Skip to main content

Eve and the Flying Dutchman

ISSUE:  Winter 1941

The somber glow I feel within me burning—

Shall I, wretch that I am, confess it for love’s yearning?

Ah, no, it is salvation that I crave—

Might such an angel come my soul to save!


IT IS an ancient theory that women have it within their power to ruin men. And in most of the stories and legends in which this idea has been immortalized, the process has been one of exposing the man to the consequences of his own self-destructiveness. He is, so to speak, seduced into suicide. Eve persuaded Adam to do what he knew to be fatal for their paradise. Delilah coaxed out of Samson the secret which she employed to bring about his ruin. Circe let the bestial nature of those attracted to her have its full expression in their physical personalities. Joan of Arc probably led her inspired followers into mass suicide with their enthusiastic consent.

In contrast to this is the theme in legends and in history to the effect that women can save men. Lysistrata behaved in precisely the opposite way to Joan of Arc and Helen of Troy. She and her women opposed themselves to the self-destructiveness of their husbands. Florence Nightingale battled against incredible opposition from the British government and the British army when she set out to save some of their own soldiers from unnecessary death. And the theme of Wagner’s opera, “The Flying Dutchman,” that a man loves a woman not for her sake but to save his own soul, is familiar in innumerable everyday illustrations of the wife whose wisdom and stability and faith save her husband from self-precipitated disaster.

The implication of these widely disseminated and ancient themes is that women may choose whether or not to allow men to become the victims of their own self-destructiveness. The assumption is that men may act while women remain passive, but that the power of a woman remains in her function of choosing. She can choose to favor the self-destructiveness or she can choose to favor the erotic reconstruction of the man. The assumption is also implicit that men are more susceptible to the direct action of their self-destructive instincts than are women; or, to put it another way, that women accomplish their own self-destruction by failing to curb the self-destructiveness of the man.

For those who are impelled to minimize the psychological differences between men and women, or who insist that, in spite of anatomical and biological differences, there is no psychological difference, these legends are explained away as examples either of the well known tendency to blame someone else for one’s difficulties or of particularly aggressive or particularly non-aggressive individual women. But if, on the other hand, one assumes that the biological differences between the sexes are related to fundamental differences in psychological structure also, one is justified in examining these psychological differences and considering the evidence for the notion that women are capable of diminishing the self-destructive tendencies of men. Because, if women do have this capacity, their failure to use it must certainly be regarded as an aggression which is also self-destructive for them.

It is exceedingly difficult to be definite in designating the psychological characteristics of women which are consistently different from those of men, knowing how much alike men and women are, with the same instincts, the same feelings, the same emotions, and the same environment in which to live and from which to obtain their gratification. From the anatomical standpoint, they have the same bones, the same blood, the same bile; from the psychological standpoint, they have the same instincts, the same intelligence, the same inhibitions. Even to make sartorial or physiognomonic differentiations between the sexes is difficult enough; to make psychological differentiation between the sexes is even more difficult. Actually, there is some man in every woman and some woman in every man. Exactly what we mean by masculinity and femininity is by no means clear, in spite of the popular assumption that these are quite definite qualities. It would be out of place here to review lengthy technical discussions that have occupied psychological and psychiatric literature on the subject, but a little experimentation will soon convince the skeptical. Try to think of some traits that might be said to be characteristically feminine; it is almost certain that they will characterize many men of your acquaintance who are convincingly masculine, and vice versa.

Yet we feel that there is some difference in the behavior of the sexes. Even if we cannot idealize women and think of them as the embodiment of love, we know that biologically they are more closely associated with creation, with conservation, with race preservation, than are men. One sees the reflection of these biological trends in the behavior of social groups: men fight while women knit sweaters; men kill animals for pleasure and women foster humane societies; men flock to prize fights and women to concerts.

I have often tried to explain the paradoxical fact that club women are willing and even eager to listen and to learn and to think about new things—and yet they are content to let it go at that; they fail to take logical steps consistent with their new enlightenment. If my experience is any criterion, women in groups will contribute but little to the restraining of the powerful forces of destruction now at work. They will meet and discuss these things; they will listen, they will applaud, they will pass resolutions, and they will adjourn. They will go home and report that very good talks were given at the convention, that the women from White City were dressed abominably, and that Mrs. X was elected president for the coming year. The violation of human rights, the approach of war, the extension of suffering among the helpless, the moving needs of the community and of the nation will be unaffected.

