Ethel Person

The Psychology of Women

VTR Date: June 6, 1984

Dr. Ethel Person discusses the probability of a psychology of women.


GUEST: Ethel Person
VTR: 06/06/1984

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. A funny thing happed on my way to this forum today. I’d like to share it with you, because it does relate to my guest’s expertise, and what I hope will be the course of our conversation. When I’m not teaching at Rutgers or doing THE OPEN MIND or THE EDITOR’S DESK, for my sins I gather, I commute to California for my position as Chairman of the Board of the motion picture industry’s voluntary film rating system. You know, “G”, “PG”, “R”, and “X”. Well now, I don’t tell you all this to gain your sympathy, but rather to relate the annoyance I seem to have caused my female colleagues when I noted how the film rating board had voted a couple of times recently on rather controversial films along straight male/female lines. And I simply wondered why, what that meant about the psychology of women. Well, was I ever accused of sexism! Maybe I wouldn’t have been if I had wondered instead about the psychology of men. But I happened to put ladies first. And this morning I wondered why my guest, Dr. Ethel Person, Director of the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytical Training and Research, can be acclaimed as an expert on the psychology of women – and I can’t even mention the phrase without being accused of all kinds of awful things. So I wanted to ask Dr. Person if there is a psychology of women.

PERSON: First of all, I’m delighted that I’ve been proclaimed an expert because I’m delighted to be an expert on anything at all. There probably is a psychology of women. There’s a psychology of men, and there’s a psychology of both sexes. And if you read the books that are coming out, you will see that there are a lot of new books coming out on the psychology of men, which will probably keep the book publishers very busy for the next ten years.

HEFFNER: Is this a sexist attitude?

PERSON: I don’t think it’s sexist. I think what it really relates to is the sexes really have similar existential and life problems…facing death, finding meaning, all of those very important things…making relationships, having closeness; thus far, the modalities, the ways of handling them are different, so they have different opportunities, different adaptations. In that sense there is a different psychology.

HEFFNER: Do we then get into the question of biology being destiny?

PERSON: …all sorts of things. To say that there are differences does not, or to say that there will be difference doesn’t say anything about the valuation, doesn’t say anything about the cause. It just is a horizontal statement in time.

HEFFNER: What do you mean “a horizontal statement in time”?

PERSON: Well, there are different problems that are primary for women and men now, I think, in this culture.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you’re saying that the problems are parallel. What’s your response?


HEFFNER: Now, what’s the essential difference in the response to problems by women and by men?

PERSON: Well, you see we have to talk about it problem by problem. One of the things that I’ve been very interested in is the difference between relationships (???), the difference in love that people talk about, the difference in importance of love to women and men. So I think that one of the very important things to talk about is that that time clock is different for women and men in this culture.

HEFFNER: You say “time clock”.


HEFFNER: Why do you say that? Is it a matter of…

PERSON: No, because it’s a matter of culture, it’s a matter of women being defined as non-attractive as they get older, whereas men aren’t. So many women feel a pressure in middle life to make commitments. They don’t have the same options in thinking that they’ll be forever be able to mate. In other words, I think Susan Sontag has called it the double standard of aging. That’s the kind of thing that I’m talking about.

HEFFNER: Do you think, Dr. Person, that that time clock will ever be set back or set ahead?

PERSON: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: You do?

PERSON: Absolutely.


PERSON: Well, I think it’s beginning to change in terms of some of the prejudices because I don’t think that it’s innate that men don’t necessarily find women unattractive after 16, 25, whatever age you want to put on it. I think that there’s a big cultural component. But then, I think it’s changing in terms of choices, and women taking the opportunity, making different kinds of arrangements as well.

HEFFNER: You mean, it’s not a matter of saying “Okay, that’s the accepted fact. Now we have to deal with it”?

PERSON: Right. I think that the fact…in that instance the fact can be changed. Absolutely.

HEFFNER: Is there any evidence of that?

PERSON: Oh, I think that the morays are changing in terms of older women, younger men, and some men have always married, some women have always married across the same age. So I think there are more different kinds of examples. There is a polarity which I think is larger, you know, that comes and goes in history. It’s not always the same.

