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The Gender Principles

Marilyn French

from Shakespeare's Division of Experience



The whole notion of dividing experience into gender principles is a "masculine" one. . . . It is "masculine" because it originally arose as a form of control. Because it is "masculine," it is linear, which is to say it has a fixed, stipulated goal.

Because the notion is linear, the gender principles may be laid on a gamut. The poles of this gamut are masculine and feminine. At the center are the qualities which are not gender-specific, which are valued by both genders. The extreme of the masculine side is the ability to kill; that of the feminine side is the ability to give birth: the two most profound of all human activities. Clustered about each pole are qualities which support the extreme.

The masculine principle, predicated on the ability to kill, is the pole of power-in-the-world. It is associated with prowess and ownership, with physical courage, assertiveness, authority, independence, and the right, rights, and legitimacy. It claims to be able to define and administer justice; and it supports law and order as an arrangement imposed and maintained by force.

Its energies are directed at making permanent, fixing the flux of experience. It exalts the individual (who wants to transcend nature and natural oblivion). It values action over feeling, thought over sensation. Its ultimate goal is transcendence of nature; its immediate goal is the attainment and maintenance of power-in-the-world, whether as force or authority. In principle, it is conceived of as a means of protecting and ensuring the continuation of the human race and its felicity.

The masculine principle is linear, temporal, and transcendent, for it aims to construct something in the world and within time that will enable the individual to transcend nature (which is cyclic), time, and mortality. The thing erected is a sort of immortality. It may be the tribe bearing the father's name, or a dynasty; it may be a noble act recorded in legend and poetry. Or an institution or tradition such as a religion, a school of thought, a school of art. . . .

As far as I can deduce, the two aspects of nature [benevolent and malevolent] were taken as a whole in pre-Christian thought. Identified then as now with the female, nature was a powerful lover and a powerful hater. Eve the instigator of the fall was also Eve the mother of all living; Aphrodite was a goddess of shifting weather, of the fruitfulness of spring and the withering of autumn, the goddess of sexual desire and of wedded love and fruitfulness; Kali incarnated both natural creativity and temporal destructiveness. The goddess was at least dual, and sometimes triple in her manifestations as nubile virgin, mother-whore, and wise old hag. But all of those manifestations were male perceptions of female power. In such a conception, the feminine principle has great power, but it is also very threatening to the "masculine" drive towards control. . . .

Christianity succeeded in defeating the supremacy of the feminine principle by splitting it in two. The Eve who was responsible for the fall from unity with nature and for the continuation of the race becomes a subversive figure "redeemed" by the Mary who accepts that she is ancilla, ancillary, a handmaiden, only a vessel in the transmission of a male line. This split in the principle of nature, the feminine principle, still exists in our perception of actual women; there is the mother madonna, and the whore; the nourisher and the castrator.

This split in the feminine principle I call inlaw and outlaw aspects of it. The outlaw aspect retains the characteristics of femaleness described by the Pythagoreans. It is associated with darkness, chaos, flesh, the sinister, magic, and above all, sexuality. It is outlaw because it is subversive, undermining of the masculine principle. It claims both poles of the gamut, the ability to give birth and the ability to kill, both of which actual females possess. Its sexuality is dynamic and nearly irresistible; it is sex as abandonment (as opposed to "masculine" sexuality, which is possession or aggression--rape) and a power like that of nature to destroy. It has no end, no goal beyond the pleasure of being. Its rebellion against the masculine principle is based not in the desire to set up controlling structures of its own, but in the desire to eradicate such structures completely. It is tremendously threatening to the masculine principle because it does not respect the constructs attendant on that principle, and because it is vital and attractive. It is vital and attractive because it contains fundamental human energy and will, and because it sees the end of life as pleasure.

Pleasure of all sorts, but especially sexual pleasure, is a threat to the masculine principle, the energies of which must be directed toward transcendent goals. Aggression and usurpation are part of the masculine principle, but beneath any "masculine" hostility is respect for structure, hierarchy, and legitimacy: revolutions may place different people or classes or races in the chairs of power, but the chairs of power remain. Permanency is the greatest good. The outlaw feminine principle is a rebellion against any permanency except the cyclic permanence of nature. These two principles comprise a dichotomy of their own: the masculine principle, the pole of power, is the pole of the individual who dedicates his life to a suprapersonal goal; the outlaw feminine principle, the pole of sex and pleasure, is the pole of people destined for oblivion who dedicate themselves to personal satisfaction.

There is, however, a third "pole." It is the inlaw feminine principle, the benevolent aspects of nature "purified" of their malevolent side. Since most of the power resident in the feminine principle as a whole is attributed to its outlaw aspect, the inlaw feminine principle is rather wispy. Its great strengths are castrated by its scission from its other half. The inlaw feminine principle is an expression of the benevolent manifestations of nature. Founded on the ability to give birth, it includes qualities like nutritiveness, compassion, mercy, and the ability to create felicity. It requires volitional subordination, voluntary relinquishment of power-in-the-world. It is impersonal, or suprapersonal, or altruistic, totally: it values above all the good of the whole, the community. It exalts the community above the individual, feeling over action, sensation over thought. It is not passive: it actively reaches for subordination for the good of the whole and finds its pleasure in that good rather than in assertion of self.

The split in the feminine principle was designed to guarantee the subordination of the benevolent aspects of nature to the human need to transcend nature, and cast into no-man's-land the outlaw feminine principle, which could then be destroyed without scruple. Each quality of the inlaw feminine principle was seen as connected to, and supportive of, a quality in the masculine principle, but always a subordinate. Mercy may only temper justice; compassion may only temper authority; feeling is essential, but must defer to thought; nutriveness must bow to power.

The associations of the gender principles are not without consequence, on moral, political, and philosophical levels. The masculine principle is, through most of literature, identified with males. When one is dealing with a field of males alone, only certain males possess full legitimacy: the rest are "women" to the males with rights (prerogatives). When one is dealing with a field of males and females, all males have right (prerogative). The male is the image of the human, the standard, in the moral, political, or philosophical dimension. The male is judged ethically, expected to conform to the laws laid down by other men, expected to take his place in the hierarchy of males without demur.

Females can never fully enter this dimension. They represent the nonhuman; they are superhuman (inlaw aspect) or subhuman (outlaw aspect), but they are differentiated from the human. They are judged mythically. Females may be saints and goddesses, or they may be whores and witches; they may be the martyred mother or wife, or the castrating bitch. In either case, they are seen only in relation to the males and the male (human) standard. Autonomy is impossible in females because they are not seen as human, but as parts of the dimension (nature) with or against which humans operate. They are therefore invariably seen as trying--successfully or vainly--to exert control over the male, the human.

In actuality, of course, all people manifest qualities associated with all aspects of the gender principles. However, literature, history, theology, and philosophy, all "masculine" since they all aim to erect permanencies, tend to reflect not actual experience but traditional conceptualizations of it. . . .


John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College, jtatter@bsc.edu