Psychoanalysis and Feminism: Freud, Reich, Laing, and Women
Women and Analysis
Psychoanalysis and Women
Recent movements for women’s liberation have put Freud at the top of their Enemies List. “Of all the factors that have served to perpetuate a male-oriented society,” writes Eva Figes in Patriarchal Attitudes, “…the emergence of Freudian psychoanalysis has been the most serious.”
According to the neofeminist indictment, Freud gave Victorian antifeminism the appearance of scientific standing. His theory of penis envy not only took for granted the inferiority of women but provided an ideological rationalization of it. Psychoanalysis thus reinforces the dependence and subordination of women; its refutation, accordingly, becomes crucial to the success of the feminist movement.
This refutation can be accomplished, it would seem, simply by asserting that Freud was “a prisoner of his own culture,” “a child of his own times,” etc.; also by showing that his work fails to meet the exacting standards of modern behavioral psychology. Thus Naomi Weisstein, an experimental psychologist, has argued in a well-known essay that Freud’s attempt “to demonstrate empirically the existence of a castration complex” rests on “contaminated” evidence.
It has been clear for some time that these arguments are not overwhelmingly convincing. The first is an adhominem attack that proves nothing—even if it were true that Freud was a “prisoner” of his age instead of a thinker who struggled heroically to transcend it. The second rests on a misunderstanding of the nature of the evidence psychoanalysis seeks to explain. Freud’s theories about infantile sexuality, the “castration complex,” and the Oedipus complex are not based on empirical observations of childhood. They are based on interpretations of memories of childhood—memories that have been so ruthlessly repressed that they can be brought to light only with the greatest difficulty. Psychoanalytical theory cannot be refuted, therefore, by “empirical evidence” in the form of experimental psychology but only by a counter-theory that provides a more convincing explanation of the meaning of dreams, fantasies, and neurotic symptoms.
All three of the present works in one way or another reflect dissatisfaction with the neofeminist critique of Freud. They are very different, however, in the means they use to combat it. Juliet Mitchell’s attack on Reich, Laing, and the neofeminists is inspired by unflinching loyalty to the original psychoanalytic concepts, difficult, uncompromising, and seemingly unflattering to women as these concepts are. The two anthologies, on the other hand, contain material that is apparently designed to show that psychoanalytic views of femininity are more varied, and indeed more friendly to feminism, than most critics have imagined.
In neither collection is this intention avowed; yet both give more weight to those who claim to have improved and updated Freud than to Freud himself. The collection edited by Jean Strouse, to be sure, includes Freud’s three essays on women, together with papers by Karl Abraham, Helen Deutsch, Karen Horney, Emma Jung, Marie Bonaparte, Clara Thompson, Erik Erikson, and Robert Stoller. This is a good cross section of psychoanalytic views, but the original essays are accompanied by commentaries which, except in a …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.