Commentary Magazine

Women and Success

In 1911, when Martha Graham was seventeen, she went with her father to see Ruth St. Denis dance. The occasion inspired her so profoundly that she never lost its meaning: “The rest of her life was to be spent trying to realize in her own person the vision that she saw in Ruth St. Denis,” writes her biographer.1 She was nearly ten years too old to think of a career in ballet—they begin at eight or nine—and with her father's death two years later, and the need to help support her mother and sisters, there was little reason to predict much success as a dancer for Martha Graham. Indeed, not until she was thirty-two did she give her first independent dance recital, accompanied by Louis Horst—thirty-two, what a ridiculous age for a dancer!—and the future was not promising. Frequently it was dismal, during the Depression and war years, when Martha Graham often despaired over her work, and when there was never any money. Now, these many years later, her career shows different proportions: she not only stands upon the long and remarkable achievement of a great dancer's life, but at eighty she has once more renewed herself and her work. It could be called success at this point, by almost anyone's standards, although many times in the past it did not look like that.

Similarly in 1891, when Maria Sklodowska left Poland at the age of twenty-four to go to Paris, she had struggled until then to learn some math and chemistry by herself, but the future was uncertain. As a governess in a congenial but demanding family, she was poor, and there were no fellowships or grants then, not for anyone, male or female. Her oldest sister was studying medicine in Paris, with Maria's financial help, and now the youngest sister would get her chance: she could anticipate perhaps a hard teacher's life in a Warsaw girl's school, like her mother and father, although recent Russian edicts prevented Poles from occupying executive or administrative positions. What actually came for her was a hard life as Marie Curie, but with Nobel honors, great discoveries, and immense personal rewards. Still, long after she had been acclaimed throughout the world, there were no perquisites of success for either Marie or Pierre Curie, and the laboratory where radium was discovered looked to an eminent German chemist of the time like “a cross between a stable and a potato cellar,” and he added, “if I had not seen the worktable with the chemical apparatus, I would have thought it a practical joke.”2

Stories like these come to mind as a background for the contemporary preoccupation with women's opportunities for achievement in the professions and public life. There is widespread awareness of certain obvious facts of discrimination against women which have traditionally interfered with their professional achievements, such as disenfranchisement, legal impediments, or exclusion from professional schools or even—until the latter part of the 19th century—from higher education altogether. As many of these patent inequities have been revised or reversed, attention has shifted—as it has in the instance of other groups excluded from the public arena—to the psychological and social costs of this historical pattern of exclusion, and to the uneasiness or anxiety attendant upon a sudden admission to previously unattainable rights, duties, and privileges. Recently, however, a more complex psychology has been engaged to elucidate the contemporary situation and to provide guidance for the future. Amid programs for affirmative action, and changes in the ostensibly harmful sex-linked, sex-stereotyped education, the idea has gained currency that women have often been handicapped not only by a fear of failure—not unknown to men either—but by a fear of success as well.

It was a study done about ten years ago by Matina Horner, a psychologist, that first seemed to offer conclusive evidence that the psychological barriers to success for women might be as damaging and exclusionary as the explicit objective technical barriers so long in existence.3 According to Dr. Horner, women not only fear failure but they may also fear the success which would either explicitly interfere with their womanly goals of home and family or more subtly alienate and threaten the men whom they encounter both as colleagues and in a more personal relation. This new phrasing of an old dilemma appealed to many and was rapidly adopted as both an explanation for the fate of professional women and as a guide for the future, for women's education, and for child rearing.

Indeed, so rapidly has the idea about the fear of success been adopted that in 1972 a conference on women's achievement in the sciences, held at the New York Academy of Sciences, was almost entirely influenced by it, and, in the collection of papers published afterward explicitly called Women and Success: The Anatomy of Achievement,4 Dr. Horner's hypothesis was treated as virtually axiomatic. The original research for the monograph—Dr. Horner's doctoral dissertation—was done in 1964 (only a year after the publication of The Feminine Mystique) and it was based on responses of 90 female and 88 male subjects at a large Midwestern university. (Dr. Horner's degree was from Michigan.) The subjects were asked to provide fantasy material about imaginary male and female students who find themselves at the top of their medical school class, and Dr. Horner's conclusions were developed from her analysis of this material. Of course, quite a lot has changed in the past ten years—the growth of the new feminist movement, the noticeable increase in women entering professions and business, the greater visibility of women in high-paying and decision-making positions, and a widespread change in public attitudes about women's goals and capabilities. The changes are not traceable only to the past decade, perhaps, but became simply more prominent. In addition, the number of women in the labor force reached the size of a critical mass, and the subject of women appeared everywhere. In response to these perceptible changes, Dr. Horner, now president of Radcliffe, provided for the 1972 conference a recapitulation of her earlier hypothesis, strengthened by new 1970 data on fear of success among women (it increased from 65 per cent in 1964 to 88.2 per cent in 1970). Another study of women at a “major Eastern law school” indicated that 86.6 per cent of the women showed a strong fear of success.

Such findings may puzzle the interested observer. Hypotheses and conclusions about human behavior based on the written fantasies of fewer than two hundred young people at a Midwestern university in the 1960's may be adequate for a doctoral dissertation, but the sense of the common reader may not be persuaded by the experiences of a group so limited in age, experience, and ambitions. Apart from that methodological problem, the common reader may wonder why a decade of women's liberation and enlarging feminine prospects and affirmative action should have accomplished so little, should have in fact made the situation worse. Indeed, it is a bit troubling to know what the outcome might be, if the increasing enjoyment of ostensible rights is more threatening than deprivation. Surely, this would not be any kind of argument for a further increase in intervention to overcome centuries of discrimination.

