"In the final analysis, the only thing that matters is when you look up at 6 o'clock and there he is. Otherwise, you're nothing but someone with a French provincial desk." Bette Davis, in "All About Eve"
Bette Davis could get away with that line in 1950, when women went to college to earn a "Mrs." and dreamed of suburbia, station wagons and frost-free freezers.
But while the same sentiment might provoke "boos" from today's liberated women, psychologist Penelope Russianoff claims that--deep inside--most would nod agreement.
"About 95 percent of my female patients think that they are nothing without a man," she says. "But this is not something they tell me immediately. Usually the first complaint I hear is 'Why do I feel so empty so much of the time?' or 'Why, since I have a good job, lots of hobbies and wonderful friends, do I feel so unfulfilled?' "
After awhile, the 64-year-old therapist asks a pointed question: "What if you had to live your whole life without a man?" The typical response: "I couldn't. It's unimaginable. I'd be depressed all the time--because I need love. I think this is the most important thing in life, not only for me, but for every woman I know."
Despite the fashionable rhetoric about independence and assertiveness, "most women," she says, "still orient their lives around getting, and then holding on to, a mate. Women have come a long way socially, sexually and--to a lesser extent--economically. Emotionally, however, they still have a long way to go."
What women need for psychological health, Russianoff concludes after 40 years as a therapist, is "to get unfixated on men . . . to stop pivoting around a man as the core of their security and to learn to pivot around the core of security they build up within themselves."
She calls this process "undependence"--the theme of the 1978 film, "An Unmarried Woman," in which she played the part of a therapist helping the newly separated Jill Clayburgh work through her "void-without-a-man" crisis. Russianoff won the part after a mutual friend introduced her to director Paul Mazursky.
In writing her lines for the movie, Russianoff incorporated the central message she gives all her "emotionally unliberated" women patients: "There are a million ways to live your life as a woman, and you don't have to despair if you don't choose the culturally acceptable way."
A year after the movie, she elaborated on this theme in a lecture series at the New York YWCA entitled "Why Do I Think I'm Nothing Without A Man?" The overwhelmingly positive response prompted her to author--with writer Elin Schoen--a book by the same title (Bantam, 155 pps., $10.95). Dedicated, somewhat ironically, to her musician husband Leon Russianoff, the book is geared to inspiring female declarations of undependence.
"I'm not knocking the joys of love or the rewards of living with a man," she writes. "I feel that a good, solid, profound relationship with a man is something to which a woman might well aspire--but not to the exclusion of all else, not at the expense of her selfhood."
Women who follow the male-centered Total Woman formula, she says, "usually end up feeling like totaled women. I find it sad that so many women spend so much of their lives on hold--waiting for Mr. Right to come along, waiting for him to come home, waiting for him to make them feel complete--instead of allowing themselves to be who they are and feel complete in themselves."
Although men also are dependent, she says, theirs is not a "desperate dependence." Male self-esteem is rooted in many areas--work, sports, hobbies, family. But women she says, "still tend to define themselves largely by their mate. (They) allow their relationship with their partner to supercede all other sources of pleasure, fulfillment, entertainment and reward in life."
At the root of this "emotional fixation," are "centuries and centuries of cultural brainwashing that programs women to feel inferior to men. The next best thing to being a man, supposedly, is being chosen by a man."
So prevalent is this theme in everything, from philosophical literature to TV commercials, "that a great number of my patients who think they are nothing without a man," notes Russianoff, "also believe that this condition is predestined. It's a problem women share regardless of marital status, age, nationality, income, professional standing, religion and appearance."
Russianoff's own "cultural brainwashing" started while growing up in "a WASP ghetto of Baltimore." Descended from a line of "tremendously tall Scots, by age 14 I was 6-feet-2 and weighed about 100 pounds. I looked like a cadaver. And I dreamed of romance."
But by college--when her height and World War II had narrowed the field of available men--"I changed my focus. I got very excited about my work at the University of Michigan, and I had great friends--both male and female. The minute I stopped focusing on men they appeared."
Married twice, "once unhappily and once happily," Russianoff first married, at age 32, "the first man who asked me." It was, she admits, "a mistake. But I learned a great deal." That marriage lasted 16 years, "which sort of embarrasses me . . . I was too scared to leave the security of a marriage."
Her second marriage is now in its 16th year and "very different from my first. My husband discourages desperate dependency and lovingly supports my undependence."
Becoming an "undependent woman," she says, requires three major steps. "First say goodbye to the cultural myth of female inferiority. Then chip away at the 'supposed-to's' . . . the assumptions about how everyone is supposed to think and feel and act. Then get involved in meaningful work, hopefully from which you can support yourself, so you can stand on your own two feet."
This emotional emancipation, she sees as benefiting both sexes. "The single most important factor in becoming undependent in relationships with the opposite sex is playing down the word 'opposite' and all the obstacles to understanding that go with it.
"If men and women would interact as plain people, there would be less 'Him Tarzan, Me Jane' thinking and no need for 'Him Jane, Me Tarzan.' And in ceasing to see themselves as victims in so many instances, women will stop viewing men as villains."