This seems to me to be a very heavy charge. For, after all, women are a part of the world and that which threatens the world threatens them. Such passivity thus seems to me to be literally self-destructive. But the question is: What are its immediate determinants? Why are these women so unmoved to action, so theoretical in their interest?

A woman psychiatrist and psychoanalyst has proposed that the characteristic psychological attributes of femininity are a relatively great capacity for receptivity and for adaptability. This is related to the predominance of passive erotic needs in the woman as compared with the man’s more active erotism, to her greater need to receive love, and thus prove herself lovable. Whether married or unmarried, a woman, far more than a man, must struggle to make the best of every situation. She has all the external adjustments to make which face any man, and in addition she undergoes internal bodily events which require tremendous psychological elasticity. Menstruation, sterility or pregnancy, parturition, and lactation are physical experiences for which there are no male analogues and over which a woman’s conscious voluntary control is very slight, but to which she must adapt her whole life.

The psychological effect of this adaptability upon men, or, let us say, upon an individual man, is very difficult to do justice to in a brief description. The dynamic essence of the masculine spirit, based perhaps chiefly on biological functions, has been described as the impulse to penetrate, to make an impress upon something or someone. It is this that leads to clashes between men, and it is this that leads to the happy union of the receptive female and the propulsive male. The feeling of achievement from a proper reception of his ideas, his love, his constructive efforts, his genitality, is a sine qua non of the man’s mental, physical, and spiritual life. But the daily neutralization of the self-destructive tendencies in her husband is one of the functions which the woman’s receptivity makes it possible for her to fulfill.

Now, it is true that in protecting or building up the personality of her husband or lover by means of her receptivity, the woman builds her own personality. In one sense it is very flattering to a woman—this feeling that she is necessary to a man and can actually help him to live and to escape death. But she, too, must be helped to live and to avoid death: their contributions must be reciprocal. It is a part of the function of marriage for the partners to supply to one another that amount of support and encouragement which is necessary to assuage the wounds and frustrations encountered in the daily lives of each. Whether the woman has any greater powers or greater responsibility in this direction than the man is debatable. She probably does have a greater capacity for it and she probably also has fewer external frustrations, although it is argued that the monotony and purposelessness of the lives of many modern women who have nothing to do amount to a frustration. But an expectation on the part of a husband that the wife should accept an exaggerated portion of this greater responsibility is itself a frustration for a wife, and is not an indication of a mature love relationship, where the adjustment is automatic and mutual, and where most of the attachment is based upon constructive rather than reconstructive functions.

In a normal relationship the energy of both partners is directed to what they can do together in the future rather than to what repairs they can make on one another for troubles of the past. In addition to the somewhat negative need, this need for reassurance, for protection against self-destructiveness, marriage must be based upon a positive instinctual attraction. When the balance between these two elements in the love bond is unequal, when one party or the other is deficient in his capacity to give love, the other partner is imposed upon and unconsciously resents it. In such instances, we speak of a husband being burdened with an overly dependent wife, or vice versa.

It is a relative question how much of this dependence one partner can endure. To phrase it aphoristically, wives are apt to be more economically dependent upon their husbands, while husbands are emotionally more dependent upon wives. In many instances, either because she is overburdened and resentful about an excessive dependence on the part of her husband, or because she is unable to sustain even the normal expectation in this respect, the wife will aggressively withdraw her efforts to support a husband emotionally. She then passively “lets the man down.” She lets him destroy himself.

I might illustrate this by referring again to the emotionally responsive but practically inactive woman’s club audiences. Behind the smiling faces is an unconscious, unrecognized, but very effective, passive aggressiveness. I do not mean alone the irrelevance, the pretentiousness, the false-front motives which may in part determine the participation of some women in such affairs. I mean, rather, aggressive inactivity. Saint James asserted that “Faith without works is dead.” It is not only dead, it is deadly.

Remember, I am not accusing women of being more aggressive than men or more self-destructive. I am only suggesting that their technique seems to be a different one. It is the use of what the militarists call “Chinese resistance” rather than what one might call today the “Japanese tactics” characteristic of the man. And it should not be inferred that men are innocent of passive aggressions or incapable of them.


