Colette Dowling

The Cinderella Complex and the Prince’s Problems

VTR Date: October 29, 1981

Colette Dowling discusses how women have been trained to be dependent and passive.


GUEST: Colette Dowling
VTR: 10/29/81

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. The Cinderella Complex is the title of a book that has caused quite a stir recently. Its theses is that, like Cinderella, but unlike men, who have been trained to be self-sufficient, women have been geared by our society to be dependent, to wait for something external to transform their lives and that A deep wish to be taken care of by others is the chief force holding women down today. Now, interestingly enough, this book has not been a thorough favorite with feminists, though it affirms explicitly that it is not nature that bestows self-sufficiency on m en; it’s training. And as Ms. Dowling says in The Cinderella complex, which is published by Summit Books, “Males are educated for independence from the day they are born. Just as systematically, females are taught that they have an out, that someday in some way women are going to be saved. That’s the fairy tale, the life message women have interjected as if with mother’s milk. Women may venture out on their own for a while. Women may go away to school, work, travel. Women may even make good money. But underneath it all there is a finite quality to their feelings about independence. Only hang on long enough, the childhood story goes, and someday someone will come along to rescue you from the anxiety of authentic living.” As Ms. Dowling concludes that paragraph, “The only savior the boys learns about is himself.” Colette Dowling is my guest today.

Thanks for joining me today, Ms. Dowling. I was talking to my good friend Mike, who tries to make me a little bit better looking for these shows, just before, and we thought that maybe someday soon we’ll recognize that the feminist movement is in full bloom, and we’re going to get someone on to talk about men’s problems. And you suggested maybe to do it about the prince, rather than Cinderella. Why hasn’t this been a favorite (if I may put it that way) with some feminists?

DOWLING: I think that there are a group of feminists who really want to view women’s problems strictly in terms of social oppression and social solutions. The fact that I have taken a psychological look at women, which I think is absolutely related to the social situation, there’s no way hyou could break those two apart, but looking at the psychological aspect of it throws a certain responsibility back on the individual. And that seems to be the thing that sticks in certain feminists’ throats. I was very surprised, I must tell you, when the, you know, the first inklings of feminist reaction to this book began to come out. There were some people who even were going so far as to say, put me in the camp of Phyllis Schlafley and Ronald Reagan. Which was just remarkable to me. I’ve always considered myself a feminist and, you know, obviously still do. And I think in terms of, you know, the history of oppression, it’s widely recognized that one of the most insidious aspects of that is that the oppressed learn to oppress themselves.

HEFFNER: You mean it’s internalized?

DOWLING: Sure. I mean, that’s the sneaky hidden agenda. And I have never said, and I certainly never meant to imply, that the social solutions aren’t important and that we don’t need to continue working for social change. But somehow my message has been misconstrued, I think, in that way, that because I say, “Look, there’s a tremendous amount of untapped psychological energy that we women can liberate in ourselves if we begin to undo this dependency training and give up that wish to be safe, “ that somehow that’s tantamount to saying “You men, and the society in general, are off the hook. It’s all women’s problem.” And I certainly am not saying that.

HEFFNER: Do you think that would have been, that reaction would have been the same if you didn’t identify fear quite so thoroughly with the experience of women? You talk about escaping from fear. And I couldn’t help but…The fear of freedom. There is somewhere here early in your book in which you say that the freedom that you achieve becomes a source of fear or fright itself. But Erich Fromm when he wrote his Escape from Freedom was talking not about women alone, not about societies alone, but about men and women. Why single out women?

DOWLING: Well, I think that, I mean, I think it’s existentially true that freedom is scary and that to try to develop some kind of authentic self is scary, humanly, for anyone. But the point that I’m trying to make in this book is that women have a different situation to deal with by virtue of the fact that we were trained differently. I really have harped on that, and there’s no doubt about it, because I think it’s terribly important. When you begin with very little children to inculpate the idea that, for example, you can’t finish that task alone. I will help you do it. That overhelp that psychologists have pinpointed parents get involved in with their girl children much more than with their boy children. The concomitant need for approval that develops in girls because they sort of are being told all the time that they need help, that they are not really competent to finish these tasks on their own, that if their frustrated, mommy or daddy will come and finish the task for them, or get in, pitch right in and help them do it. And ultimately what they learn is, “I am not competent to do this alone. I really need the help of others. And therefore it’s very important for me to keep those people liking me,” so that whole approval-seeking syndrome sets up. All of these things lead to a situation in adulthood which makes dealing with freedom and independence more difficult for women than for men. I don’t think that that has to be true forever, but I think it’s true now.

HEFFNER: You mean the level of fear in our lives is greater perhaps for women?

