The Compassion Trap

PART III Woman at work

A good deal of the philosophy of women's liberation is widely accepted (if not universally acceptable) in America today; in more progressive political circles it is recognized as having significant meaning for other broader movements of social change. With increasing acceptance there is always a danger that a new idea and the term which embodies it may degenerate into an easy, simplistic catchword or petrify into a stereotyped dogma, inhibiting the very growth it is intended to promote. To avoid this danger of easy popularity, we must examine carefully the widely different, subtle, and often unperceived areas of peonage to which women are subjected with the same care and attention we expend on the more obvious exploitations. Therefore, instead of dealing with the more militant or politically sophisticated aspects of our common theme, which have been well publicized in a wide range of media, I want to analyze the social philosophy and thinking that has defined and shaped certain dominant characteristics of the feminine function, with which all Western women are saddled in one way or another. I shall describe the interacting forces that have developed and sustained the role despite its growing anachronistic inappropriateness, concentrating on the circular process by which biological endowment imposes a certain pattern of functioning, from which develops a self-perception that helps to reinforce, perpetuate, and extend the role.
The main target of my concern is the pervasive belief (amounting almost to an article of faith) that woman's primary and most valuable social function is to provide the tender and compassionate components of life and that through the exercise of these particular traits, women have set themselves up as the exclusive model for protecting, nurturing, and fostering the growth of others. Fundamental to this protective nurturing is the socially invaluable process of synthesizing diffuse and fragmented elements into a viable whole—a basic ingredient of any society's development and survival. This synthesizing operation informs the activities of every woman, whether it is expressed in a one-to-one personal relationship, in keeping more complex elements of a family cemented into a unity, or in actually maintaining the practical habitat of a home that eases the day-to-day living of those whom it shelters. This arbitrary social definition of woman's prime function (in value terms) has encouraged the hypertrophied growth of a single circumscribed area of the feminine psyche, while other qualities have been subjected to gradual but persistent attrition. This social manipulation of women's psychological resources is exploitation as blatant as the economic version that keeps them out of higher salaried jobs and pays them less than men at whatever level they are. Furthermore, it has much in common with the more grossly exploitative view of women as purely sexual objects.
The compassion trap, with its underpinning philosophy and social systems, is one of the strongest forces in today's world that subverts and distorts both the individual identities and the social roles of women. It represents a residual and anachronistic perception of their innate characteristics and social capacities; its uncritical perpetuation leads to an extremity of confused thinking as well as a great deal of frustrated and basically ineffectual activity. The resultant misplacement of vital energies has equally negative effects upon women, who are caught in these self-defeating trivialities, and upon society, which is deprived of the vital and significant contributions that women might make.
The basic framework within which the protective nurturing role of women has been developed and sustained is the social organism of the family, which originated from the biological imperative to ensure the successful reproduction of the species and the survival of the young into independent maturity. This domestic paradigm illustrates in sharpest relief the situation of women as reservoirs of protective and nurturing forces. It is the primary device for keeping women in both practical and emotional bondage. Less clearly realized is that the psychological mainspring from which the woman's family-centered role draws its staying power has an equally potent influence upon the course and character of women's activities outside the home. Briefly, the single woman, who is not tied to husband and children, or the married woman who has partially escaped into a professional role frequently finds herself in the same sort of bind, confronting basically similar demands and reacting with similar responses. To understand this seeming paradox, we need to look at the professional world that is open to women and understand how it developed.
Educated women in employment tend to cluster in the so-called helping professions. Although this type of work is commonly thought to be most appropriate for, or congenial to, women's nature, the more significant and prosaic explanation is that only these areas of professional employment have been open to women in any large numbers until very recent times, when the strongholds of male-dominated professions have begun to accept a token number of women. The most familiar of the women-dominated professions are secretarial work, nursing, teaching, social work, psychology, and the paramedical services of occupational, physical, and speech therapy; there is also some controlled infiltration into the jealously guarded preserves of medicine and the natural sciences. The position these professions occupy in the hierarchy of social values, the small degree of direct executive power they carry compared with that wielded by other more prestigious professions, and the sort of functions they involve all help to explain why they have been graciously ceded to women and informally defined as their legitimate province. In order to understand this sociological phenomenon more clearly, I want to look at some other factors that may be associated with the origin and purpose of these professions, particularly as they relate to some of the broader trends in social and economic development.
