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WOMEN AND PHALLIC POWER IN THE SECOND HALF OF LIFE

Janice Stensrude
June 1995

The idea that women exhibit more masculine qualities as they grow older has persisted in literature and philosophy through time. Historian Lois Banner (1992) stated, "In the European past as the American present, aging women have exhibited more-powerful personalities as they have aged" (p. 128). Jungian analyst Elizabeth Strahan (1990) wrote of "the appearance of that phallic power, which cannot be projected onto the men in her life" (p. 194).

As social fashion dictated, women were variously vilified or applauded for this perceived "masculinization" as they aged. It has manifested in many ways: a more active participation in commerce and government, a more assertive (sometimes predatory) sexuality, a greater interest in power and its trappings, and a generally increased interest in things outside the confines of the family hearth.

In the last 30 years, particularly, there has been an exploration into qualities labeled masculine and feminine in an effort to determine which characteristics, if any, are predestined by biology and which characteristics are culturally induced by a patriarchal order. There are questions to be answered, then, about whether or not masculine and feminine characteristics exist separate from societal dictates, and if they do, is there any real evidence that aging women in fact display such characteristics with any greater frequency than women in youth?

In the Beginning There Were Yin and Yang

John Briggs and F. David Peat (1989), in Turbulent Mirror, related the chaos theory of the new physics to images from ancient mythology:

In one Chinese creation story a ray of pure light, yin, jumps out of chaos and builds the sky while the remaining heavy dimness, yang, forms the earth. Yin and Yang, the female and male principles, then act to create the 10,000 things (in other words, everything). Significantly, even after they have emerged, the principles of yin and yang are said to retain the qualities of chaos from which they sprang. Too much yin or yang will bring chaos back. (p. 19)

Yin and Yang are perhaps the oldest models of feminine and masculine principles. In Eastern philosophical traditions, these words provided a terminology to discuss the principles behind them separate from biological designations of male and female. For instance, in India the ancient healing tradition of Ayurveda classifies foods as Yin or Yang as part of a system of achieving the balance required for a healthy body.

Yin and Yang, chaos and order, light and dark--these are but a few polarities that have been associated as masculine and feminine qualities (see Table 1).

Table 1. A Sampling of Feminine-Masculine Polarities

Feminine Masculine

Yin Yang
Chaos Order
Light Dark
Negative Positive
Passive Active
Receiving Giving
Cool Warm

Culture or Biology?

Feminine and masculine as descriptive terms to categorize qualities or principles with their respective polarities may have scientific and philosophical use in structuring discussion, but do these categorical designations have anything to do with the characters and personalities of living men and women? Researchers observing preschool children noted behavioral differences consistent with male-female stereotypes that had been thought to be culturally inspired. The parents of the children participating in the study were products and proponents of the feminist view and had carefully and consciously sought to treat male and female children in an identical manner. As one chagrined couple explained, their son held his Barbie doll by its legs and used it as a sword, while their daughter parked her toy trucks in a corner, devoting her play time to dressing dolls and playing tea party.

A recent news periodical discussed hormonal influences in differences between male and female brains. Journalist Claudia Wallis (1995, June 26) reported in Time:

Subtle differences between the male and female brain can be traced to the influences of estrogen and testosterone in the womb. . . . Many scientists believe that such gender differences as the male facility with math, the female facility with language, girls' slightly superior hearing and skill at interpreting facial expressions are hardwired prenatally through the influence of the sex hormones. (p. 53).

The female gift for language has been measured in verbal task testing of school children. In a recent study, it was found that estrogen injections improved verbal memory in ovariectomized women, but not visual memory. Additionally, a correlation between hormonal levels and performance of verbal tasks was found among young women with intact reproductive organs.

Even the normal rise and fall of estrogen during a woman's menstrual cycle can affect mental performance. Young women do better on Sherwin's word-pair memory tests during the luteal phase of their cycle, when estrogen and progesterone levels are high, than during menstruation, when hormone levels are low. . . . the changes are too minor "to have any real effect in the real world." (Wallis, 1995, June 26, p. 53)

These studies imply that cultural exaggerations of male and female roles derived initially from biological differences and that the observed differences between males and females with regard to talents and proclivities have a basis beyond the social.

