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Woman's Equality or Inferiority

( Originally Published 1957 )

If it is true that "the way we think about our emotions reacts on the emotions themselves" it may further be said that the way we think about our love feelings depends greatly on the way we learn to think about the people who cause them. It is often stressed that the way men and women "stand" in relation to each other has an important influence on the way sexual love is regarded. Much has been written of the effect of the social position of woman, as a human being, upon man's feeling toward her as a "love object." An example would be the lesser frequency of sexual emotion of the romantic type, among primitives or among the peoples of the Orient, in relation to woman's role as a breeder, a household drudge, or a sexual toy. In a time when woman is regarded as an inferior creature and the feelings she inspires held in little respect, we shall expect that strong attractions will be looked upon doubtfully, and also that they will tend to be rare. For an inferior we may feel affection, but "one cannot feel adoration and adoration is absolutely essential to romantic love."

In general, any degree of initial attraction will be increased if its object woman as a sex, or a woman in particular is socially acknowledged as worthy of strong feelings. On the other hand, even where woman's status is low there will be cases of exceptional fixation, as shown occasionally in the re-ports on primitive peoples. These might be compared with more familiar ones in our own society of "infatuations" which develop despite large differences in social class and which testify that sex-aesthetic attraction is something that varies in its own right.

The influence of the general esteem in which woman is held upon amorous attraction is related to Freud's stress on sexual overestimation as "the origin of the peculiar state of being in love." By this is meant, he tells us, that the loved one is idealized, exalted, and so becomes "unique . . . irreplaceable." Such idealization may be seen as in part the reflection of a social setting in which being "in love" is widely regarded as an experience of extraordinary value. To a youth growing up in an atmosphere saturated with suggestions, direct and indirect, conveying to him that the romantic passion is one of the emotional peaks of human life, with unlimited potential for inspiration and ecstacy, it is not hard to understand that he should "over-estimate" its meaning when it comes to him, and that he sees the one who brings it as a symbol of promises perhaps somewhat beyond the means of any mere mortal to fulfill.

Beyond such widely general influences as a society's appraisal of the emotion and of its object are others which bear more upon sexual choice itself. There are many kinds of non-sexual values which heighten attraction. Among these is social class membership, and the idea of the superior "quality" of the individual associated with it. The prestige of higher social status is well illustrated in the medieval cult of woman-worship. "It was typical of this enthusiastic love that the social rank of the beloved, the mistress, was invariably above the rank of the lover. . . . in all cases we find the characteristic attitude of the humble lover, looking up to his mistress." It may be of interest that in the amorous disorder known as "erotomania" the affected individual "generally . . . aspires to a person of higher position than himself, e. g., a queen, a princess, or a celebrated actress."

Passing toward more specialized factors, we reach, finally, the vast field of individual values. Here, obviously, the possibilities are infinite. A single example may be taken from one of Proust's novels. The attitude of the central character toward the physical charms of a new feminine acquaintance has been wavering and doubtful. Suddenly he is struck by her resemblance to one of the figures in a Florentine painting, a masterpiece he greatly admires. The discovery brings about a change of feeling, as she is now seen as possessed of a quality reaching the highest standards of his taste in art. She becomes, in a sense, a work of art herself. "The words `Florentine painting' were invaluable to Swann. They enabled him . . . to introduce the image of Odette into a world of dreams and fancies which, until then, she had been debarred from entering, and where she assumed a new and nobler form."

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