The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise - Dorothy Dinnerstein
The author indicates that this book, published in the late 1970s, was the result of decades of thinking. In the last chapter, Dinnerstein tries to project where collective gender attitudes may be going in the future with a bit of analysis of the counterculture, New Left, and Second Wave Feminism; but for the most part, the book is a psychoanalytic examination of what Dinnerstein believed to be an important root cause of both sexual inequality and (most importantly to her) an overall destructive pattern of history that it seemed would imminently end all human life, by wars and environmental degradation.

Basically (I hope I'm summarizing this correctly), Dinnerstein posited that because the contacts that every individual has during his or her infancy are almost exclusively with women, during the formation of personality and gender identity people transfer emotions associated with the early caregiver to women in general. These include longing for protection, jealousy, conflict, etc. These remain during the future course of what Dinnerstein calls "the human project", that is recognition that we shape our own lives (because of our sentience). She says that the ability to divide humanity into two genders and differentiate between what is associated with each one provides many, complex escape routes for people to remain infantile, avoid their ambivalences, protect themselves from emotional conflicts; both genders participate in the construction and maintenance of these, in a way that is "symbiotic". She thinks that being able to thus escape is a bad thing, which "maims and stunts" both genders, and leads to one half of human personality, the expansive "world-making" done by men, being greedy and exploitive.

Dinnerstein argues that although the systemic factors pointed out by other feminists are important, and although there is certainly a lot of simple resistance by men to giving up privileges and comforts, change cannot come unless the deep-seated psychological contributions to the current sexual arrangements are changed, and that can only happen once men take a major part in infant care (which is now technologically possible). "[Efforts to overthrow tyranny] are inevitably abortive... until we start outgrowing the original dependency, the original terror of eternal helplessness, instead of trying all our lives to keep it at bay. And we will take on this emotional task only when we no longer have the option, at the beginning, of shirking it by running for refuge from the first tyrant to another of a new gender."

It would be nice if this relatively simple prescription contributed toward changing human nature for the better. Unfortunately, it rests entirely on psychoanalytic theories of personality formation, and recent psychological research has shown that minds just don't work that way. But does this mean that there is no point at all in reading this book? I don't think so. It is lucidly written, by a thoughtful critic, who has many interesting observations to make along the way. Her tentative vision of what human nature might be if not divided among genders but rather synthesized in each individual is intriguing; and it is always worth being reminded just how much culture shapes our most "obvious" assumptions.

Here's Dinnerstein's rationale for trying to understand the roots of our attitudes: "Human life is the one piece of nature whose structure is shaped internally by the way we perceive it, the only one on which our awareness works from the inside rather than from the outside. This means that here our perception of what we want to change is not merely a guide in the effort to change it: the perception and the change are aspects of a single development." This insight applies to all psychological understandings, not just the outdated psychoanalytic one.