Everyone is familiar from personal acquaintance with women who seem to foster, or at least permit, the self-destructiveness of their husbands. Yet there is always some doubt about it because, not knowing the details, we wonder whether the husband’s behavior is what provoked the wife’s attitude or whether the wife’s attitude has caused the husband’s behavior. Actually, it is always interactive: both things are true. But clinical examples frequently come to the attention of the psychiatrist in which the remissness of the wife is clearly discernible, even by her. I refer to those cases in which a widow, after the suicide of her husband, feels herself to have been responsible in some vague, undefined way. Psychiatrists are occasionally consulted after such an event by the widow who is overwhelmed with a long-continued, obsessional grief, so severe as to reveal the pathology which distinguishes melancholia from mourning. One such woman said to me once: “Our years together had been so wonderful. They were the happiest of my life, and I am sure of his, too. Why should he have ended them in this way? It must have been something that I did. Or something I didn’t do. He was always inclined to be a little melancholy and he would get discouraged so easily. I used to have to urge him on and pump him full of courage and reassurance every day, and tell him I knew he was going to succeed. I am afraid I got a little tired of this and let up too much. Sometimes I used to wish he would give me a little encouragement—it was a strain to hold him up—but that was selfish of me. I just let him down. So now I blame myself. I feel as if I were responsible for his death. . . .”

One can see in her self-reproaches how bankruptcy finally comes about in a relationship in which the emotional support comes chiefly from one side. A man who is so strongly impelled by self-destructive impulses resulting from childhood calamities that he ultimately commits suicide, naturally turns to a woman whose own sense of emotional insecurity is so great that she has an overstrong urge in the direction of rescuing someone. She appeals to him because she is a rescuer; he appeals to her because she needs to have someone to save. When, after a period of success, her efforts fail, as they are often bound to do, she is overwhelmed with a feeling of defeat, like a surgeon, intensely proud of his professional attainments, who loses his most important case. This same intense wish to succeed in saving someone accounts for the tenacity with which some women cling to unregenerate and derelict men and their increasing bitterness when they find themselves continuously failing in their self-elected task.

We might stop for a minute to say in general why this rescuing function becomes so important for some women. The little girl overcomes her feeling of inferiority with reference to her brother when she discovers that she possesses and can exploit a quality that often exceeds his abilities: she can be lovable. But she may not receive sufficient assurance of this lovability from the behavior of her father, or subsequently from the behavior of other, more eligible, male objects. In such a case she not only distrusts her own attractiveness, but she begins to doubt the potency of the male instinct of pursuit, and falls back upon what Freud called an anaclitic type of love, that is, love based on dependency. One may see in her attraction toward the type of man who needs reassurance and tenderness the feeling that she cannot be loved for herself as a woman but must offer extraordinary gifts of strength and security. The man who appeals to her will be one whose ego has been injured in childhood so that he will have far more need to be loved than ability to love.

The woman feels defeat when she loses such a husband to whom she has devoted all her efforts; but she also feels guilty for not having prevented his self-destruction. One might say they wanted to believe themselves guilty, or rather that they knew themselves to be guilty because, like all human beings, they felt anger when they were hurt—and they were hurt greatly by their husbands. Like the woman quoted above, they got tired of a one-sided arrangement in which they always encouraged and comforted their partner. They resented the necessity for always being strong and for suppressing all impatience. When a woman who has a driving impulse to save someone in order to prove her own lovableness grows weary in such a situation, she cannot rebel openly on her own account or admit, even to herself, her resentment. But she may rationalize her feelings by thinking that it might be kinder to let a man take the consequences of his own self-destructiveness, of course not expecting it to go so far as actual suicide.

We may say that if woman has a greater psychological capacity for receptivity and adaptability she also has the power to use it both negatively and positively, and that in so far as it is a distinctively feminine attribute, she has a peculiar ability to interfere with the course of man’s self-destructiveness. It is not that she can actually save or destroy men, like the sirens of old, but that by her conception of her function as a woman she can make her influence felt constructively or destructively.

