Dominance, Personality, and Social Behaviour in Women

The movie “The Letter” from 1940 with Bette Davis can be considered an example of transgressing the feminine stereotype.

Maslow wrote “Dominance, Personality and Social Behaviour in Women” in 1939 after studying a fairly homogeneous group of 15 men and 130 women, practically all of which had been to college and were married (3 out of 4). This homogeneity was “necessary for the best results” (A. H. Maslow, 1939, Dominance, Personality and Social Behaviour in Women, Journal of Social Psychology, vol 10, pp 3-39) , but on doing so he also made the group conform to the dominant social group at the time (white, practically all educated at college level, 75% protestant, heterosexual).

As a result of his study he observed that the higher the level of dominance, the lower the feelings of self-consciousness and embarrassment, shyness, or inferiority. To check the subject’s feelings of inferiority, Maslow asked the women (doesn’t comment on the men, “since the work with men is still in process” (Ibid.,)) to rate their beauty as men would perceive it, and contrasted their answers with the replies from men that knew them. By placing men in the position of judges of the female beauty Maslow is reinforcing the male dominance in a patriarchal society, and reducing women to a subordinate position in which she is “continually obliged to seek survival or advancement through the approval of males as those who hold power” (Millett, 1977)

In his study of conventionality, morality and rules, he expressed that high dominance women prefer to be treated “like a person, not like a woman” (Maslow, 1939), be independent, and felt less guilt in general. However, it is the fact that these women enjoyed their sexuality without shame that seemed to bother Maslow more than anything else “In the paper of sexuality, promiscuity, masturbation, homosexual experiences and perversions of all sorts were often found. Not one of these women had guilty feelings about any of these” (Maslow, 1939). This is not the case for the low dominance women, who are very moral, ethical and conventional, and “seem to be more honest”, before promptly adding “The evidence for this is, however, not adequate” (Maslow, 1939).

When studying the objects levels of happiness, the causes of unhappiness for the high dominance women are all external “(a career, an unsatisfactory husband, conflict with family, etc.,)” (Maslow, 1939), whereas for the low dominance women the causes are all internal (personality, shortcomings, inferiority feelings, etc.,). Maslow believes there is a general tendency to higher dominance that he sees a partial product of “the generalized cultural approval of higher-than-average dominance-feeling in women” (Maslow, 1939), therefore those higher dominance women are closer to the cultural ideal and are therefore happier. Maslow explains that “the craving for dominance is culturally produced because of the presence of social norms that favor high rather than lower dominance-feeling, status and behavior” (Maslow, 1939).

Regarding the perceptions of masculinity/femininity, Maslow initially describes as masculine “both high-dominance men and woman”, and as feminine “low-dominance men and woman”, before suggesting to drop the terms altogether because they are so misleading” (Maslow, 1939). In spite of this, he still feels the need to identify “leadership, strength of character, strong social purpose, lack of fear, shyness., etc” as “manly”, and being a housewife or a cook as women’s duties, as per “our culture”. This stereotyping of roles and attributes according to sex is based on the needs and values of the dominant group. “Sex role assigns domestic service and attendance upon infants to the female, the rest of human achievement, interest and ambition to the male” (Millett, 1977)

Maslow believed that the higher the level of dominance, the more psychological freedom, or the lesser the inhibition (or Super-Ego for Freud) experienced. This was also the case sexually, high dominance women have not repressed their sexual desires or attitudes and therefore are expressed openly.


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