DOWLING: I think, yeah, I think when a woman goes out into the world and has to start taking risks on her job, has to start relating to her boss not a s a kind of daddy authority figure but in some sense as a peer even though the boss may have more authority, you know, that she has to really begin to expose her ideas and stick her neck out on the line, she has to be able to deal with criticism without falling apart and feeling devastated by it, really begin to function as an adult out in the world, it’s very often more difficult. There are certain things she has to unlearn that I think men don’t, because they’ve been pushed in that direction, you know, from very early on, told basically that they have to do things in spite of the fact that they are anxious or fearful about them.

HEFFNER: So that your feeling is that this isn’t something that’s sui generis, that is in our genes, that is determined by the Ys or the X chromosomes?

DOWLING: No, no. I don’t think so at all.

HEFFNER: Well, why not think that, if your observation is that women, by and large, are fearful in the face of certain problems, certain stresses, why not make that assumption?

DOWLING: Well, I think because you, you know, one does see women who have gotten past this. I mean, I think there are examples of women who have sort of unlearned the lessons and retrained themselves and really rethought their attitudes about themselves and the world who have gotten free of a lot of this. I think that’s one reason why we don’t have to assume that it’s in the genes. I think also so much, I think my tendency just in terms of viewing these sex differences in general is to view them as being largely, much of it resulting from social conditioning. And I would like to see that dealt with first, and then if it turns out that that’s not true we can look at the genetic differences. I think, in other words, turn the thing upside down, because I think we’ve made a lot of assumptions about genetic differences between men and women for years, and are just beginning to say, “Ah, maybe this is not genetic, maybe it’s social.” So my inclination is to look, you know, to make certain assumptions about the social aspects of this.

HEFFNER: You know, yesterday I came in from the West Coast and was sitting next to a young woman who had read your book, and I was rereading it. And she was saying what a wonderful book it is. Then she said, “but you know, Colette Dowling puts a lot of emphasis on the fear that women possess. At the beginning she said, “You know, fear in a very real sense is what women operate off of , and it’s energizing. But it’s not debilitating.” And I wondered about that. I wondered what your own comment would be o n that. She was very serious. She said, “Sure, absolutely right. We’re fearful. And that fear energizes us to the things that we can accomplish.”

DOWLING: Well, I think that can be true. The kind of fear that I’m talking about and that I’m most concerned about is often hidden from the individual. We have learned how to avoid fear-inducing situations so well and so profoundly that I think half the time women are not even in touch with the fact that they are making certain decisions in their lives and choosing certain paths and taking certain courses primarily because those paths allow them to be anxiety free. I think the woman who is in touch with that, you know, sort of anxiety of anticipation perhaps of the apprehensiveness…Before I started to go out and do my book tour I was very apprehensive. I sat there chewing my fingernails for about three months. I think the difference between me now and me three or four years ago is that I knew what was making me nervous. I also knew that I would do it in spite of that anxiety. It was very clear to me. And there was a kind of way in which having to cope with that, you know, was part of the energizing process. But I think the woman that you met on the plane is probably at a certain level in this whole process where she is able to make that anxiety work constructively for her. I think a lot of women are not in touch with the fact that they feel anxious about the things, certain things, or that they back off from things sheerly so that they don’t have to feel anxious.

HEFFNER: You know, my wife wrote a book on mothering. The Emotional Experience of Motherhood After Freud and Feminism. And I know when she went off on the book tour there was an awful lot of anxiety there. But I was able to say to her, “Now look, what you’re feeling is no different from what I felt in the same situation.” And that makes me wonder, if your researches for instance had been among men rather than women, would you have found something so terribly different?

DOWLING: Well, no. You see, I think the difference is not that you don’t feel the fear and I do. I think the difference is that you recognize that you have to do certain things in life regardless of whether you feel fearful. You have come to accept anxiety as part and parcel of being an adult and functioning in the world.

HEFFNER: There’s no prince that’s going to rescue me.

DOWLING: That’s right. And that’s a real crucial difference. Because if you had not been taught that you have to do things in spite of the fact that you may be afraid of them, and also if society has set up a little ring in which you can go and operate and avoid a lot of that anxiety, by which I mean go home, the situation is very ripe for avoiding it. And I think men would avoid it too if they had the option. So it’s not the fact of the fear, which brings us back to how we started this whole discussion, that kind of existential fear that’s involved in being an autonomous adult human being I think goes across the board, has nothing to do with gender. But I think the ways in which we were either trained t deal with it or not trained to deal with it are very different and have had tremendous effects on us.

HEFFNER: Do you feel, in the researches you did and the observations you made and your reactions to and with your own children that this is a pattern that is diminishing or being diminished as we go along?