HEFFNER: Okay, but I think the fair thing to ask is whether that will reach a certain threshold, that changing of the time clock…whether that will reach a certain threshold for women and then stop, by nature.

PERSON: What do you have in mind?

HEFFNER: Well, what I have in mind is that you say things are changing. There are more older women who are involved with younger men, and that does change that concept of the time clock. Do you feel that the, the same conditioning that men experience along these lines, will be the blessing of women, too? Or will women reach a certain point in this so that that movement will go along or will they reach a certain point where they’re not going to be able to function the way men do in regard to our biological time clock in regard to what happens to us as we get older? What do you think? A hundred years from now, fifty years from now the question of age will be the same for women as for men?

PERSON: I think it will be much more nearly the same.

HEFFNER: You do.

PERSON: Oh, sure. Absolutely. And I’m not talking about the time clock in terms of raising children, or having children, bearing children. I’m talking about it in a different sense. And I don’t understand why it should come to a certain point and then stop.

HEFFNER: I don’t understand why it has come to a certain point and then stopped and it is…the fact that it has, the fact that you can describe this difference now leads me to wonder if there is a particular difference…whether we are being particularly wise in assuming the difference will be eradicated. That’s all. I mean, that’s the only basis of my question.

PERSON: I think you can assume change when you’ve seen variation in history. What’s very interesting when you talk about women and you talk about men is that people really take the short term, so that they really believe that anything that has happened for 20 years is biologic, life-long, long term. Anybody who reads any history about motherhood, raising children, the relationship between the sexes, understand automatically that that is not so much a matter of biology, or certainly not of biology alone, but a very complicated mix of what is cultural, what is sanctioned, what is economically dictated. It comes from so many different sources. And you know that, because you’ve seen the variabilities in different periods of time, in historical periods of time.

HEFFNER: Then, let’s turn to one of the subjects about which you have written, women and success.


HEFFNER: Attitudes toward success? Culturally dictated?

PERSON: Oh, sure. What else?

HEFFNER: I don’t know. You’re the expert.

PERSON: What, what gene…

HEFFNER: …as I said in the beginning of the program.

PERSON: What gene do you think carries the response to success, honestly?

HEFFNER: You’re responding to me, though, when I ask the question…hey, if you ask the question, it means that you think there’s a gene…


HEFFNER: …that carries that response.

PERSON: Because I’m absolutely bewildered.

HEFFNER: By what?

PERSON: By how that…

HEFFNER: By the question?

PERSON: By how that possibility, yeah…

HEFFNER: But you address yourself to that question in the articles and the studies…

PERSON: Oh, sure.

HEFFNER: …you conduct and about you write.

PERSON: But you see, the problem when you talk about success is that you have women doing things that were not culturally consummate when they were growing up. So you immediately have a conflict between two sets of values. You have a conflict between the values that were internalized and become part of the inner self, and a change. And it’s easier to change one’s self rationally then it is to change certain internalized concepts. So there certainly is a swing generation, or transitional generation for whom success has been problematic. Will that continue forever? I don’t think so. But I don’t think that success is the major problem for either sex. Or let me say that it is too much the problem. But if one really wants to talk about women’s problems I would not put reactions to success at the top of the list, though I have written about it.

HEFFNER: What would you put at the top of the list? That’s a leading point that you make.

PERSON: Absolutely. I would put at the top of the list really the problem about trying to have a certain degree of autonomy and still being able to raise children. I would put at the top of the list, possibly for both sexes, how to combine a certain kind of individual freedom, how to find one’s own fulfillment and put that in a package that includes commitment, and particularly the time commitment with raising kids. I think that’s the problem that most women face; Women that are very interested in being a success, women who are really struggling to earn a living, women who are heading households by themselves, women who are across the socioeconomic spectrum. So I write about women with very real problems, or women I see in consultation or treatment. But those women are one small group of women for whom there are problems. There are problems that are much more global than that.

HEFFNER: Is the fact that they are one small group of women a function of the fact that women are not positioned to have to be worried about success in our country?

