The Creativity of Women:
a Discussion Based on John Gedo’s Paper
I read and reread Dr. Gedo’s thoughtful essay, “The Creativity of Women,” several times, as each reading produced different emphases, sparked ideas and arguments, and stimulated my thinking in different directions. I would like to offer some of my thoughts in the form of a discussion around the question (p. 216), “Why, then, are questions still asked about women and creativity?” raised by Gedo, yet incompletely answered in the body of his paper. Gedo’s question invites us to wonder with him: what is the relationship between women and creativity? There are rumors, of course—malicious gossip, whispers about this couple whose courtship may be doomed by the presence of too much estrogen and not enough testosterone. Perhaps people don’t realize that theirs is a complex history of alternating dominance and mutual respect. Men suspect women of trying to master creativity, as though creativity is a thing to be lusted after and possessed—as suggested in the title, “The Creativity o/Women.” We might speculate that such possession is accomplished by seducing and subduing creativity into submission with the power of the feminine will, to be used as an instrument of her personal pleasure and fulfillment. But then, are we to believe that the possession of creativity requires an act of aggression, the kind a man might perform more easily than a woman?
Gedo (with a bit of humorous sarcasm) suggests men want us to believe that creativity belongs to men and to men alone; let the women have their babies, no thank you. Indeed, his essay links creativity with public success, and even with notoriety, as its measurable outcome. If creativity were masculine, (and some have radically attempted to convince us that it is mono-gendered) it might explain why women still seek to understand it. Women fantasize about creativity, love it, even worship it, dream about fame and fortune at least as much as men, have conflicts about it, feel bested by it, and strive to tame that elusive and hard-to-get muse. From this point of view creativity is a product. Its endpoint becomes the object of value, rather than its predominant value, that which is associated with the process of defining, making, identifying with, being affected by, and owning the endeavor. We might just as well write about creativity as a commodity. But if we accept that the outcome of a creative process defines creativity, then we also condense and thus severely restrict something whose limits must remain necessarily undefined. It is the novel, the as yet undiscovered, that always lies just beyond what is bound by knowledge.
My mother was one of the most creative women I have known. She followed recipes and made blue-ribbon-winning pies. She followed preprinted patterns for sewing, knitting, and needlework, which brought her fame and fortune for a period in her life. But her greatest creative accomplishment was one for which she got no money, no public recognition. She found a way to stretch her thinking beyond the bounds of the religious dogma she had been taught as a child and had adhered strictly to for most of her adulthood. She read, she researched, and she wrote, and produced a manuscript about her new perceptions regarding her Catholic faith and novel ideas about biblical writings. She sought publishers for her work, but the manuscript was repeatedly rejected. This project changed her life and her thinking, yet she bore its effects alone. She could not afford the expense of publishing it herself. What shall we say about her relationship to creativity? Here is what I say: creativity was in her psychological makeup, an integral part of her everyday life, a quality that chose her as much as she chose to embrace it—dark side and all. That she achieved success for some of her creative efforts but not in others does not change their value for her or for me.
The relationship between women and creativity conceives something previously unknown, something like the woman as she knows herself and is known; and yet unlike her as well. It is this new outgrowth that we generally call the manifestation of creative effort. Yet a creative accomplishment is more than the unilateral effort of a single woman. In the process of turning our creative efforts into publicly recognized accomplishments, we face resistances that may need the help of another or others to overcome. Creativity itself may become the necessary helper in achieving success. When the woman is a writer, creativity faces the writer’s thoughts and feelings in a relationship that can ultimately be either adversarial or collaborative. Creativity’s dark side is aggression, and it is this that women fear most. The fearful writer may not wish to embrace creativity, when creativity presents its dark side. In that encounter creativity becomes the one to fear, as the writer projects her feelings into creativity’s shadows. Alternatively, the relationship between creativity and me is a mutually helpful one when I am willing to peer with a sense of curiosity into the shadows. “What we fear we have already experienced” Winnicott suggested, as though women’s relationship with creativity might recreate itself, each time we confront the other, with new meaning and hopeful possibility.
Living an artist’s life, a writer’s life, or any sort of creative life in fact, both facilitates and is the physical and psychological immersion in creative thinking and action. Undoubtedly, daily contact with a creative process requires not only commitment (and the partner/spouses’ support of it), but stamina and intense focus on the process itself, something many women are unwilling to free themselves to accomplish. An exception lies in women’s responses to the needs of others, the call to duty for family and/or children. Some creative women are able to produce a novel form that proceeds from and melds with the function to which it is put. This form, then, becomes the creative success, whether it is made manifestly public or not. An example that comes to mind is the way in which one middle-aged woman responded to the September 11 tragedies in New York City and Washington, DC. This woman taught as an associate professor at a local university, but her promising beginning had petered into a lackluster performance over her fifteen years in the same history department. She had never been able to complete and publish sufficient work to promote herself for advancement and recognition as the gifted professor she truly is. However, the current outcry against the Islam religion in her community prompted her to formulate two lecture series—one on comparative religions and another on the collusion of women with patriarchal leaders in furthering fundamentalism within certain religious sects. Compiling and teaching these courses was no small feat, and she poured herself into the process, even taking a teaching holiday to accomplish some of the necessary research. At the time of this writing, she is teaching these two courses to overflowing crowds of eager students and adults, and has begun writing a series of essays based on the lectures. To some extent, her angry reaction to the events of September 11 accompanied an onset of forceful activity she had previously not permitted herself. It was as though she had thrust herself toward the dark side of her creative potential, and then related to it by initially wrestling with it (in her analysis with me), and then made friends with it. The fruits of this relationship are only beginning to be recognized successes.
If the successful outcome of a novel endeavor defines creativity, I prefer to believe that women aren’t so much afraid of their aggressive drives as that women are the human manifestations of a higher order of good judgment and wisdom in making choices. Every buck knows that the position of alpha male is always there for the taking, and that the winner needs more than brawn to be successful in the creative endeavor.