Shame/blame/guilt: a good way to produce nurturing, helpful women

Please note:  I suspect that the passage shown below is in fact drawn from studies of cis white women.  One difficulty in telling how ethnicity and gender queerness interact with the prevalence of depression in woman is that the facts discussed in the quoted passage below are not even well-recognized in the quasi-popular literature.  It’s as though continued assaults on the souls of young women aren’t medical enough.

(I am not saying that the passage below is correct; rather the point is the kind of explanation that it provides and that needs to be considered. Also, please excuse my occasional lapses into hyperbole.  I’m really, really pissed off.)

I think the passage below can be said to say the following:  continual criticism of girls and women for not being good enough in caring about others has an upside and a downside.

The upside: We get better mothers and more nurturing people in the society.

The downside: a lot of them become mentally ill.

And another shocker: this is way post Betty Friedan.  That is, it was released in 1997.


From Guilt and Children, ed by Jane Bybee.

17 thoughts on “Shame/blame/guilt: a good way to produce nurturing, helpful women

  1. More generally, girls are given the social charge of being good so boys can be bad—of maintaining moral standards so that boys can be boys without worrying that the social order will collapse. It’s like Donne’s metaphor in ‘The Compass’: his mistress stays home, the immovable leg of the compass, while he circles around sowing his wild oats, confident that he can depend on her to stay put, keep things orderly and comfortable for him whenever he chooses to come back.

    When women are ‘bad’ it represents a threat to the social order which they’re charged to maintain—and that to avoid collapse men may have to shoulder some of the moral burden and do less wild-oat sowing. So we are pressed from an early age to be ‘good’: not just ‘nurturing’ but well-behaved, stable, hard-working, reliable, moralistic. Elementary school teachers reward good girls—docile, studious, cooperative, reliable. One quote from long ago, from a faculty member or administrator at a university said: ‘We expect our girls to be good, intelligent, solid students—but we don’t expect them to be brilliant or innovative’. This is it: the idea isn’t that women are dumber than men, but that they’re plodders who do well in school by working hard, following the rules and pleasing teachers.

    And, of course, boys can always get away with much, much more. Boys can get away with a certain degree of badness with a nod and a wink: boys will be boys. But equally bad girls, who don’t exhibit the required degree of nurturance, docility and reliability get trashed. Take it from me: I was a very bad girl.

  2. This is also the same priciple that applies to war: men go and fight wars because women keep the home fires burning; and to free market ideology: some ‘individuals’ go and compete in the market because some invisible others are preserving a sphere which is based on cooperation, but not talked about or valued.

  3. jv1, I’m not sure I understand your comment. Her use of “blessing”, “curse,” and “benefit” sound evaluative to me. She also doesn’t really distance herself from the claim that excessive guilt has benefits. She might have said something like, “Society highly values…” but it looks to me as though she is speaking as a holder of those values. Did you mean something else? Or do you think it isn’t as straightforward as I’m taking it to be? Or…?

  4. Yes she says it has benefits. But I took her to be describing existing gender differences re. guilt and saying that they “may” have the benefit that women are then better at caring work. It does not follow that she thinks that things could not be different. So it isn’t necessarily an endorsement of what does seem to be empirically true at the moment: women feel more guilt, do more caring work, and maybe do the latter because of the former.

  5. Perhaps we are reading it differently. I don’t see “blessing” and “curse” as empirical terms. It isn’t clear to me that the fact that she does not say things can’t be different is much of a help. Empirical enquiry can show that certain things are necessary, albeit perhaps not logically or metaphysically necessary. So I’m not getting your point, I fear.

  6. I just found what she is saying to be interesting, reasonable and possibly true. You are – I take it – not happy with the implication that depression and eating disorders are a price worth paying for caring work to be done. But I think maybe she is right.
    Coming at it another way and looking at current trends, it would appear that levels of depression and eating disorders are currently rising (for women and maybe also for men) and caring work is being intensified – at least in the case of motherhood, re. the phenomenon of intensive mothering. If Bybee’s theory is correct we might expect these things to rise together. Furthermore, if we wanted to reverse those trends, her theory provides us with a suggestion as to what we need to change in order to do so: that is, even greater levels of guilt. Now she doesn’t tell us how we might go about turning down those levels of guilt but I wouldn’t expect her to provide an account of that. But if we did think we knew how to “dial down” the guilt her theory we tell us to proceed with caution in case we, in trying to improve certain bad things (high levels of depression and eating disorders among women), mess up certain other good things (caring work gets done).
    My only doubt when reading what Bybee has to say is whether it is just a bit too simplistic. Is it the case that eating disorders and depression are both caused by excessive levels of guilt? I think that the reality is probably quite a bit messier but, again, what she says strikes me as something that is interesting and worth considering because maybe it is true.