PERSON: No, I think it’s a socioeconomic different between our classes. So that I think that men and women from certain backgrounds and in certain environments think about almost nothing but success, and that may be the central problem for them. I don’t think that’s true across the board for either sex. Although people say, and I think it’s probably true, that performance and performance anxiety is central to the psyche of men in a way that it is not for women. Even so, I think that most people are interested in keeping things going. These are people we’ve have always been interested in.

HEFFNER: In searching for autonomy, as they do then…

PERSON: I think that’s also a social variable. I think it’s more true in East Coast urban centers, highly ambitions people…the word I keep seeing now that I hate in all the magazine articles is “upscale”; the new “upscale man”. Those are problems particular to classes, and particularly aspiring people, but I think the problems that women have and are central to the women’s movement are far broader than that.

HEFFNER: “Upscale” doesn’t enter into the consideration of women, too?

PERSON: Oh, sure, but it’s absolutely some women, not all women.

HEFFNER: And you think it is more so, all men?



PERSON: No. No, no. No, no.

HEFFNER: Okay, so we are talking again, as you suggested, about a certain…

PERSON: Absolutely…

HEFFNER: …group. A small one, too.

PERSON: I hope so.

HEFFNER: But we’re talking about a group of people who have achieved, who have accomplished economic well-being…one has to, in fact, admire and be pleased with…not because they have made it, but because they are enjoying the good things in life.

PERSON: Oh, sure. Absolutely.

HEFFNER: But you say “You hope so”…

PERSON: Why do I say that?

HEFFNER: I wonder, a) why you say it and, b) whether you really mean that achieving enough to be in that psychological trap isn’t a sign of having enough and enjoying the good things in life.

PERSON: No the reason I say that is because, because you introduce me as an expert on female psychology, and as such, I have to be concerned about what the real concerns of women are. I remember last year I had just read an article in the New York Times magazine that feminism was dead because college girls were not interested because they had become quite careerist. I was very relieved to get on an airplane and go to Buffalo, where there were a lot of union women who were going to make their claims. So that my point is that the concerns of women as a group transcend what are really socioeconomic concerns. They have to do really with poignant problems of women in a lot of different situations. I think that’s really important for the mental health profession, because it raises issues of child care, child rearing that are very serious, that can get lost in the media hype about feminism. And that is restricted to a narrow interest in women that are successful. I’m very interested in women that are successful and helping them to become successful. But that is only one problem of a whole series of problems that women in this decade face.

HEFFNER: Dr. Person, you seem to be defining women largely in terms of childbearing.

PERSON: No. No, no. I’m describing that as a large problem that women face in terms of the actual care of children, the facts that exist. You mean, why don’t I include this as a problem for men? I wish I could. I wish it were in my power to say that it goes equally to both sexes. The facts seem to go in the other direction.

HEFFNER: You’re saying that…I gather that the presumed movement toward a sharing of parental obligations hasn’t been that much of a movement.

PERSON: It’s a movement in a certain way. Certainly men try much harder to participate in a larger degree. But it is still the woman that I and others have described as the psychological parent. The best analogy is that two people can give a dinner party and they can do equal amounts of work, but the one who really does the planning, the one on whose mind it rests, is the one who is the psychological parent of that dinner party. The husband can pick up the child from school, but it is the wife who thinks of that; when the child has to be picked up, where the child is at every moment. She still is the psychological parent.

HEFFNER: Now, for cultural reasons or for biological reasons?

PERSON: Oh, look, in my impression, nobody’s proved it, but absolutely for cultural reasons. My favorite story for motherly instincts is a cat story. Do you like cats?

HEFFNER: I don’t like cats, I like dogs, but…

PERSON: People always say, “Look, look at the animals. They have these wonderful instincts”. So somebody raised kittens from birth with rubber collars around their necks, so they couldn’t lick themselves. So when they grew up and became cats, the females who gave birth ate their kittens. Usually what the cat does is it licks the kitten and eats the birth remains and takes care of the kitten. These cats didn’t stop at the placenta. They ate the kitten. So the interpretation of those findings was that little kittens have learned not to bite into something the texture and temperature of their own bodies. And that seemed to have played a great role in what had previously been called maternal instinct. That is, learning seemed to have something to do with it. So if I’m not convinced that animals have that same maternal instinct without some input of learning, I’m certainly not convinced about human beings.

