Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Penis Envy vs Uterus Envy

Since Freud based his entire analysis of women on the concept of penis envy it is rather hard to avoid this term entirely. Fortunately it has now been downgraded from the primal and determinative influence on women to something which might possibly occur. My question is about the opposite concept - that of uterus envy.

The girl will only envy the penis in any concrete sense in that it is an interesting toy which she lacks and which has vast exhibitionist potential. However, if the girl is given appropriate toys to use instead, a water gun, or a tinker toy set or something else of this sort, she may not suffer from her lack of a penis. A kitty car with a powerful little honker on it is also very attractive.

It is usually the maleness which the girl envies, the access to power. And if a woman sees women as powerful, then she does not envy the maleness which the penis symbolizes. Obviously, a girl will not envy the generative powers of the penis, as it is relatively opaque to her that it has any. Other aspects of this conundrum can be better appreciated by reading some of the early French feminists which I will not summarize here.

What I am wondering is if men experience uterus envy. I assume that they must, although it is not expressed in these terms. Most men want the woman along with the uterus to which this woman is attached, but this requires that the man actually control the woman, uterus and all.

A woman on her own is perfectly capable of setting up an encounter, devoting half and hour or so to getting pregnant and then enjoying a lifetime of satisfaction or intolerable irritation with her offspring. If she can get support, either through her own earnings, the government or her own family, she only needs the male for the brief act of begetting the child.

The battle between men and women, then centres on the product of the encounter, the children. The woman has preferential control over conceiving the child, bearing the child, and maintaining access to the child in the first few years.

Certainly the Hebrew scriptures has many examples of women who controlled mating and pregnancy directly or indirectly, from Tamar and Naomi to Hannah, Sarah, Rachel and Leah.

The term male headship is one which I find intolerably offensive in its use as a means of depriving a woman of the right to make any decision at all against the wishes of her husband. However, what if we think more seriously of the "head" in its scriptural use. This would probably be a first, I know. I haven't seen this done before.

However, in the Hebrew scriptures the term "head" of a tribe refers to the male progenitor of a tribe. Sometimes it refers to the symbolic male progenitor, he isn't actually father of everyone in his tribe but he represents them.

In the Greek use of the term, Zeus is the head of the human race, he is the first progenitor. The term head is used in this sense and this is then sometimes bizarrely used to claim that "head" means "make the final decision in case of any and all disagreements." This is an extrapolation.

Let us explore the other possibility. Let's not forget that the "head" was not the place in which decisions were made in Greek concepts of anatomy. The "head" was the place where the mouth was, for ingestion and expression, and the eyes and ears. The head was also the place where sperm was produced. The thinking was variously thought to be in either the heart or the head.

The deliberative function, that of making decisions, was that which brought together the emotions in the lungs or heart and the thinking process wherever that may be. But, altogether, decisions were not normally made in the head for the Greeks.

So rather than focusing on the ultimate function of the head as that which makes decisions, which I don't see any emphasis on with reference to the head in scripture, let's look, instead, at the possibility that the head is the ultimate progenitor. Let's not forget that when Zeus birthed Athena himself without the help of a mother for his favourite child, she sprung not from his belly, or from between his legs, but from his head.

For a woman to acknowledge that the husband is head may then have the very simple meaning that the wife acknowledges the husband as father and honours his right to father. This means that the wife yields to the husband's desire to have children, and to raise the children with her. It does not mean that the husband makes all decisions regarding these children, and the wife none, as is taught by some, but that he has equal right and access to the children as the mother has.

This cuts to the deepest concerns of inequity between men and women. Women have the ability to give birth and don't they know it. A man doesn't - unless he has a woman and that's all there is to it. So there is no amnesty unless the woman gives the man equal access to children.

The evil then is twofold. The woman who denies the man children or removes the children from the husband, and the man who denies the woman her right to mother her children. If we call the first a "feminist" and the second "a patriarch" then we understand the chasm which has opened up.

In the first case men are deprived of children and in the second case, women are bound to slavery as indentured servants retained only to feed and diaper the children who are the sole possession of the patriarch.

The scriptures then must establish integral equality of parenthood. This is what I think male headship is. Nothing to do with women having to do as they are told or yielding on all fronts. It is about women acknowledging the equal right of the husband to produce and parent children. However, the parenting is done by both. The husband has father's rights, that is equal rights to the children. None of this, "Dad is the boss," but rather "Dad is the dad."

If producing children is the main product of mating then men and women are not biologically equal, the woman has the advantage. She surrenders this advantage by acknowledging male headship or male fatherhood.