Although there are countless alumni of the school of hard knocks, there has not yet been a move to accredit that institution, nor should there be. When the matter is pondered in its larger outlines, however, with historical figures taken into account, it becomes clear that much of the modern ideology about women and success and achievement is either wrong or unhelpful in understanding anything about the present or the past. It refers primarily to extremely limited and atypical groups of women, such as top executives in business, whose careers may not be illuminating about anything else.


The new ideology tells us nothing, for example, about a woman like Rose Kennedy, whose memoirs have recently been published.5 Of course we all know the story well; anyone who has waited in a doctor's office or at the hairdresser's leafing through current magazines is familiar with the entire saga: Honey Fitz, the Mayor of Boston, the lovely daughter, marriage to Joe Kennedy, all those children, Hyannisport, Wall Street, the London Embassy, American politics, the mother of Senators, Queen Mother of Camelot, the terrible tragedies, the piety, the whole drama. It has become a national saga. Mrs. Kennedy is what Truman Capote calls a public perfect person: everything about her is so carefully buffed and refined and measured and perfected that few revelations come through, and only bits of the genuine, such as Jack's wearing saddle shoes under his commencement robe at Harvard, and Joe, Sr. saying, when they were staying at Windsor Castle with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, “Rose, this is a helluva long way from East Boston!” Radical women's liberationists will be aghast at her willingness to accept the parameters of her life from Mayor's daughter to Ambassador's wife to President's mother, and her willingness to accept—even her complicity in—the Kennedy ethos of competition and triumph. Whether it was a children's swim meet or a sailing race or tennis or politics, Joe Kennedy made it clear that winning was the only thing that mattered, even, as in the famous touch football, winning by changing the rules. Rose never seems to have objected, she even aided and reinforced this tendency, strengthening its links with church, good health, public responsibility, family loyalty.

The early days are a bit blurred, perhaps inevitably in memoirs of an eighty-four-year-old woman, but the whole story is fascinating nevertheless. She was obviously gifted as an executive, master organizer, strategist. She remembered everything, saw to everything, kept the famous card file on the children's illnesses, promulgated the rules about the school clothing, the bathing caps all of one color so no one would get lost, the dentists, doctors, tennis lessons, dancing lessons, religious training, responsibilities, rewards, and opportunities. It was a formidable job, complicated by her husband's absences and by rather frequent moves, but obviously eased by the availability of money and servants. (One of the children's teachers observed in the early days that whenever Rose had a new baby she hired another servant and then went on a trip!) She spoke several languages, which came in handy during campaigns in ethnic neighborhoods, she was gracious, charming, punctual, equal to anything and anybody, able to meet Emperor Haile Selassie and discover that they almost shared a birthday, to chat about children with Dowager Queen Mary of England, to go to Paris, Vienna, Russia, South America, anywhere, and always to be photographed with her marvelous smile, her Dior dresses, her wonderful figure, never to be faulted in any way. She could have run General Motors or ITT, she could have been President, Queen, Empress, or Pope.

Edited as the memoirs are—unrevealing, discreet, circumspect, and everything else—still, quite a lot comes through. There is, for instance, the Mayor's daughter, the Princess of Boston, always with her father, taking the mother's place as hostess and companion, and yet secretly determining to meet and marry Joe Kennedy, no matter what the opposition, even eluding surveillance by hiding with him in a Christian Science church! (Joe referred to his Fitzgerald relatives as “an S.O.B. of a family,” although Rose says nothing about that.) There is Rose swimming every day, going off on trips, walking, golfing, never participating in any of the competitive group sports so essential to the Kennedy family. Later she would make her annual or semi-annual trips to Paris for the collections, she would go to places like Maine Chance or The Greenhouse.

Rose's piety is so obviously one of the most individual things about her that a grandchild has audaciously doubted whether she even takes her priest into her entire confidence. It is known to all that she goes to early morning mass every morning no matter where she is, and that in troubled times she stays for the next mass. Clearly she is not without a personal life, even one of great inwardness and individuality, this woman who says the Rosary at all times, in happiness and grief, on a plane, pacing the floor, at the hairdresser's, a woman who ponders frequently on Cardinal Newman's meditations, who lives in daily intimacy with the Stations of the Cross. Although some specially cherished persons close to her may receive letters subscribed E.D.M. (“Enfant de Marie,” for the sodality to which she pledged herself in girlhood), this piety is not accessible to public view, and is not even like the private revelations of public persons, or like unconscious revelations; its personal stamp is subsumed in a traditional manner of action and expression. Quite possibly this kind of religious life was the form that individuality took in the past, providing for our ancestors, and still for some of our contemporaries, a whole limitless field of spiritual achievements not readily trimmed to the boundaries to be discerned in the hypotheses about women and success.

Rose Kennedy, with her ten children and the husband she termed “the architect of our lives,” may provide an image distinctly unpleasing to radical feminists, but in no conceivable sense has she been a self-sacrificing mother, a martyr, or even a noble patient soul devoted only to her family. There is no disrespect in noting that, although she has become a Mother of Sorrows, by the evidence of her own memoirs, she has not lived for others, although Tolstoy said living for others was the only true happiness. (Thus she makes a curious remark when finding herself the mother of both the President and the Attorney General; it is an odd but revealing nuance: not the pride and pleasure that her children had reached such peaks but that she was the mother. On another occasion she speaks of the President she and Joe gave to the nation!)

Her children have often spoken of the training, the values and traits inculcated, the standards of behavior maintained in the Kennedy family—indeed, much of the book consists of such testimony from her surviving children and those they married, such as Ethel Kennedy and Jacqueline Onassis—and there is no doubt that she made a difference in their lives, and in the lives of countless others whose lives she has touched. It is an extremely powerful personal success she has always sought and reached, but it is not a success which can be comprehended within the terms of the new feminist ideology of achievement.


