Given Away: The Plight of the Wounded Feminine

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia for sacrifice blog post


In a recent New Yorker article about White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, I came across the following description of a meeting she had that included her father, Mike Huckabee, and then-candidate Donald Trump.

“There (at the Atlanta airport) they boarded Trump’s private jet. . . .When Trump asked Huckabee for an endorsement, Huckabee instead suggested that he (Trump) enlist his daughter. Trump needed a stronger link to evangelicals and women, and Sanders was happy to provide one.”

The operative word in the above quote is “happy.” Ms. Sanders was consensual, if not enthusiastic, about working for Mr. Trump. A darker, more sinister version of this enactment, a daughter offered up by a father for personal gain, appeasement, or out of ignorance is a recurrent narrative thread in myths and fairy tales and underlines the role of the sacrificial daughter.

"How the girl lost her hands" by H. J. Ford for sacrifice blog postIn the Brothers Grimm’s version of “The Girl without Hands,” a poor miller in need of money inadvertently makes a pact with the devil who “will come in three years to claim that which stands behind the mill.” That turns out to be, not the apple tree the miller thought, but his daughter who was sweeping the yard at the time.

The miller’s daughter was a beautiful and pious girl, and she lived the three years worshipping God and without sin. When the time was up and the day came when the evil one was to get her, she washed herself clean and drew a circle around herself with chalk. The devil appeared very early in the morning, but he could not approach her.

He spoke angrily to the miller, “Keep water away from her, so she cannot wash herself any more. Otherwise I have no power over her.”

The miller was frightened and did what he was told. The next morning the devil returned, but she had wept into her hands, and they were entirely clean. Thus he still could not approach her, and he spoke angrily to the miller, “Chop off her hands. Otherwise I cannot get to her.”

The miller was horrified and answered, “How could I chop off my own child’s hands!”

Then the evil one threatened him, saying, “If you do not do it, then you will be mine, and I will take you yourself.” This frightened the father, and he promised to obey him. Then he went to the girl and said, “My child, if I do not chop off both of your hands, then the devil will take me away, and in my fear I have promised him to do this. Help me in my need, and forgive me of the evil that I am going to do to you.” She answered, “Dear father, do with me what you will. I am your child,” and with that she stretched forth both hands and let her father chop them off.

Eventually, after a journey and travails, and because she is pious and good, the miller’s daughter marries a king and her hands are restored.

Rumpelstiltskin by Anne Anderson for sacrifice blog postAnother tale in which a poor miller father sells his daughter to gain stature and wealth is the story of “Rumpelstiltskin.” Here the father brags to the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold. She is brought to the king, locked into a room and given the command, her life in jeopardy if she fails to succeed at this impossible task. Narcissism, greed, and domination in the figures of father and king are allied against her. With the help of the magical imp Rumpelstiltskin, the daughter succeeds in her task, but in exchange must give him her firstborn child. She is finally able to claim her child and her independence only after she guesses the name of her tormentor, “Rumpelstiltskin.” Psychologically, this rings true: until we name the negative force that has hold of us, we remain within its power.

The unnamed daughter of Jephthah in the Bible is not so lucky to be saved (Judges 11:30-40). Her father makes a vow with God:

11:30 And Jephthah made the following vow to Yhwh: “If You deliver the Ammonites into my hands, 11:31 then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be Yhwh’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.

Jephthah sacrificing his daughter by Bourdon for sacrifice blog postUnfortunately, it is Jephthah’s daughter who dances out of his house to greet him. She accepts her sacrificial fate, but asks her father for two months in the mountains with her women to celebrate her virginity. This is granted.  Nonetheless, she is consecrated as an offering to the Lord. She is able to tell herself she is not a victim without choice. Unlike the miller in “The Girl without Hands,” Jephthah is motivated by ambition, not necessity. He is a warrior and a leader, and his success against the Ammonites will make him the rosh or head of Gilead.