In the case of the suicidal husband just described, his wife endured his excessive dependency until she had reached the limit of her capacity for the time being, and then because of the resentment which she had accumulated, she withdrew her support, like a mother who, provoked by the angry tossings of her child, lets him go even if he is likely to injure himself. In less dramatic instances, however, the outcome may be quite different. We have spoken of the fact that one partner or the other may be deficient in the ability to give love, and will resent any emotional demands or expectations made upon him. This inability to support even the normal demands of a relationship without resentment is responsible for much disappointment and disillusionment in love, because it represents at bottom an inability to love. There are many ways of reacting resentfully to the demands of love; many men and women carry out their aggressive feelings actively and directly; but others use the technique of passive withdrawal, which I have described as being more characteristic of women, or at any rate more dangerous in women.

This is seen in a certain type of martyrdom which is very familiar in daily life. One thinks of those housewives whose chief occupation is drudgery, who drag out a petty, dreary existence with an ill-concealed grudge against life, and sometimes lift a brave tearstained face to the mildly sympathetic world, but more often gaze hopelessly upon the distant purple hills of illusion. This same martyr attitude is often so apparent in neurotic invalidism, and in physical invalidism as well, that some physicians and many relatives cannot escape the suspicion that it is an important motive in the illness. I shall not labor this point, because I have expounded and illustrated it in detail in “Man Against Himself”; nothing that I could say would be so apt or so concise as these four lines of Clarence Day’s:

When lovely woman weds a Tartar And learns too late that love is grim, How sedulously she plays the martyr, And meanwhile makes one out of him.


I have wondered if this passive type of aggression might be back of the failure of women to rise up and put an end to war. They would certainly seem to have power enough to do so: political power; economic power; the power of personal influence, wife upon husband, mother upon son. Unconsciously they must not really want to stop war, for all their resolutions and protestations and peace societies. They take no effective steps toward their goal. And yet, what have women to gain—even in their imaginations—from the glorious debacle of self-destruction in which their men indulge in the name of patriotism?

Women have been reminded of this responsibility of theirs for stopping war more than once. As I said at the beginning, some men expect women to save them. “Women will have to save this country,” recently declared Percival Jack-son, a New York lawyer and author. Mr. C. E. M. Joad of England has written: “I doubt whether at any time during the last fifty years young women have been more politically apathetic, more socially indifferent than at the present time. . . . Before the war, money poured into the coffers of the W.S.P.U. in order that women might win the vote which, it was hoped, would enable them to make war a thing of the past. The vote is won, but war is far from being a thing of the past. . . . Is it unreasonable to ask that contemporary women should be prepared to give as much energy and money, to suffer as much obloquy and insult in the cause of peace, as their mothers gave and suffered in the cause of inequality?”

In her book, “Three Guineas,” Virginia Woolf becomes very ironic about such accusations. She says: “According to Mr. Joad [we women] are not only extremely rich; we are also extremely idle; and so given over to the eating of peanuts and ice cream that we have not learnt to cook him a dinner before he destroys himself, let alone how to prevent that fatal act [of self-destruction].” She goes on to show quite conclusively that women are in reality poor, and that, furthermore, they are so dependent upon men for their livelihood that they feel helpless to oppose men’s self-destructive impulses even when they are turned directly upon women.

For they certainly are turned upon women. Virginia Woolf is entirely correct when she says in the same book that women very naturally feel differently, or should feel differently, about the demands of patriotism than their less reflective brothers. The benefits of country have been largely for brothers, not for sisters. When man says “as history proves that he has said, and may say again, ‘I am fighting to protect our country’ and thus seeks to rouse [his sister’s] patriotic emotion, she will ask herself, ‘What does “our country” mean tome . . .?’ To decide this she will analyze the meaning of patriotism in her own case. She will inform herself of the position of her sex and her class in the past. She will inform herself of the amount of land, wealth and property in the possession of her own sex and class in the present—how much ‘England’ in fact belongs to her. From the same sources she will inform herself of the legal protection which the law has given her in the past and now gives her. And if he adds that he is fighting to protect her body, she will reflect upon the degree of physical protection that she now enjoys when the words ‘Air Raid Precaution’ are written on blank walls. And if he says that he is fighting to protect England from foreign rule, she will reflect that for her there are no ‘foreigners’ since by law she becomes a foreigner if she marries a foreigner. And she will do her best to make this a fact, not by forced fraternity, but by human sympathy. All of these facts will convince her reason (to put it in a nutshell) that her sex and class has very little to thank England for in the present; while security of her person in the future is highly dubious.”

