But it's also a question that has preoccupied women as well, contends Dr. Polly Young-Eisendrath, a psychologist who will giving the last talk in this year's First Wednesdays lecture series on May 1 at the First Congregational Church. It's the context that makes it a little different, she says.
"When you ask yourself the question, 'what do you really want,' what happens?" Young-Eisendrath stated in an emailed response to a series of questions about her topic and talk. "If you are a woman, you may find yourself thinking about what you should do, what others need and why you can't do what you want."
She plans to explore the issue from several angles during her talk, which is sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council and hosted locally by the Mark Skinner Library.
As with everything, there's history involved here. Young-Eisendrath noted that the question of what women want surfaced in one of legends of King Arthur. Several poems and stories first written down in Medieval England recount the marriage of Sir Gawain, one of Arthur's knights, to the apparently hag-like Dame Ragnell. To make a long story short - and it's one that Young-Eisendrath plans to use to illustrate her main point - Gawain offers to take his uncle, King Arthur off the hook by marrying the less-than-comely Dame Ragnell. However, he receives an unexpected and pleasant surprise when it turns out that by correctly surmising that what women most want is sovereignty and autonomy in their daily lives, Ragnell is transformed into a fetching beauty.
"In this presentation, I will tell the 12th century story (of Gawain and Ragnell) and engage with the audience in a conversation about why it's been so hard for women to reach prominence in leadership roles in many settings where they are more educated and prepared, and often more accomplished, than men at their level in their professions," she said. "As women and men we will look at our personal experiences, our relationships with our children and our spouses, in regard to autonomy (self-governance) and decision making."
So how is that any different from what men want?
It's not different, Young-Eisendrath said; but the socio-cultural context has been different for the genders over time. Autonomy - the key ingredient - and how it applies to both genders will be explored in her talk, she said.
Young-Eisendrath brings to this age-old question a breadth and depth of professional credentials. She is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont and maintains a full-time private practice in central Vermont while also serving as a consultant in Leadership Development at Norwich University in Northfield. She has published 14 books, including several likely to be familiar to many in her audience, such as "Women and Desire," "The Resilient Spirit," and "The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident and Compassionate Kids in an Age of Self-Importance." She is working on a memoir about love planned for publication next year.
Young-Eisendrath came to her interest in psychology through the twin pathways of Buddhism and the teachings of Carl Jung, a Swiss-born psychiatrist credited with founding the field of analytical psychology. Concepts such as the introverted and extroverted personality were pioneered by Jung, whose influence on the field was vast.
In what may be a comforting thought to those advancing on in life, Jung's psychological framework also focuses on stages of later development in adults, from mid-life on, said Young-Eisendrath.
"Only in adulthood do we have the option of becoming aware of our unconscious dynamics and projections and to find our way free of them," she said.
This will not be her first appearance as a First Wednesdays speaker in Manchester and she has made several other presentations in the program elsewhere around the state.
The Vermont Humanity Council's First Wednesday lectures are free and open to the public, and are given at nine locations around the state. Her talk begins at 7 p.m. For more information, contact the Mark Skinner Library at 802-362-2607, or visit the humanity council's Web site at vermonthumanities.org.