DOWLING: I think that, I think things are definitely better today in the whole area of child-rearing. I think parents tend to be more enlightened and much more conscious and watch themselves as they relate to the little boy and the little girl. On the other hand, I had a nursery school teacher say to me recently, “We are really trying now with these little girls. And when they’re out in the park, and there’s a hill to climb and that little girl starts to cry halfway up the hill and say she wants to come down or she wants one of us teachers to come up and help her up, we tell her, “No, you can do it. And you’re going to do it. And you’re going to do it by yourself.” And I found myself getting this little kind of frisond of, you know, I found it thrilling actually, because I knew that in some sense that’s exactly the tack that has to be taken. And I think even in my own child-rearing experience, there’s a part of me that really wanted to protect those girls. I also think that as far as dependency and our daughters is concerned – and this is a question that has come up a lot – “Well, don’t you think we can, we women can go to our graves without resolving this? We grown-up women. But don’t you think our daughters will be free of this conflict?” And I think that is a pipedream, because as long as we, their mothers, are so ambivalent about this issue of dependence versus independence, the daughters are taking that message home. My daughter, for example, I have an 18 year old daughter who typed the manuscript for this book and was very involved. And she typed three drafts of the manuscript of this book. By the end, she was giving me a little editorial input, she just go so into it, you know. But I know at the same time that that’s been an influence on her life, it has also been an influence on her life to see me back down in an argument with the man that I live with, to see me be deferential towards him out of a kind of fear of losing him, a kind of confusion about standing up for myself and feeling really clear and strong about that. I mean, those messages are very trenchant ones, I think.

HEFFNER: The puzzling thing for me is that honestly the strongest human beings I’ve known have been women, without any question in my mind. And that’s why I guess I would…

DOWLING: You know what’s interesting though? Women have a tremendous amount of strength. And very often you’ll see this strength in a crisis. When it’s clear that the woman must act, if there has been a death, if the marriage has fallen apart and there’s no one else to take care of those children but her, whatever, you know, if there is a war and she has to go into the factories or to fly the planes – I mean, you know, we could cite these examples forever – what I think is interesting is that, and I think it is relevant to this whole issue, somehow then her femininity or her sense of her femininity is not compromised because it’s clear that she must act. She has no recourse but to assert herself and cope with this situation because others are depending upon her. But when she is with a man, I think that’s where the waters often become muddied. If she makes it very clear to him and to the world, “I am competent, I can take care of myself, I don’t need anyone to take care of me,” I think that’s the point at which it becomes very precarious for women.

HEFFNER: But look, you and I talked a moment ago about tradeoffs in another area, which are of the country you live in. There has to be a tradeoff here. If you’re talking about a different kind of socialization, you’re talking about changing educational patterns with those schoolteachers you mentioned and the different way they handle little girls there has to be some downside. There has to be something you give up. And if you’re talking about women who in certain crises come to the fore in a fashion that I think is much stronger and much better and much more dependable than the way in which many men respond to crisis, isn’t it a whole package? Doesn’t the strength that you referred to a moment ago in moments of death, in moments of family crisis, etcetera, isn’t that going to be somewhat changed too by a changing of the other side of the coin? If you change anything in this, don’t you change everything?

DOWLING: I think you do. And I think that’s one of the reasons everybody, men and women alike, are so confused about what’s going on today. I think a lot has changed in the last 20 years, and we are still up in the air. It hasn’t settled out. We don’t have our new roles. We don’t have our new family structure, we don’t have our new corporate structure. But we know that women are not going to function anymore the way they used to. And so we’re really in transition. And I agree with you, when you change one, you know, card in the house of cards, what used exist collapses. I think that’s one reason why there’s a kind of retrenchment going on now too. I mean, I think everybody is scared to death that the new way isn’t going to work , because we haven’t quite gotten there yet. And there’s a real pulling back, and I think there’s a new kind of resurgence of interest in the family and tradition.

HEFFNER: You consider that a pulling back?

DOWLING: Well, in the sense of the family as it was. I mean, family, there’s no question in my mind that we have to have the family. But I don’t think that we’re going to ever have the family the way we had it, you know, in the beginning of the century. I mean, it’s just not going to be that way anymore. And yet I think that there’s a tremendous amount of energy pulling back, because that’s where it’s safe, you know. And my mother, in my mother’s generation – my mother and father are coming up onto their fiftieth wedding anniversary in a couple of weeks, so I think about this a lot – the whole deal was s different then. But it’s never going to be that way again. And yet there’s something seductively safe about that. We had it so that it worked at one point in history, and we’d really like to pull back there now because it’s not clear that anything is working at this moment, especially the, you know, the relationships between men and women and the role models and who does what and who doesn’t and all of that.

HEFFNER: If it worked, why wouldn’t it work again?

DOWLING: Well, because I think too much has changed. I think, for example, women, in the 1970s, I think the number of women who graduated from college increased 400 percent over the number who graduated from college in the ‘60s. And that’s just a small example of great spurts of change. When you massively educate…I talked on the radio today to a 68 year old woman up in Massachusetts who said, “The trouble with you people is you’re creating all this foment, and if you just would be happy and stop trying to make money and have jobs and let the men take care of you, everything would be fine.” She really believed that. And it seems to me that that’s, you know, that’s not, you know, our expectations change when we become educated.