The emergence of the helping professions on a significant scale from the middle of the nineteenth century can be interpreted as the psychosocial counterpart of the general trend in economic productivity that shifted the site of industrial activity from the small personal setting of individual homes to larger impersonal centers, usually factories, outside. This economic change made it easier to institute the division of labor that was a prerequisite for extracting the maximum profit from industrial enterprise; thus, it provided an opening for technological specialization and the eventual breaking down of complex productive processes into a mass of minute, separate repetitive activities. The helping professions followed a similar course; their proliferation into the complex array of different welfare services reflected an identical process of separating many of the more highly specialized aspects of the nurturing and protective functions from their original place within the home. This division of labor within the protective and nurturing sphere was necessary partly to keep pace with the social problems and issues that were an inevitable by-product of technological specialization in industry, in addition, when one or both parents were out of the home for a substantial part of the day, the acculturating functions they had previously discharged had to be delegated elsewhere. The helping professions were the institutionalized mechanisms by which a rapidly evolving society maintained its integrity and continuity. Education was needed to transmit technological skills to succeeding generations; more recently the emerging discipline of social work has been essential for interpreting the intangible effects of the dominant culture by which the overall functioning pattern of society is governed. In this way the synthesizing function traditionally discharged by women was translated to a wider sphere beyond the home and spread its influence through a broader range of activities; instead of (or in addition to) keeping the family intact and maximally functional, women became involved in housekeeping tasks on behalf of society at large and assumed responsibility for keeping its operation viable.
Outstanding historical examples of this sort of commitment are Jane Addams in Chicago, who helped immigrating foreigners to find their feet in the swiftly developing American society; Lillian Wald, who initiated a health and welfare service for the poor (again mostly immigrants) of New York City; Julia Lathrop, who first directed the U.S. Children's Bureau. Behind these famous figures was an increasingly large band of ordinary individuals (teachers, nurses, social workers), who carried the day-to-day responsibility for broadly conceived national projects and continued the protective, nurturing process at the more intimate level of face-to-face dealing with children, parents, and families.
In discharging this extramural formalized mandate of protection and succor, such women were, and have always been, subject to almost identical demands and standards of responsibility as their married counterparts experience in the more overtly, recognizably feminine setting of home and nursery. Both family and professional commitments incorporate the insidious notion that the needs, demands, and difficulties of other people should be woman's major, if not exclusive, concern and that meeting these must take precedence over all other claims. Implicit in the role that derives from this conviction is the virtue of subordinating individual needs to the welfare of others and the personal value and supposed reward of deriving a vicarious satisfaction from this exercise. This indirect expression of talents and skills and these rewards reaped secondhand are probably the chief features distinguishing women from men in their professional lives. Obviously, women's geographical shift out of the home away from domestic ploys did not involve a similar psychological emancipation from the pervasive concept of protection and nurturing. Thus, although women may appear to have achieved economic freedom by performing a job that is independent of the practical ties of children and husband, in terms of psychological commitment they are generally subject to the same sort of thinking; their modus operandi utilizes the identical resources and skills as the homebound wife and mother. This observation holds true of all the helping professions, but I am relating it specifically to social work because this is my own professional bailiwick and because the role of the professional social worker and the status of the profession have much in common with that of the housewife. For example, both have a broad mandate that is not clearly defined or specially visible to outsiders; neither on first sight appears to require skills recognizable as unique and essential to its successful operation; for both, the primary objective is to facilitate the growth and adjustment of others and help to make cohesive what is often fragmentary or disintegrating. The functions and skills of both social workers and home-based women are invariably seen as valuable only when their temporary absence results in disruption and malfunctioning, in either the small family or larger society. Prescience of these dangers and the nagging imperative to protect or rescue the vulnerable from their negative effects is the bait that has led most women into the trap where they are presently thrashing about in frustration.
