Irene Dempsey

the practical psychologist


About Irene


Rewriting the Psychology of Women

Notes on Communication

An Outline of Underdog Psychology


Other writings

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Rewriting the Psychology of Women

Irene's interest in the special challenges and issues facing women began very early, and her doctoral research in the early 1950s focused on the psychological consequences of women's roles.  In 1968-1970, she and her husband, Paul, ran a series of workshops that examined and discarded traditional views on women's psychology in favor of a new "psychology of women."  As always in her work, Irene was focused not just on understanding the issues, but on addressing the very practical challenges that women face every day.  Edited transcripts from the workshops were collected in Rewriting the Psychology of Women (1973), excerpted below.



            Suppose we flip for it.

            Suits me.

            You call it.


            Heads it is.

Paul:     All right, Iíll start.  I suppose the thing to begin with is what weíre about and why weíre about it.  Okay?  Well, from the title itís clear that the focus of the book is on women and that you and I disagree with the kinds of things psychologists have been saying about women.

Irene:  Yes, but that puts it far too mildly!  Polite scientific disagreement is only a tiny part of it.  Both of us are far more concerned with the social and individual consequences of what has been laid on women in the name of scientific psychology -- and how the individual woman can cope with those consequences.

The most prominent psychology of women has been Freudís, right?  Well, whatever the scientific merits of Freudís view, in social terms it is nothing but a hostile aggressive put-down of women!  More than that, it is an actual barrier to the development of psychological skills, to learning, to change -- in men as well as women.  And the pathetic thing about it is that the more informed a woman is, the more likely she is to be caught in the toils of the Freudian trap!  She canít get rid of her limitations without risking her femininity at the same time...

P.         Yeah, she canít be feminine unless sheís also willing to be a fool!

I.          Whoís a fool?

P.         Thatís your problem, not mine!  Iím just your local male harasser!  But I agree with you: the uninformed woman is far better off.

I.          What do you mean, better off?  You think that because her social environment, including the most ardent feminists, overwhelmingly define her as an underdog, she should somehow be happier?  Youíre crazy!  She may be more resigned, or less noisy, but sheís no happier!  There isnít a woman in the world that doesnít want to stop being an underdog!

P.         Okay, okay!  So thatís what weíre talking about, really.  Growth.  Development.  Learning. Change.  How to stop being an underdog.  How to cope with topdogs -- including those in the feminist movement.

I.          Yes, how to cope with topdogs without becoming one yourself!  And by the time we finish our rewrite, it should be clear that most of what we say applies to men as well as women.

P.         Yes, and also it should be clear that there are important gender differences which cannot be ignored.  I was reading a marriage manual the other day where the authors tried to keep their language gender-free by constantly using the phrase ďoneís mate.Ē  Good lord, the only thing that can come out of talk like that is sexless intercourse!

I.              Whatever is that?

P.         I donít know -- but I bet it isnít any fun!  But to get back to the issue of what we want to do here, the fact is that we have found the perspective of underdog psychology useful to many people, helping them to see themselves and their behavior in new and clarifying ways, helping them to get over some kind of hump so that theyíre ready to explore and try out.

I.          That point is central to me.  Once people get in touch with their energies, they begin to move and then, come hell or high water, they usually keep on moving.  But in ordinary day-to-day living, the energies of women especially tend to be over-committed.  So much of their vitality is swallowed up in maintenance and role-filling and doing for others and career-pursuing that they have little freedom to recognize their own possibilities for choice.  And less to act for themselves, should they become aware of their choices.

Wasnít it Bob Wallace who said, ďIf you donít learn to snatch when youíre small, youíll never learn it?Ē  Well, in my view it takes a long time for children to be discouraged from acting for themselves.  Iíve seldom seen glassy eyes in a child before the age of four.  Oh, autistic children, yes, but the average child is reaching out wildly for herself, learning hand over fist, eagerly, willingly, trying everything, falling on her face and getting up and trying again.   Itís about four Iíd say that girls start being afraid of making mistakes.

P.         Well, maybe ďsnatchingĒ is too strong a word.  It suggests both competition and non-enough-to-go-around.  But Ďgoing out for oneself,í maybe thatís closer to it.  Or Ďlooking after oneís own needs.í

I.          Yes, itís about age four I think that females substitute acceptability for expressiveness, doing it right for getting what they want.  But thatís a problem weíll have to deal with later.  Right now I think itís time to say something about the organization of this book.

In essence, the book follows the dialog format you and I used in a series of courses we taught together, courses we also adapted for use in several intensive workshops.  After a brief look at what is included in current views of the psychology of women, scientific and feminist alike, we shall focus on the crucial issues those views ignore.  The weakness of current approaches, in short, is not so much what they assert as what they leave out.  The centrality of the art and skills of psychological self-defense, for instance.  The importance of resources, for instance.  The crucial significance of expressiveness at every step of the way.  Thereís more of course, but thatís enough to get started on.

P.         Irene, I agree.  I do want to say something about the dialog format, however.  I like it, not only because you and I can express our ideas independently, but also because student comments and questions are easy to introduce.  So long as we speak as individuals, thereís less danger that weíll dissolve into the same pious poop!

I.            Actually, Paul, there is something else.  Entirely apart from agreement, disagreement, or pious poop, I dislike the anonymity of collaboration.  If the same set of words spoke for both of us, even when we agree, I would feel stifled.  I donít care how long weíve been married, your mind is not my mind, and my words are not yours.

P.         Thank God for that!

So now thereís only one thing I want to add.   Irene, I want to acknowledge your priority.  I want everyone to know that the basic ideas surrounding underdog psychology grew out of your practice, not mine.  After your first insights weíve worked together, itís true, and Iíve had the pleasure of helping to develop the ideas, particularly in tracing their implications for men.  But thatís where we stand: you are responsible, and Iím here simply for the pleasure of it.  Thank you on both counts!

Okay, shall we start?

I.          Paul, I think youíre trying to say something nice, but itís so ambiguous I canít tell.  Well, thatís another issue weíll have to take up later.  Should we start?  Of course we should.


© 1970-2003 Irene Dempsey