Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise by Dorothy Dinnerstein. Specifically it will discuss a major women's issue brought forth by the book. Dorothy Dinnerstein's book, 'The Mermaid and the Minotaur" rocked the feminist world when it was first published in 1976. Not only was the book controversial, it espoused some values that did not seem entirely feminist at all. In fact, the central thesis of Dinnerstein's book is that many of the gender difficulties and differences between men and women arise from the fact that a majority of children spend their early childhood under the influence and domination of women, and so, this affects our relationships throughout our lives. Many people, of course, took offense to this theory, and so, re-released in 1999, the book remains controversial and thought-provoking at the same time.
Dorothy Dinnerstein was born in 1923, the daughter of Jewish Socialist pacifists. After graduating from college she became a psychologist, and most of her writings were about her experiments and scientific study. "Mermaid" was her first book, and it was controversial from the start. A writer, a psychologist, and a woman, Dinnerstein would change the way many people looked at male/female relationships, and how they would view child rearing and all other traditional female oriented activities. Dinnerstein herself acknowledged that "Mermaid" took her in two different directions at once. She once wrote, "This split follows from the fact that some of the problems in which I am interested lend themselves to clean, elegant little laboratory studies while others do not'" (Dinnerstein xiv). Dinnerstein was killed in a car accident in 1992 at the age of 69. She left behind a daughter and two step-daughters.
Just about everyone acknowledges there are gender and societal differences between men and women, including many writers in the course text. For example, many experts agree that women are taught passivity and non-assertiveness from an early age, while men are taught to be strong, protective, and assertive. Susan Griffin, in her essay, "Rape: The Power of Consciousness" notes, "Passivity itself prevents a woman from ever considering her own potential for self-defense and forces her to look to men for protection" (Griffin 335). Dinnerstein too believes that women learn passivity early on in their upbringing, and this is because women learn most of their behaviors from their mothers, who they are in close contact with from the moment they are born. Griffin continues, "Each girl as she grows into womanhood is taught fear. Fear is the form in which the female internalizes both chivalry and the double standard" (Griffin 335). This double standard between men and women is the crux of the women's issue addressed in "The Mermaid and the Minotaur," even the title suggests this double standard. Men are strong, chivalrous protectors, and women are meek, unassertive and passive "damsels in distress" who look to their storybook heroes for protection, safety, and sustenance. These damsels however, are the main nurturers of the family, and even though this is a great responsibility, there is little recognition or celebration when they do their job well.
Early in the book, Dinnerstein acknowledges this diversity among the sexes and the very different roles men and women assume in society, and states her basic thesis, that this is the most important issue facing women. She notes, "Under the arrangements that now prevail, a woman is the parental person who is every infant's first love, first witness, and first boss, the person who presides over the infant's first encounters with the natural surround and who exists for the infant as the first representative of the flesh" (Dinnerstein 28). Thus, if women are to ever gain equality with men, and live their lives empowered, as men do, our society must change the way we look at child-rearing and family responsibilities, before important and radical change can occur.
While Dinnerstein sees early childhood as key to development and growth, much like Freud did in his love/hate hypothesis with the mother and the son, Dinnerstein does not blame the mother for her role in the upbringing and gender development of her children. While she acknowledges the role Freud's theories played in her own theories, she does not simply blame the male ego on the mother. She writes, "Feminist preoccupation with Freud's patriarchal bias, with his failure to jump with alacrity right out of his male Victorian skin, seems to me wildly ungrateful. The conceptual tool that he has put into our hands is a revolutionary one" (Dinnerstein xxix). Rather than blame Freud and his convictions, she has a different view of child rearing in general. She encourages families to blend the child-rearing options, including men more openly in the raising and molding of the children from an early age.
Some critics may note that in modern society, many men are indeed more involved in raising their children. More men are staying home with their children while the wife is the main provider for the household. More fathers are actively involved in their children's activities and schedules, and parents are sharing many responsibilities that were once simply considered "women's work." However, the fact remains that even today, in most couples, the woman holds down a full-time job, and continues to work at home at a majority of the child-rearing and housework type tasks.
While men may pitch in and help with a few items, women still are the main cooks, cleaners, and laundresses of the home, and so, they form a lasting image in their children's minds as the strong, vibrant woman who manages to work, work some more, and always be there when they are needed. The child forms an emotional and physical bond with the mother as soon as it is born, as Dinnerstein notes "It is in a woman's arms and bosom that the delicate-skinned infant -- shocked at birth by sudden light, dry air, noises, drafts, separateness, jostling -- originally nestles. In contact with her flesh it first feels the ecstasy of suckling, of release from the anguish of hunger and the terror of isolation" (Dinnerstein 33). Thus, children naturally turn to their mothers for nurturing, and their fathers for little in their first few months and years. Mothers are the backbone of the family, and because of this, gender issues begin early, as a result of the mother's nurturing and the father's relative absence.
Ultimately, this becomes an issue of control. As children grow older, they may tend to emulate the person they are closest to -- their mother. While this may be fine for little girls, it is not acceptable for socially acceptable little boys. Boys must emulate their fathers, and they must show signs of aggression, assertiveness, and leadership at a young age, or they are considered effeminate and "mama's boys." Dinnerstein notes, "The troubles faced by boys and girls as they try to become men and women differ in a more complex way than common-sense thought suggests: people nod their heads comfortably to the idea that a man must prove his manhood, while a woman just feels her womanhood" (Dinnerstein 83). Ultimately, this becomes difficult for both the young girl and the young boy. The girl feels she must consistently achieve as much as her mother, while the boy feels he must become as masculine, virile, and commanding as his father. This becomes an issue of control that lasts throughout our lifetimes, as Allan Johnson notes in his essay "The Gender Knot: What Drives Patriarchy?" He writes, "More than anything else, patriarchy is based on control as a core principle around which entire societies are organized" (Johnson 95). While mother's hold control over "rocking the cradle" as Dinnerstein calls it, eventually, as the child matures, they see that mothers really do not have much control over the larger picture at all. They may control the nucleus of the family and its activities, but in the real world they are essentially powerless in a patriarchal society that values strength, assertiveness, and power over a nurturing and passive nature.
At the end of her book, Dinnerstein laments the fundamental differences between men and women. She writes, "It is clear enough by now that the prevailing symbiosis between women and men has something deadly wrong with it" (Dinnerstein 230). She believes unless we find a way to create a more level playing field in society, then we can never truly reach our full potential or our own expectations. Our society is flawed in the way men and women interact with each other, both physically and mentally. If we are to become a more enlightened and fulfilled society, then it must begin with the traditional roles that women play. Men must begin to understand they must not control every aspect of society, and women must learn to become more assertive so they can gain more feeling of self-worth and self-power. Dinnerstein maintains this can happen if men and women will only share the role of child-rearing more aggressively and with a deeper understanding of…