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In Search of the Feminine

by Nel Noddings - 1985

The author examines three approaches that show some appreciation for the feminine and thus are attractive to those who would include feminine attributes in their description of educated persons. The objective is to locate and discuss two kinds of error: moves that inadvertently lead the searcher into a trap very like the one he or she is trying to escape and compensatory moves that are incompatible with the guiding purpose.

I want to thank members of CAPE for their helpful suggestions on an earlier draft. This article was presented at the Forty-first Annual Meeting of the Philosophy of Education Society meeting in New Orleans in 1985, and is to be published in the Proceedings of that conference.

Feminine ethics are being constructed today and, at least implicitly, they seem to be largely ethics of virtue.1 As such, they should contribute both to a trend in general philosophy toward renewed interest in virtues,2 and to a continuing interest in describing feminine attributes or qualities. A search for the feminine may be undertaken for a variety of reasons—for example, to establish a firm separation of the sexes, to ground claims for the superiority of one sex over the other, or to show that the search is hopeless and should be abandoned. A purpose popular today is to identify valuable attributes rightly called “feminine” because they have been more often associated with females than males and to suggest the need for educational experiences that may contribute to the development of these qualities in both males and females.3 The idea, under this purpose, is to create a new ideal of the educated person—one that will incorporate the best of both feminine and masculine attributes and encourage each set to grow still more admirable and worthy.

Confessing this last purpose as close to my own (I might demur on the notion of “ideal”), I will examine three approaches that show some appreciation for the feminine and thus are attractive to those who would include feminine attributes in their description of educated persons. My objective is to locate and discuss two kinds of error: moves that inadvertently lead the searcher into a trap very like the one he or she is trying to escape and compensatory moves that are incompatible with the guiding purpose.


Classical views of the feminine come to us mainly through Carl Jung and his associates. They describe a cluster of attributes that are identified as essentially feminine; these generally include the positive qualities of compassion, maternal caring or nurturance, receptivity, relatedness (human understanding), patience, and appreciation for renewal and repetition. While these qualities have been named over and over again for centuries as aspects of the essential feminine, we must remember that they have been analyzed and written about largely by men. Even when women have contributed to the analysis, they have been constrained by the categories and language already established by male mentors. M. Esther Harding, for example, speaks as a disciple of Jung when she describes “the feminine principle” as “an essence, or inner law, not as a law that is imposed by a legal authority but rather . . . as . . . in science, where we speak of the law of gravity, the law of mathematics, or the law of evolution.“4 But in spite of the fact that masculine and feminine principles are held to be laws of nature, Harding says they can be violated. She writes:

In the Western world this is so in regard to the essence or principle of masculine and feminine. Not infrequently we hear it affirmed that there is no essential difference between men and women, except the biological one. Many women have accepted this standpoint and have themselves done much to foster it. They have been content to be men in petticoats and so have lost touch with the feminine principle within themselves. This is perhaps the main cause of the unhappiness and emotional instability of today. For if woman is out of touch with the feminine principle, which dictates the laws of relatedness, she cannot take the lead in what is after all the feminine realm, that of human relationships.5

From a perspective that wants to establish the masculine and feminine on equal levels, it is problematic to identify the feminine essence with a feminine principle, for such a move subordinates the feminine to the masculine at the outset. Principles are, after all, discovered and formulated under the guidance of Logos, not of Eros. There is a problem, also, in speaking of a feminine “essence” as though a form exists prior to actual women and their experience, and this assumption leads to a difficulty that may discredit Jungian analysis entirely under our guiding assumption.

Because woman is entirely defined by the classical feminine principle, her virtuous attributes are not so much attainments as they are mere manifestations of a superior force working through her. Her way of being in the world is not “rational” and hence is unlikely to be highly valued; indeed, she is essentially unconscious. Erich Neumann, another Jungian, says:

It is no accident that in the symbols we have cited as examples consciousness is identified with the figure of the male hero, while the devouring unconscious is identified with the figure of the female monster. As we have elsewhere shown at length, [Neumann here cites his own work] this co-ordination is general; that is, in both sexes the active ego consciousness is characterized by a male symbolism, the unconscious as a whole by a female symbolism.6

This unconscious nature of the feminine essence has been pointed to as a reason for keeping women silent on moral matters even though it has been repeatedly suggested that women are naturally better endowed than men with the virtues already mentioned. Simple, motherly goodness is not denied of woman—she has this naturally if she remains “in touch” with her inner nature—but, if she begins to think about or talk about goodness, straightaway she becomes inferior. Even Immanuel Kant believed this, saying of woman:

