Assagioli is often criticized for his controversial essay, “The Psychology of Woman and her Psychosynthesis.” in which he describes “womanly functions” such as the maternal function and the wifely function. His recognition of the differences between men and women in this essay can cause anxiety among psychosynthesis psychologists today.
But in a 1965 lecture on the same topic, Assagioli explains why this subject raises our suspicion and/or fear. He says that many people think that when you recognize these differences, that you are implying that men are better than women. These differences, however, do not imply that women are of less value or inferior to men. Assagioli actually said such thinking is “simply stupid”!
“In reality, the presumed constitutional inferiority of women has no basis or validity. Scientifically it is wrong, and humanly it is simply stupid. It is not a question of superiority or inferiority, but of differences, and it is good to clearly look at what these differences are at the various levels of the human being.”
Significantly, Assagioli ends this essay with a description of woman’s spiritual function. He writes:
“It is one of the noblest and highest callings for women to inspire others. In this spiritual activity, woman makes use of the highest feminine power, her intuition. It is, therefore, hoped…that woman will recover consciousness of her superior psycho-spiritual gifts, and that man will appreciate them and make use of them again for the sake of their mutual spiritual growth.”
For International Woman’s Day, let’s take a closer look at some of the spiritual women who inspired and influenced Assagioli and his vision of psychosynthesis. Here are seven women that I have come up with – just to start. Perhaps you can suggest others?
Elena Kaula (1863-1925)
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Assagioli’s mother was also a theosophist and undoubtedly a spiritual inspiration to her only son. We know very little about her, but in his autobiographical notes, Assagioli writes:
“My mother was born of Italian parents…and after a few years her mother died. Her father, who was in trade, sent her to what was called a collegio, a women’s boarding school. There she studied intensely. She did mainly classical studies, foreign languages, French and English. She was highly cultured and a voracious reader, a propensity which I have inherited.
“I am appreciative of her and very grateful to her because, although she loved me very much, she left me quite free. At that time, at the turn of the century, this was exceptional. She was not at all possessive in her affection. Also, she helped me in my studies. We were very close, but she always left me free.”
Nella Ciapetti (1893-1973)
Assagioli’s wife (as well as his mother-in-law) was also a theosophist. In an earlier blog, I wrote about the importance of their life together as a couple. As a good friend of the family, Luisa Lunelli knew the Assagiolis for many years, and wrote:
“Their relationship was the best. They were different, but they complemented each other and communication between them was easy and continual. Indeed, you could see their understanding and love only increase every day.”
Contessa Gabriella Spalletti Rasponi (1853-1931)
Contessa Rasponi was the first President of the Institute of Psychosynthesis in Rome, which in 1926 was initially called the Istituto di Cultura e Terapia Psichica (Institute of Culture and Psychic Therapy). Assagioli greatly admired Rasponi both as an international leader as well as a devoted grandmother. At her private villa in Rome (now a 5-star hotel), Rasponi often hosted and promoted many new thinkers. Every Thursday afternoon, influential political and cultural figures frequented the villa’s drawing rooms – from Émile Coué, the French psychologist, to Rabindranath Tagore and Hermann von Keyserling.
In addition to her fundamental role in the history of psychosynthesis, in 1903, Rasponi became the Founder and President of the National Council of Italian Women (Consiglio Nazionale Donne Italiane; CNDI), an organization that promoted women’s labor equality and justice in terms of legal, social, familial rights and occupational safety. They also believed in women’s suffrage. You can read more about her here.
Helen P. Blavatsky (1831-1891)
Born into a Russian-German aristocratic family in the Ukraine, Blavatsky was a spiritual medium and writer who co-founded of Theosophical Society in 1875. She gained international recognition as the leading theoretician of Theosophy, which ultimately helped to spread Hindu and Buddhist in the West. Assagioli was a theosophist all his life. When recalling the first time he met Assagioli in Florence, Piero Ferrucci laughingly remembered, as a young 25 year old, feeling quite uncomfortable and upset as he sat in Assagioli’s waiting room where a portrait of the formidable Madame Blavatsky hung.
Alice Bailey (1880-1949)
English-born, Bailey was also a theosophist and one of the first writers to use the term “New Age.” In 1925, Bailey and her husband created the Arcana School, which continues today to provide educational correspondence, meditation instruction, and guided study based on her writings. Assagioli was closely associated with Bailey during the 1930s. He contributed articles to Bailey’s magazine The Beacon and was a trustee of Bailey’s organization, the Lucis Trust.
Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn (1881-1962)
A Dutch spiritualist, theosophist, and scholar, Fröbe-Kapteyn gained recognition in the 1920s when, at the suggestion of Carl Jung, she started to use a conference room in her Swiss home as “meeting place between East and West.” This gave birth to the annual meeting of intellectual minds known as Eranos, which today continues to provide an opportunity for scholars of many different fields to meet and share their research and ideas on human spirituality. Assagioli attended these meetings during the 1930s. But perhaps more significantly, one of Fröbe-Kapteyn 80 paintings (that she realized between 1926-1934) hangs in his study, directly across from his desk.
Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941)
In 1911, Evelyn Underhill published her best-selling book Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, in which she reclaimed mysticism as part of the human condition. In her 500+ page book (with more than 1000 footnotes), she explored for the first time in a systematic and scholarly way mysticism throughout the ages and across cultures, nations, and religions. While she focused on mysticism in Christianity, she also examined Sufism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other belief systems.
Her rich work explores mysticism from the perspectives of psychology, theology, symbolism and magic (to name a few). Ultimately, she draws the conclusion that mysticism is open to everyone. Anyone can be grasped and transformed by Divine Love.
Although there is no indication that they ever met, Assagioli extensively refers to Underhill’s book in his writings. While searching in his online archives, I was actually stunned by how much he appreciated her scholarship and understanding of the transcendent. Underhill saw the soul’s mystic journey as a series of five states: awakening, purification, illumination, the dark night of the soul, and union.
Assagioli’s often refers to these states, along with other transpersonal qualities, while citing Underhill’s book. Here are just a few examples:
Before his death in 1974, Assagioli was interviewed by French feminist and journalist Claude Servan-Schreiber. During that interview, Assagioli said that while each of us is a human being before being a ‘man’ or ‘woman,’ differences in gender principles and function remain. However, through our consciousness and will, we can perform any role that life requires of us or that we decide to play. Assagioli’s reflections hold true today:
“I believe that woman is evolving perhaps more rapidly than man… Society needs women to contribute the higher aspects of their femininity – altruistic love, compassion, the sense of and respect for life… The psychosynthesis of humanity is possible and needed and within our reach – for not only is it very beautiful – it is very human.”
This reflection is dedicated with gratitude to women all over the world who continue to inspire and contribute to psychosynthesis – in all its forms and expressions.