The title of this essay was chosen to convey the idea that overemphasis on certain qualities and the social over-enforcement of functions associated with them have trapped women into a false and basically untenable position. A metaphor based on the karate match might be as apt. Just as the karate player's strength is turned back against him, woman's supposed social strengths have been gradually turned to her disadvantage and now are used to blunt her protest and to bar her escape from the confining role that their exclusive exercise has forced upon her. Women in general have been restrained from any uncompromising or threatening action on their own behalf for fear of negative repercussions on other individuals toward whom they stand in a protective role. In this way shaky and unsatisfactory marriages have been kept going for the sake of the children—this is the most commonly cited example—and in the case of unattached women, career opportunities have often been sacrificed because of some other dependent claims on their emotional resources, such as an aging or sick relative or a family of nieces and nephews that needs some buttressing from the outside. In the area of employment and industrial relations, women's claims for equal treatment and professional equity have often been weakened by their reluctance to apply the final sanction of walking out, for fear of the adverse effects on clients. In familiar situations, women find it extremely difficult to accept the short-term expediency of permitting (or even failing to prevent) harm to others, even when the long-term results may be highly beneficial. Occasionally, a brave wife walks out of an impossible family setup and leaves the other spouse to rally resources for the children, but such behavior is almost always heavily censured. In addition, the current pattern of family life, which dumps homemaking and child care exclusively upon the wife and gives the husband the sole responsibility for income maintenance, creates a realistic difficulty for the husband when the woman abandons her part of the contract.
Professionals in the helping areas have started to resist this sort of emotional blackmail by deliberately participating in boycotts, strikes, and walkouts. Both New York City's social workers and its public school teachers have rigorously demonstrated the necessity and value of forcibly protesting conditions that are inimical to employees (and therefore in the long run must also have an adverse effect upon the clients and children for whom they have a protective responsibility). Women as a whole need to feel justified in taking this stand when it is necessary; in order to insure that they are not constantly lured into the wrong sort of behavior for fear of doing harm, women need to examine their role in today's society, and particularly the psychological contribution that they make to the collusive pattern mat so easily perverts their judgment and thinking.
To borrow a clinical metaphor, diagnosis has to precede treatment. Before women can put an end to this unsatisfactory situation, they must look into the reasons why it continues to persist even in the face of such frustrating consequences. One cogent explanation that is not immediately obvious has to do with the characteristics of society and the particular pressures they put upon women in their state of social transition. Today's fragmented and disintegrating world makes it essential for every individual and group of individuals to have an easily denned, clearly perceived, and socially reinforced role, which will preserve a sense of real identity and counteract the climate of futility and the relentless assault of status-conscious, competitive individualism. Because of their ambiguous status, women are especially prone to these socially alienating influences and find it very tempting to be designated as the person or group who has special understanding and insights, who can be relied upon to smooth away difficulties and reconcile warring elements, and who remains the willing repository for everyone else's unsolved problems. The overriding need to feel useful and wanted in a social system that in other respects does not accord women much, if any, value or opportunity for really significant participation makes most leap at this offer of involvement, even when it means stifling their underlying sense of frustrated disappointment with the soothing rationalization that personal ambition and success are corrupting, and that they remain the salt of the earth through adding savor and essential strength to the lives of others. The other side of the coin is that women's personal acculturation to the ideal of constant helpfulness and their early habit of thought that constrains them to this emotional indenture produce a high level of susceptibility to this very argument, particularly when extricating themselves from its premises takes so much intellectual effort and emotional fortitude. A lot is said and written about the exploitation of women as sexual objects to further the psychological needs of the male and the consumer needs of an overproducing economy, but what I am talking about is an exactly similar process in which not physical sexual attributes, but psychological ones, are subject to similar prostitution and misuse. This applies to the invaluable secretary, the personal assistant at the executive level, the woman physician in a rigidly structured medical hierarchy, the social worker, nurse, teacher (and many others in feminine jobs) who feed their skills into a social program that they have rarely designed and that, with few exceptions, is fundamentally geared to the maintenance of society's status quo in all its destructive, exploitative aspects. Emotional manipulation of this sort skews women's vision and creates the delusion that they are making a valuable contribution to society's well-being—which on examination is clearly impossible to maintain on several counts.
First, our society is primarily committed to destruction, of both obvious and subtle kinds; even benign social institutions (such as peace movements or progressive political groups) are riven by divisiveness and hostilities. Second, almost every human relationship operates from a baseline of exploitation and self-interest rather than mutual trust, and the social goals of most individuals and groups are guided by the profit motive. In this context, where piracy (or rugged individualism or freedom, whichever term you choose to describe the cutthroat interactive patterns of today) is the accepted and reinforced mode of operation, women face the devastating dilemma that their traditional commitment to invest their skills, ideas, emotional and practical energies in other peoples' enterprises must either be dispensed with or turned to the immoral and profitless end of advancing the personal ambitions of ruthless predatory individuals (or groups) or shoring up the crumbling efforts of inadequate ones. Third, the time-honored function of reciprocal assistance, which is another means by which women discharged their synthesizing role, cannot be appropriately fulfilled today because it depends on a social cohesiveness and stability that are missing from today's scene.