History provides abundant examples of other women whose greatest gift was in redeeming, inspiring, liberating, and nurturing the gifts of others—Nadezhda Mandelstam is a compelling recent example—and it is not without interest that such renunciation of self is often condemned almost as strenuously as immersion in family and domesticity. A recent book about the Von Richthofen sisters provides an excellent consideration of this devotion as another kind of women's achievement.6 The sisters of the title are Frieda, famous for her relationship with D. H. Lawrence, and Else, less widely known for her relationship with Alfred Weber, the philosopher and sociologist of culture, but only very discreetly known as the great love of Max Weber, the more famous brother and sociologist. The two sisters lived in the midst of intricate and powerful movements of thought, action, art, and political life, of major philosophical and ethical battles, of profoundly new social forms, and not only was this all in the air around them, it was, also, the content of their lives; they acted as well as witnessed. As the author observes, “Each was a face that launched a thousand ships.” The movements in question are nothing less than ideas of patriarchal and matriarchal cultures, the world of men and the world of women, Apollonian and Dionysian modes of meaning and feeling, Bismarckian and liberal modes of politics, Prussian and Bavarian and Badenian styles of life, bourgeois and bohemian, militarism and socialism, Surrealism, Expressionism, resistance, reform, and revolution, Lebensphilosophie, and enlightened morality, Heidelberg and Berlin and Munich, vocation and duty and creativity. It is the author's contention that these two sisters, placed as they were at the crucial intersections of these enormous forces of culture, were in a peculiar position to influence profoundly the course of majestic struggles and the results of monumental encounters. It is in the work of D. H. Lawrence and of Max Weber that he places the seats of, as it were, rival empires of thought, feeling, and action, and by unraveling from each a gigantic and complex network of late 19th-century and early 20th-century ideas, he puts the two sisters at the center of the drama of culture in our time.

They are conjured up by means of contrasts, analogies, and correspondences. The sisters were born in the 1870's, their youth touched by the new thought of the time, particularly the complex of ideas and impulses known as the erotic movement, an earlier version of liberation and self-realization. Both sisters came under the spell of Otto Gross, an early psychoanalyst, anarchist, and Alcibiades of sexual rebellion rather like an earlier Wilhelm Reich. Else von Richthofen bore one of his children; Frieda was enthralled by him, and when she left England with Lawrence she sent her husband her carefully preserved letters from Otto Gross, as if in explanation of her escape from bondage. Through Gross, the sisters were in touch with Schwabing, the bohemian world, with all its stirrings of liberation, Marxism (Lenin lived in Schwabing for a while), existentialism, Germanic destiny and mythology, sexual freedom, Mutterrecht, and the rest, where the paths of genius and criminal crossed, and artist and addict, philosopher and revolutionary. The Schwabing experience was what Else was not seeking when she cast her lot with Heidelberg, the center of reform and enlightenment, but both sisters made their choices in opposition to Berlin and Prussian militarism and power. The drama of patriarchy and matriarchy was to be acted out on this stage, with Else linked to the world of men with one of the first doctorates for women at Heidelberg and her job as a factory inspector, and Frieda representing Woman and Magna Mater, implicitly rejecting the world of Heidelberg. Parallel biographies of Lawrence and Max Weber reinforce the contrast, and so do the clusters of friends, associates, political works, novels, and disciples on both sides: Lawrence leads to F. R. Leavis as Weber leads to Talcott Parsons, through John Middleton Murry for the one and Karl Jaspers for the other; around Frieda were ranged Alma Mahler, the composer's widow (who herself became Magna Mater for Kokoschka, Franz Werfel, and others), Duse, Emma Goldman, Lou Andreas-Salome, and Rilke, while Isadora Duncan provided the theatrical version of it and Mabel Dodge Luhan the comic subplot. Clustered around Else as Athena can be found Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, Beatrice Webb, Dorothea and Friedrich Schlegel; here, Beatrice Webb is the poster version of Else, as Isadora Duncan was the poster version of Frieda.


A part from intrinsic interest, the reason for spinning out these analogies about Munich and Heidelberg and Berlin is that the whole history is all to be regarded as Frieda's intellectual dowry and a justification of that womanly type, in herself and in relation to a man. Then, it is to be a vindication of Lawrence as a novelist and, as against Max Weber, an exalting of Lawrence as the preeminent creative thinker of our time who touched all there was to touch, who saw all there was—and still is—to see. The argument about Frieda's importance for Lawrence has been made before, but the new documentation is illuminating and persuasive. Lawrence made extensive and detailed use of Frieda's own story, her family's story, the whole von Richthofen milieu—its ideas and emotional tendencies, the possibilities implicit in the ideas (Frieda often asserted that “he got it all from me”), and Green even goes so far as to suggest that the novels written without Frieda's influence, like The Trespassers, The White Peacock, or later Aaron's Rod, were less good and important than those in which she was an inspiration or almost a collaborator, like Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, Women in Love, Lady Chatterley's Lover. Clearly the biographer is much more interested in Frieda than in Else—he had interviews with them both, with Frieda in 1955, the year before she died, when she still had her husky glamorous voice, her animation, her appealing intensity, still at seventy-six. Else he met much later, in 1971, when she was ninety-seven, but she too was still powerful in her way, ironic, knowing, challenging, discreet, imperial, and majestic. Frieda is presented as the triumphant one, living out her life as Woman, representing the supreme accomplishment of power, of sexuality and self-fulfillment. Else, in contrast, was more Athena than Demeter; Heidelberg and both Max Weber and Alfred Weber (to whom she devoted herself as a brilliant handmaiden rather than a Magna Mater) represent the more tragic accomplishment embodying a denial of Eros and a sacrificial power. According to the theory, Franz Werfel should have been greater than he was, and Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus, should not have been great at all: one had the rival Magna Mater Alma Mahler for himself and the other parted from her early in their marriage. Would Frieda have made the difference in Max Weber's work? Would Else, if he had possessed her and not renounced Eros as he did? And would it have made the difference? Whatever the answers to such questions might be, it is clear that neither Else nor Frieda can be understood in terms of the impoverished psychology of achievement so widely accepted nowadays.


