Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), well-known Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, “…said once to Marie Bonaparte: ‘The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul is, ‘What does a woman want?’” (“Was will das Weib?”) ― Sigmund Freud: Life and Work (Hogarth Press, 1953) by Ernest Jones.
I don’t believe Freud ever answered the question posed here satisfactorily. Women’s desire—even today—hovers in the taboo category. After all, in our hierarchal, patriarchal society women’s wants/desires are mediated through social structures and institutions that favor men. It’s easy to overlook since we all are spawned and then swim in those patriarchal waters.
In her excellent 2021 memoir, Blow Your House Down, Gina Frangello tells us: “…the fabric of the patriarchal world seems not only still woven tightly, but, one might even postulate, reinforced with duct tape….The squelching of women’s desire has always been one of the main tentacles of patriarchy….”
I’m including Kim Addonizio’s poem, “What Do Women Want?” here because it’s raw, outrageous, and fun as the poet addresses Freud’s famous question.
“What Do Women Want?”
I want a red dress.
I want it flimsy and cheap,
I want it too tight, I want to wear it
until someone tears it off me.
I want it sleeveless and backless,
this dress, so no one has to guess
what’s underneath. I want to walk down
the street past Thrifty’s and the hardware store
with all those keys glittering in the window,
past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old
donuts in their café, past the Guerra brothers
slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly,
hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders.
I want to walk like I’m the only
woman on earth and I can have my pick.
I want that red dress bad.
I want it to confirm
your worst fears about me,
to show you how little I care about you
or anything except what
I want. When I find it, I’ll pull that garment
from its hanger like I’m choosing a body
to carry me into this world, through
the birth-cries and the love-cries too,
and I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,
it’ll be the goddamned
dress they bury me in.
I cringed reading the sentence, “I want it to confirm your worst fears about me, to show you how little I care about you or anything except what I want.” (Of course I cringed, women are expected to always make nice and so often that requires they negate themselves.) Some people, no doubt, will read that sentence and think “What a bitch!” I see the text as pushing back against the patriarchal structure that informs women that their own desire(s) need to be kept under wraps—they don’t belong in the public sphere—or anywhere, for that matter.
I’ve written the following poem attempting to put a marker on my whereabouts at this point in my life:
I want, I need, I would like….
None of that’s important, you must realize
Is what they’ve said to me all along.
What’s important is you being a helpmeet
(Such a weird word—helpmeet)
You came from man’s rib, after all
You’re here to meet man’s needs
See to his desires and comfort him
At least that’s how the story got spun.
Gina Frangello writes regarding her own experience: “You want to be a good wife. You want your husband who seems stressed and withdrawn, to be happy. You still believe implicitly that by making him happy, you will be happy too.”
“…I dared to believe my desires would be interesting to him, some kind of gift…he had wanted no such thing. He only wanted me to act as he wished. Or no, that’s too simple…he wanted his desires to be the gift I was hungry for….”
Back to my poem:
Do we really think woman emerged from man?
Yes, some of us really do—“the bible tells me so”
Man birthing woman is not
In just one of the biblical accounts of creation
Other creation stories tell the same story
Woman derives her essence from man
(Athena was birthed from her father Zeus’ brow)
Therefore, woman is not autonomous.
She can never even know her own desire
Nor should she.
Woman is wrapped snugly in man’s flesh
Except she has no penis (usually, that is)
Freud thinks she’s pissed and envious.
She’ll never be a full human being without one.
Guess a penis gives man a monopoly
On ability and knowledge.
Gina Frangello says, “…this is what it’s like to know you’re going to blow. …to know you are going to hurt some of the people you love most—to know you will hurt yourself, even if you no longer make that list of those deserving of your love. This is what it’s like to know that the only way to have avoided what is now inevitable wreckage would have been to …have chosen to remain the woman you once were….This is what it is to have bitten the apple, and to understand for the first time why female desire and knowledge are the most feared and demonized forces in history. This is what it’s like to be a destroyer of worlds: that woman, that apple, that serpent, all at once.”
Back to my poem:
I want, I need, I would like….
It’s called expressing one’s humanity
After all these many years
Am digging deep into my buried self
Sifting through the strata
Layered and entwined with male desire.
Dusting me off, hoping against hope
That my desiccated self hasn’t completely disintegrated
Although am thinking it has.
“What happens,” Gina Frangello asks, “when self-erasure has been the norm for so long that the You cannot find its way back to I?”
Right up until Gina and her husband divorced, she says, “We were still mirroring each other like twins, checking out who we were. It was only once this mirroring was withdrawn that I began to understand that freedom is only ever a fall without a net.”
Janis Joplin, American vocalist (1943-1970), put it another way—“Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.”
Esther Nelson is a registered nurse who worked for several years in Obstetrics and Psychiatry, but not simultaneously. She returned to school (Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia) when her children were in college and liked it well enough to stay on as an adjunct professor. For twenty-two years, she taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, Women in the Abrahamic Faiths, and Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of An Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry. She recently stepped away from teaching and now splits her time between New Mexico and Virginia.