Neither the practical patterns of social life nor its psychological undercurrents are conducive to awareness of interdependence and the common weal, both of which are based on the old assumption of geographical stability and historical continuity. Because of the frenetic pace of social mobility in this country, people move in and out of communities and neighborhoods with frightening rapidity; ongoing supportive relationships cannot be formed or sustained in the same way, either through informal social channels or the formalized intervention provided by social work. More disconcerting is the fact that the general disintegration of social values is creating a similar instability in emotional, social, moral, and political stances, so that mutual trust between people, which is the basis of social cohesiveness, is gradually being eroded. In such a social context, the organizing resources and concern for the well-being of others that have characterized women's function within the family, and also its derivatives, the helping professions, are being plundered, not in order to keep a basically healthy society in shape, but to prolong the moribund life of a corrupt and decaying social order.
hi the field of social work, this pointless operation is particularly glaring, since as a profession we are asked to address ourselves to individual social problems which are only amenable to temporary alleviation, because of the social pathology from which they spring. In many areas of serious social maladjustment, the solution would be hastened if social workers withheld their remedial intervention and permitted critical stresses to mount to an explosive level; this would compel a drastic and more basic attack on the underlying problems, instead of a piecemeal concern with the more superficial symptomatic manifestations. Very few of us, either as individuals or as employees of a particular agency, would feel comfortable taking this seemingly ruthless path if it meant permitting the continuation of suffering that could be prevented, even though the long-range gains might be considerable. This short-range focus on social and personal problems, their origins and their cure, is another illustration of the compassion trap; it partially explains why women social workers do not occupy a high proportion of the profession's executive posts, which would give them power to plan basic long-range preventive services as well as those of the more immediate remedial kind. Instead, the majority have stayed at the practitioner level and concerned themselves with the narrower area of individual interpersonal problems, where their intuitive and empathetic qualities have had scope for expression to good particular effect, but with little total cumulative impact in proportion to the extent, nature, and complexity of the social problems that challenge the profession today. From another perspective, social workers, particularly women, are at a further disadvantage because their profession has a relatively low status: their expert formulations of diagnosis and treatment are liable to be ignored or overruled by colleagues who represent more dominant power groups in the professional arena.
The lack of acknowledged executive power at both planning and operational levels is psychologically very debilitating and probably accounts for certain features of the social-work profession that have been open to criticism. One of these is the long-standing preoccupation with the intrapsychic aspects of social maladjustment that has been at least partially responsible for the more practical aspects of social dislocation being overlooked or neglected. Being faced with overwhelming social problems without effective power to change them made social work just another more sophisticated housekeeping function. To escape from this burden of housekeeping chores, with their repetitive lack of essential creativity, social workers carved out an area for themselves in which they were able to develop the creative, imaginative aspects of their trade. Unfortunately, this heavy intellectual investment in the psychological and emotional factors of maladjustment has meant that the more overtly social components have not been well served.