Deep meditation and a long-sustained reflection are noble but difficult, and do not well befit a person in whom unconstrained charms could show nothing else than a beautiful nature. Laborious learning or painful pondering, even if a woman should greatly succeed in it, destroy the merits that are proper to her sex, and because of their rarity they can make her an object of cold admiration; but at the same time they will weaken the charms with which she exercises her great power over the other sex. A woman . . . might as well have a beard; for perhaps that would express more obviously the mien of profundity for which she strives.7

Thus have women been trapped by the classical feminine: To think like a man is to be unfeminine, but to think like a woman is to think not at all! Even in his description of the “transformative” character of femininity, Neumann emphasizes the physical and unconscious:

First and foremost the woman experiences her transformative character naturally and unreflectingly in pregnancy, in her relation to the growth of her child, and in childbearing. Here woman is the organ and instrument of the transformation of both her own structure and that of the child within her and outside her. Hence for the woman the transformative character—even that of her own transformation—is from the beginning connected with the problem of the thou relationship.8

I want to comment on two facets of this claim. Certainly I want to say something about the “problem of the thou relationship” but, first, I must comment on what follows in Neumann’s discussion of the transformative character of femininity in its effect on men. Here we have what is purported to be an essential characteristic of the feminine—more exactly of woman, the female—and yet it is limited in its impact on women to the unconscious, inevitable physical transformations of pregnancy. Its impact on men, however, is quite different; in them it produces creativity and conscious action in the world. Neumann says:

The anima, the “soul image,” which the male experiences in the female, is his own inner femininity and soulfulness, an element in his own psyche. But the anima-as Jung pointed out from the very first-is formed in part by the male’s personal as well as archetypal experience of the Feminine. For this reason, the man’s anima figure, which has found its expression in the myth and art of all times, is a product of genuine experience of the nature of the Feminine, and not a mere manifestation of male projections upon the woman.9

Saying it, of course, does not make it so. Woman has not yet given independent voice to the matter. Suffice it to say at this point that some skepticism is warranted. Why should we believe that the influence of the feminine on men, through the anima, should be both mentally and spiritually creative, while women—whose realm is supposed to be that of human relationships—should stand in need of “soul guidance” from the masculine spirit or animus?10 We find such ideas attractive only if we believe that femininity is essentially unconscious and that women are mere instruments or vessels for its manifestation while men are fully conscious (and in possession of souls) both in their masculine essence and in their relation to the anima.

Consider, now, “the problem of the thou relationship.” For woman, speaking from the genuine feminine, or for a man like Martin Buber who described the I-Thou so beautifully, there is no problem of the thou relationship. The relationship is I-Thou, one basic word that characterizes the world of relation and a fundamental way of meeting the other in it; problems arise in the objective world, the world belonging to the basic word I-It.11 We see that, while Neumann denies a projection of male views upon the feminine, they are clearly present and we must remain aware of them. When the basic “I-Thou” is spoken, no problem can arise; no knowledge is claimed, nothing is “had.” One is simply and completely in relation, and this way of relation both precedes (which Neumann acknowledges) and transcends (which he does not acknowledge) the object relations characteristic of the scientific attitude and the world of I-It. But the way of relation is lost in I-It, in the masculine attitude of analysis. Hence for Neumann, and for many of his fellow Jungians, the thou relationship becomes “a problem,” a manifestation of the primitive unconscious that must yield without loss of goodness to superior masculine consciousness.

The problem goes even deeper. Men like Buber have described and exalted consciousness of the I-Thou variety, noting its difference from the progressive, scientific I-It. But I-It dominates. Sartre, for example, repeatedly emphasized the reluctance of consciousness to be objectified.12 It is the essence of consciousness, he argued, to be subject; consciousness, by its very nature on this view, is consciousness of something. Even love is resisted if it entails being object to another consciousness. In contrast, we women might posit a radically different view, symbolized as the Me-Thou in which consciousness willingly, by its own volition, adopts an attitude of object to the other’s role as subject. This is not of itself masochistic (another egocentric term that fails to capture any flavor of genuine other-orientation); it does not involve any element of pleasure for the self in either pain or subordination. It is, rather, genuine receptivity—perhaps a necessary prelude to I—Thou. There must be a willingness to submit, to receive, in order to establish the conditions for I-Thou. An understanding of this Me-Thou relation may emerge from feminine experience, and as it does we should learn more about what it contributes to human relationships, what sustains it, and how it is connected to the I-Thou.