All the more reason, then, that women should oppose war. But, Virginia Woolf says, they cannot do so effectively because they are poor and dependent and helpless. I do not think this is the real reason, certainly not the psychological reason. Whatever may be the case with English women, it can no longer be said that American women are poor when it is known that they control most of the money in the United States, and certainly American women are not so helpless politically. The individual woman has at her disposal an influence over the men to whom she is attached, an influence which far surpasses her economic or physical strength. The air transport companies know this; they know it is the women who prevent their husbands from taking planes and these companies have very shrewdly turned their attention to overcoming the resistance of women. In the same way women could, if they really so wished, prevent their husbands from going to war.

“Women must weep—or unite against war,” says Virginia Woolf elsewhere. True, they will weep, but if they unite, it will be for war and not against war. This is what has actually occurred in every warring nation today.

No, the difficulties go much deeper than Mrs. Woolf’s explanations. Our civilization is based upon the principle that might makes right and women are a part of that civilization; they believe in this principle and practice it just as do the men. Their instincts and their intuition ought to tell them otherwise, and in many instances do. But women are susceptible to frustration, disappointment, and fear, just as men are, and they too have the urge to fight. But they fight in a different way. To some extent they fight by proxy. We can be absolutely certain that the German women today, for all the suffering and humiliation that have been inflicted upon them by their government, share with their husbands the feeling that German men were heroes to invade and devastate France, and should extend the blessings of Nazi idealism to others as they have to the Austrians, the Czechs, the Slovaks, and the Poles. They cannot see how aggressive, how senseless, how suicidal this looks to the rest of the world. They are caught in the same delusions and illusions that possess their men, just as their men are hypnotized by the idea that emanates from their mad leader.

The very fact that women use the passive technique of fighting rather than the active technique is another handicap to them in opposing war. They are in the same predicament that England was in at the time of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia or at the time of the first threats of Germany against Czecho-Slovakia. It is contradictory to believe in peace and then go to fighting in order to preserve it. The hypocritical slogan of a “war to end wars” left a bad taste in all our mouths in 1918. The advocates of peace are always at a disadvantage when one member suddenly goes berserk and attempts to strike or strangle his companions. This problem is a very familiar one to psychiatrists; into a quiet, peaceful ward of depressed or mildly nervous patients it is sometimes necessary to introduce a violent, excited maniac. The peace and dignity of the hospital, the friendly graciousness of the nurses, the utter harmlessness of the other patients make no impression on him. In his frenzy he believes himself surrounded by gorillas and gangsters, and all his energies of self-preservation impel him to make vicious assaults upon those about him. It is a principle in modern psychiatry that forcible mechanical restraint be employed rarely if ever, and yet it would be criminal negligence to allow such a person to commit mayhem and murder under the influence of his delusions. He has to be restrained. Now, it is extraordinary how simply this can be effected by quiet, unemotional, concerted action on the part of a group of experienced nurses. They are at a disadvantage acting singly, but properly organized and properly directed, they can manage it successfully. Their gentleness and sweetness are of themselves quite disarming. Psychiatrists have long since learned that a few women can handle a ward of violent patients more successfully than a large number of male attendants, who only frighten patients into more vigorous aggressiveness.

It is not accurate to speak of whole nations going insane, and perhaps my analogy with the patients in psychiatric hospitals is not a good one. But I am sure that no one will disagree when I say that one of the weaknesses in the effective deterrence of war by women is their lack of organization. Because of the peculiarities of our economic and social system, women have reasons for being distrustful of one another. There is a reciprocal hostility that comes between them which is proverbial. It is commonly said that women will not stand together. Perhaps this is because their individual purposes are always in the forefront of their minds, rather than broader social purposes, and this, in turn, may be partly a matter of education and tradition and social regulation. Certainly in the past women’s opinions in matters of group concern were usually not taken very seriously. But with increasing privileges women have increasing responsibilities. Women’s organizations can be expected to achieve more solidarity and more effectiveness.

They cannot be expected, however, to reach a vantage ground far in advance of men’s thinking on the same subject.