Half a generation earlier than the von Richthofen girls, and in America, Jane Addams could discern none of the alternatives that confronted them.7 Instead of the erotic movement and self-realization, instead of revolution or Marxism or the other possibilities, the girl born in northern Illinois in 1860 saw the genteel tradition and the claims of the family, or missionary work, or teaching, and it was her own discovery of social work that provided her vocabulary of self-realization. Then too she was more attached to her father than the German girls, and her father was a more powerful and original person, far more enterprising and able than the synthetically masculine and rather shiftless Baron von Richthofen. The young women of America were very attached to their fathers: when Henry Adams's wife committed suicide in 1885, it was not unrelated to her father's recent death, and the similar if less tragic attachments of Margaret Fuller, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton to their fathers were mirrored in the fiction of the period. Jane Addams's father introduced her to history, piety, intelligence, good works, and to the image of greatness. His death, which coincided with her graduation from college, left her without her bearings for eight years while she searched for a satisfactory image of herself and her life in the future. Not until she renounced what she called “the family claim,” and became in a sense the daughter of all Chicago itself, could she make a life for herself in Hull House, which, she says, she furnished with family mahogany and family silver as proudly as any young matron.

The founding of Hull House and the beginning of the settlement-house movement is not Jane Addams's achievement alone, but of course she represents the best of it, as she for years represented the best of American womanhood. Later she would be compared with Mrs. Roosevelt, and she was always to be found supporting noble causes with noble sentiments. She was a pacifist in the First World War, she lent her voice to the movement for women's suffrage, she spoke and wrote of the evils of prostitution, the importance of the labor movement, the need for enlightened responsible government, the reclamation of the poor, the downtrodden, the troubled masses who were free only to starve or be exploited. She opened the doors of Hull House to all the neighborhood, and invited the striking workers into the parlor. If we don't quite see her climbing the stairs of a tenement, like Lillian Wald, or wiping childrens' noses or delivering immigrant babies (although she did), she nevertheless comes across to us very vividly presiding at the dinner table at Hull House, making speeches about the need for reform, or persuading powerful and rich industrialists and benefactors to take seriously the predicament of the poor—Lady Bountiful in the best and most effective manifestation. Earlier, in a college essay, Jane Addams had called it the role of the bread-giver, which she saw as the noblest role for women; later she generalized that idea to the public sphere and spoke of municipal housekeeping, and the need for women to bring to public life their special talents and wisdom. She had endless patience, was the great conciliator, whether the warring parties were labor and industry in the Pullman strike of 1896 or Colonel House and the pacifists. She became the American Saint, with her large sad eyes, her gray hair in a bun, her velvet dress and amber beads, and her apparently marvelous voice which resounded through the halls of Hull House so beautifully that even on the top floor it would be heard in all its magic and power.

Fear of failure does not seem to have been what troubled Jane Addams during her earlier years, nor fear of success in her maturity. The period before the founding of Hull House, when she traveled through Europe, lived the life of the daughter, submitted to Dr. Weir Mitchell's torturous “cure,” and all the while searched herself and her world for a life's work in which she could realize her powers—that period does not yield its meaning readily. Jane Addams's writing is not altogether clear about it, and of course the crisis of religious faith which accompained it provides a special vocabulary. She seems to have wanted quite desperately to gain some pleasure from doing good; pleasure was not a goal in itself nor were good works or evangelism. She was interested in Tolstoy's example, and after visiting him in Russia, she was profoundly moved. She, however, lived in the slums not to become one of the huddled masses, like Tolstoy among the peasants, but to bring the masses to the mahogany table.

There was no thought of Jane Addams's ceasing to be the heiress she was: only as a lady and saint could she confront the powerful and rich and demand money from them for Hull House when they had not previously demonstrated their eagerness to assist the poor. There is an interesting story about Jane Addams on her visit to Tolstoy in 1896 wearing, in the fashion of the day, those huge puffed-out leg-of-mutton sleeves; Tolstoy, in his peasant's shirt, fingered the material of her sleeve and severely noted that there was enough to make a child's dress and did she not feel such a dress was a barrier between her and the people? Jane Addams, to her credit, admits to having been disconcerted and embarrassed; then she gave a very American defense: that her sleeves were nothing compared to those of the Chicago working girl, and that there was no way to choose a peasant's garb from among the thirty-six nationalities served by Hull House! Considering the subsequent fate of Tolstoy's ideas in Russia and the subsequent history and effect of the settlement house in American life, it is not at all clear which one of the two should have been the more embarrassed and disconcerted.

Jane Addams believed that guilt should be conquered for the good of others, just as the pleasure of the fortunate could be generated and even satisfied by meeting the needs of the wretched. It touched on Christian Socialism, it was the social gospel in action, but it was also a moral equivalent for those nervous collapses of educated young-people in the later 19th century. In delineating the “Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements,” Jane Addams made a striking observation of the meaning of living for others. And indeed anyone who has ever worked in a settlement house or in some similar project of social betterment can testify to the purity of spirit and the dynamics of motivation which are involved. It points to a very different possibility for the self, one that would transcend both fear of failure and fear of success by forgetfulness of self.


Jane Addams did not marry, and, after a brief conflict over an attachment to her step-brother following her father's death, she seems to have renounced romantic interests in order to become the American heroine, as her biography's title suggests, and to devote herself to being daughter and wife to the public, to the poor, to those in need of care, support, conciliation. In the 19th-century fashion, she had many close friendships with women, in a web of sisterly fellowship which is difficult for us nowadays to appreciate precisely as they did. Half the early generations of American college women did not marry and dedicated themselves in a similar fashion. The erotic movement had not yet supplanted the genteel tradition. It is only when we come to the next generation, and the next, that the coordinate emotional impulses toward self-fulfillment joined the wish to have a career beyond the family. Helene Deutsch, the psychoanalyst, is a good case in point.

