Women’s Identity Development:
Out of the “Inner Space” and into New Territory

Dagmar Pescitelli
Simon Fraser University

Who am I? This daunting question haunts many an adolescent and many an adult. The answer may not always come quickly or easily. Nonetheless, a sense of identity is an essential part of having a self and being a person. This paper will examine identity with a focus on the development of a sense of identity in women. This discussion will begin with a look at how women’s development has been historically neglected, and will include an overview of some of the feminist critiques of psychoanalytic theories and Erikson’s psychosocial theory in particular. Definitions of what identity is will be offered and Erikson’s (1959,1968) and Marcia’s (1980) theories will be used as frameworks to explore some of the research in the identity area. Studies of women’s identity development will be emphasized and explanations based on theories that suggest women experience the world in a different way from men will be examined. Identity formation in women appears to be a complex process and studying it can enrich our understanding of the identity concept, which in turn may lead to changing theories so that they are applicable to all human beings.

Women have been invisible in much of psychology, both as objects of inquiry and as investigators (Archer,1992, Hare-Mustin & Maracek,1990). Many studies have been conducted with males only, while their results have often been generalized to formulate universal theories of human behavior, believed to apply to both men and women. Erikson and Kohlberg are among the theorists that have been criticized for such gender bias. In Erikson’s case, all of his psychobiographies and most of his case samples were from males (Marcia & Friedman, 1970; Josselson,1988). In the case of Kohlberg, the original interviews, on which he based his theory of moral reasoning, were conducted exclusively with 10-16 year-oldboys (Krebs & Blackman,1988). Kohlberg’s theory has been effectively countered by Gilligan (1982) who found that women’s moral reasoning is not inferior to men’s (as was posited by Kolberg), but is different. During the last two decades, identity development in women has also been looked at more closely, using an operationalization of Eriksonian theory; identity statuses, as a base. There are many studies and reviews of this type of research ( i.e. Archer,1992; Josselson,1988; Marcia,1969; 1980; Marcia, Waterman, Matteson, Archer, Orlofsky, 1993; Patterson, Sochting, Marcia,1992).

Freud has been particularly criticized by feminists. As Josselson (1988) points out: “Classical psychoanalytic theory is grounded in the genital inferiority of women and deduces their moral inferiority as well (p.25,26)”. The study of women’s development has been sorely neglected in psychoanalytic theories. “Beginning with Freud, and ever since, the psychoanalytic theory of human development has been conceived in terms of male development, with female development either ignored, treated as an after thought, or forced into parallel lines of reasoning” (Josselson, 1988, p.4).

Psychological concepts have frequently been defined from a completely male perspective. While Erikson’s theory deemphasized sexual aspects that Freud saw as paramount, he did not distance himself from the implication that anatomy is destiny. Erikson (1968) did not deny penis envy as an anatomical fact, but rather attempted balance in describing the “inner space” as a positive anatomical basis for girl’s identity. However, this anatomical definition seemed to imply that women were destined by their anatomy to be accommodating and nurturing, therefore uniquely suited to service roles (Patterson, Sochting, Marcia, 1992). Paradoxically, Erikson (1968) was also sympathetic to women’s struggles and was cognizant of the culturally imposed limitations they faced. Many feminist readers nevertheless felt that female psychosocial development was written about as an afterthought because Erikson did not choose to weave women through his writings, did not include female exemplars in formulating his theory, and portrayed women as biologically driven (Archer,1992). Feminist criticism of Erikson’s controversial article, “Women and the Inner Space “ (1968), resulted in his 1975 piece, “Once More the Inner Space”, in which he attempted to clarify his positions. This attempt however still failed to silence many of his critics.

On the topic of female identity, with which this paper is most concerned, Josselson (1988) maintains that : “All that Erikson had to say about identity was that much of women’s identity resides in her choice of the men she wants to be sought by (1968)”. As Erikson (1968) actually put it:

Young women often ask whether they can “have an identity” before they know whom they will marry and for whom they will make a home. Granted that something in the young woman’s identity is already defined in her kind of attractiveness and in the selective nature of her search for the man (or men) by whom she wishes to be sought. (p.283)

This suggests that a woman’s identity resolution needs to be left partially open and flexible in adolescence in order to accommodate her future husband and children, and further that a full sense of identity requires marriage and motherhood ( O’Connell, 1976; Patterson et.al, 1992).