The classical view provides us with attributes that need investigation from a feminine perspective. It is one that, with all its faults, emphasizes the beauty of both masculine and feminine and recommends that all human beings strive for a balance in the two sets of essential qualities. But somehow, even though it purports to capture the essence of femininity, it misses the heart of female experience. One cannot help but feel that it performs an inversion of monumental significance. It makes female experience a product of feminine nature rather than feminine nature a product of female experience. The latter view is of crucial importance because it holds open the possibility for the best of the feminine to be developed in both males and females; it is also crucial because it logically rejects the notion that traditional female experience is derived from, and thus legitimated by, feminine nature. Perhaps even more important, considered from the transcendent-transformational view I am taking, describing essential characteristics as at least partly products of experience provides a greater and more optimistic role for education. Under our guiding purpose, we prefer to leave open the question whether attributes are biologically inherent, and we also prefer not to elevate the attributes of one sex over the other at the outset. Clearly, however, if we come to value certain feminine attributes and want to recommend that they also be developed in males, we must remove the stigma from “thinking like a woman.”


Part of our view of the feminine comes to us from the classical through the Jungians and part of it, written largely in an earlier period, is more properly labeled “Victorian.” While much of the Victorian literature glorifies women, especially mothers, we find the view even more constraining than that which is described in myth and legend. The earlier goddesses are gone entirely, and feminine power is totally neutralized—entirely at the service of husbands, fathers, and sons.

Neumann, in his Jungian-classical description of the feminine, named four polar points at which archetypal figures of the feminine were located: “the Good Mother, the Terrible Mother, the negative anima (or, more simply, the seductive young witch), and the positive anima (or, more simply, the Sophia-virgin).”13 Victorian images reduce to the last two. True, “mother” is extolled, but the Victorian mother is no longer the powerful moon goddess or earth-mother or bestower of all fertility and abundance; she is no longer the magnificent sexual figure with great nourishing breasts and generous hips. Nor is she the powerful, Terrible Mother, capable of tearing her children asunder if they displease her or depend on her too long or in too much weakness. She has become the pseudo-virgin, pregnant again and again, yet pure and innocent. Mary Daly comments on this impotent image:

. . . the “goodness” attributed to the few is not the goodness of a self-actualizing person but of an impotent creature, lacking in knowledge and experience. . . . In the case of the ideal of goodness foisted upon women, there is a special aura of glorification of the ideal, as symbolized in Mary, for example. This impossible ideal ultimately has a punitive function, since, of course, no woman can live “up” to it. (Consider the impossibility of being both virgin and mother.) It throws all women back into the status of Eve and essentially reinforces the universality of women’s low caste status.14

It is not surprising that both men and women have reacted with some disgust to the sickeningly sweet and impossibly unselfish image of the Victorian mother. Indeed, the “Victorian mother” is often used as a springboard for vigorous opposition and, thus, we look for an error of the second kind. Jessie Bernard, in her sociological study of motherhood, uses a series of sentimental Victorian quotes to start her attack on the restrictive vision of women as mothers. But, just as Harding succumbed to the Jungian notion of unconscious feminine obedience to a “principle,” so Bernard gives way to sociology and declares motherhood to be a “role’‘—“Mother is a role, women are human beings.“15 Reducing “mother” to a role seems to be a monumental error. If we study feminine descriptions of motherhood in biography and fiction, we may want to insist that “mother” is a basic relation and not a mere role and that the relation needs to be studied phenomenologically to see just how it connects to the attributes—especially to the virtues—we seek. Just as male philosophers studied the Iliad to identify manly virtues, we need to study the marvelous works now available on the mothering experience to identify womanly virtues.16To reduce mothering to a role is to risk losing the distinctive feminine entirely.

Today we hold Victorian woman in scorn. Those of us who have read Woolf's To the Lighthouse may feel differently, recognizing in Mrs. Ramsey the good mother, the ultimate neighbor, the very center of life’s unity.17 Her way of being in the world spoke through its acts and its internal talk rather than through written words, and her death inflicts a shocking sense of loss in the reader. Woolf, too, clearly feels the loss, but she seems to be telling us that the loss is necessary- that the Victorian angel must die in order for autonomous woman to be born. Will the new woman embody Mrs. Ramsey’s virtues along with new strengths? So far, thanks to an active social message in film and other media, the classical virtues of compassion, receptivity, and human understanding have been transferred from mothers like Mrs. Ramsey to the “whore with a golden heart.” With such a compensatory move, we alienate even women from the “essential feminine.”