In the story which she chooses to tell of her own life,8 a kind of unspecific, romantic ambition was the most striking experience of her youth, linked with an intense affection for her father (again!) and an explicit antagonism toward her mother. The circumstances of her birth—a Polish town in 1884, the well-to-do family of a Jewish lawyer—colored this emotional disposition in such a way that the young Hala grew up as her father's favorite in a world favorable for herself personally but menaced by cruel forces close at hand. As a young person, Hala despised and fought her mother, adored and pleased her father. The objective restrictions on the lives of women, and of Jews in this Gentile milieu, were reinforced emotionally in her in a most intricate way: her mother, it seems clear, represented the restrictions and prohibitions, and her father the encouraging and liberating aspects of the larger world, contrary to certain assumptions prevalent nowadays about role models, stereotypes, and internalization of norms. It was the mother who frowned upon the young woman's determination to pass her Abitur, that academic guarantee of admission to university. It was perhaps her own disappointment with her father's capacity to liberate her that attracted her to a passionate socialist activism and an affair with “L.,” the leading Socialist of the town, and it was her passion for him, joined with the wish to escape the isolated constricting atmosphere for a larger life of possibility, that led her to study medicine and dedicate herself to revolution, uniting ideology and passion.

Helene Deutsch observes that “the whole course of my liberation was beset with difficulties” and she recounts now, from the vantage point of ninety, what the young Polish medical student did to free herself from mother, from father, from the bourgeoisie, from her Socialist lover, and from Poland itself. She went to Vienna in 1907, and in 1911 she left Vienna for Munich, where she began her psychiatric studies under Kraepelin and later met Felix Deutsch; she never lived in Poland thereafter, maintaining warm but distant relations with her father, and never really reconciled with her mother. Her next liberation was her “release from the chains of the unconscious through psychoanalysis.” She names her three liberators as her father, L., and Freud. (Her husband and son were not part of this drama.) She became Freud's assistant and disciple, one of the foremost women analysts in those pioneering days, the first director of the Vienna Training Institute, later emigrating to America, an important figure in the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute, and a major writer on the psychology of women. These “confrontations” with herself in the twilight of her life are naturally colored by her fundamentally psychological point of view. Nothing could have been further from the young Hala Rosenbach than the fear of failure nor, apparently, the fear of success that Dr. Horner adumbrates. Perhaps, like Jane Addams and Marie Curie and Martha Graham, she was engaged in an activity that had few precedents and therefore few pressures—the number of women in the universities and in medical schools was minute when the young Polish rebel took her Abitur, as were the numbers of settlement houses or women physicists or modern dancers. Although Helene Deutsch's first ambition had been to study law, like her father and L., the law schools did not then admit women. Professional training was a means of living out her passion and her liberated dedication, however, so the obstacles to studying law simply pointed her in another direction. Later, in the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, and in all those complicated relationships, she often encountered competition, difficulty, jealousy, and other emotions which were resolutely analyzed and expressed with the candor typical of that milieu. “I didn't have an easy time at the start of my career in the Society,” she observes. But nothing in her description of herself as a student or later as a young woman in training analysis suggests the kind of despair and uncertainty and anticipation of difficulty that has been so widely mentioned in recent discussions of women's accomplishment.


The daughterly relation in which Helene Deutsch stood to Freud, and her total and enduring dedication to him throughout her professional life, when he never ceased to be the “center” of her “intellectual sphere,” was an important source of self-definition for her, especially when it was balanced by the deep attachment to her husband (Felix Deutsch was also a doctor) and her son. Freud's ideas have always had for her, she says, “the character of a categorical imperative.” Totally absorbed in analytic work and in her warm close relationship with Freud and in the furtherance of his ideas, she preserved what she calls a “naiveté” about the politics of the international psychoanalytic movement and the various sharp doctrinal and methodological controversies which exploded in it. Her complete adherence to Freud's ideas never wavered, which may account for the somewhat acerbic tone of her remarks about some of those whose allegiances were modified. Among our contemporaries, Helene Deutsch is not usually acclaimed for this lifelong devotion which seems like idolatry, and by some in fact she is referred to as a highly orthodox or “reactionary” source of ideas about the psychology of women, which betrays a distorted and mistaken understanding of her ideas. This extremely personal book, written at the end of her life, although not providing revelations, is nevertheless extremely interesting in its implications for our understanding of the accomplishments of women. She speaks of her example as a “pioneer” in the little town of Przemysl, and how her action awakened in the other girls “the feeling that they could be free if they had the inner courage to revolt,” and she goes on to say:

How strange this must sound today, when young women have become liberated to such a degree! At that time we as girls had to struggle and sacrifice to achieve what is now taken for granted. The embattled gates to equal rights have indeed opened up for modern women, but I sometimes think to myself: “That is not what I meant by freedom—it is only ‘social progress.’”

There is no doubt that the energy of her rebellion, her passion for independence, and her desire to be part of great events combined with passionate attachments at each stage of her life, thus giving the urge to achievement a strong basis in personal energy. Even the brief sections of self-analysis point to the possibility that in the contemporary instances of inward uncertainty and psychological barriers to success, a sufficiently complex understanding of the conflicts has not been developed, just as the schema of personal identifications is often not adequate to explain anything, nor are the accepted ideas about sex-stereotypes and role models.

