Book Reviews -- the Mismeasure of Women by Carol Tavris

Article excerpt

The subtitle of this elegant book, Why women are not the better sex, the inferior sex, or the opposite sex, instantly conveys its major themes and main message. While Carol Tavris would like to eschew all "oversimplified" dichotomies, including the maximalist/minimalist differences controversy (p. 288) that divides the feminist community, she takes the firm position that the psychosocial political context is the most powerful, albeit not the only, explanation for the behavior of both women and men. It is the context of oppression, poverty, and multiple frustrations, rather than female hormones, she suggests, that explains the higher rates of depression among women--although she even questions the actuality of such differences, given men's own different style of expressing despair. It is power imbalance, rather than women's "natural" speaking styles, that creates the popular "two-cultures theory of miscommunication" (p. 297). She insists that differences between moral reasoning, the need for love and attachement, the need for achievement, capacity for empathy or pacifist leanings are trivial at best, while the true differences lie in the division of labor at home and in the workplace, in the different ways that universal emotions are allowed to be expressed by each gender, and in the different gendered life stories that our culture offers women and men for making meaning out of their life experiences.

The second organizing thread of The Mismeasure of Women is Tavris's ever-present voice, arguing her positions carefully and convincingly, leaning on a large body of empirical research, and taking clear and open sides on every issue. The author addresses many of the myths that have shaped the post-Freudian psychology of women, and comes down equally hard on myths of denigration as on myths of glorification, confronting them without asperity, yet with forthrightness and courage, at the risk of stepping on many feminist political toes. Tavris is concerned that cultural feminists' and other feminist movements' emphasis on differences even when they entail female superiority, ends up with a focus on human nature rather than on sociopolitical power arrangements. Concerned with the admittedly thorny issue of the sexual survivor syndrome that has been taken up with such enthusiasm by many powerless women caught in bad relationships Tavris asks: "How does a woman come to focus exclusively on past sexual abuse as the major reason for her unhappiness, when many other current factors are often involved as well" (p. 316) and she wonders about the wisdom and usefulness, for women, of adopting victim identities. …