Why do so many women feel obliged to put other people's needs first, even when they don't want to? The self-sacrificing impulse comes from women's history, not their nature, says Stephanie Golden.
Drawing on interviews with experts and a diverse group of women, plus extensive scholarship, Golden traces the historical, cultural, and mythic factors that gave women the responsibility to sacrifice and suffer for the benefit of our entire society. "Slaying the Mermaid" (a title inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid, the ultimate self-sacrificing woman) illuminates common female experiences: the belief that being a "good mother" means endless self-sacrifice; romance, the surrender of a woman's very being to an ideal embodied in a powerful man; on-the-job "enabling" that makes the boss look good while undermining a woman's own career; the obsession with weight, which makes a virtue of self-denial.
Golden analyzes the psychological effects of the self-sacrifice mandate, then expands this theme beyond individual experience to its broader social meanings.
She helps women distinguish self-destructive from positive, constructive forms of sacrifice, so they can reclaim the original meaning of sacrifice as an act that both transforms and empowers.
According to Golden (The Woman Outside: Meanings and Myths of Homelessness), women are often driven to put the needs of others before their own, a behavior exemplified by the "Little Mermaid," who, in the Hans Christian Andersen tale, gave up her life to save the prince she loved. Drawing on scholarly and contemporary research sources as well as interviews with a variety of women, the author presents an informed analysis of the religious, sociological and psychological forces that combine to motivate women to give to others at the cost of denying their own desires. In her empowering self-help guide, Golden argues that this unnatural self-denial has been expected of women historically, culminating in a 19th-century society that idealized "suffering" females. She posits that women can avoid destructive self-sacrifice and still satisfy their urge to give to others and perform altruistic acts by redefining the self not in the Western tradition of opposition to others but from the Buddhist perspective of the interconnectedness of the self to society.