world) or as an impossible ideal that can only bring shame to an actual woman.
The New Testament, a kinder, gentler text, is nevertheless specific in defining the role of women. In 1 Timothy 2:15 it states “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to use authority over the man: but to be in silence.” Theresa Tinkle (Gender and Power in Medieval Exegesis, 2010.) points out that a number of influential writers of the medieval era including Augustine, Jerome, Chrysostom and Chaucer have affirmed that women must remain silent since even the act of speaking is sexual and seductive, threatening men’s self-control. The female body is sexualized—“intellectually unthreatening if overwhelmingly seductive. (P.31)” Tinkle states that the story of Eve prevails and women’s words and actions are irrelevant except as sexual temptations. Thus they are encouraged to accept blame for men’s sexual excesses, a view that has prevailed into the 20th century in which accusations of rape have initiated an intense scrutiny of the victim’s sexual history. In other scriptural references in which men attempt to appropriate and control women’s reproductive capabilities male priests, who speak for God, can guide a supplicant to be born again. While women undeniably possess the power to create life within their bodies, men and men only, can elevate human beings to a higher level of purity and righteousness once they accept the tenets of their religion in a way that allows them to be born into new life. Symbolic baptism, typically orchestrated by males, re-creates the mother’s womb and provides spiritual cleansing and re-birth.
Like religion, early myths provide a particularly powerful message because they are not evidence-based but founded in the undefinable realm of spirit, imagination and belief. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell tells us that because women give birth or give life they are associated with the earth that also sustains life. Woman is also the nearer parent for most of us. The man is distant or maybe even dead or gone. Mythical stories abound in which sons go off in search of their fathers. Telemachus goes off in search of his father Odysseus. In modern myth Luke Skywalker expresses his desire to know who his father is. The mother quest is usually unnecessary. Mother is there—giving birth, nursing and caring until a child is old enough to go in search of his father. Mother becomes like the air we breathe or in Kantian terms a form of sensibility. She is the surround within which we move and have our being. Ships are named after women as are nations like Mother Russia. She is Lady Liberty or Charity or Wisdom. She is essential—giving and nurturing life and/or representing its best qualities. But her power is abstract, idealized and lacking in individual or collective political clout that would give her control over her own affairs or her individual destiny. She is important, essential even, not as an individual or a subjective presence but rather as an appendage—an indefinable but undeniable part of our being.
(A Womb of Her Own: Women’s Struggle for Sexual and Reproductive Autonomy)
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.