A second feature of professional social work that directly reflects the profession's fundamental lack of power is the infantilizing system of supervision which, until recently, subjected the responsibilities and tasks of fully-trained workers to regular, continuous scrutiny and criticism by senior colleagues. The degree and duration of such surveillance far exceeded that practiced by other professions that carry equal responsibility for client welfare; more often than not the practice has been determined by the need to maintain a hierarchical structure rather than by the actual needs of workers. I cite this system as an illustration of the officious, busy, and basically trivial activities which people—in this case mainly women—have to resort to when more viable channels for expressing their basically sound and vigorous resources are systematically blocked. This assumption draws some support from the interesting fact that supervision tends to be most scrupulous (in the pejorative, obsessional sense) in regard to casework which concentrates on interpersonal problems and psychological activity, whereas workers who are concerned with organizing community resources to provide practical interventive services for real needs are often allowed to operate with greater independence and freedom for innovation. Very recently I attended a conference of social workers at which the main theme was advocacy for the mentally retarded and their besieged families—that is, the social-service responsibility for finding services to help compensate for their handicap and for exerting pressure to get such services developed when they are not in supply. Implicit in this function is the securing and protection of basic human rights. The most interesting feature of this meeting was the vigorous enthusiasm that this approach met with, as though it were novel and rather daring; less diverting were the persevering ruminations that went on about how to fulfill this rote— what skills did it demand, how could they be inculcated in practice, what changes were needed in professional training to ensure competence in this task. Since the entire expertise of social work rests upon a fine and subtle understanding of human relations and the behavior they give rise to, it struck me as ironic that advocacy on behalf of an unquestionably weak and vulnerable client group should evoke such doubts; after all, the task requires attitudes and skills inherent to the profession. I think the explanation is that advocacy requires a more aggressive stance than the more familiar one of compassion and protection; in the last analysis it may demand confrontation and conflict. At first sight, this activity seems the antithesis of the nurturing and protective role, and it is not a coincidence that this new social-work concept has been borrowed from the almost exclusively masculine profession of law, which deals directly with balances of power. However, the advocate's approach has been steadily gaining ground and is now recognized as the principal, if not only, way of securing equity and justice for the vast group of underprivileged and socially displaced individuals who are the profession's most needy clientele. This trend signifies an important stage in professional growth in that it implies a shift from a stance that is basically submissive
to one that is potentially dominant. Social workers have generally been concerned with helping clients to gain insight into the dynamics of their problems, particularly the contribution made by their own personalities, so that with this understanding they can both modify their behavior and achieve a more satisfactory adjustment to the social pressures weighing upon them. The advocacy approach directs itself to understanding the dynamics of society that has disenfranchised so many citizens, regardless of personal strengths and weaknesses, and to establishing procedures that will secure their basic human and social rights. There is a marked parallel between this change of direction in social work and the new self-images and activities that women are assuming as part of the liberation movement; both groups encounter similar problems. The advocacy role, for example, is liable to involve negative repercussions for the client whose rights are involved. An obvious example of this is harassment by landlords when bad housing practices are exposed; within an institution, reporting staff for neglect or abuse of a patient may place the latter in the vulnerable position of hostage, unless there is sufficient administrative supervision to control aggressive staff behavior.
This second example illustrates my earlier point about the relative impotence of social work as a profession because it rarely negotiates from a position of equality or power. There are two main reasons for this: first, social workers' own attitude, already described, inhibits them from opposing the establishment framework within which they operate, even though this implicates them in policies and practices that represent a compromise of professional ethics and philosophy. The other reason is that social work is rarely accepted as a top-priority service because its function is never entirely clear to outsiders—in contrast to teaching or nursing—and in most instances its value is only manifested through its absence—that is when a social crisis develops that could have clearly been averted by earlier intervention. This fact highlights the features that this profession, which is a paradigm of feminine professional involvement, has in common with the condition of women in general; the more effective preventive aspects of both are subordinated to their remedial aspects, and both are usually involved when a mess has occurred that needs clearing up. Unfortunately, the brief moment of prominent and visible value that these crises offer to both groups colludes with their traditional self-image of indispensability and raises hopes that if they demonstrate their invaluable skills and strengths by retrieving precarious situations, they shall eventually be asked to participate at an earlier stage and in a more effective role.
I should like to elaborate on this by describing some hypothetical situations drawn from my current professional setting (a clinical and residential facility for the mentally retarded) to show the negative impact upon clients' welfare that often occurs because of the inferior status of social work and its diminished involvement in decision-making and framing policy. These illustrations pertain to social work's involvement in administration, medical counseling, and scientific research. To take the administrative sphere first, social workers can often apply their insights and experience of interpersonal relationships and social interactions to predict or interpret minor malfunctioning in the institutional system that is symptomatic of more serious disturbance and requires prompt and appropriate administrative intervention. The problem and the requisite action may be at the very simple and seemingly insignificant level of keeping the care-taking staff and residents in their charge informed about changes in organization that will affect the lives of both—for example, transfer from one residential unit to another. If the administration does not appreciate how crucial communication and explanation are to successful management, this rather rudimentary courtesy may be overlooked, with the resultant confusion, resentment, poor morale, and diminished efficiency inevitably having an adverse effect upon the residents' or patients' well-being. Invariably, social workers are not consulted on such changes, even though knowledge of the group dynamics involved and the theory of systems are part of their professional stock-in-trade.