Clearly, for a young woman passionately rebellious in several complex ways, the very difficulty of pursuing her career, the opposition, the university restrictions, the customs of medical training, provided a challenge to succeed, but it is a question, given the personal history, whether she would have succeeded without the specifically liberating sponsors life provided in the form of father, lover, and master. Later, when she became a mother, there were ordinary problems of domestic management and the division of energies, and she seems to have had an extremely kind and supportive husband in Felix Deutsch. It is worth noting that she did not marry the father-lover-master—her husband seems to have been quite a different type—and that the small world of psychoanalysis was a kind of family for her in which she played the part of favorite daughter (notwithstanding that the real favorite daughter, Anna Freud, also an analyst, was someone with whom she identified very closely). Apart from the analogies and mythological roles, Helene Deutsch was extremely gifted, and still is, and her “confrontations” represent a remarkable creative re-seeing of herself as well as an exercise in disentangling the identifications of her emotional life. She speaks, of course, of her father, but is not unaware that the great devotion and attachment contained an aspect of ambivalence buried under that great love, and we can see the important role of that ambivalence in the whole course of Helene Deutsch's achievement. And then the opening pages on her birthplace, that little town of Przemysl where, as she says, she really didn't spend so much time in relation to the rest of her ninety years, but which remains for her still the center of the earth. To this day she remembers every smallest corner of the Schlossberg, the park built over the ruins, and the house with the large courtyard and the three floors around it, on the Ringplalz. This was the house and the town from which she freed herself to take part in the great events of the world, and yet it has represented for all of her life the lost paradise of childhood.


The example of Margaret Mead9 complicates the matter still further, for here is a woman in her seventies whose allegiances and identifications are even more intricate than the earlier American or European types and yet display none of the adolescent turmoil of young Helene Deutsch nor the noble renunciations of Jane Addams. She was born in 1901, her young womanhood coincided with the 20's and 30's; her birth as a first and wanted child, her parents and her encouraging grandmother, her sisters and brother, all shone beneficently upon her. Everything in her life seems to have been for the best, everything turned into a virtue, despite difficulties along the way, and she comes close to asserting that all discord was order misunderstood, all partial evil universal good. There is a certain falsity of tone in this autobiography, with its homey title and the image of hoarfrost on the berries denoting a rich harvest, the good old-timey America, the insistence in the opening pages that although she lives nowhere, she is capable of making herself at home anywhere in the world—home becomes wherever she is, in a Tchambuli village or on the top floor of the American Museum of Natural History. The homey image is pursued, deliberately, because she knows very well that she comes into everyone's living room unbidden, on TV, sitting in her pants suits with her Dutch-boy haircut, providing poultices and nostrums, ready to talk about blacks, marriage, women, politics, peace, or any other matter: self-styled grandmother to the world. And so one looks for the more personal, more urgent, more angry self, even if transcended, one looks for the difficulties in her life, and they seem absent although she says there were some. All is as smooth as a national saga, and she joins Jane Addams and Mrs. Kennedy in the presentation of a public persona.

It was always assumed that Margaret would go to college, would be a competent woman, like her mother and grandmother and other female relatives, would cope with life in an intelligent, clear-eyed manner. And so she did. Everything was sensible and reinforced by determination: her studies, her engagement, her young marriage, her interest in anthropology. Ruth Benedict and Franz Boaz encouraged and sponsored her, her husband cooperated, the Samoan project succeeded, the first marriage was dissolved when she met Reo Fortune on the boat back to Europe, but Mundugumor and Arapesh and the wish to be a mother eroded that justification, and a new marriage and new work relationship with Gregory Bateson presented itself, and after her “lifetime of work” on children and adolescents, after many miscarriages and disappointments, she had her own child. And that too was managed sensibly, lovingly, with competence. The field work was arduous, often dull, as with the Arapesh when she found herself bored by the thinness of the culture, and there were physical hardships and dangers, as well as personal and intellectual problems. Still, a reader may feel that all her vivid grasp of those primitive cultures, her remarkable endurance, her imaginative explorations hardly belong to the excessively self-vindicating, self-justifying person she offers to the reader. Some other person must have had those gifts and done those things, not the person here.

No more than Helene Deutsch is Margaret Mead a naive observer of her life and self. She herself has contributed to the contemporary awareness of the effects of childhood on adult life which she uses to explain herself to the reader; it was her data on the young Samoans which confirmed a new view of adolescence in our own society; and she is intimately bound up with all sorts of modern feelings about infantile sexuality, sex roles, feminine and masculine as against male and female, and all the rest. She writes as if all this serenity and confidence and competence were with her from birth, without indicating how any of it emerged in life experiences. When she speaks of her own feelings of always being comfortable with her own sexual identity, linking it with her enduring assumption that she would be a mother, and then with her own assured and amazed new life as the triumphant grandmother, the reader may feel that she is insisting too much on a point which is the crux of a modern dispute. She knows all that has been said on the matter and so her management of the question seems extremely political, almost like Rose Kennedy's, and just as polished and retouched. The remark of Harriet Beecher Stowe's about not having been able to write a novel about slavery “because the baby cried so much” prompts this universal grandmother to assert—with her eye on radical feminism, no doubt—that what Mrs. Stowe should have said was “because the baby smiled so much”! She believes she is herself a deviant from the accepted pattern of the career woman or working woman intellectual and attempts to resolve that disjunction with an appeal to the Americanness of her womanly competence. This attitude belonged to her from the beginning, as when she realized early that

I neither wanted to do bad work in order to make myself attractive to boys nor did I want them to dislike me for doing good work. . . . This preference foreshadowed, I suppose, my anthropological field choices—not to compete with men in male fields, but instead to concentrate on the kinds of work that are better done by women.

It is the competent older sister speaking, and the issue does not seem to have troubled her, although the reader is forced to say “seem” because most of the ambivalences have been defused. In the same way she reports in passing on her parents' incompatibility, her mother's lifelong annoyance at the grandmother's living with them, even, like the good anthropological field worker that she is, reporting on her first menstruation at eleven, when her mother's resentment of this sexual process came through the carefully elevated tone in which it was explained—these dissonant chords are not resolved, nor even really heard.


