Barbara Taylor is Professor of Humanities at Queen Mary University of London, and an editor of History Workshop Journal. Her most recent book is On Kindness (with Adam Phillips, London, 2009). History and Psyche: Culture, Psychoanalysis and the Past, which she edited with Sally Alexander, will be published shortly.
In 1937 Theodor Adorno, in a letter to Erich Fromm, described women as exemplars of commodity fetishism, ‘agents of the commodity in society’. Adorno wanted Fromm to join him in a study of the invidious psycho-social effects of this phenomenon. Fromm did not respond to this invitation, possibly because his own views on women were diametrically opposed to Adorno’s. To Fromm, women were not agents of capitalist corruption but avatars of altruism, their nurturing qualities providing models for socialist morality. These polarized images of women have their roots in Enlightenment gender theory. This essay outlines the myths of Woman promulgated by Enlightenment intellectuals, in particular the Janus-faced doctrine of ‘female influence’ that dominated eighteenth-century writings on women, which portrayed them simultaneously as acquisitive hedonists and as paragons of self-sacrificial benevolence.