Family counseling on serious medico-social issues is another instance in which the professional viewpoint of social work may be underestimated when it does not accord with the more dominant medical standpoint. The field of genetic counseling provides an interesting illustration. Certain hereditary anomalies affecting the nervous system can be diagnosed in utero by a new technique (amniocentesis) with the option of abortion. This is a very exciting medical discovery, making it possible to prevent the birth of babies with lifetime handicaps of a very serious and crippling nature. However, there is a danger that the relative ease and safety of this technique will promote a mechanical practice of repeated alternation of conception and abortion until a healthy pregnancy is confirmed. Such a possibility overlooks the serious social implications, particularly the emotional strain of interrupted pregnancies on the woman. In these circumstances the socially therapeutic measure of adoption might be a better solution to the couple's problem than a succession of bad trial runs. Unless, however, the physician in charge of the case has imagination, insight into the social implications, and enough professional humility to consider another colleague's perspective, this alternative of building up a family from existing children who are physically sound but socially risky may not be preferred with the same enthusiastic support as the clinical route of continuing to try to produce a new healthy child.
In the field of scientific research involving human subjects, there is an even greater divergence of viewpoint between the respective representatives of research and social work, with a corresponding gap between their relative power. In America research still carries disproportionate value and prestige because it fits the residual pioneer psychology that is always moving forward to new frontiers, and because such products as the flight to the moon are an excellent demonstration of conspicuous success and its correlate of power. The operational arena of social work is the exact opposite: its main preoccupation is with failure and with powerless people, who may be highly conspicuous as in the inner cities or chronically unobtrusive as in rural Appalachia. With scientific research and humanistic social issues occupying the polarized ends of the American value scale, it is not easy for the profession of social work to match its claims for consideration against the more socially esteemed claims of research. If an individual suffers from an unusual clinical condition, on which scientific data is greatly coveted, strong arguments will be advanced on the long-term value to medical research and future humanity, but less thought will be given to the emotional and psychological effects that the investigation may have upon the experimental subject. In the last analysis the suggestion that research be abandoned in preference to disturbing the psychological and social equilibrium of an individual would almost never be sustained; because of the profession's lack of power, the social worker's intervention does not get beyond persuasion or denunciation, and she cannot prevent the situation. Instead, the social worker involved is thrown back on the all-too-familiar function of retrieving the damage and trying to repair the shattered Humpty-Dumpty self-image which research ambition has knocked off its rather precarious wall. This example illustrates perfectly the trap in which social workers are caught through being without power to prevent the catastrophe and through their almost innate drive to rescue and reintegrate the pieces after it has happened.
Earlier in this essay, I justified my theme by indicating the need to explore the social and psychological origins of the compassion trap concept before the patterns of personal and social behavior that have instituted and maintained it could be changed. For a concluding note I offer some cursory ideas on how the social definition of women can be overhauled by a critical review of the inventory of personal and social qualities generally ascribed to them and a realistic assessment of how relevant they are now to the exigencies of society today.
The primary imperative for women who intend to assume a meaningful and decisive role in today's social change is to begin to perceive themselves as having an identity and personal integrity that has as strong a claim for being preserved intact as that of any other individual or group. This attitude will require women to develop an explicit sense of the value of their own concerns, and, at times, to insist that they take precedence. It will also compel them to abandon the role of compassionate sibyl at everyone's beck and call, because being permanently available to other people's needs hinders women from pursuing their chosen avocations with the steadfast concentration that is essential for their successful completion.
These new stances will differ greatly from women's present circumstances, where they are constantly enmeshed in the conflict between the genuine claims of other people for succor and protection and their own equally urgent needs for personal development. This new situation will raise the fundamental question of who will assume the care-taking and healing tasks—which will always be needed in any society—if women refuse to be meekly conscripted for this vital but undervalued service. Although the prospect of women not in their accustomed place is daunting, in fact it may lead to a reshuffling of roles and tasks based on individual preferences and inclinations, rather than the arbitrary division according to biological sexual endowment and social definitions.
This reorganization would speak to Ruth Benedict's concept of »congenial responses,« which postulates that every individual has innate and personal tendencies that may be constructively exploited or underplayed according to how well they synchronize with the predominant value system of the prevailing culture. In our society's rigid pattern of stratification (grid would be a better word implying a mechanical rather than organic process) by sex, class, race, this very valuable principle has been violated to the extent that a large proportion of individuals have had no opportunity to recognize, let alone express, their »congenial responses.« The roles and functions that have been imposed upon women illustrate this sort of social outrage: women have been compelled to contort their psychological and social make-up, so that certain features have been exaggerated into embarrassing prominence, while other more vital areas have been constricted almost beyond recognition.