HEFFNER: It’s…the assumptions…you say you’re not convinced. Where did this conviction come from?

PERSON: Oh, you want me to be not an expert on female psychology, you want me to be a…absolutely! Absolutely. This is impossible. I mean, I could make up an answer, but I don’t know.

HEFFNER: If you don’t know…

PERSON: …could I speculate?

HEFFNER: Well, I really ask the question because if you don’t speculate well enough one has to assume that maybe Dr. Person’s wrong and that maybe we are, indeed, talking about something that is instinctual.

PERSON: Well, why would you make that assumption? I mean why…if that were true, one would be very hard put to explain certain terrible things that happen. I mean, it would be much easier if there were maternal instincts.

HEFFNER: You mean deviants.

PERSON: Oh, sure. No, what…

HEFFNER: Deviants from the notion of other motherly instincts.

PERSON: Yes, sure. Child abuse, abandonment, all those things…in other words, if it is an instinct, it is not a terribly reliable one.

HEFFNER: You know, I want…there’s one question that what you’re saying leads me to ask and that’s, with that crystal ball…

PERSON: Ah huh…

HEFFNER: …with the changing cultural patterns…


HEFFNER: Do you like what you see more than the past? Or do you have some reservations about changing those cultural patterns?

PERSON: In what direction? That’s too global a question for me.

HEFFNER: Let me ask then, if there’s a downside, which is a question I frequently ask people who sit in that chair.

PERSON: Absolutely, a downside.

HEFFNER: What is it?

PERSON: The downside was the source of lots of the changes that have taken place. Well, the problem is getting a balance between personal fulfillment and some ties that bind. I mean, what I see psychiatrically, and I think some of my colleagues see, is that you have problems with people who don’t reach their maximal fulfillment individually, but you also see the fallout from the breaking of family bonds, social bonds, permanence, and that’s very serious.

HEFFNER: Do you think a choice has to be made?

PERSON: An individual choice has to be made? Oh, individual choices are always being made. But I would hope that most people would find some balance for themselves between those two things.

HEFFNER: You know, I understand what you’re saying; individual choice has to be made.

PERSON: You mean cultural?

HEFFNER: Your question…


HEFFNER: …certainly is a good one; individual choice, and I guess I really meant for cultural choice. Do we look at what has happened in the past ten or twenty years in terms of the development of feminism, in terms of the cultural changes you refer to? And do we say that the downside is minimal, or do we say that the downside is quite so great that we wonder whether the changes being made are the changes we want being made?

PERSON: It may turn out that you are a chauvinist…

HEFFNER: …everybody…(laughter)

PERSON: …because I don’t see feminism as something that has occurred in a vacuum. I really see feminism as a response to social crisis. So if you say, “what do I see as the social crisis”, I see the social crisis that people argue about how to rear children. Whereas the fact is that most…I think the statistic are these: Six percent of children are raised in traditional families where the wife does not work, where the husband is at home. That’s a very small percentage. So that people are arguing about something which is not a realistic problem. The realistic problem is how to raise a generation of kids in absolutely the best way, when so many of them are not raised at home. Now, if you say they should be raised a home, I would say you can dictate that to the middle class through propaganda, but there’s a problem of national proportions. That’s what I mean by having to look at women across the spectrum and say “What is best for women? What is best for men? And what is best for children?” That’s very difficult to put together. But in that sense, one has to look beyond traditional values and really look at different socioeconomic classes.

HEFFNER: As you go back to that crystal ball about which I was positing, what do you see as happening in the next generation?

PERSON: I think people are going to address this issue. I think the psychiatric profession has just done something interesting. It has elected a woman president of the American Psychiatric…I was told that wouldn’t happen by people who are very important in their organization. In fact, she won by a landslide with a big vote. I think that indicates that people are interested in addressing certain issues that are mental health issues. One of the issues is their frequent childcare, a very good daycare probably, since lots of people do not have the option, the real freedom of arguing what is openly best, they must go out and work. They have no choice. And therefore, the major social issue is as professionals, what our responsibility is to that.

HEFFNER: What is that responsibility as professionals?

