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Natalie Bennett ponders learned helplessness...

Women and Learned Helplessness

I’ve been pondering lately how women were, and it seems in some cases still are, taught to be, and rewarded for being, utterly helpless and hapless, as though this were an admirable trait.

The topic came up one night when I had a lot of ironing, which I did while watching a rather inane British commercial television show, Midsomer Murders, set in stereotypical current-day home counties villages in which every male is a solicitor or in the City, or a retired minor TV star, while the women are “homemakers”, spending all that money on huge fancy homes, mostly set around the village green on which cricket is being played.

It is not quality television, but nonetheless one scene really left me fuming. The main detective and his young sidekick are locked in a cellar with a woman of the “homemaker” type. (Her husband has been involved in a scam; she thought there was something wrong, but “thought it better not to ask about it”.) There’s a bit of discussion about whether there’s enough air, will they die etc, then the woman lies down and goes to sleep, leaving it to the men to try to saw their way out through the door.

Now, yes, this is a silly show, but some writer must have thought that this was believable behaviour for this sort of character. (And she wasn’t central to the show so no particular point was being made about her as a character.)

Then I had cause to meet (and I’m anonymising here because I don’t want anyone to be identifiable) a woman who must be in her early 40s, married to a considerably older man in a socially important well-paid job requiring a very high degree of education. Her manner could only be described as fluttery – in the best Victorian form – and when confronted with even a minor problem her reaction was to ask me, who she scarcely knew, to solve what was really quite a personal familial issue. I couldn’t help feeling that if faced with a real crisis her reaction would probably be to faint gracefully.

These incidents coincided with my reading of Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush (1852), an account by one of the sisters of Agnes Strickland of being a gentlewoman pioneer (and eventually a very poor one) in Canada.

She has to do at times quite rough work, and cope with extremely difficult circumstances, yet she reports, indeed celebrates, her helplessness in many situations.

Fairly early on, Moodie, now probably in her late 20s, reports she “found myself at night in a house entirely alone. [Actually her child is sleeping, but I don’t suppose that counts.]

“Hour after hour wore away, and the crowing of the cocks proclaimed midnight, and yet they came not. [Her husband and their servant] I burnt out all my wood, and I dared not open the door to fetch more. The candle was expiring in the socket, and I had not the courage to go up into the lost and procure another before it went finally out. Cold, heart-weary, and faint, I sat and cried. …” (p. 196)

Later she reports of her fear of walking through the woods alone with her sister, although she admits there is no rational basis for this. “This foolish dread of encountering wild beasts in the woods I never could wholly shake off, even after becoming a constant resident in their gloomy depths… The cracking of an old bough, or the hooting of the owl, was enough to fill me with alarm, and try my strength in a precipitate flight.” (p. 260)

And she never gets over her fear of cattle. After some years in the woods one day she is forced to do the milking, “when a very wild ox we had came running with headlong speed from the wood. All my fears were alive again in a moment. I snatched up the pail and, instead of climbing the fence and getting to the house, I ran with all the speed I could command down the steep hill towards the lake shore; my feet caught in a root of the many stumps in the path, and I fell to the ground, my pail rolling many yards a-head of me.” (p. 370)

Now maybe Moodie was just conforming to Victoria stereotypes of womanhood here, but I don’t think so; the passages just ring too truly. But it does demonstrate what damage learned helplessness can do in making people live a life of fear.

How many women are living this way today? Probably more than I’ve previously imagined, I’ve now concluded.

(Quotes from Virago edition of 1986)

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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