An important task of the women's movement is to free women's congenial responses from the restrictive cultural regime and present them in a new and more functional shape. This demands that a great deal of thought be given to how women perceive and delineate themselves, so that they can project a living image to replace the lifeless and rigid stereotype that society dictates. The urgent—some might say strident—voice of the women's liberation movement is a much overdue attempt to redefine women in a fresh set of terms that reflects their congenial characteristics and portrays them from a series of different perspectives rather than a few highly selective angles. Implicit in the intellectual effort is the importance of defining women's characteristics in a culture-free way, as far as that is possible, and ensuring that we keep in mind a wide range of emotional, intellectual, and psychological options.
Women must not fall into the easy pitfall of delineating themselves solely in terms of their revolutionary protest, which, though it has crucial relevance to their current situation, cannot serve as a lasting definition. Further, though the plight of all women needs a drastic overhaul, not everyone will want the same style of improvement or espouse the same methods of bringing it about. Women who are currently the spokeswomen for their exploited sex must try to understand attitudes and aspirations that are at variance with their own. Otherwise, one brand of doctrinaire tyranny will be exchanged for another, alienating a substantial portion of women who are not yet ready for total separation from the symbiotic relationship with the »dominant« male sex to which they have been acculturated; women will continue to set themselves into molds which have different shapes but still represent a confining mode of living.
It is imperative that an accurate assessment be made of which of the so-called womanly characteristics have continued validity and can be used to useful social ends. This may be rashly venturing into the heavily mined area of controversy about whether differences between the sexes are fundamental and real or artificially contrived by cultural forces. At the risk of expounding heresy, my feeling is that, provided thoughtful analysis instead of global stereotyping is used, many of these questions can be disposed of by pragmatically considering the tasks needing to be done and who is best equipped to do them ("best« meaning the individual or group who can discharge them most effectively through the maximum utilization of special skills). Whether these skills are fundamental and innate or have developed to a high level of proficiency through long-accustomed use is relatively immaterial. In this respect two attributes particular to women have an increasingly important place in today's society: flexibility of operation and the capacity for intuitive awareness of personal and social phenomena. Flexibility is a characteristic that most women have had to foster in order to survive their limiting circumstances without paralyzing frustration. Because their skills and creative energy have been mainly expressed through promoting the successful growth and functioning of others, they have developed unusual versatility concerning their own preferences and goals, a heightened ability to grasp opportunity when it occurs, an equal capacity for withstanding disappointment when it is withdrawn, and unlimited competence in making things over, whether these are food, clothing, furniture, the home itself, or the total social situation within which they operate. In a period of rapid and major social change flexibility in thought and action is an extremely valuable quality; one of the outstanding contributions that the women's liberation movement can make to the overall revolutionary trend in this country is to set a model for nondoo-trinaire policies and flexible goals. The other quality frequently attributed to women is their apparent capacity for picking up subliminal clues which, when put together, can produce a diagnostic assessment of individuals or situations with more penetrating insight than is achieved by more usual processes of conscious thought. This celebrated characteristic is neither universally nor exclusively feminine, but it is likely to be developed to a higher level in women. When women's satisfactions and raisons d'etre depend upon the skillful manipulation of other people's well-being, it is incumbent upon them to develop a very finely calibrated skill for tuning in to the needs and moods of those individuals (including the vulnerable, dependent, and inarticulate young) for whom they are responsible so that they may be ready with the appropriate response. The group tensions within family structure, the shifting of emphases and sites of power must all be picked up by the psychic radar equipment of women before they explode into consciousness and disrupt the group's functioning. Mutatis mutandis, this seismographic quality gives women an invaluable tool for divining subterranean stresses in larger group systems and alerting the participating individuals to their presence and to the possible courses they will take if not controlled. Men have not needed to develop this subtle influence to the same extent because their exercise of power has been overt and explicit; but in a social setting that is unstable and unpredictable, men's power tactics tend to be outmoded and lack the capacity for adroit maneuvering, rather like the Spanish Armada when naval warfare took on a new style.