Apart from producing children, men and women are equal. However, the biological difference is so integral to our being that it colours everything. Men and women are equally both providers and nurturers. But women come to the nurturing task through their body first, the obligation of nature is that they nurture. Men come to it through the voluntary desire to father, mentor or care for someone else. Men are providers as their assigned obligatory role in fathering, but women also come to be providers out of their emotional desire to provide for their own children and others.

Men and women are humanly identical in being able to display the tender and nurturing traits in the Godhead, and the providing and protecting traits. But they come to these characteristics through a different biology. In some sense, there is a basic difference in the way the body experiences these things. In another sense there is also in both the deep ability to express non sexually determined love and care, whether it be the care of a health professional for a patient, a teacher or parent for a child, elder for younger or younger for elder, or friend for friend.

What is most important is to realize that much as we wish the human race to continue, for ourselves, it is important not whether we have produced children, but it we have learned to both nurture and provide for others.

So the difference that we honour in each other is that women come to the nurturing task through their bodies in an obligatory way, and men come to the nurturing task through the desire to be connected to their children. The sameness that we honour is that we should all come to the nurturing task, either as parents, or, in the absence of biological children both men and women become guardians, tutors, mentors and caregivers, people who are preoccupied with the care of others.

Biologically women are more closely connected to nurturing so in some sense greater honour goes to men, who take this up in a more conscious and deliberative way. But greater honour to the women when they do not avoid the physical difficulties of childbearing. So we should honour and appreciate each other.

Of course, this requires submission of woman. The woman voluntarily gives the man his fatherhood. And the male, what is his role - to have control/authority over a woman? or to have gratitude to the woman who bears his children.

The standoff is broken - submission and gratitude, not submission and authority. But of course, the woman is also grateful to a man who submits by providing for and caring for his family.

Whew, I am glad that my children are grown up now. It's not easy keeping all this in balance.

But no matter how old we are, we are still different, men and women with a separate biology and a separate cultural experience, and we can continue to appreciate this in each other. However, we are also both human, with the same human capacity for tenderness and leadership.

PS. This post is in response to Bonnie, Molly, John and Kurk. "Come on Suzanne, tell us what you really think?" Oh yes, and David who remembers the time when he realized that as a boy he could not have a baby.

PPS Children are on their way home. This mother can stop writing and get some sleep.

PPPS This also explains the example of Sarah who when she called Abraham "my lord" was referring explicitly to his ability to beget children.


Matthew Celestine said...

I was friends with a young man who insisted he suffered from what he called 'womb envy.'

He was a rather gentle and sensitive chap.

God Bless


Suzanne McCarthy said...


Thanks, womb envy must be the term I was looking for instead of uterus envy - how silly of me!

My father and son are both very fond of babies. My son asked the other day if I thought that some woman might marry him to take care of the children. You probably know that he just returned from a year and a half of military training. He loves variety - that kid!

Anonymous said...

Great post, Suzanne (which is what I always say, but then again, they always are). :)

Happy New Year!

Anonymous said...

Oh God yeah, men suffer from womb envy, and it is the primary reason for oppression of women. I look at these cultures and how they deny women rights, and my first thought is always womb envy because that's what it is!

Women have a power, so to speak, that men lack. Men play an inferior role in procreation and thus they feel inferior to women. Not all men, but sexist men do. It's particularly the macho type men who act proud of being male that suffer from the MOST womb envy. It's like women have something magical and powerful and obviously necessary, and men can't take it, so they take from women to form their fragile male identities.

There are numerous examples of womb envy, particularly within religion. Adam "gives birth" to Eve. The fact that this was pushed on us by the patriarchs shows they wanted to be the ones in control of bringing life into the world, and that they feel inferior to women because they come from women.

Men focus on sons because of womb envy. It's the only way they can turn the attention to them. If they couldn't focus on gender they might be forced to just honor women as life-givers; they cannot do that due to their envy.

Kristen said...

I know it's very late, commenting on this over a year after it was posted-- but I think I have a significant point to make.

A woman always knows that her children are hers. The man does not. Biologically, most men have a deep-seated desire to perpetuate themselves by fathering children. But though they can have sex with a woman, they have no way of guaranteeing that she is not having sex with anyone else. In other words, throughout history, the only certainty a man could have that his children were indeed his, was through controlling the woman. DNA testing is a very new thing.

So the man had a choice-- enter a loving, committed relationship with a woman and then trust her to be faithful to him-- or enact laws such that he could possess and control her, and punish her if she were unfaithful. Guess which route men as a group chose.