Plath, Claudel, Woolf

Portrait: Sylvia PlathPortrait: Camille ClaudelPortrait: Virginia Woolf


For long it was thought that the goal of feminine integration in the job world could be obtained simply through the elimination of obstacles and prohibitions which opposed it by the centuries. However, while from a view point, the push women are subjected to, in order to conquer their emancipation and to obtain an even condition with men, is more and more visible, from another point of view, as evidently, it can be also noticed – still unchanged – the typical traditional picture of feminine psychic discomfort, expressed through depression, anxiety, self-debasement, sexual unhappiness, different from the masculine one, usually connected to the regulation of aggressiveness and its integration in a socially acceptable context. Really surprising is the fact that even liberated women, i.e. self-realized from a social and economic point of view, in hard times express their ill-being independently of their social or cultural level, but in a way unified in the belonging to the same gender.
In order to analyze some typical patterns of feminine discomfort I have chosen three especially significant figures: the sculptress Camille Claudel and the writers Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. Three liberated women who, though their enormous talent and the social chances were highly favourable, such as to gain them success and cultural acknowledgement while living, still could not avoid what we defined “typical symptomatology of feminine discomfort”: at a time in their lives something inside them broke down, they felt deeply unhappy and self-destructive, along with a typical and widely accepted behavioral pattern which made them more and more dependent, badly needing psychoterapic help and psychiatric support.
The theoretical approach we are going to follow is meant to highlight specific problems causing such a condition of discomfort and consequently difficulties in social integration for women. Such a specificity, as it appears now, comes not only from factors regarding role, but arises from specific gender differences of both biological and psychological origin. Underestimating such a specificity, that is the push towards an even condition which in fact may, sometimes, simply turn out in an agreement with masculine values, often leads women to become alienated from themselves.
In the first place, we can include issues linked to biological specificity; it is not yet known commonly the fact that, among women, the age range most exposed to the risk of psychiatric disorder is between 25 and 34 years old, the time women experience motherhood and take care of children. Of course this is a stage in a woman’s life in which performing her role becomes extremely onerous.
From a cultural point of view, it should be recalled the enormous psychological disadvantage coming from the fact that, for centuries, women have been motherless children. “Innumerable paintings and sculptures in the Christian world depict Madonnas comforting and worshipping their male infants… The proud bond of love, continuity, and pride between the pagan Demeter and her daughter Persephone (the Kore-girl) does not exist among women described in mythology nor in Christian culture. It cannot exist. Mothers do not own land nor money to bequeath to their daughters. Their legacy is capitulation, through frivolity and servile work.” (1) In the past, mothers have been – in many ways – influenced to favour their sons more than their daughters and to show them more affection in caretaking. Furthermore, they have always sensed the necessity of being more strict in teaching their daughters “femininity”, so that girls could learn how to serve in order to survive. This historical necessity allows us to understand how little girls have been and still are, literally, starving for affection and acknowledgement. The dependent personality in women comes also from not having been loved enough by her mother.
Here finally a specificity connected to belonging to one gender: “It going to take over a richer anthropological view and a richer idea of parity: the human being is two, male and female, parity is the valorisation of this difference”, it can be read in the national plan for equal opportunities between men and women in the Italian school organization in the years 1993-1995. Teaching how to discovery the self and the other from self in their sexual differences actually means teaching how to recognize your own identity, and if we can agree with such a principle, it becomes difficult to discriminate what are the sexual difference seen as a resource to be protected, and what else the role differences culturally learned and imposed on them, thus a source of alienation and stereotypy for the individual behavior.
Among the differences now under study, I found highly interesting those which take account of the difficulties women meet in the job world and the discomfort and indecision they express whenever they have to choose to openly make use of their skills, to decide autonomously, to overcome their fear of the aggressiveness needed to make themselves at least visible. For instance, many studies about language point out that “Often women change declarative clauses into interlocutory interventions by using limitative phrases ’More or less’, ‘ I would say’, ‘If only’ and interrogative clauses (‘Nice film, isn’t it?’). This indecisive phrasing soften the impact of statements and point out a lack of power and influence.” (2)
According to Carol Gilligan, in her highly interesting work “In a different voice. Psychological theory and women’s development”, the commonplace interpretation according which women fear power just because they have been shaped to submission. In addition to this interpretation, her studies suggest a different evolution in feminine sentiment, inclined to the building of connection and interdependency relationships, “where being aware of the bound between people makes us realize the responsibility towards each other, the insight of the necessity to respond to the other’s need” (3). Woman’s psychology, whose specificity was repeatedly acknowledged as inclined to relationships and interdependency, can be considered not only regarding its negative point, as a fear of losing her peers’ support, but also as a need, probably linked to its biological characterization, which orders the human experience according to priorities different from man’s.
The strong point in such a view lies in the ability of caretaking, its weak point in the limitations it sets to the direct expression of her individuality, her needs, her necessities. Her worry about others’ opinion and fear of confrontation often imposes her an acquiescence which turns her need for independency into masochistic behavioral patterns, in self-sacrifying and recrimination, thus exerting a passive-aggressiveness very little satisfying both for the woman and the recipient of her behavior.
Now, let’s see the three feminine biographies, in my opinion especially representative of how women emancipation lacking consciousness of gender specificity may lead women to unhappiness and self-destruction.

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