There is also anecdotal evidence to suggest that the so-called phallic power of a woman's midlife is more hormonally than culturally determined. Nora Coffey, founder of Hysterectomy Educational Resource Services (H.E.R.S.), among other distressing symptoms, suffered a loss of intense maternal feelings following her hysterectomy (Rothberg, 1986). Most women, following a hysterectomy, report also a deep grief over losing their childbearing ability, even if they had never wanted children or had borne as many children as they wanted. Hysterectomy is labeled surgical menopause, as it ends a woman's menstrual cycles. Reports of the symptomatology of hysterectomized women suggest that surgical menopause has more in common with natural menopause than the cessation of menstrual bleeding.

The experiences of Coffey and other hysterectomized women are consistent with studies of women experiencing natural menopause. Hahn's studies (as cited in Friedan, 1993) that women's nurturance levels off at about 37 (an age when their female hormones are waning in preparation for menopause) and Greer's (1992) observations that menopause is accompanied by a period of mourning over lost reproductive capacity--again regardless of the woman's conscious and willing choices with regard to becoming a mother or the number of children she wished to bear and nurture--suggest hormonal influence (if not inducement) in the changes in temperament experienced at menopause.

The large number of hysterectomies performed in the United States has provided science with an unusually large group of research subjects for studies that would seek to separate the effect of social factors from biological factors in menopausal women. The psychological distress of women in their 40s and 50s as they reach menopause has long been thought to be largely caused by events typical to that age in life--children leaving home, the death of parents, loss of youthful appearance, to name a few. With young hysterectomized women suffering the same symptoms as their older sisters who have reached menopause naturally, it logically follows that biology plays a far greater role in midlife distress than had previously been supposed.

Hormonal changes in preparation for menopause begin as early as age 30. The changes are gradual, usually not manifesting in physically obvious ways until the early 40s. I propose that there is also a gradual increase in assertiveness during this period that eventually manifests as a noticeable (both to the woman and to others) self-confidence and assertiveness. As the social skills of a woman change more overtly in her 40s, so are her physical changes becoming more evident during this period. In her late 40s or early-to-mid 50s, having survived the cataclysmic changes (both social and physical) of the menopause, a woman's hormonal structure is radically different.

With so many women moving into age with an arsenal of hormone-replacement drugs (and with so many more disdaining them), there are tremendous opportunities for research on the effect of hormones on midlife behaviors, in particular those that have been labeled masculine or feminine. After centuries of noting masculine qualities in aging women, will we see a stunting of normal developmental aging among women using female hormones into old age? On the other hand, if women on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) are integrating masculine behaviors with the same frequency as women who decline HRT, we will have the very interesting suggestion that behavior changes in midlife women may be due to new physical developments--something added--rather than simply being a side effect of lower estrogen levels--something lost.

Integration and Development

In The Fountain of Age, author Betty Friedan (1993) reviewed studies that investigated what Friedan labeled simply "the masculine-feminine crossover"--the phenomenon of aging whereby men adopt "feminine" behaviors and women adopt "masculine" behaviors. The longitudinal studies of sex-role adjustment of which Friedan wrote held a number of long-term surprises for the researchers. The children judged most well adjusted in kindergarten and into late adolescence were those who conformed most closely to societal sex-role expectations. However, in the 1970s, when these same children were midlife adults in their fifties and sixties:

. . . the hyper-masculine boys and hyper-feminine girls who had seemed the best adjusted in junior high scored significantly lower in psychological functioning later on, in adulthood. It seemed that "unmitigated masculinity" for boys and "unqualified femininity" for girls was a relatively youthful stage of development. Those who did not go on to make that shift or "crossover" accepting both masculine and feminine impulses were, in effect, stunted or handicapped in their later development. (Friedan, 1993, pp. 166-167)

Quoting researcher Jeanne Block, Friedan wrote that the development of mature ego functioning seemed obstructed by a cultural emphasis on "masculine machismo and feminine docility" (p. 167). Discussing the work of psychologist Jane Loevinger, Friedan wrote, "the highest stages of maturity involve transcending the conformity to rigid sex roles, in order to achieve an autonomous, self-directed integration of values of 'agency' [masculine principle] and 'communion' [feminine principle]" (p. 167).