One further point seems to have equal relevance to women and their self-perceptions and social roles, and to social workers, particularly women workers. Although both these subgroups have developed and practiced skills that are indispensable to the healthy functioning of society, neither has evolved a consistently systematic method for transmitting their arcane arts either to other individuals outside of their coterie or to successors in their own field. It was, for example, left to a masculine representative of a male-dominated profession to write the classic on child-rearing, even though this knowledge and understanding form part of the repertoire of skills possessed sooner or later by most wives and mothers.
Another instance of the same phenomenon is a recent report in a leading social-work journal that the bulk of literary output in this field is produced by men. Among its observations on this phenomenon, the article mentioned that women favored teaching over writing as a channel for expressing their intellectual, as opposed to practical, concerns in social work. Teaching is one of the most conspicuous helping professions; it strikes me as significant that women social workers fall back on this outlet for their intellectual skills, thus demonstrating, perhaps unconsciously, their continued loyal adherence to the nurturing model. It represents also the persistent attraction of personal involvement as opposed to the more impersonal cerebral activity; however, the explanation for this preference is not an inborn and immutable tendency so much as the harsh fact that personal, concretely focused activities do not require the same kind of singleminded concentration as do writing and other creative ventures, and they suffer less from the interruption of external activities. In other words, women (and particularly women in social work) are less comfortable dealing with concepts than concrete problems, not because they lack imagination, insight, and conceptualizing skills, but because their self-perception does not permit them to give this item top priority. In a crisis which demands the full exercise of the compassionate mandate, women are much more ready to push aside a creative enterprise in its favor, even though in the long run the latter might well have represented a social contribution of more lasting value. The model for this sort of commitment to essential mundane needs was set by Martha in the New Testament, who chose to exercise her homemaking skills in a hospitable enterprise in preference to listening to divine wisdom. Her choice and the rebuke it drew forth evoke the question I have been trying, thus far unsatisfactorily, to solve in this essay: to what extent do women slide into the mold that society has shaped for them because they enjoy this useful self-effacement, and how much are they inextricably ensnared by firmly entrenched, outmoded patterns of social thinking and behavior, which are hard to break down and invariably involve hurt, harm, and at best the disruption of an accepted, smooth-functioning social regime. Since I cannot offer a satisfactory answer, I propose to end by recounting a small and outwardly inconspicuous incident that occurred a few weeks ago and provides an almost perfect illustration of the points I have been trying to make in this essay, particularly the trap into which women are so often forced, almost unwittingly, by expected social custom and observances.
I was spending the weekend with a family of close friends in which both parents are scientific writers. By common consent all three of us adults decided to reserve Saturday afternoon for a writing session; to that end we turned down all social engagements for that day, including one from a very favorite common friend. My hostess' elderly parents were staying in the house and were expecting a former pupil of the grandfather to visit them for tea—a very fitting activity that would make minimal demands upon the authors and yet provide a diversion for the house guests. So much for plans. Half an hour before the guest was expected, a car drew up, disgorging two young men, a young woman, and two small children. The former pupil had been driven over by his wife's sister and her family, so that what was designed as a quiet academic tête à tête mushroomed into a family party, involving the hospitable skills of all but one member of the household. Naturally, the elderly grandmother was not prepared to cope with four extra unexpected guests, so the two female writers of necessity abandoned their »scribbling« and reverted to their normal expected roles of dispensing tea, entertainment, and genial hospitality. Although reference was made to the various literary activities we were all engaged in, the invading party were completely oblivious of file major disruption they had caused, obviously seeing my hostess primarily as a wife, mother, and householder, not as a scientific woman of letters. Our third writer, the husband, fared better because he was permitted to remain cloistered in his study with tea being taken in and apologies for absence being relayed to the guests. This was quite justifiable since there was no point in three people's afternoons being ruined, but the point is that no one's comfort or peace of mind was disturbed by this behavior, nor was it regarded as anything unusual.
However, had my hostess and I adopted similar tactics a very different situation would have prevailed. The grandmother would have been flustered and upset at having to get tea and entertain four extra people, two of them young children. The carefully arranged interview between the grandfather and his former pupil would have been spoiled; the visiting family would have gone home embarrassed at having made a social gaffe instead of enjoying a pleasant afternoon in the country; the teenage daughter would probably have been intensely mortified to see her mother neglect guests. Thanks to the compassion trap and our susceptibility to its habitual claims, these vulnerable dependents were spared this painful experience. On the other hand, as so often happens with women's enterprises, our precious afternoon of creative activity was destroyed and our literary commitments had to be postponed.
This tale has a moral if we could only believe and act upon it.