The conception of women organized as a civilizing force to oppose the barbarous depredations of men is untenable, because it requires of women that they betray their deepest loyalties and interests. They will continue as in the past to throw in their lot with their mates and to share their fate. Any organization which aimed to promote peace by aligning women against men would fail in its purpose because it would still further dissociate aggression from love, and increase the sum total of hate in the world. Only when men and women work together in understanding and sympathy for the same causes, turning their aggressiveness outward toward a joint threat, can useful ideals be realized. Such typically feminine movements as woman’s suffrage, birth control, and child labor reforms have been advanced far more by the earnest co-operation of enlightened men and women than by the shrill belligerency of militant women, whose utilization of every opportunity to express their own bitterness against men has sometimes prejudiced the cause they espoused.

Mrs. Poyser’s observation about the fallibility of women— “The Lord made ‘em to match the men”—is applicable to aggressiveness, which waxes in women as it increases in men, so that neutralization of hostility by one sex becomes impossible. The expedient described in “Lysistrata,” in which a war was stopped and fighting men were brought to their senses by a sudden realization on the part of women of the latent power implicit in the function of love, has never been put into practice. Women have been too busy cheering their soldiers as they marched off to war, urging them to stand fast in defense of their homes and children, nursing their wounds, raising food, mending clothing and manufacturing ammunition for them behind the lines, and encouraging them in what both believe to be the preservation of their common security, to try to stem the torrent of hate in which they with the rest of the world are engulfed.

From the psychological standpoint, however, “Lysistrata” set forth a profound truth, but a truth which burns with a feeble flame compared to the incandescence of modern invention, and one that is apt to pass unnoticed in the confusion of so-called civilization—if, indeed, it is not already extinguished. Fundamentally, woman is more predominantly than man the embodiment of the erotic power which is arraigned against self-destructiveness. While she shares man’s hostilities and his illusions, her role, even in war, is healing and sustaining. The erotic instinct, properly conceived of, does not refer solely to impulses toward physical contact, but to the drives in the direction of social and biological life, with the ultimate object of race preservation. A better term for it is simply love.

Love is our best weapon against hate, against destructive-ness, against self-destructiveness, against war. The kind of love I am talking about does not exclude lovers on the park bench in the moonlight, but it also includes the kind of scientific humanity represented by medical science. It includes the development of our cultural interests, of art, music, wild life, tame life, flowers, trees, children—all the constructive activities of which man is capable. These are the things women can foster, and do foster—but not enough. These are the things that will, in the long run, put an end to war.

With war devastating Europe, with intolerance already prevalent in our own country, with the enslavement of children to false ideas and perverted regimentation spreading from Germany over the world, with the almost total neglect of maladjusted children, the barbaric handling of social offenders, the corruptness of politics, the widespread slaughter of birds and animals, and the ruthless destruction of natural resources—with all this it would indeed seem that the aggressiveness of mankind is stimulated to new heights, in the face of, if not as a result of, our modern concepts of culture and civilization.

Thus again we return to the idea that the most effective opposition to war depends upon an improvement in the interpersonal relations of individual men and women. Men fight other men—the men of other nations or the men of other races or the men of other communities—not for any reasons of mass benefit, but because of the overwhelming accumulation of hostilities within themselves, within the heart of the individuals, that impels them to be self-destructive. Resentments which are stimulated by mothers and fathers and husbands and wives and which churn unceasingly beneath the surface, incapable of expression in any logical or endurable way within the home, will always welcome opportunities to vent themselves upon some person or some group of persons properly labeled “a devil.” The Germans, bitterly burdened by their tyrannical government, were glad to have first the Jews, then the Czechs, later the Poles, and now the English pointed out to them as hideous monsters. They could relieve their feelings by a transparent displacement of aim. It was astonishingly easy for us Americans in 1917 to be persuaded that our previous conceptions of the Germans and Austrians as peaceful, charming, amiable people were all wrong; instead they were vicious and beastly, malignant creatures; it was proper for us to mortgage our future and sacrifice our lives in an effort to destroy them. What this shows is not our gullibility but the high state of inner tension within us, a tension caused by an insufficient neutralization of our surging but unexpressed hatreds of one another. It is in this field, this field of the personal relationships of individuals, that women can most effectively combat not only war, but all forms of self-destruction.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading