When I was a child we spent several years in Spain. I remember being stuck one summer in an old country house with family and friends, and at one point finding the small library of children’s books. There were a few in English, which I suppose were imported from England so the former children of the house’s family (now all grown) would learn to read the language. I interestedly pulled down the big book of stories for little girls, curling up alone to enjoy it in the slightly dusty peace of the room.
I was horrifically, deeply disappointed. The most “exciting” stories in the book concerned girls being clique-ish little shits to each other about who got to go to whose tea party. No adventure, no excitement, nothing but an endless, dull collection of supposedly “plucky” little girls in tidy white pinafores, serving an awful lot of tea to charmingly personality-free, blank-faced dollies. After two or so of these pointless wastes of space, I was frustrated and disgusted, so I put the book away and pulled out the big book of stories for little boys. I didn’t hold much hope for it, but I was bored and willing to give it a try to at least kill some time.
I was entranced! The book was fascinating — full of exciting stories of derring do and adventure. The little bugler boy who bravely laid down his life to warn the approaching British troops of the dangerous Zulu warriors lying in ambush, Kipling’s wonderful poem “If,” the story of the Charge of the Light Brigade, dangerous and adventurous explorations of deepest darkest Africa in the search for King Solomon’s gold… I nearly devoured the book, and I was quite disappointed when it was too soon concluded. Even then, at maybe seven or eight years of age, I remember wondering why they made little girls read such painfully unmitigated tripe, and only let the boys have the fun stories. Did they want the girls to grow up stupid and dull, or what?!
I was reminded of this appalling mistreatment of the children of one gender when I was reading Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey. She explains she wrote the book in response to an unintentionally unpleasant conversation she had with Joseph Campbell, the author of The Hero’s Journey. She writes:
My desire to understand how the woman’s journey relates to the journey of the hero first led me to talk to Joseph Campbell in 1981. I knew that the stages of the heroine’s journey incorporated aspects of the journey of the hero, but I felt that the focus of female spiritual development was to heal the internal split between woman and her feminine nature. I wanted to hear Campbell’s views. I was surprised when he responded that women don’t need to make the journey, “In the whole mythological tradition the woman is there. All she has to do is to realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to. When a woman realizes what her wonderful character is, she’s not going to get messed up with the notion of being pseudo-male.”
This answer stunned me; I found it deeply unsatisfying. The women I know and work with do not want to be there, the place that people are trying to get to. … They do not want to be handmaidens of the dominant male culture, giving service to the gods. They do not want to follow the advice of fundamentalist preachers and return to the home. They need a new model that understands who and what a woman is. … It is a journey that seldom receives validation from the outside world; in fact the outer world often sabotages and interferes with it (italics hers, pgs 2,3).
I found myself agreeing strongly with Murdock on the complete wrongness of Campbell’s answer, and bleakly amused at his rather short-sighted assertions regarding women. Clearly in his view “people” are men; “woman” equates to the dull stay-at-homes, who get the supposedly thrilling job of self-praising themselves for being not “messed up” or “pseudo-male” — as if the very concept of adventure or self-discovery were anathema to being female! Thus I continued reading Murdock’s book with great interest; I too wish to know the Heroine’s Journey.
Much of the book rang very, very familiar to personal observance and experience: there were loosely defined modern archetypes such as the young woman disdaining the perceived weakness of her societally frustrated and consequently understandably demanding mother, while adoring the so-called strengths of the societally empowered father — but discovering mid-life that emulating the masculine paths to power leave her unfulfilled and lost… or the young woman who feels rejected by her societally suppressed and consequently isolated and depressed mother, while also constantly struggling to win the approval of her idolized but also distant and self-absorbed father — who becomes a young woman who consequently never learns to be kind to or pleased with herself, in her quest to be everything to everyone.
There were long, rambling explications of the various archetypes, including both the author’s personal experiences and those of other women (although it was sometimes a bit confusing sorting them all out), and equally rambling suggestions on how one reclaimed one’s feminine self in order to heal from these inner ordeals. Curiously, I felt the basic mother-daughter bond was far better and more thoughtfully explored in Kathie Carlson’s Life’s Daughter/Death’s Bride, even though Murdock covers more archetypal “emotional terrain” than Carlson did. Despite this issue, I felt some of Murdock’s examples and suggestions on the father-daughter were quite insightful.