Philobiblon: Women and learned helplessness

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Women and learned helplessness

I've been pondering lately how women were, and it seems in some cases still are, taught to be, and rewarded for being, utterly helpless and hapless, as though this were an admirable trait.

The topic came up one night when I had a lot of ironing, which I did while watching a rather inane British commercial television show, Midsomer Murders, set in stereotypical current-day home counties villages in which every male is a solicitor or in the City, or a retired minor TV star, while the women are "homemakers", spending all that money on huge fancy homes, mostly set around the village green on which cricket is being played.

It is not quality television, but nonetheless one scene really left me fuming. The main detective and his young sidekick are locked in a cellar with a woman of the "homemaker" type. (Her husband has been involved in a scam; she thought there was something wrong, but "thought it better not to ask about it".) There's a bit of discussion about whether there's enough air, will they die etc, then the woman lies down and goes to sleep, leaving it to the men to try to saw their way out through the door.

Now, yes, this is a silly show, but some writer must have thought that this was believable behaviour for this sort of character. (And she wasn't central to the show so no particular point was being made about her as a character.)

Then I had cause to meet (and I'm anonymising here because I don't want anyone to be identifiable) a woman who must be in her early 40s, married to a considerably older man in a socially important well-paid job requiring a very high degree of education. Her manner could only be described as fluttery - in the best Victorian form - and when confronted with even a minor problem her reaction was to ask me, who she scarcely knew, to solve what was really quite a personal familial issue. I couldn't help feeling that if faced with a real crisis her reaction would probably be to faint gracefully.

These incidents coincided with my reading of Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush (1852), an account by one of the sisters of Agnes Strickland of being a gentlewoman pioneer (and eventually a very poor one) in Canada.

She has to do at times quite rough work, and cope with extremely difficult circumstances, yet she reports, indeed celebrates, her helplessness in many situations.

Fairly early on, Moodie, now probably in her late 20s, reports she "found myself at night in a house entirely alone. [Actually her child is sleeping, but I don't suppose that counts.]

"Hour after hour wore away, and the crowing of the cocks proclaimed midnight,and yet they came not. [Her husband and their servant] I burnt out all my wood, and I dared not open the door to fetch more. The candle was expiring in the socket, and I had not the courage to go up into the lost and procure another before it went finally out. Cold, heart-weary, and faint, I sat and cried. ..." (p. 196)

Later she reports of her fear of walking through the woods alone with her sister, although she admits there is no rational basis for this. "This foolish dread of encountering wild beasts in the woods I never could wholly shake off, even after becoming a constant resident in their gloomy depths ... The cracking of an old bough, or the hooting of the owl, was enough to fill me with alarm, and try my strength in a precipitate flight." (p. 260)

And she never gets over her fear of cattle. After some years in the woods one day she is forced to do the milking, "when a very wild ox we had came running with headlong speed from the wood. All my fears were alive again in a moment. I snatched up the pail and, instead of climbing the fence and getting to the house, I ran with all the speed I could command down the steep hill towards the lake shore; my feet caught in a root of the many stumps in the path, and I fell to the ground, my pail rolling many yards a-head of me." (p. 370)

Now maybe Moodie was just conforming to Victoria stereotypes of womanhood here, but I don't think so; the passages just ring too truly. But it does demonstrate what damage learned helplessness can do in making people live a life of fear.

How many women are living this way today? Probably more than I've previously imagined, I've now concluded.

(Quotes from Virago edition of 1986)


Blogger Badaunt said...

Maybe you are in a situation where you just don't meet women like that. I know I am, which is why I was so astonished when I met some 'professional homemakers' at a dinner party a couple of years ago, and found that they inhabited a completely different world from mine.

There was a woman there (American) who had lived in Japan for two years but never left Rokko Island (near Kobe) where a large foreign business community is based. Her husband was always busy and didn't have time to take her anywhere, so she didn't go! She thought I was 'brave' for using the trains.