Because “woman” has more often been identified with evil than with good in biblical writings, contemporary feminists want to expose the dreadful inherited views, and some wish to reclaim ancient feminine religions and divinities. The first task, while painful, seems necessary; we must inform ourselves. The second is worrisome and, under the guidance of our major purpose, may even be a mistake. It is clear, however, that we (all of us—male and female) must rid ourselves of the notion that women are, if not evil, morally inferior. Hilde Hein writes of the long-standing insistence on women’s moral inferiority: “According to Christian tradition the moral inferiority of women was not simply a matter of intellectual defectiveness or sheer animal amorality, but rather a privative moral incompetence. Woman, the seductress, bears the guilt of man’s sin.“18

“Simultaneously the ‘Devil’s Gateway’ and the Virgin Mother, the hated and the adored, woman becomes, in Western mythology, a chimera without substance,“19 says Rosemary Reuther, and both she and Hein quote Tertullian, addressing women, on the subject:

Do you not know that each one of you is Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that forbidden tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law; you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.20

So it was woman who brought Original Sin into the world and caused the death of Christ. As we examine the awful and now ludicrous views on the moral nature of woman, we must ask what our next move should be. Should we create our own religion, a god in our feminine image? Should we attempt a redefinition of evil in an attempt to reeducate human beings with respect to what is truly evil? Through all the centuries in which the female has been identified with evil, it has not been women who were doing the greater part of killing, torturing, pillaging, betraying, and neglecting. In what way, then, were women “morally inferior”? Can it be that killing, torturing, pillaging, betraying, and neglecting are only minor evils in the masculine moral scheme—even virtues if committed in the name of great principles? It is clear that a new analysis of evil is required if we are to value feminine virtues and to reclaim the feminine in education. Mary Daly emphasizes the main point:

As I have indicated, the myth [Eve and the Fall] takes on cosmic proportions since the male’s viewpoint is metamorphosed into God’s viewpoint. It amounts to a cosmic false naming. It misnames the mystery of evil, casting it into the distorted mold of the myth of feminine evil. In this way images and conceptualizations about evil I are thrown out of focus and its deepest dimensions are not really confronted.21

But Daly, a theologian, makes an error directly traceable to her training. Espousing a feminine ethic, she nonetheless says the following:

Breaking out of the circle [of patriarchal space] requires anger, the “wrath of God” speaking God-self in an organic surge toward life. Since women are dealing with demonic power relationships, that is, with structured evil, rage is required as a positive creative force, making possible a breakthrough, encountering the blockages of inauthentic structures. It rises as a reaction to the shock of recognizing what has been lost—before it has even been discovered—one’s own identity.22

While I have a great deal of respect for Daly’s position inasmuch as I can find no exaggeration in the charges she documents so well, I cannot agree with her solution. (In her latest book, she seems almost mad with anger.23) Anger, the “wrath of God,” is, under our guiding purpose, a masculine way of being in the world and not a feminine attribute to be induced in all human beings. We must be shocked, hurt, affronted, yes, in just the way any intelligent person is shocked and affronted by ignorance and prejudice. But we must respond in a way that models our way of being in the world as it is emerging in a voluminous literature: with patient dialogue and, above all, with assurance that we shall go on cherishing the speaker no matter how foolish or recalcitrant his or her pronouncements may be. Daly fails to see (or to acknowledge adequately) that men, too, have suffered under the cruelty of patriarchy. Surely we do not want to substitute goddess-wrath for god-wrath. In the same vein, it is not clear to me that we should advocate reclaiming our ancient religions even though I sympathize with the longing expressed by Christine Downing:

To be fed only male images of the divine is to be badly malnourished. We are starved for images which recognize the sacredness of the feminine and the complexity, richness, and nurturing power of female energy. We hunger for images of human creativity and love inspired by the capacity of female bodies to give birth and nourish, for images of how humankind participates in the natural world suggested by reflection on the correspondences between menstrual rhythms and the moon’s waking and waning.24

We cannot find our images in the cultural castoffs of masculine history, and Downing’s particular hunger reflects internalization of male-generated archetypes. We should not risk trading one tyrant for another but, rather, must find another way of creating and transforming our images of the feminine.

In order to establish feminine attributes as equally valuable to the masculine and to suggest positive transformations in both, we will have to extend the sort of analysis I have talked about here. We need to know thoroughly the tradition in which we have been described and deprived, and we need to build our own traditions. Simone de Beauvoir once reminded us that women “have no past, no history, no religion of their “25 own. Many of today’s feminists reject her claim,26 and it is clear that we do have both histories and religions of our own, but they need to be examined. So we have tasks of analysis, construction, and synthesis. But we must also analyze as we go. We must analyze our own analyses and recommendations lest we fall into the very errors we are trying so hard to escape.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 87 Number 2, 1985, p. 195-204
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 674, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 7:13:10 PM

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