Energized or Electrocuted

Friedan (1993) reported that psychologist David Gutmann had treated his aging patients not as people completing a stage of life, but as people entering a stage of life. Rather than seeing menopausal women as disturbed because of lost youth, lost reproductive ability, and lost motherhood, he saw them as conflicted over the physical and psychological changes that developmental aging demands:

Gutmann described the Rorschach record of a 53-year-old Polish American woman sent to Northwestern for psychiatric treatment for depression. She saw two bulls, horns locked in combat, blood spattering, a volcanic eruption, an eagle in flight, and, finally, as the woman herself described it, an explosion of something, a coming up of creation. It looks like a butterfly, a beautiful butterfly, but like it broke loose. It's coming out of its cocoon. Out of eruption comes a work of nature. Looks like it would be all rainbow colors, like Niagara Falls. Out of eruption comes a spray of multicolors. As Gutmann analyzed it, clearly this is not the imagery of a truly depressed woman. These are images given by a woman who is both fascinated and terrified by the powerful "masculine" and alien energies represented by antlered deer, fighting bulls, eagles and volcanoes that are erupting within her. These energies could lead on toward a rebirth--the butterfly emerging from the cocoon--but rebirth necessarily entails the token death of the established, familiar self, as well as the possibility of combat and destruction. Psychiatrists typically blame their older woman patients kind of pain on outward and imposed losses of beauty, of procreative capacity, of the mothering role, or of the husband. In this instance, the patient was literally poisoned in the psychological sense by her own potential strengths. She treated them as though they were foreign invaders and developed psychological antibodies which, just as physical antigens produce fever, in her case produced agitated, weepy depression. Because her early life taught her to fear aggression and because of her marriage to a husband who needs a submissive wife, her new energies could not move beyond that eruptive phase, and her shackled aggression turned inward, taking the form of self-punishing symptoms. Gutmann reminded us of anthropological studies of societies where that power of older women was feared as witch or used as safe and wise elder of the tribe. Cases like this, he told his colleagues, teach us that late life, post-menopausal, female psychopathology "can have a base in development rather than depletion" and that the causes are often reversible, rather than, as is commonly supposed, irreversible. The therapist's task here is simply to help the patient recognize and welcome her own assertiveness. (Friedan, 1993, p. 451-452)

Just as in youth, when some square off in a war between the sexes, it appears that those who continue to find exclusive virtue in only the masculine or the feminine find that the battle continues in age as an internal one.

The Right Circuitry

Friedan (1993) implied that women are now more capable of achieving their midlife crossover as a result of their new roles made possible by the achievements of the women's movement. Even as she was preparing to write her 1963 The Feminine Mystique, Friedan noticed a particular competence in negotiating the crossover among certain women:

Women who combined professions with motherhood were not numerous enough in any city to constitute a pattern. They certainly had no sense of pioneering. They were older, in their fifties most of them, but I had noticed something about the way they looked. The tone of their skin, their eyes, and their voices seemed somehow more vibrant, more alive than those of the frustrated younger suburban housewives I had been interviewing for The Feminine Mystique. When I asked them, in passing, about their menopause, one after another said, "I didn't have menopause," I began to wonder if I was dealing with some biological freaks. And then, of course, closer questioning revealed that they had, in fact, stopped menstruating, though they weren't sure exactly when, because they had been so busy with their jobs and their teenage kids. But they simply hadn't suffered any of the dreaded debilitating symptoms that were then expected to accompany that supposed "end of life as a woman." . . . A high proportion of the beds in mental hospitals were . . . filled by women suffering "involutional melancholia," as it was then called. Mournful books were written about "leftover years to live." A male gynecologist made millions selling women hormone extracts to keep them "forever female," artificially inducing that cycle of bleeding each month, though reproduction itself was no longer possible. Only later would it emerge that the hormones which prolonged that bloody illusion of sexual nubility might also hasten death from cancer. The women I met had taken no such hormones. Their failure to experience traumatic menopause simply didn't fit the conventional or clinical image of the "climacteric" of a woman's life. . . . I went to see some of the leading gynecologists, as well as psychoanalysts who were considered experts on menopause. In Chicago, the psychoanalyst Theresa Benedek said that while there were great individual differences in the intensity of the symptoms, the depression, and the duration of mourning, the irreversible loss of the sexual function that defined woman's psyche was for every woman a drastic ending. The death, indeed, of her life as a woman. Her biological "sex role," which defined her, was finished. Some adjusted to the loss, sublimated in gardening, good works, their grandchildren; others did not. (pp. 14-15)