Fear of failure? fear of success? psychological barriers to success? Such concepts seem entirely inadequate for understanding the lives of many of these women, or, even more important, for making sense of the contemporary situation. Before any weight could be given to the presence or absence of fear-of-success imagery in the diagnostic tests of the Horner study, surely one should know who is producing such imagery and what other psychological material is associated with it, what life situations are offering challenges to success and failure. Surely there could be further examination of all the easy assumptions about sex roles and sex stereotypes and the manner in which these are inculcated. Nowhere is there any place for the competence and evidently successful encounter with disintegrating forces that the lives of Margaret Mead or Jane Addams or others exhibit. It becomes increasingly clear that the identifications so familiarly adduced to explain things are enormously complex, are not consciously and deliberately developed, are perhaps not even subject to the kind of intervention and manipulation which we think they are.

In the examples of Martha Graham and Marie Curie, once again the simple schema of current ideology fails to illuminate. Martha Graham's intense devotion to art, and her remarkable career of the past fifty years, exhibit not the imperious demand of a personal achievement, although it is that, but a subordination of self to the necessities of art. In the service of her art, Graham could be cruel, selfish, imperial, and imperious; she was known to succumb to rages, to pull a tablecloth and all the dishes off a table in her anger, and she was known also for contrite apology, for humble and warm gestures. Anyone who was close to the milieu of the Graham classes and dance group sensed the transcendent nature of the vocation of this great dancer and the comparable vocation she inspired in her pupils: the rigor of their training, the purity of their concentration and sacrifice had the character of a supreme novitiate, but in neither the pupils nor in their powerful mistress was this a narcissistic exercise, it was rather a thoroughly coherent spiritual preparation for a mission of great objective seriousness. Overtones of religiosity in the apprenticeship were not accidental.

Marie Curie's dedication to science had something of the same submission to a goal of inexorable grandeur and power. Although early subjected to her mother's Catholic piety, the young woman transferred her faith to science and learning, tinged by the romantic Polish patriotism of the time. Appropriately, she named her first great discovery polonium, although she had by then given up the thought of returning to Poland. Like Helene Deutsch a generation later, she united her romantic and intellectual interests in her marriage, and indeed the work-marriage of the Curies was in almost every respect what Margaret Mead would have wished for in anthropological field-work. Pierre Curie was always scrupulously careful to insist on his wife's independence and to credit her accordingly. She, for her part, worked indefatigably and with that marvelous endurance of the Slavic woman for what had to be done, no matter how arduous and painful. Both of them suffered rather severe radium burns and it was probable that her last illness and death were directly related to long years of dangerous exposure to radiation. (Her daughter Irene and her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie, both scientists and Nobel Prize winners, also were victims of the effects of radiation.) The story of Marie Curie, even popularized and vulgarized as it became, still commands our interest, and the recent skillful biography of her may serve to renew that interest.

Once again, we find that although the patterns of identification are not entirely clear—both the Sklodowskys were science teachers, it was understood that their children would train for similar work—and the whole network of sex-role stereotypes could certainly be faulted from the standpoint of radical feminism, the kinds of uncertainty and anxiety so widely spoken of today do not seem to have played an important part in the life of the young Maria Sklodowska. Discouragement and penury, even boredom while she was exiled to the country as a governess, concern about the adequacy of learning chemistry from books without the opportunity to perform experiments, sacrifice of her own ambitions to help support a sister—all were there, but apparently not the kind of psychological barriers to success that recent investigators discuss. Her biographer suggests that as a woman scientist she was liberated by this very dedication, impersonal and complete, to objective abstract science, and that her independence, like her privacy, screened her feelings from those around her. It seems important to note, too, that although from this vantage point we see her as the discoverer of radium, twice a Nobel Prize winner, and a crucial figure in the development of new knowledge of the atom, she was not especially “successful” until long after her major work was done. She failed to be elected to the Académie des Sciences (defeated by the “father of T.S.F.”) in 1911; Pierre Curie had failed in his first attempt in 1902, and had been elected only very narrowly in 1905; throughout his entire career, he never achieved an academic position equal to his scientific contribution, even after the Davy Prize and the Nobel Prize, and was repeatedly denied the professorships he so clearly deserved. Although Marie Curie herself was a major figure in the international community of scientists, in 1906, when she succeeded to the university post her husband had held for only a year and a half before his fatal accident, she was the first woman to reach professorial rank. During the years they worked together, they each published many scientific papers, and enjoyed the personal and professional regard of those few scientific colleagues working in their field, but success in the worldly sense did not come to them, and, in fact, by their disinterested scientific beliefs they deliberately alienated themselves from rewards and perquisites. It is a curious detail that on that day in 1906 when Marie Curie gave her inaugural lecture at the Sorbonne, one of the personages in the audience listening to the remarks on the structure of matter was the Comtesse de Greffuhle, Proust's great friend and the probable model for the Duchesse de Guermantes. Marie Curie was probably wearing one of her two or three black dresses, the only ones she owned, because they wouldn't soil in the laboratory. She was thirty-six and had lived her life for positivism, science, pure research, work, and truth. Undoubtedly she had only black shoes, so did not have to think about changing from the red ones.


Clearly, then, there is too simplistic an idea of success in all the talk about women and achievement. There are surely lives which display very few of the signs of success until very late, or after life is over. There are lives of great significance which go unrecognized by peers for a very long time, there are those who achieve nothing for themselves but leave a legacy for others who come after, there are lives sacrificed for causes.

