Moving Beyond Words, by Gloria Steinem

Four stars, read in January/February 2012.

The first section of this book is based on a segment Gloria Steinem used to do in her speeches called “What If Freud Were Phyllis?” in which she takes Sigmund Freud’s theories, often word-for-word, and gender-reverses them to show how utterly absurd, sexist, and patriarchal they were. It is a fascinating section, and… well, ironically enough, I think Sigmund Freud may have had some intense mental problems. Seriously, I have never read anything so batshit crazy as his concept of penis envy.

“In her unconscious envy of the penis, many a woman adorns herself with feathers, sequins, furs, glistening silver and gold ornaments that ‘hang down’—what psychoanalysts call ‘representations’ of the penis,” say [Lucy] Freeman and [Dr. Herbert S.] Strean [authors of Freud & Women]. Other phallic symbols, as listed by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams: “Sticks,umbrellas, posts, trees… objects which share with the thing they represent the characteristic of penetrating into the body and injuring—thus, sharp weapons of every kind, knives, daggers, spears, sabers, but also firearms…watering-cans, or fountains… objects which are capable of being lengthened, such as hanging lamps… pencils, pen-holders, nail-files, hammers… The remarkable characteristic of the male organ which enables it to rise up in defiance of the laws of gravity [like] balloons, flying-machines and most recently zeppelin airships… Among the least easily understandable male sexual symbols are certain reptiles and fishes, and above all the famous symbol of the snake… [also] hats and overcoats or cloaks the foot or the hand…”

Balloons, “flying machines,” and zeppelins as representations of the penis? Really? Of all the arrogant, grandiose megalomania… I mean wow. And did you know that your own foot is a symbol for the penis? No, it’s true.

For a sexist worldview that makes infinitely more sense to me, Steinem has this to offer:

Women’s superior position in society was so easily mistaken for an ummutable fact of life that males had developed exaggerated versions of such inevitable but now somewhat diminished conditions as womb envy. Indeed, these beliefs in women’s natural right to dominate were the very pillars of Western matriarchal civilization—impossible to weaken without endangering the edifice. At the drop of a hat, wise women would explain that while men might dabble imitatively in the arts, they could never become truly great painters, sculptors, musicians, poets, or anything else that demanded originality, for they lacked a womb, the very source of originality. Similarly, since men had only odd, castrated breasts which created no sustenance, they might become adequate family cooks—provided they followed recipes, of course—but certainly could never become great chefs, vintners, herbalists, nutritionists, or anything else that required a flair for food, a knowledge of nutrition, or an instinct for gustatory nuance. And because childbirth caused women to use the medical system more than men did [it does—women use the health care system significantly more than men do, even excluding pregnancy-related visits], making childbirth its natural focus, there was little point in encouraging young men to become physicians, surgeons, researchers, or anything other than nurses and other low-paid health care helpers.

Even designing their own clothes could be left to men only at the risk of repetitive results. When allowed to dress themselves, they seldom could get beyond an envy of wombs and female genitals, which restricted them to an endless succession of female sexual symbols. Thus, the open button-to-neck “V” of men’s jackets was a well-known recapitulation of the “V” of female genitalia; the knot in men’s ties replicated the clitoris, while the long ends of the tie were clearly mean to represent the labia. As for men’s bow ties, they were the clitoris erecta in all its glory. All these were, to use Freud’s technical term, “representations.”

Of course, one can understand why men would not choose to replicate their own symbols—chicken necks, bits of rope, dumbbells, cigarillos, spring potatoes, kumquats, belfries, and the like—but instead would choose to admire the glories of cathedrals, stadia, and mammoth caves, the ocean, the sky, and other representations of the womb, as well as to replicate the exquisite jewel of the clitoris in the ties that were the only interesting feature of their dress.”

The second section is about Bev Francis, the strongest woman in the world (stronger than Arnold Schwarzenegger pound for pound), and I found that section equally fascinating. I wouldn’t have suspected that bodybuilding could be remotely interesting to me, but it turns out there was actually a lot of progress there in the way of defeating gender roles and defining “femininity,” and Bev Francis just sounds like such a kind, wonderful human being.

There’s a part about advertising in women’s magazines, which was—sadly—not as surprising as it should have been, given the years that have passed since this book’s publication. It made me want to go out and buy a bunch of magazines to analyze (this book was written in 1994 so I wondered how much has changed since then).

Then there are two chapters that deal with money, things like the “masculinization of wealth,” ways that rich women can be actually more trapped than poor women, and how budgeting reflects values, all of which receive very interesting treatment.

Overall it is a fantastic book, full of information about the way women fit into and are treated by the world in areas we don’t often think about. I highly, highly recommend it.


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