Friedan's experience suggests that women who have practiced their "male" energy (in this case in careers outside the home) do not fear the surge of phallic power found to be characteristic of the perimenopause, the few years leading into menopause. Indeed, their circuitry has been conditioned to accept it. Gutmann's housewife and Friedan's career women illustrate the role culture plays in the individual's preparation for the tasks of aging. Involutional melancholia was apparently the result of overvaluing the reproductive state of life to the extent that life ended at menopause. Yielding (a feminine quality) to the inevitability of life development seems the only answer. Only death, castration, and certain rare disease states ever kept a child from crossing to adulthood through adolescence. Yet, as a society, we continue to search for ways to postpone or eliminate the midlife bridge to age.

The fact that so many women were unable to yield to nature's process suggests that the overemphasis of male or female qualities in either sex at any age is a perversion of life. Integration of opposite-sex qualities apparently is a task to be accomplished gradually throughout life.

Jamie Sams (1993), author of The Thirteen Original Clan Mothers, wrote of what she labeled the "natural marriage between thoughts (feminine) and actions (masculine)" (p. 289):

The feminine principle is present in all things and in the natural world is balanced with a positive male role model, giving us the blending we need to find in ourselves. The receptive observer is the feminine aspect of gathering the information of how to develop a skill. The willingness to take the actions necessary to accomplish that task belongs to the demonstrative male principle. Observing and listening, making sure we understand, and then taking action is the balanced path to developing any talent or accomplishing any goal. (p. 285)

Sams's simple explanation of feminine and masculine principles at work are a good illustration of healthy balance. At the point of crossover, psychologically healthy men and women (those who have accepted and integrated both feminine and masculine principles) seem to bridge the transition with relative ease and to recognize the birth of a new, more-advanced stage in the death of the old.

The Crossover as a Joint Proposition

As women move out of the home, men move into it. It is becoming an increasingly familiar scene: In retirement or semi-retirement, a man moves to a home office, carrying out his old profession in a different, more simplified way, or even undertaking completely new ventures. Concurrently (or frequently a few years ahead of him), his wife may be undertaking a new, ambitious career outside the home.

Friedan (1993) wrote of a married couple who had accommodated these changes to their mutual benefit:

As Jean, in their particular crossover, spent more and more time on her photography, he, without realizing it was happening, seemed to be spending more and more time on relationships with his new men's group and with his family, all three generations of it. He had also taken over most of the preparation of meals. (p. 582)

A Matter of Life or Death

Friedan (1993) proposed that women's longer life span may be attributable to their more successful integration of opposite-sex qualities than is the case with men. Longitudinal studies carried out at the University of California's Institute of Human Development followed men and women from seventh grade into age. At 50, the psychologically healthier members of the study group were "no longer polarized by sex" (Friedan, p. 167). Wrote Friedan, citing a study by Florine Livson:

From adolescence through their forties, women became increasingly feminine and men increasingly masculine; but by fifty, each was allowing qualities conventionally assigned to the opposite sex to emerge: "Women who were psychologically healthier became more assertive with age while remaining nurturant and open to their feelings. Men became more giving and expressive while they continued to be ambitious and assertive." (p. 167)

Women who retained at 50 their adolescent level of dependence and passivity were in greater distress at facing age. "Those women who held on to dependent aspects of the female role were inhibited from later life development" (p. 167), wrote Friedan.

While psychologically stunted women entered age frightened and embittered, ill equipped to take on the tasks of this new stage in their lives, their male counterparts, the men who failed to integrate feminine qualities, began to die. Friedan (1993) concluded, "female flexibility has surely made it much easier for women to move into men's active mastery in late life, or earlier, than for men to make a comparable crossover" (p. 167).