While there are certainly problems with Erikson’s treatment of female identity development, this discussion will not belabor the point. One can readily see that women’s development has been both understudied and likely misinterpreted. Nonetheless, it is also obvious that Erikson’s contribution to the study of identity is unparalleled and substantial. It’s value should not be diminished and his theory can act as a suitable starting point in examining the identity development of women. The formation of an “ego identity”, at late adolescence or early adulthood, is a major event in the development of personality in Erikson’s stage theory.

The term “identity” itself can be confusing. While it is commonly used, its meaning is not always clear. Thus some definitions will be offered to help clarify any confusion and delineate a position regarding what identity actually is. The Latin root of the word “identity” is “idem”, which means the same (Paranjpe,1975, p.39). This hints at its important function in providing a sense of self-sameness to the individual who is faced with the paradox of how one constantly changes, yet remains the same person.

Erikson describes ego identity as “the accrued confidence that one’s ability to maintain inner sameness and continuity (one’s ego in the psychological sense) is matched by the sameness and continuity of one’s meaning for others (1959, p.89)”. Josselson (1988) emphasizes that identity is a primarily unconscious process that is a crucial aspect of the self. She states that identity is “the stable, consistent and reliable sense of who one is and what one stands for in the world (1988, p.10)”. Marcia (1993) says that it is phenomenologically experienced as “ a core or center that gives meaning to one’s world (p.8)”. Paranjpe (1975) offers a comprehensive definition of the concept of identity that brings many of the described elements together:

Psychosocial identity is the central organising principle of the personality system. It accounts for the unity, self-sameness and continuity of the personality, for the persistence of the pattern throughout the life history of the individual, and for the shared sameness and solidarity of the individual with his (sic) community. (p.36)

While Erikson (1968) saw ego-identity as a result of the ego’s synthesizing functions, Paranjpe (1975) extends the term identity to encompass both process and product, as they are inextricably linked. He further points out that identity has both subjective (private) and objective (public) aspects that are interdependent and even inseparable to some degree. It is also important to note that ego-identity is always changing and is constantly revisable so the ‘sense’ of identity is never final (Erikson, 1968). While ego identity develops through childhood and adolescent identifications that are gradually integrated, it involves more than the sum of social roles, or the results of intrapsychic processes. That is, identity is greater than the sum of its parts. Josselson (1988) also makes the important point that identity is not quantifiable, one can not have only a bit of it, although one can be without a sense of identity.

In Erikson’s epigenetic theory, the identity process neither begins nor ends with adolescence. It starts during self-object differentiation in infancy, and ends with self- humankind integration in old age (Marcia,1980). During adolescence and early adulthood, identity formation involving exploration and commitment is at the forefront.

Erikson believed that each society and culture provides a “moratorium” for its young people; “a delay of adult commitments (1968, p.157)”. In North American culture, adolescence is often extended, so that identity issues may not be resolved until early adulthood, during the college years. The consolidation of identity marks the end of childhood and beginning of adulthood (Marcia et.al, 1993). Erikson’s theory is a stage theory and therefore assumes that a sense of identity is necessary to move on to the next stage, which involves the development of intimacy.

Marcia (1980) has developed an identity status approach to studying identity formation that builds upon Erikson’s work. The four identity statuses are positioned along exploration and commitment dimensions. Identity statuses are both outcomes of the identity formation process, as well as structural personality properties, and each status conveys a dominant mode of experiencing the world (Patterson et al., 1993). While these stages vary in their degree of developmental advancement, they all have adaptive as well as pathological elements, with the possible exception of identity achievement, which is the most positive (Josselson,1988; Marcia,1980). These four identity statuses are : identity diffusion , in which exploration is missing or minimal and commitment to internal values and goals is missing; identity foreclosure, in which there is high commitment (usually to parental goals and values), with little or no exploration; moratorium, which may last for years, involving the intense exploration of options, forging an identity and working toward commitment; and identity achievement , in which identity issues are resolved as the commitments initiated during the moratorium stage are adopted (Patterson et.al, 1992). While these statuses are inspired by Erikson’s theory, it should be noted that Marcia’s “moratorium” is somewhat different from Erikson’s conception, which is less active, described as; “a period of delay (1968, p.157)”. Also “identity achievement” is not the most accurate of labels, because (as discussed earlier) identity can never be achieved in Erikson's view (Josselson, 1988). It is also worth pointing out that: “The identity statuses were initially developed and validated using only college males” (Marcia & Friedman,1970).

