it's everyone's favorite rabble-rouser and sacred cow-tipper, laura kipnis. in her new (relatively, i've been meaning to get my hands on it for awhile) book The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability she takes on the female psyche within this alleged "post"-feminist culture. in other words, in this age of advancement, why are we all - and especially why are women - still so effed up?
the following is a long quote from her Sex chapter, coming on the heels of animated discussions of the clitoris, the elusive g-spot, frigidity, vibrators, and dr. phil. these two pages contain some serious rain on the cultural parade, and i like how she clearly and concisely lays out what seems to me a glaring blind spot in what we think of as our understanding of women:
"...maternal instinct is also a concept that arises at a particular point in history - namely, when there was a social necessity for a new story. With the industrial revolution, children's economic value declined: they weren't necessary additions to the household labor force, and once children started costing more to raise than they contributed economically to the household, there had to be some justification for having them. Ironically, it was only when children lost economic worth that they became the priceless little treasures we know them as today. On the emotional side, it also took a decline in infant-mortality rates for parents to start treating their offspring with much affection - when infant deaths were high (in England prior to 1800 they ran between 15 and 30 percent for a child's first year), maternal attachment ran low...With smaller family size - birthrates declined steeply in the nineteenth century - the emotional value of each child also increased; so did sentimentality about children and the deeply felt emotional need to acquire them.
Human maternity has had a checkered history over the ages, it must be said, including such maternal traditions as infanticide and child abandonment, sending children to wet nurses following birth and to foundling hospitals or workhouses when economic circumstances were dire. In other words, what we now like to call an 'instinct' is a culturally specific development, also an economic luxury. Which isn't to say that an invented instinct feels any less real; it can feel entirely profound. But it does mean there's no reason it can't be invented differently - or invented in men as well - when social priorities dictate." [Emphasis in the original.]
an invented instinct. yes! and she critically points out that while many women certainly experience it as an 'instinct,' when you account for all the evidence, such a simple explanation falls far short of the mark.
how many of our other 'instincts' can be assessed in this way? how many of our other sacred cows are largely artful stories? and to what extent, and how, does it matter when we try to think about social change?