In this connection we may be reminded of someone like Hannah Senesh, the young Hungarian martyr of twenty-three who was executed in 1944 just before the fall of Budapest. This charming and gifted young woman, with strong literary interests, a passionate desire for adventure, sweet and generous in nature, recalls to us something of the young Helene Deutsch's romantic, spirited encounter with life and intellect, although Hannah was very warmly attached to her mother, and there was no father to encourage or inspire her. At the age of eighteen she emigrated alone to Palestine to become a farm worker and eventually to join a kibbutz and become part of The Land. Nothing in her life until then would have prepared the observer for this choice: her father had been a writer, the family led an assimilated life among intellectuals and theatrical people, Hannah's brother was studying in France, and there was every expectation that she would lead a life of great personal interest and cultural achievement. She was a lively, charming, animated young woman who kept a diary,10 longed for romance and great challenges, wanted to be a writer. At any other time all of it would have come true, but Jews in Hungary in the 30's gasped as the air became poisoned with anti-Semitism and the Nazi noose tightened. Even within the limits of her own schoolgirl life, ominous signs of the future could be perceived, when in 1937 her election as secretary to the school Literary Society was nullified because a Jewish girl could not be allowed to hold that office. Hannah became a Zionist, learned Hebrew, and began to feel that only in Palestine could Jews live in freedom. She left in 1939 for the Nahalal Agricultural School, hoping her mother and brother would join her in a few months, and with her mother's blessing, although not her genuine agreement to what seemed a rash and even wasteful plan. Hannah refused to go to Palestine as a writer, or intellectual, or even as a Hungarian: she was determined to become part of the new society as a new person.

During the first years of the war, Hannah was immersed in her new learning, and in her new identity, but she felt increasingly isolated even as she remained convinced of her choice, and of the possibility of contributing something to The Land. As the news from Europe became more horrible, those in Palestine began to feel a certain guilt over their relative safety, and, more, a concern for those Jews who were unable to leave. Hannah felt this especially, as she worried about her mother. The life in Palestine was extremely rewarding, but she had long felt that she had been marked out for a mission. Suddenly, it became clear to her early in 1943, that she must go to Hungary and rescue her mother and help the Jewish community still there. Just at that time, the British were organizing secret parachute missions to attempt to save Allied airmen downed behind the Nazi lines, and a number of young Palestinians were recruited, with the understanding that they could rescue their fellow Jews in Europe once they secured the safety of the Allied pilots. Hannah of course volunteered for this mission and left her kibbutz in Caesarea to begin training as a parachutist. Of the thirty-two sent in March 1944, seven fell into the hands of the Nazis in June, and one of the seven was Hannah. She spent the next five months in various prisons, tortured, brutalized, and separated from her comrades. Miraculously, some of them were reunited in prison. As part of the torture, Hannah was confronted with her mother, to whom she cried, “Forgive me, Mother, I had to do what I did.” During the months of her imprisonment, she apparently led a life of saintly example, comforting her fellow prisoners, developing a system of signaling her mother across the courtyard, teaching the children, inventing and improvising in the classic manner of ingenious prisoners, maintaining her sweet transcendent spirit, and resisting the physical and psychological torture inflicted on her by the Gestapo and by her Hungarian jailers. At her trial, in late October, she bravely defended herself before her judges, like Joan of Arc, it is said, and because the Americans were bombing the city and the Russians were not far off, the judges did not pass any sentence at all, but instead fled the country. Ten days later she was executed.

Hannah had dreamed of being a heroine, one of her fellow parachutists said, and she was a heroine. She was apparently also extremely stubborn, determined, dauntless, and brave. She was not cautious, she resisted the discipline of the group, she was not cooperative. There is much that could be said of her final months, psychologically, and even critically. Her mission was not successful, millions of Hungarian Jews were not saved, although her mother survived. The story is sobering, both as it is told in her diary and letters, and the accounts of her last months, and in the larger perspective of the fate of the Hungarian Rescue Committee and the activities of Brand and Kastner in the demonic bargaining with Eichmann for the lives of Hungarian Jews.11 Hannah has become a heroine for Israel, her martyrdom expressing a complex message concerning the relation of Israel to the Jews of the Diaspora, and of course the Holocaust itself. Those who may not be linked intimately in this relation to Israel or to the Holocaust nevertheless share for all time in the meaning of martyrdom, and in that last poem of hers, written in May 1944 just before her fateful capture:

Blessed is the match consumed
    in kindling flame.
Blessed is the flame that burns
    in the secret fastness of the heart.
Blessed is the heart with strength to stop
    its beating for honor's sake.
Blessed is the match consumed
    in kindling flame.


1 Martha Graham: A Biography, by Don McDonagh, Praeger (1973), 341 pp., $10.95.

2 Marie Curie, by Robert Reid, Saturday Review Press-Dutton, (1974), 349 pp., $8.95.

3 Sex Differences in Achievement Motivations and Performance in Competitive and Non-Competitive Situations. (Unpublished dissertation.)

4 Edited by Ruth B. Kundsin, Morrow (1974), 256 pp., $7.95.

5 Times to Remember, by Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, Doubleday (1974), 536 pp., $12.50.

6 The von Richthofen Sisters: The Triumphant and the Tragic Modes of Love, by Martin Green, Basic Books (1974), 396 pp., $12.50.

7 American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams, by Allen F. Davis, Oxford University Press (1973), 339 pp., $10.95.

8 Confrontations with Myself: An Epilogue, by Helene Deutsch, Norton (1973), 217 pp., $6.95.

9 Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years, by Margaret Mead, Touchstone/Simon & Schuster (1972), 305 pp., $2.95. See also Sheila K. Johnson, “A Look at Margaret Mead,” in the March 1973 COMMENTARY.

10 Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary, Introduction by Abba Eban, Schocken (1973), 257 pp., $2.75.

11 The Summer That Bled: The Biography of Hannah Senesh, by Anthony Masters, St. Martin's Press (1972), 349 pp., $7.95.

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