Sacrifice of Iphigenia fresco for sacrifice blog postYet another story concerning the sacrifice of a daughter for the ambitions of a warrior-hero-father is the Greek myth of Iphigenia. King Agamemnon, Iphigenia’s father, is about to wage war on Troy. However, Agamemnon has insulted the goddess Artemis, who in retaliation has becalmed the seas so that his fleet cannot set sail. To appease Artemis, Agamemnon must sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. For the glory of Greece, Iphigenia goes willingly to her death.

Fairy tales and myths, as Carl Jung suggested, reveal archetypal motifs that offer insight into our human wishes, fantasies, fears and desires. Whether we identify with Cinderella’s lonely plight, or the frog prince’s yearning to be his fully human self, at the deepest level of fairy tale content, we experience an “Aha!” phenomena. Jack Zipes, in the preface to the 1979 edition of Breaking the Magic Spell, Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales, writes:

“From birth to death we hear and imbibe the lore of folk and fairy tales and sense that they can help us reach our destiny. They know and tell us that we want to become kings and queens, ontologically speaking to become masters of our own realms….They ferret out deep-rooted wishes, needs, and wants and demonstrate how they all can be realized.”

Jung saw fairy tales as depicting patterns of development and behavior that reflect the function of the psyche, and even today we can find new wisdom about our human predicaments in the old tales.

With this in mind, how do we think about the tales of sacrificial daughters? What does it mean that in most fairy tales, a jealous or evil king may send his son on a dangerous journey or give him an impossible task to fulfill, but rarely is the son held captive, enslaved, mutilated, or murdered? Might sacrificial daughters represent a collective cultural phenomena of the devalued feminine?

One pattern that emerges in several of these stories is that of the absent, passive, or duped mother. This is the mother who won’t or can’t protect her victimized daughter. Her loyalty often remains with the father, and she will not disobey the ruling masculine hierarchy. (In keeping with Greek themes of inherited or familial revenge, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, does in some version of the story kill her husband for his murder of their daughter.)

The absent, compliant, or complicit mother unwillingly abets the father in treating females as objects by colluding with and succumbing to the spell of his power. Without a positive mother figure in her life, the daughter has nothing of substance from the personal mother or from the world of the feminine. For this daughter, the adored or charismatic father can take on the qualities of a god. Both Jephthah’s daughter and Iphigenia do not resist their fate, but in some sense become martyrs to their father’s cause as in the gruesome example of the miller’s daughter who deferentially accepts the dismemberment of her hands. To be without hands means to be helpless in the world, to be unable to perform ordinary human tasks. Here, the daughter forgoes a part of her humanness to accommodate the father. “Do with me what you will, father,” she says. “For I am your child.”

Dr. Jean Baker Miller for sacrifice blog postTo identify with the dominant ruling culture is often a way women cope with subjugation and abuse. In her ground-breaking book Toward a New Psychology of Women (1976), decades old but ever more relevant in today’s #MeToo world, Dr. Jean Baker Miller examines women’s difficulties in claiming their “full personhood” and in valuing themselves and their strengths, which are viewed as inferior by the dominant culture.

“A dominant group,” Miller writes, “inevitably, has the greatest influence in determining a culture’s overall outlook—its philosophy, morality, social theory, and even its science. The dominant group, thus, legitimizes the unequal relationship and incorporates it into society’s guiding concepts.” Not just women, but all marginalized groups share this experience since the dominant group is the model for what is considered normal.

Conversely, writes Miller, “a subordinate group has to concentrate on basic survival. Accordingly, direct, honest reaction to destructive treatment is avoided. Open, self-initiated action in its own self-interest must also be avoided…. In our own society, a woman’s direct action can result in a combination of economic hardship, social ostracism, and psychological isolation.”

If we take a quick glance around the globe, we can see that subordinate populations on every continent, and women in general, are subjected to less than equal treatment.

In the stories mentioned above, each daughter acquiesces to the demands of the father, the dominant power figure, and by identifying with him and his goals, deludes herself into believing that his perpetration is a noble act. Her self-worth depends on his status. Historically, women have been “unable to see much value or importance in themselves or each other, when women were focused on men as the important people.”

