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Becoming a woman
is a lacerating birth

· ​Prejudice and punishment ·

Virginia Woolf, invited in 1929 speak on the problem of “Women and Fiction”, asked: “Have you any notion how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Have you any notion how many are written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?”.

Mikhail Vrubel, illustration for the novel “Anna Karenina”

In fact, between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, a female universe was replacing the male protagonists of the previous century’s literary scene. In the centuries that were preparing the way for industrial societies with a predominantly metropolitan structure, novels whose titles consisted of a name and a surname – Oliver Twist, Robinson Crusoe – testify to a process where the characters pass from vaguer to more specified identities. This process occurred first for men and only later for women. Moreover, if on the literary scene the male protagonists of these narratives come face to face with the immensity of the world, the lot of the female characters is the confined space of the home and of the domestic environment. Introduced by their first names and surnames, Thérèse Raquin, Anna Karenina and Effi Briest are convincing women watched over by Émile Zola, Leo Tolstoy and Theodor Fontane. So far there is nothing unusual, the author’s names also appearing on the cover of novels about men. Yet Thérèse Raquin, Anna Karenina and Effi Briest are already in their titles dependent several times over. In addition to being dependent on their author, they are also dependent on another man: their father or husband. Thus these titles end by expressing a law, underlining that it is not by chance that the word “name” derives from nomos, that is, law. And in the case of these novels about women the story is always of a transgression which will be followed by the appropriate penalty to be paid.

At this point a question must be asked. Why is it that between the end of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century we witness such a proliferation of women protagonists who, in emerging from the domestic walls, run up against social condemnation? This may perhaps be explained by the epochal transformations brought about by the industrial revolution and by the First World War, which redefined the tasks and roles of both men and women on the basis of material needs. Indeed, in those very years women were beginning to move into areas that had been traditionally reserved for men. These were also the years in which Freud, an unknown intellectual marginalized through belonging to the Jewish minority, of obscure social identity and in wretched financial conditions, had the strength, as Silvia Vegetti Finzi has written, to take on “as the privileged subject of his research deviations, the margins of the discourse and failures of intention”, giving life to a particular way of understanding that raised the patients’ own words to a therapeutic factor.

In the titles of Freud’s writings the figures of other women protagonists stand out – Anna O, Dora – in the role of “co-authors of the psychoanalytical enterprise in its early days”, women who bear witness to the by now indispensable need to become a “subject”.

Thus the hypothesis we can make in order to understand the reason for such insistence on guilt in the novels mentioned above, connected with the desire of women to move into areas traditionally reserved for men, has to do with the suspicion that men might fear the fact that women were beginning to function in the terrain of freedom. But this is not enough. Indeed we might ask ourselves whether, in the explicit intention of keeping women in the roles traditionally assigned to them, it may have happened that the novels referred to, by transforming an invisible but continuous and safe idea of femininity, contributed paradoxically to obtaining the opposite effect to that intended. In other words my impression is that these stories made manifest and possible scenarios previously unthinkable as life decisions, which were hence rendered stories of transgression. Scenarios of ambitions, needs and desires by gaining access to a level of “expressibility”, for example, with Freud and psychoanalysis, were able to begin to come out into the open, and thus at this point found the way to be turned from stories of transgression into stories of formation.

Auguste Rodin “Naiad”

However the unconscious changes far more slowly than the conscious and it is thus legitimate to ask ourselves what is left in us women, unbeknown to us, of guilt feelings interiorized over the centuries about extra-domestic activities, socially stigmatized as real transgressions? Is this why, with regard to both work and the family, women experience a discomfort that is often tinged with guilt? Let me explain. If at the conscious level “normality” (and, in the case of the less well-to-do classes of society, necessity too) means having a job as well as interests outside the home, it can happen (and frequently does) that at an unconscious level the disapproval connected in the past with extra-domestic interests and ambitions creates uncomfortable feelings of guilt: thus I feel guilty if I have nothing to take me out into the world, since at the conscious level I consider that normality means having work outside the house. But at the same time I feel guilty if this dimension dis-tracts me (literally ex-tracts me) from what at an unconscious level I hold to be the “normal” dimension for me as a woman. In this sense it is the ghost of social disapproval which in the one case as in the other creates a sense of guilt in women. If I do not work and have no interests outside the home I am not “normal”; but if, by a certain age, I do not yet live in a stable relationship as part of a couple and, above all if I have no children, I am not “normal” either.

A work by Nicki de Saint Phalle for her “Tarot Garden” in Garavicchio, Grosseto

The fear of social censure makes our membership in the reference group feel threatened, and, since we are in extreme need of belonging, this makes us feel guilty because of our own “different” decision: if I do not work because I do not work, if I do work because I am not at home to see to the housework. It is a question of the “need to belong” which makes the perception of our not belonging unbearable. Becoming a woman of our time thus obliges us to consider that it is desirable and normal to feel projected into the outside world. However, becoming a woman also obliges us to deal with marriage and motherhood, the latter deeply ensconced in our inner world and still today inextricably connected with guilt experiences if it is not realized. The myth of the Danaids alludes to this problem, for having killed their husbands they were for ever condemned to pouring water into jars with holes in them. In the myth “of the lost waters” the feminine riches are transformed into a never-ending loss, evoking the loss which in the female unconscious is connected with the renunciation of motherhood. By killing their husbands the Danaids condemned themselves never to be mothers and for ever to be pouring water into jars that leaked.

Today, inevitably, a woman’s decision to become a mother must reckon with the experiences of guilt connected with the possible renunciation of professional fulfilment, and vice-versa, and – inevitably – the opposite: not becoming a mother, not having children, apart from being sanctioned by ourselves at an unconscious level in our own inner world, exposes us to the risk of seeing ourselves as “different” or “outside the norm”. Nicki de Saint Phalle, the artist who created the Tarot Garden, writes on the subject of the way children may frequently be ignored because of an artist’s life. “One day I would have liked to do something unforgivable, the worst thing that a woman can do. I would have liked to have left my children for my work, men do this often. I would have liked to give myself a good reason for feeling guilty!”.

Lucky Nicki de Saint Phalle! The most common experience is that of Armanda Giuducci’s verses used as the title of this work.      

Daniela Scotto di Fasano                                                   




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 10, 2019