Andrew Weil, in Spontaneous Healing, told the story of Harvey, a 50-year-old man who moved rapidly into old age as the result of a brain tumor. Two surgeries later the man reported:

My ability to perform sexually came back six weeks after the [second] operation, but my sexuality in general was diminished. I think it had been too dominant before. On the other hand, thinking and emotion increased. In general, I felt more balanced. . . . I've assumed responsibility for my life. I'm a more responsible human being now, and I'm using my power appropriately. (Weil, 1995, p. 43)

Harvey attributed his spiritual recovery to the shock of the illness. While that may be true, his revelations are not unfamiliar among men in their 50s. Wealthy, physically fit, and macho, Harvey was doing everything the way he had done it as a young man; he even had an ambitious young man's way of thinking and behaving in society. Nature seems to deliver an imperative to get your yin and yang in order or die.

Redefining Midlife

Though a healthy man may continue his ability to contribute seed to the human reproductive process into his 80s, the midlife crossover phenomenon is expected to occur at about the same time in men as it does in women. The midlife crisis, as it has been called, occurs at approximately the same time in both sexes, around the age of 40.

Astrologer Barbara Hand Clow (1991), in her book, Liquid Light of Sex, related midlife crisis to a "transit of Uranus," astrologese for sometime between the ages of 38 and 42. Clow stated, "Mid-life crisis is a very different experience for men and women. Men must open the heart, and they are overwhelmed by feelings at this time. Women at mid-life crisis must take their power" (p. 4). Clow's assessment seems valid for the meaning-of-life questions that beset most women and men at 40. Given the dynamic changes that occur at about age 50, I would propose that the 40s are a preparation for midlife, rather than a part of it, similar to the relationship of adolescence to adulthood. Victor Hugo (as quoted in Rountree, 1993, p. 5) wrote: "The forties are the old age of youth, / While the fifties are the youth of old age."

I tend to believe (perhaps because I am approaching 60) that the 50s are the youth of midlife, and the 70s are the old age of midlife. Clow interpreted the "Uranus return" at age 84 or 85 as indicative that 85 years is the natural human life span. I would concede only to the possibility that it is the end of a life cycle, because I believe that the 80s are the youth of our old age, a notion in keeping with contemporary speculation that a normal life span for human beings is around 130 years.

Conclusion

While there may be some foundation for a belief that men and women have prescribed roles in youth, research so far points to the idea that later life roles, beyond the reproductive years, are destined to be less associated with the possessing of one or the other set of genitalia and more associated with other non-gender-related talents and skills honed and developed over a lifetime.

The yin-yang balance that is maintained in youth through partnering with the opposite sex is maintained in age through integration of masculine and feminine principles within each individual. Attractions in age are based less on the sex of others than on a commonality of interests. Simplistically, the task of youth is to reproduce; the task of age is less personal, associated with the larger community.

The evidence found and emerging supports the long-held belief that women display characteristics that in youth are labeled masculine. Further, it is clear that this emergence of phallic power is a natural and necessary function of developmental aging.

References

Banner, L. (1992). In full flower: Aging women, power, and sexuality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Briggs, J., & Peat, F. D. (1989). Turbulent mirror: An illustrated guide to chaos theory and the science of wholeness. New York: Harper & Row.

Clow, B. H. (1991). Liquid light of sex. Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company.

Friedan, B. (1993). The fountain of age. New York: Simon & Shuster.

Greer, G. (1992). The change: Women, aging and the menopause. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Rothberg, L. (1986). Hysterectomy: The shocking truth. Woman's Newspaper.

Rountree, C. (1993). On women turning 50: Celebrating mid-life discoveries. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

Sams, J. (1993). The thirteen original clan mothers. San Francisco: Harper Collins.

Strahan, E. S. (1990). Beyond blood: Women of that certain age. In C. Zweig (Ed.), To be a woman: The birth of the conscious feminine (pp. 188-195). Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher.

Wallis, C. (1995, June 26). The estrogen dilemma. Time, 46-53.

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