HEFFNER: What’s – same question really, but I’ll put it in a way that I really do with my guests on The Open Mind, in a way that maybe you’ll answer it somewhat differently – What’s the downside of the changes schoolteachers who are saying that when a little girl gets halfway up the hill and calls for help they say, “No, you can do it yourself,” presumably engendering independence rather than dependence, presumably saying, “You’re not going to be rescued now or later on by a charming prince.” Is there a downside, in your estimation?

DOWLING: I’m not sure what you mean by that.

HEFFNER: Well, do you see negatives coming from the changes that you want?

DOWLING: I to tell you the truth, I mean, no, I think there are negatives in the sense that it’s, what we’re going through right now is a negative. It’s extremely painful to wrench away from things that we were accustomed t and in some way comfortable with and try for something new. And I think the worst aspect of it is what we’re going through right now. But I think ultimately it seems to me that, you know, the vision is one in which men and women together bear financial responsibility for the family and bear nurturing responsibility for the family. And that’s my vision of, you know, how it’s supposed to be at some point down the line. And that that will free everybody up to have a much less conflicted kind of love relationship, it seems to me.

HEFFNER: You know, in your book, The Cinderella Complex, you begin by indicating that after moving back to a Cinderella kind of existence of moving back to a more traditional kind of existence after you had been independent for some time, you paint it in very, very negative, very negative fashion. It’s not possible for someone, a woman, to embrace, not the dependence, but a decision to enter into that kind of partnership where the man does this and the woman does that. Is that so thoroughly to be negated?

DOWLING: Well, I don’t think, I think the problem is that that role that you’re describing for the woman, which is that she be home with the children.

HEFFNER: Traditional role.

DOWLING: …the traditional role, does not have any economic value. Forget social value, forget ethical value and all of those things. In the way we live this life today, it has no economic value. And as a result, it has no, it is bound to lead to emotional dependency, it seems to me.

HEFFNER: So it’s being derivative financially, economically, that is the basis for your concern?

DOWLING: Well, no. I think that you can, for example, I think that a woman can be financially independent and still be emotionally dependent. I do not think that every woman who is out there making $30,000 a year is emotionally independent.

HEFFNER: But you’re saying being in the home prevents you from becoming…

DOWLING: But I’m saying that…Yeah. I’m saying that given the kind of society we live in in which you have to have a certain amount of independent financial stability in order to have any power, unless we give women money for staying in the home and if we give them pensions and we give them security, that, you know, for the work that they do for the society, unless we do that, we are only going to breed more and more dependency in women. There’s no way that women can be independent in a situation in which they are relying on somebody else to provide for them financially in a world.

HEFFNER: Well, here is where the criticism comes in at times, it seems to me, of the position you take, because perhaps that’s the direction in which one ought to push, the one in which The Movement ought to push.

DOWLING: Well, I think the question is why women aren’t pushing for that. And you see, I think that’s the, you see, I think there’s a lot that women are not pushing for anymore. And I think it’s because of this retrenching action, this wanting to pull back and have it be the way it was. I think there are a lot of women…Half the married women in this country don’t work. And it’s something we lose sight of because so many people are going to work who never worked before, most of those women are single or separated or divorced women. I found that very surprising, that half the married women don’t work at all, part time, full time, you know. It indicates…

HEFFNER: Of course, usually one hears this statistic the other way.

DOWLING: That’s right. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Most or half of married women do work.

DOWLING: Do work. Right. And I think in this day and age it’s surprising that half don’t. And it’s an indication to me that women still want to have that option. And there is a certain militancy about having that option.

HEFFNER: The option what?

DOWLING: To stay home and have Charlie do it.

HEFFNER: That’s not so thoroughly negative, is it? It’s an option.

DOWLING: Well, it’s not an option for Charlie though. So where is the equity there?

HEFFNER: Are you really concerned about Charlie in this instance?

DOWLING: Sure, sure. Because…

HEFFNER: I thought this was about women.

DOWLING: Well, no, because the point is, if you set up a princess atmosphere in which women get to take it easy and men don’t, it ultimately is very debilitating for women. It’s indulgent. It’s treating them like children. It’s, you know, the underlying message is, “They’re really not capable of taking care of themselves, so we’ll do it for them.” And that whole thing, you know, goes on and on and on.

HEFFNER: And of course that’s the point at which we have to end the program, just as we began to talk about Charlie.

DOWLING: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: So someday we really have to address ourselves to Prince Charles.

DOWLING: Right. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Thanks so very much for joining me today, Colette Dowling.

DOWLING: Thank you. I like to be here.

HEFFNER: Thank you.

And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”