Miller goes on to say, “There are still few women who can believe deeply that they are truly worthy.” What has been continues to be: women struggle against being cast in the inferior role in society. In reexamining fairy tales we consider how they continue to reflect conscious and unconscious attitudes in a culture. If popular culture, particularly children’s movies and books, has shifted its focus from the sacrificial daughter, what images have replaced it? While vibrant images of sharp-shooting, dragon-slaying heroines occasionally fill our screens, the emergence of the #MeToo and other movements for equal rights and justice suggest post-modern Disney heroines are not enough; unconscious prejudices require our personal and deepest attention and consideration to be confronted, made visible and redeemed. Unfortunately, for now, the prejudices, injustices, and issues of worth that revolve around power, domination, and subordination persist.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 


Risks of Speaking Out: Coping with the Inequality of Power


Once upon a time, a little girl in an orphanage heard poems in her head. Unfortunately, the strict matron forbade the children to have paper or pencils, and so there was no way for the little girl to preserve them. Afraid she’d forget the beautiful lines that skittered through her brain, the little girl snuck bits of soap from the showers, and with a stick she’d gathered from the playground, carved the poems into the soap. When the matron discovered the girl’s disobedience, she marched to her bedside ready to confiscate the nubbins of soap, but before she could reach her, the little girl popped the poems that had brought her hope and joy into her mouth and ate her precious words.

Mandelstams for speaking out postIn 1933, the great Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, wrote a poem calling Joseph Stalin a peasant killer and comparing the dictator’s mustache to a huge cockroach, his fingers to “ten thick worms.” Mandelstam had grown increasingly critical of Stalin’s totalitarian efforts and his demand that artists become propagandists for the state. The rounding up of dissidents and mass persecutions of “enemies of the people” imperiled Mandelstam’s life. Refusing to abandon his humanistic values, he suffered years of censorship, desperate living conditions, and exile. Mentally and physically exhausted, Mandelstam died before he could live out his sentence of hard labor in a gulag. Nadezhda Mandelstam devised her own private act of rebellion: committing her husband’s work to paper from memory. Her memoir, Hope Against Hope, tells of their sorrowful but courageously defiant lives.

Gandhi, Mandela, Sitting Bull, Rosa Parks, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few—these are our iconic heroes who have dissented from the dominant culture and changed history. Not all of us have the emotional strength, physical means, or are called to confront dictators or defy the boss. But, if we examine our lives, we may uncover situations in which we remained silent when we have felt tread upon, compromised or betrayed and felt powerless to protect our dignity, creativity, or our bodies from harm.

Anita Hill for speaking out postAnita Hill. Most of us know her story. In 1991, George H.W. Bush nominates Clarence Thomas for the U.S. Supreme Court seat vacated by Thurgood Marshall. Before the Senate Judiciary Committee, composed of powerful white men, Anita Hill testifies that while working under Thomas in the Department of Education and EEOC, she was bullied and sexually harassed by her boss. Other women stand in the wings to add their testimony against Thomas, but they are not given a chance to speak. Anita Hill is quickly discredited. When she’s asked why she continued working for Thomas after his alleged indecencies, she tries to explain the pressure she felt to submit to his behavior. The men on the committee do not understand. She tries to explain the climate of fear and retribution under which she worked that influenced her choices. Her testimony is dismissed. David Brock of The American Spectator labels her “a little nutty and a little slutty,” an epithet that sticks, damaging her reputation. Thomas is awarded a lifetime seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Loss of job, ostracism, impoverishment, exile, humiliation, torture, and possibly death: the cost of speaking truth to power can be life-threatening. History is saturated with sad examples of brave ones who shouted out for freedom, justice, equality, and suffered the price. Punishment is surely a powerful deterrent in keeping our silence intact.