Marcia (1993) indicates that while most people have a sense of identity, only some have a self-constructed identity, based upon the superimposition of decision making processes on the given or conferred identity. Identity is conferred in the case of identity foreclosure and is constructed (built by oneself out of conferred elements) in the case of identity achievement status. Moratorium represents the transition from no firm sense of identity (identity diffusion), or a conferred sense of identity (foreclosure), toward a constructed sense of identity achievement. Erikson (1959, 1968) considered identity diffusion to be an unstable and potentially dangerous state, for where the person fails to claim an identity, society tends to provide one. He felt that it could however, often be simply a passing phase within the normal course of identity development .

Marcia’s identity statuses approach has been the most widely adopted technique used to operationalize Erikson’s concept of ego identity (Josselson,1988). Crisis and commitment have been assessed using Erikson’s dimensions of occupation and ideology (which was subdivided into religious and political ideology). The results of numerous studies of male college students have been consistent with expectations, indicating that the identity achievement and moratorium statuses are associated with better psychological health than the foreclosed or diffused statuses. However, the consistency and predictability of results found in men began to break down when women were studied (Josselson,1988).

Originally, it was thought that the process of identity formation would be the same for females as for males, but that content areas would be different (Marcia, 1980). However, it was not until a fourth category; of sexual values and standards, was added, that women could be meaningfully divided into the same four groups with the same predictive validity obtained with all male samples (Josselson, 1988). For example, in their study of 49 college women, Marcia & Friedman (1970) chose “attitudes toward premarital intercourse” as a criterion that they believed was unique to women, crucial in identity formation, and consistent with Erikson’s statement that“womanhood arrives when attractiveness and experience have succeeded in selecting what is to be admitted to the welcome of the inner space ‘for keeps’” (1968, p.263)” (Marcia & Friedman, 1970, p.251). A puzzling finding that emerged in this and several other early studies was that female “foreclosure” subjects scored similarly to their “identity achievement” sisters on dimensions such as high self-esteem and low anxiety, whereas “foreclosure” was a less desirable status for men (Josselson,1988, Marcia et.al, 1993).). Also, “moratorium” emerged as an unfavorable status for women, whereas it was a favorable status for men. These findings led to speculation that the foreclosure status was adaptive for women because girls and women likely did not receive social support for the exploration of identity (Marcia & Friedman, 1970; Marcia et. al,1993, Patterson et.al, 1992). It was thought that women were possibly rewarded for making identity commitments that involved fulfilling parental and societal expectations (Marcia & Friedman,1970; Josselson,1988; Patterson et.al, 1993). The fact that the moratorium phase appeared to have negative effects for women, while it was positive for men also implied that exploration had a much higher cost for women. It was assumed that eventually these women might catch up and show the same ego strength typical of male moratoriums (Josselson, 1988). Marcia (1980) indicates that in studies with women, stability of the status emerged as important. Identity achievement and foreclosure being more stable were more positive for women, while moratorium and identity diffusion represented instability.

Regarding content areas, Patterson et.al (1993) conclude:

The general impression left by research on gender and content domains through the 1970s was that a neat split existed between predominately male identity issues of occupation, religion, and politics, and predominately female issues of sexuality and sex roles. (p.15)

They further describe that a breakdown of this “neat split” appeared in the 1980s. While gender differences continued to be found, they were more complex and different from previous research. They state that the pattern for females after 1976, was for foreclosures to resemble diffusions and moratoriums to resemble achievements, with women higher along the exploration dimension showing more favorable personality characteristics. These changes may have had to do with changes in women’s roles in society, but the effects of cohort and type of measure are confounded so it is not possible to tell why this pattern differs from the earlier pattern of findings.