  7. There are all sorts of cases in which oppressions have benefts. Squalid conditions for farm workers gives us cheap produce, poor people of color can be cheap house cleaners, adjunct lecturers help universities offer lots of classes while hiring very well paid bureaucrats, and bombing Nagasaki and Hiroshima may well have saved lots of US lives. In these cases the causal relations may be very clear, except for the disputed last one.

    According to the National Alliance for the mentally ill, there are twice as many women as men who experience depression. One in 8 women will experience very painful major depression. And the same report adds that societal factors amount to a very major cause.

    I expect we largely agree about the plausibility of Bybee’s causal claims, vague though they are. What I object to is talking about the blessings and benefits of extensive and differential mistreatment of young girls.

  8. I also don’t understand the anger. It seems perfectly reasonable to say, here are the costs of this form of guilt, here are the benefits. If she’s saying something more than that, I’m missing it. Of course cost and benefit are normative terms (depression is bad; nurturing care, good—I see nothing to object to there), but nowhere does she seem to say “the costs are worth it!” or “Thank goodness for guilt!” or anything of the kind. Should she not discuss the benefits? Is it not okay to say that there are benefits, should she use the neutral term “outcome” instead? I’m genuinely curious.

  9. Cost-benefit accounts are often highly problematic. E.g., “if we use part B, then there will be 150 potentially fatal accidents, but any alternative would cut our profit margins by 15%.” I think that when we are talking about the blaming/shaming of young women, the resultant depression with serious health/suicide risks, then it is appropriate for a feminist to point out that such accounts can do enormous damage. There are extremely easily available locutions that the researcher could use to signal at least some disengagement from her terms of praise. E.g., “what may be thought of as blessings”,”what many see as desirable traits in a spouse”, etc, etc.

  10. I’m not worried about cost-benefit so long as individuals get to choose the costs and benefits and make the trade-offs they choose according to their preferences rather than ascribed social roles. If a person finds ‘caring’ congenial and wants to ‘nurture’, knows the costs—worry, proneness to depression, etc.—and is willing to pay, that’s fine.

    It’s quite another then when because the community needs a cadre of carers and nurturers it imposes this cost-benefit arrangement on women in virtue of something they didn’t choose, viz. being female. And then propagandizes girls from an early age to play that role and punishes them if they don’t. The problem, and source of anger for me at least, is that this caring role isn’t chosen and for many women doesn’t satisfy their preferences.

    Like me. I am not a people person, I am not a carer or nurturer, and I wouldn’t want to be even if there weren’t a downside. And I can vouch for the punishment. And the double-bind. Be a nurturer and you’re unsuitable for desirable positions; don’t be a nurturer and you’ve socially unacceptable, get panned as a strident, aggressive, a man-eating feminist and are therefore also unsuitable for those positions. I recall a student’s comments on a course eval my first year of teaching: ‘She doesn’t dress like a women, act like a woman or talk like a woman. Whoever hired her should have used some common sense’.

    OK, let’s see if this works. I think what happened was that I was into another account.

  11. Something seems off to me here. Men commit suicide (completed suicide) at four times the rate of women. Men are more socially isolated than women and women maintain social networks better. Men die earlier than women of all kinds of causes; both mortality and suicide are connected to social isolation. Why are questionnaire-based definitions of depression, or simple seeking of treatment, which are of questionable scientific validity and will obviously be influenced by social norms (such as the degree to which it is gender-normative to complain or seek help for problems) given more validity as indicators of depression incidence?

    It seems possible to me that the gendered expectations of greater attention to social bonds for women, while they may lead to greater guilt in certain circumstances, actually end up being quite beneficial for women on net.

  12. Anonymous, the problems of female depression and male suicide are of vastly different orders. Us News puts suicide in the States at 12.6 per 100,000 for 2013. Major dpression for women is reckoned to be 1 in 8. All these figures come ultimately from the CDC, I think.

    If 1 in 8 men were committing suicide, we’d be in an extreme crisis mode.

    I do have the sad sense that putting the two together can make the problem of suicide seem diminished. So I want to stress that the rate of suicide is increasing, particular among white men in the lower economic ranges, and may reflect an all too realistic loss of hope. This sort of fact should be a major issue in the upcoming elections. It is a shaming societal problem, IMHO.

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