PERSON: Oh, I think the psychiatric profession has a very serious responsibility to look into the best forms of day care, and really to set up models that will serve as models for the communities as a whole.

HEFFNER: And therapeutic work with individuals? What is its responsibility?

PERSON: Well, that’s always a contract between an individual and a physician. There…well, you know, it depends…one never dictates. One only helps facilitate…

HEFFNER: You smile as you say…

PERSON: Well, because obviously people don’t work together who don’t share values in common. People figure that out rather quickly.

HEFFNER: Or come to share values.

PERSON: Mmm…I would object to that.

HEFFNER: I mean, it starts off as…

PERSON: No, no, no, you have to be very careful as a psychiatrist not to engage in imposing one’s values. One has to really help somebody fulfill what they want, or explore why they want it. People change their mind in therapy, but that has to come from something internal, not from the value of the therapist.

HEFFNER: But, ah, there’s no agenda? There’s no psychiatric agenda…

PERSON: Absolutely. There are agendas, and they are discussed early on. Sometimes it’s very simple. You have a symptom. You want to get rid of a symptom. Sometimes it’s more global. Sometimes it’s “I don’t get along with people. What can I do about that? I can’t float a relationship. I don’t do well at work.”

HEFFNER: You know, I was reading through this new Esquire publication, which in dark secrets (???) you and a friend, Will Galen (?) are quoted at great length here, and I wondered about this business. You both seem to feel that women have been ruled by their unconscious, and that the future seems to mean that they will be ruled less by their unconscious and more by their conscious. But it puts them now in one hell of a bind. Is that a fair…Will says that, and I think what you say and quoted sort of supports that notion…is that a fair statement?

PERSON: Well, it’s a fair statement with a few amendments. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Give me the first ten.

PERSON: I’ll give you one. Everybody is ruled by their unconscious to some degree. You know, people have the same unconscious conflicts at different times in history throughout. We believe that to be true. What’s different is the possible solutions to those conflicts. So to say that women are caught in a bind of changing values and to say that they have unconscious conflicts should not distinguish them from men, who are also ruled by the unconscious.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, I…talk before about flying up to Buffalo. And I was thinking about flying up to California. Reading a book, I was sitting next to a young lady…I was reading this book that made reference to fear. And she leaned over and said to me, “You know, fear is the spur for women.” And I said “Oh”? And we got into a whole conversation on this. She honestly felt not for men, and that shocked me. But you know, as I read Will Galen…maybe I’m not reading him right…it seems to me he does see that difference, and emphasizes it.

PERSON: He emphasizes at this time that men and women may be afraid of different things but he’s the most articulate person in the world, so he should come and speak for himself.

HEFFNER: …to do it…

PERSON: Absolutely. But he says men are frightened of performance. Women fear loss of love. Oh, they’re afraid, and afraid of different things at different times of their lives.

HEFFNER: You believe, I gather, that that fear of loss of love will be changed, diminished, eradicated as time goes on?

PERSON: Well, no I’m not a…I’m an American optimist, but not that optimistic. I don’t think that fears ever disappear from human beings.

HEFFNER: You’ve distinguished for me, the fears of men and the fears of women.


HEFFNER: Then how will there ever be this equality that you’ve addressed yourself to?

PERSON: You know, I’m going to try to address myself to that. I’ve addressed myself to greater opportunities, to working out some fears, but that isn’t to say that one gets rid of it all. I mean, reading through Esquire, I read some remarkably optimist appraisals of the future, but they leave out some things that make life difficult…for people to live without fears at all.

HEFFNER: But the fears of women, you still feel, are different, from those of men.

PERSON: There’s overlap. What they say in terms of any measurement is that women aren’t “here” and men aren’t “here”…there’s more like a cross-over.

HEFFNER: Come back in twenty years, and we’ll see if the cross-over has changed.

PERSON: Oh, it would be my great pleasure…

HEFFNER: Thanks.

PERSON: …if I have to wait that long.

HEFFNER: Thanks, Dr. Person, and in between that time, too.


HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I do hope you join us, too, next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.

This is Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. We would like to know your ideas and your feelings on the subject we just discussed. Please send your comments to me in care of THE OPEN MIND to this station.