Some interesting results also emerged regarding the effects of marriage and motherhood on women’s identity. O’Connell (1976) found that developing a personal sense of identity may wait, not for the arrival of husband and children, as Erikson assumed, but rather for the children’s partial departure at school-age, which allowed the women to identify and develop commitments of their own choosing. O’Connell distinguished between a personal and reflected sense of identity. The former involved introspection and self-knowledge, while the latter referred to knowing and valuing oneself mainly through other’s eyes. O’Connell found that nonemployed mothers, or those who postponed work for childcare reasons, saw their identities mainly in reflected terms until their children reached school age, while women with continuous careers perceived their identities as strong and personally defined throughout the life cycle.

Changes in women’s identity development were further explored by Josselson (1988) who originally began her work in 1971, in an effort “to understand the internal and developmental roots of identity formation in women” (p.33). Her initial research began with intensive interviews of sixty college women. Thirty four of these women participated in a follow up study, twelve years later. Josselson (1988) notes that while the study of identity formation in men has been relatively straightforward because men often define themselves by occupation, or by their distinctiveness from others, women’s identities are more compounded and difficult to articulate, as they orient themselves in more complex ways and balance many aspirations and involvements.

Josselson found that women who had been identified as foreclosures in college had shown little personal growth or inner change. Twelve years later the eight women were all again classified as the same status. While Erikson hypothesized that many adolescents begin a quest for identity in a foreclosed position, these results indicate that while it is a developmental beginning for some, for others that remain foreclosed at the end of college, it may become a way of life (Josselson,1988).

The identity achievement women were a more diverse group, with less psychological commonality. Seven of these eight were again classified as identity achievement, while one woman had returned to a moratorium status. These women were not necessarily achievers in the work world but had forged their own paths, with independence as their central theme. Occupation was not of central importance in their lives:

Just as these women do not define themselves by their work, they also do not define themselves as mother to someone or wife of someone. The hallmark of the Identity Achievement is the balance among work, relationships and interests. All of the Achievements have made relationship primary in their lives. (Josselson, 1988, p.102)

The women who had been classified as moratorium in college did not all move on to identity achievement status as might be expected according to theory. Three of the ten women that were re-interviewed did so, while one remained at the moratorium status. Surprisingly, six of these ten women returned to a foreclosure position. Josselson saw this as a return to safety because separation from family was too frightening for them. She noted that the presence of supportive others was crucial for moratorium women to consolidate an independent identity. Josselson indicates that moratorium women are perpetually in conflict, but are “much more insightful, self-reflective, and internally sensitive people than those in any of the other groups” (1988, p.139).

Women who were assessed as identity diffused in college were a varied and complex group. Josselson points out that: “Women in the Identity Diffusion group are consistently lowest, among the four identity status groups, on all measures of healthy psychological functioning” (1988, p.140). This group showed the most varied outcomes and had become the “most unusual people in the sample” (p.144). Among the nine women followed up, three remained diffuse in their identity, one woman was still diffuse but trying to make commitments, three had made identity commitments but had done so without any ambivalence or struggle, one woman had committed suicide, and another was also deceased. Josselson describes these women as not learning or changing from their experiences, and as having wild fluctuations in their senses of self. She concludes that : “Clearly these data show that Identity Diffusion in college is not a transitory state and should be taken seriously as a signal of an ego in distress” (p.167).

Josselson (1988) concludes that: “the configuration of a woman’s identity at the close of adolescence forms the template for her adulthood” (p.168). Among the women she studied, she also found that the most important issues were not political or occupational, but social and religious. She further discovered that relationships have a fundamental importance to women and that women move along in the world through relational connections so that who they know has a lot to do with who they become. Miller (1976) has made a similar point when she says that a central feature of women’s development is that “ women stay with, build on, and develop in a context of connections with others. Indeed, women’s sense of self becomes very much organized around being able to make and then to maintain affiliations and relationships” (p.83).