The Emperor's New Clothes for speaking out postHere we are again in a time of public “he said/she said,” of accusation and rebuttal, a time in which the membrane between truth and fiction has worn thin. What questions might we ask about cultures or subcultures that promote and keep the status quo of silence and victimhood? How do we distinguish revenge-seekers from justice-seekers, propagandists from clear-seers? What psychology is at play within us and within the greater society that keeps repression alive? Is it only innocence and naïveté that allows the little boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to name the naked truth in front of everyone’s eyes?

These are big questions with multifactorial answers and they have led me to search poetry, philosophy, psychology, the shadow work of Carl Jung, and to Dr. Jean Baker Miller and her pioneering research on relational-cultural theory and the dynamics of domination and subordination to find answers.

Toward a New Psychology of Women, Miller’s groundbreaking book, is not only about the inner lives of women, but about the assumptions and codes of behavior maintained by the powerful over the less powerful. The paradigm she introduces is applicable wherever there are great differences in status. In a society that “emphasizes and values some aspects of the total range of human potential more than others, the valued aspects are associated closely with, and limited to, the dominant group’s domain,” she writes.

Susanna and the Elders by Gentileschi for speaking out postMiller reminds us that this paradigm of inequality starts at birth. Naturally, parents have power over their physically and emotionally dependent young children, and we can only hope that they rule benignly until those children are mature enough to stand on their own feet. In the sphere of larger societal structures, however, subordinates are not encouraged or helped to become equals. “A subordinate group,” Miller writes, “has to concentrate on basic survival. Accordingly, direct, honest reaction to destructive treatment is avoided. Open, self-initiated actions in its own self-interest must also be avoided. Such actions can and still do literally result in death for some subordinate groups.”

Across the board, in subtle and not so subtle ways, the subordinates in a society are made to feel substandard, defective, or deviant. This is the territory of stereotypes, racial slurs, ethnic jokes. Miller writes, “The actions and words of the dominant group tend to be destructive toward subordinates.” Subordinates are ascribed innate incapacities in areas of intelligence or discernment. They are viewed as defective or deficient in mind and body. If someone tells us we are dumb long enough, do we not believe we are dumb? If someone tells us we are lazy, incapable, passive, submissive, and expects us to be docile and pleasing, do we not begin to act out those traits? The internalization of myths perpetrated by the dominants about subordinates infiltrate our psyches and become internalized as well as becoming the norm of the culture. What’s more is that those who adhere to the norm are considered well adjusted. Those who rebel, reject, or resist the norm are “uppity,” “shrewish,” “shrill,” “treasonous,” “traitors,” and the like. Jean Baker Miller declares, “To be considered as an object can lead to the deep inner sense that there must be something wrong and bad about oneself….To be treated like an object is to be threatened with psychic annihilation.”

Gender, race, religion, ethnicity are all factors that influence who will be top dog in a culture. History too plays a role. Whoever “owns” the land, the plantation, the factory, the military means, education, and, of course, money, owns the power.

Susanna and the Elders Restored by Gilje for speaking out postThe good news is that change can begin on a very individual level. When we feel our personal integrity is at stake, our internal radar warns us: “I can’t take it anymore. I’ve had enough.” Jungian analyst John Beebe, author of Integrity in Depth, suggests that when inner psychic boundaries have been breached, our self-respect steps in to whoop up rage. Rage, outrage, and the demand to be respectfully treated are a healing response to violation. Anger can be a mobilizing force that prompts us to take action to restore ourselves to wholeness. Feeling the injury to our being ideally motivates us to act. Status quo persists when we have gone numb to the trauma, when we are immobilized by fear.

Author and educator Parker J. Palmer writes in his book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, “Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection, not only between people, and between mind and heart, but between one’s self-image and public mask.” Palmer continues: “We have places of fear inside us, but we have other places as well—places with names like trust and hope and faith. We can choose to lead from one of those places, to stand on the ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety.”

We have a right to protect our integrity. We can begin by holding a lantern to dark places in our lives, to become self-aware, to feel out what suffering at the hands of others has gone unspoken. Our worth is not for others to decide. Speaking out need not be a public event, but our hearts are listening for our words of self-love.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at