Women as Property: An Existential Challenge in Psychotherapy, Part 4
Women, regardless of whatever immediate difficulties bring them into treatment, struggle with inequality in a culture that consigns them to objectified, subordinate and servile roles. Their property status problems may appear distant from their presenting troubles, the way ultimate causes are often unrecognized “background” forces. No matter how successful the therapy might be in dealing with the immediate concerns, failure to identify and remediate these property issues will result in less than optimal benefits from the treatment.
Complicating any effort to address the prejudicial effects of property status is that female patients might reject or deny the proposition. Whatever the objective reality, as suggested in earlier examples, women may not subjectively experience themselves as property nor might they accept that premise as a foundation of their behavior. For example, current fashion continues to expose the woman’s chest to scrutiny through the use of support foundations that elevate the breasts and through necklines that expose them. Nevertheless, women may resent the stares and distraction that result. From a fashion standpoint, they might argue that they are simply trying to look “attractive.” That concept raises the question: attract what? Appreciation of accomplishments or physical assessment? Respect or sexual interest? In their professional, business or career-oriented roles women who want to be taken seriously and to be judged on their achievements (and not to attract a sexual partner or the protection of a wealthy, powerful male) are nevertheless encouraged by social convention to dress in ways that contradict those roles.
Female patients are unlikely to identify property status as a reason to seek psychotherapy. Instead, the problem will appear under other names, in marital, social, occupational and legal arenas where women continue to strive for recognition and for equal treatment. Female patients will not easily accept the concept that they are subject to property status judgments. The idea might seem insulting (as I suspect it will to some readers of this article) and would undermine the maintenance of an acceptable level of self-esteem. The narcissistic injury inflicted would create a new and unnecessary problem for the therapy. A woman might reject the concept of herself as chattel despite the destructive influence its reality has on her life. For that reason, it could be counterproductive to advance the subject directly. The therapist who is aware of these influences, however, can raise them in indirect ways that will still be helpful and allow the patient to acknowledge their effects and to deal with them.
Property status therapy problems may appear as a direct consequence of prior events. Victims of sexual harassment or abuse, for example, may seek therapy for the residual damage. Indirect consequences, however, are more usual and more difficult to identify. The day-to-day, often mundane, malign influence of property status on overall function, as the previous examples seek to show, is common and is often embedded within other, more overt concerns. The therapist should recognize these property issues even if the patient does not. They may be dealt with even if never labeled as such. Because they are existential issues, they will typically appear distant from the presenting problems, as ultimate causes usually do, but they nevertheless require attention if the more immediate therapy goals are to be fully realized.
In the therapy, these problems may show up as tendencies, not absolutes. A few examples may give a better sense of this indirect influence.
- The history may show the woman as less likely to volunteer at work; to put her energies into “male fields,” such as science, technology, engineering or mathematics; to strive toward business success or to assert her own needs and priorities in her marriage.
- She may be more likely to sacrifice her interests to those of a male colleague or marriage partner; to give up her time for other’s needs; to spend money and to shop and to acquire things needed only to bolster her sense of worth; and, as a consequence, to have more difficulty managing her finances.
- She may be more likely to defer to a male peer. An assertive woman may be criticized as “pushy” and “strident,” while a man in the same circumstances would be regarded as forceful and commanding. Because enhancement of a healthy appearance and presentation of an augmented physical facade make her feel more valuable, she may be more vulnerable to claims made by purveyors of health and beauty products. She may feel, for example, that she can never appear in public without “putting my face on.”
- She may be less likely to have confidence in her judgment, and more likely to choose passive safety over active pursuit of risks that could lead to rewards. Questions of marriage and child-bearing become more complex when property value considerations are diminished by social progress.
All of these tendencies reflect the existential concern: how valuable am I? The question lies deeper than merely one of self-esteem; it raises questions about cultural identity.
Property status problems can be easily ignored and require a high level of attention to appreciate their ubiquitous influence. If a therapist begins to listen for them, they will become increasingly apparent, as when, say, you buy a blue Honda Civic and then suddenly notice blue Honda Civics everywhere you look.
In psychotherapy, we are concerned with the patient’s personal difficulties. We cannot change the way the culture considers women or the expectations built into society from our long history of treating women as property. We can, however, help a female patient find ways to resist those limitations and to redefine herself as an independent, free and worthwhile person regardless of how others may categorize her. Because of their sensitivity, it may sometimes be easier for a female therapist to raise these issues directly. As noted, however, the influence of property status on day-to-day behavior is almost always indirect, unrecognized or unacknowledged, so that even a male therapist can deal at least as successfully with property status problems. A male therapist, moreover, as a member of the “oppressor class,” might have more credibility and influence when he takes the woman’s side against the male hierarchy.
As an ultimate cause, of course, property status itself is beyond the reach of psychotherapy. Like gravity, it is a given, and even biological determinants like tribalism and territoriality seem built into our DNA. Nor can we modify intermediate forces — employers, harassers, denigrators in general — that operate outside of the therapy office. Only the behavior of the woman herself is under her control and accessible to therapeutic intervention. It may not be helpful to focus undue attention on the external, socially significant elements of her property status, such as dress, jewelry and makeup. These symbols are so embedded in the culture that a woman who rejected them might suffer more stress than the effort deserves. As a compromise, they might be used less intensively. More fruitful areas for possible change could include the marital relationship; social interactions, especially with friends; and conduct in business and professional employment. Often, improvements in these areas will result in a reevaluation of property status — by a husband, friend, coworker or employer, and by the woman herself — even if never labeled or acknowledged as such. For example, an intervention that might be identified as assertiveness training could first result in a rejection of property status and then empower the patient to better assert her rights and claim her privileges. We want to help her appreciate her subjective value (who she is) rather than her objective value (what she looks like and what she can be used for).
In conclusion: the persistence of a primitive adaptation like women’s property status in our current enlightened era, founded on civil liberties and rooted in human rights, is both offensive and unacceptable. At the same time, its biological and evolutionary foundation, the ways it is woven into the culture by tradition and practice, force us to confront its reality. When something has gone unchallenged for a long time — and in this case, time is measured in millennia — it becomes accepted as normal and evokes strong resistance when questioned. It would be nice to think we could finally evolve into a better version of homo sapiens, but that change must depend on nature and the vastness of geological time.
Existential factors, by definition, cannot be eliminated. Like death and gravity and other immutable challenges, they can only be endured if we create adaptive distance from their consequences. We defy gravity, for example, every time we travel in an airplane or rocket a satellite into earth orbit. Women’s property status, an elementary trait that has existed in our species for many thousands of years, will not be eliminated by good intentions or political protest. Powerful counterforces, like the multibillion dollar fashion and cosmetic industries, jewelers, the health and fitness companies, and the continuing youth-oriented culture, all support the status quo. Under these influences, women will still be inclined to emphasize their property value — the exterior of the brightly wrapped package rather than its contents — using exposed skin, makeup and jewelry, and other property enhancement techniques, and reflexively participate in cultural acceptance of their property status. There is a real question whether the currents of change will finally resolve this challenge or whether, in spite of these efforts, women seeking full equality are swimming against the tide. It may be that women will not reach full equality with men unless and until they reject not only the idea of property status but all of its outward manifestations as well.
For now, we cannot overlook the influence of property status in any psychotherapeutic effort. Gender discrimination is not gravity, of course, and perhaps the correction of its many inequities, over time, will suppress it sufficiently for its worst consequences to fade from human societies around the world. If we recognize and address it in psychotherapy, we can contribute to that effort, one patient at a time. Our challenge as psychotherapists is to help our female patients overcome this ancient imbalance and enjoy as much equality as possible.