But it's not just women. When I was visiting China, I got taken to the wrong hotel by my taxi driver one day, and in this very expensive place (that I hadn't even noticed in my wanderings around the town) bumped into some visiting Singaporeans. One of them struck up a conversation, and when he learned that I was travelling alone, was aghast. He also told me I was 'brave,' and that he would never do that in CHINA, who KNOWS what might happen? (Shock, horror) He was in a tour group, travelling everywhere by air-conditioned bus, stopping only at expensive restaurants and hotels. He was probably a tiger in the boardroom, but out of his element he was helpless without his guide.

3/27/2005 06:04:00 am  
Blogger melinama said...

I think most women who are like this, are like this by choice. You give up your independence and your self respect, and you get in turn a life in which you don't lift a finger for yourself. I see there is a pleasure in having somebody else make all your decisions (that is, I see it in the satisfied face of a person who defers to her husband for everything). Some, of course, don't have this luxury.

3/27/2005 09:21:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I know what you mean about travelling in China. I went with a tour group to see the terracotta warriors because, then anyway, it was said to be the only practical way. (I was otherwise travelling independently.)

And that group paid the most ridiculous prices for things, and clung together as though they were in the midst of dragons. I'd learnt by the time I got to China, however, that police states are good places to travel for women on their own. (Not that I'm recommending them on that basis!)

3/28/2005 01:55:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I think you are right in some women choosing helplessnes, and I think that might be the situation in the real-life case I mentioned. (Although I should stress I don't know her well.)

But I've also known some women who were so stifled by their parents (usually, although perhaps you also get this in abusive relationships), made to feel that the world "outside" was so terrifying, that the fear was literally crippling. For them to walk down the street on their own to buy a bottle of milk would be almost unimaginable.

3/28/2005 01:58:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"She thought I was 'brave' for using the trains."

Oh, good lord, I get annoyed enough with the poeple who think I was "brave" for traveling through Western Europe by myself; I think if anyone said anything like this to me I'd just go speechless for like, a day.

Of course, the (mostly guys) who are just shocked that I traveled all by my lonesome annoy the crap outa me as well. But they generally get an earfull - "Gee, nice to know you have such a low opinion of me." - the ferocity of which is directly proportional to the insensity of their surprise.


3/28/2005 04:10:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Jenny in my experience people travelling on their own - in western European and elsewhere - are about 80 per cent female. And of the blokes, a good percentage of the "singletons" are in that state because they've split with their travelling partner and are trying to hitch up with someone else ASAP.

3/28/2005 12:33:00 pm  
Blogger Kate said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3/28/2005 05:38:00 pm  
Blogger Kate said...

Men and learned helplessness

The other night I was walking home when a car parked on the road in front of me and a woman got out with another woman who appeared to be her mother. The 1st woman's husband was in the car with their 2 kids. She leaned through the window and must have said that she would be some time with her mother as the man shouted loudly in a disgruntled manner "So how long have I got to wait until you come home and cook my tea?". Given that it was already about 9pm it was unlikely she'd be preparing anything more fancy that chucking a pizza and chips in the oven but he still seemed to think he was incapable of doing this for himself.

I'd class that as learned helplessness too and one that is expected in men of a certain generation.

3/28/2005 05:44:00 pm  
Blogger Susoz said...

My parents-out-of-law, who live in London, had a middle class friend who was suddenly widowed in her late 60s - this was in the early 90s. She had never been on the Tube by herself till that point. In fact, she never went on the Tube - one of them would drive over to collect her if she was coming for lunch. I couldn't believe I was sharing the same city as a woman who was so incapable. (All the usual other cliches applied to her widowhood - she'd never paid any bills or handled money etc.)