Josselson (1988) maintains that the theory of separation-individuation has been written largely with men in mind and the notion of a separate sense of self is not quite the same in women as it is in men. Support for this idea can be found in the writings of Chodorow (1978,1990) who believes that women do not separate or individuate as much as men because for girls the primary love object is the same person with whom she identifies, so that through the relationship with their mothers women develop a sense of self continuous with others. Thus the basic feminine sense of self is connected to the world and is a self- in - relationship. Chodorow’s theory is particularly interesting in light of the fact that 85% of the women in Josselson’s (1988) study remain close to their mothers, nearly half further chose her as they person they feel closest or second closest to in the world. Gilligan’s (1982) theory makes some similar connections in seeing female identity as rooted in connections to others and relationships. Her research indicates that women conceptualize and experience the world “in a different voice” and that men and women operate with different internal models.

The relational and connected way in which women experience the world is not without its costs. As Washbourn (1977) describes:

Women are particularly prone to solve the crisis of adolescence by submerging themselves into another. Relationships with others ARE essential elements of a woman’s self-discovery, but no one of them offers the solution to the question of her identity or an ultimate value by which she can define her life (p.30)

The unique way that women experience the world may mean that life stages for women are different than they are for men. In Erikson’s eight stage theory, it is assumed that identity not only precedes intimacy, but that it forms a necessary base for intimacy’s development (Marcia et.al, 1993). Marcia et. al (1993) and Patterson et.al (1992) suggest that the data they have reviewed indicate that while identity likely precedes intimacy for men, it is not a necessary condition for women and that “issues of identity and intimacy seem to blend and merge for women” ( Patterson et.al, 1992, p.21). They feel that Josselson’s (1988) research suggests that a third dimension of connectedness should be added to the dimensions of exploration and commitment when determining identity statuses in women. Marcia et.al (1993) maintain that women’s identity development is more complex than men’s and that it involves more of a balancing of priorities and organizing of different concerns into a changing whole, whereas men’s seems focused and oriented toward the resolution of one issue at a time.

Marcia et.al (1993) have concluded that it is in the area of identity and intimacy development that Erikson’s original psychosocial theory requires amending:

Specifically, “inner space” and the kinds of interpersonal issues associated with it, are important to women - and are likely to be more important to women than men- but they are not the sole grounds upon which women found an identity, nor are they necessarily the most important domains for the vast majority of women (p.275)

They see the occupation domain as important for women and speculate that in the future, men may become less focused and more likely to combine intimacy and identity concerns, while women will become increasingly competitive in the world of work.

While much of what has been discussed may lead to the conclusion that men and women are very different indeed and so, therefore, is their identity development, caution is prudent in this regard. While women are more concerned with relationships, this could be a “consequence of women’s position in the social hierarchy, rather than an essential female attribute” (Hare-Mustin & Maracek, 1990 p.39). Gender differences can be a divisive issue. Some feminists contend that efforts to affirm the special value of women’s experience and valorize their inner lives may turn attention away from efforts to change social conditions. Qualities such as caring and concern for relationships are sometimes seen as evidence of women’s superior virtues and morality, however, they can also be seen as arising from women’s subordination and oppression. Archer (1992) points out that many identity studies show minimal sex differences but these findings of sex similarity are infrequently referenced. She notes that “within the “intrapersonal male domains of identity”, females and males approach the task of identity formation comparably. Working in the “interpersonal female domains of connection”, females have either comparable processing or significantly more sophisticated identity activity than do males” (p.43). Social context is important, and Archer (1992) notes that there are many potential barriers to healthy psychosocial development for women. In Archer’s opinion : “We need to use multiple operational definitions of identity. We must become inclusive, eliminating issues of invisibility of peoples by sex, class and race” (p.46). It is important that we look at both differences and commonalities in studying identity development and that we do not become stuck on one side or the other.

As Eichenbaum & Orbach (1983) describe :

It is through women’s experience in society that an understanding of their psychology must be sought; not, as is usually taught, the other way around, whereby women’s social roles are seen to follow naturally from women’s psychology, a psychology invariably seen as determined by biology (p.7).

In looking at human development it is also vital that we do not overgeneralize and that we bear in mind that people are first and foremost unique individuals that are variable. Categorization may simplify research but threatens the appreciation of individual human distinctiveness.

In conclusion, it appears that women’s development may involve relating to the world in a different way than men typically do. This affects their identity formation. Whether differences are due to mainly psychological factors, social factors, and/or a combination of the two is open to interpretation. In any event, a comprehensive concept of identity needs to incorporate both male and female ways of developing in the world.


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