3/30/2005 06:33:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a family member who won't drive very far on her own.
I mean like anything over 20 minutes away that she doesn't know the way.
I think she just doesn't like to bother herself now, because she never had to all along. And let's face it, the first time you map out a journey and try to follow directions somewhere on your own, it can be daunting. But most people do that as a young person, when you're less fearful... so then you become accustomed to it. If you never do, it would be hard at 50 to suddenly change & try something that new to you - you'd really have to be motivated.
And yeah, this woman was a home-maker. (Though she always had jobs - like school crossing guard & babysitting, etc. and now works full time - AND still cooks dinner & whatnot - her husband has 3 jobs.)
She's a smart woman and I wouldn't call her helpless really. Indeed, she's the one who's always helping everyone else. She's just not independent.
But I think it has a lot to do with the fact she was married at around 20 years old, about 35 years ago, and her husband wanted it all that way... if you know what I mean. He's not overtly sexist in that I couldn't see him discriminating overtly in social/work/public situations... but he's very much Patriarchal. Like he's the head honcho in the house (at least in his mind).
But believe me this can't be from mere tradition, because his mother was definitely the one who ruled with an iron hand in the house where he grew up. His father was the quiet fun loving type who put up with the domineering wife.
I think he hated that, and without realizing it became his mother, in an effort to try to work out what he didn't think was normal for that time period in his own house growing up. So now he's kind of a domineering control freak. And his wife put up with it because she was brought up in a household where her father was practically a tyrant.
She recognizes this very well, believe me. But at this point it's almost like it would be too big a sacrafice to try to change it now. It's just not worth it to her.

4/02/2005 10:57:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The joke in my family has to do with getting your own ketchup at McDonalds. When my daughter was little she would ask for more ketchup for her fries. I made her go get her own; get up, find the counter, make eye contact with someone, and politely request more ketchup. Get it back to the table and away you go. Seems insignificant but to a five year old kid somewhat daunting. Well, next semester my very independent daughter is off to Budapest of all places. BTW, the concept of "solving your own problems" is applied to all my kids, both male and female.

8/18/2005 06:11:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have four daughters and one of them is an EXPERT in learned helplessness. It is not something we fascilitated, other than the fact that we've told her she's got a beautiful smile and is a good person. The rest of it came from her. This last family vacation we took, she had her uncles and cousins serving her all the time, and she would giggle and feign absolute inability to do more or less anything, but boy could she get these boys to do anything she wanted them to do... and here's the clincher... SHE'S FIVE YEARS OLD!

Is it learned, or was she born that way!? I always assumed such behavior was learned, but this girl of mine, has really made me wonder.


8/18/2005 06:28:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Well Ray, possibly she was born to use that tactic. But if a boy was born the same way, would people react in the same way?

Or perhaps she just tried it once, it worked, and she keeps using it, because it keeps working.

8/18/2005 07:19:00 pm  
Anonymous Toni said...

My mother was incapable of solving practical problems for herself, such as changing a tyre or repairing a garden hose.

My dad, fearful that I would wind up stranded on the roadway, victim of a passing fiend, taught me all sorts of simple fixes for a broken down car. Also, how to mow a lawn, fix a broken window and fire and clean my hand gun, etc.

My mother lived and died a lovely, needy, unhappy girl. I was able to give that role a miss and I believe I am happier than she ever was.

8/18/2005 10:25:00 pm  
Blogger Reginleif said...

I live in the Boston (Massachusetts, not England) area I've got several female relatives who think it's absolutely amazing that I'll get on the highway and drive to New York City, for example. "Oh, I could never do something like that!" is the usual comment. You'd think I'd gone to the moon. *eyeroll*

11/07/2005 06:03:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I come from a family where women are supposed to be helpless. I, my self am not helpless and am not raising my daughter that way. But, my family thinks that I am a joke and that my husband will eventually leave me for someone that he can "control". Nice, huh?

Because I broke out of the patterns set for generations in my family, I am the black sheep, the joke, my mother (who by the way tried to talk me out of getting married, every day for two weeks up until the day of my wedding,) doesn't talk to me anymore and my father tolerates me, I'm the only daughter of four.

Ask me if I care? They tried to control me as a girl, young lady, and woman and you know took me until I was thirty years old to get enough courage to tell them to leave me alone and when I did, they asked me if I was bipolar or on drugs.

So, you see, a woman brought up like this has to have tremendous support from her husband to break the mold. If not, being an outcast, I would think, would kill your heart.

Me? Does it make me sad sometimes? Yeah, sometimes. Do I miss being told what to do, wear, how to raise my daughter, how to live my life? NO! What I'm missing, which isn't much, is totally compensated for in freedom.

I am 35 and finally free.

My family? They are nuts.

8/22/2006 04:50:00 pm  

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