Freud and Women

Psychoanalysis and Feminism: Freud, Reich, Laing, and Women

by Juliet Mitchell
Pantheon, 435 pp., $8.95

Women and Analysis

edited by Jean Strouse
Grossman, 375 pp., $12.50

Psychoanalysis and Women

edited by Jean Baker Miller
Penguin (abridged edition), 418 pp., $2.95 (paper)

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.1

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 couple of cases, are written by people unsympathetic to Freud’s psychology of women.

Elizabeth Janeway argues that only by taking Freud’s ideas “symbolically” can we salvage them, since otherwise they are seen to ignore such obvious considerations as the objectively inferior status of women. Margaret Mead, clearly influenced in her opinion by the neofeminist revival, announces that Freud’s ideas on women, which she says she once accepted, “are actually an expression, and an extraordinarily naïve one, of the still contemporary attitudes about women against which the militants are battling.” Marcia Cavell repeats the well-worn accusation that Freud’s sexual theories incorporated mechanistic nineteenth-century biology. Robert Coles praises Karen Horney. Ruth Moulton congratulates Clara Thompson for instituting “a more liberal, progressive approach” to psychoanalysis. The editor herself accuses Freud of “biological determinism,” of ignoring the role of culture, and of encouraging his followers to “make an ideology out of what is at any moment held to be scientifically true.” The reader is likely to come away from this collection with the impression that most of Freud’s ideas have been superseded or overthrown.

The collection edited by Jean Baker Miller is even more one-sided. It includes nothing by Freud or by anyone who could be described as a faithful exponent of his ideas, which are reflected here only in the criticisms of writers who repudiate them under the pretense of “revising” them. Nor is there any acknowledgment that this “revisionism” has itself been subject to sharp counterattack by writers like Herbert Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, and Juliet Mitchell herself.2

As a convenient collection of writings on women by the Freudian revisionists, this anthology is useful—superior in this respect to the Strouse collection, since it contains a much larger number of papers. But it must be understood that it represents only one side of a continuing controversy. To review that controversy is highly instructive: we can now see that the psychology of women was crucial to the debates over revisions of Freud in the Twenties and Thirties. From the very beginning revisionism was informed by feminist criticism of Freud and more broadly by a social-democratic outlook, which objected to the “pessimism” of Freud’s theories and sought to recast them in a form more congenial to reformist and pseudo-revolutionary hopes of social improvement.

The revisionist strategy was to argue that Freud had stressed biology at the expense of culture. Thus in his psychology of women he allegedly attributed to biology (the lack of a penis, leading to penis envy) a sense of inferiority that was in fact rooted in social reality—the objectively inferior position of women in Western society. It is easy to see why the psychology of women was an issue seemingly made to order for the purpose of a “cultural” refutation of Freud.

The continuing criticism of Freud both by feminists and by writers claiming to work in the psychoanalytic tradition makes it important to be clear about what Freud actually said about women, especially since his critics cannot be trusted to represent his ideas correctly. Freud did not pay much attention to the psychology of women, as such, until the 1920s. Although his first patients were women (women who furnished, indeed, most of the material on which he based his interpretations of dreams and hysteria), the theory of the Oedipus complex—the culmination of this early work and the core of psychoanalytic theory—attempted in effect to explain the psychology of the male on the assumption that “with little girls,” as Freud later put it, “things must be similar, though in some way or other they must nevertheless be different.”

The vague sense that things must be different was enough to make Freud reject the concept of the “Electra complex” when it was proposed by Jung in 1913 to describe the female equivalent of the Oedipus complex—an experience more or less exactly paralleling that of the male, it was thought, with the sexual roles reversed. But it was not until 1925, with the publication of a short paper entitled “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes,” that Freud decisively repudiated the supposition that the psychic history of men and women runs along parallel lines. He now began to realize that “what we have said about the Oedipus complex applies with complete strictness to the male child only.” Two further essays—“Female Sexuality” (1931) and “Femininity” (1933)—explored the implications of this statement and provided for the first time the outlines of a psychoanalytic theory of womanhood.

As Juliet Mitchell explains in her account of Freudian theory, Freud rejected theories of parallel development, to which he himself had subscribed (with reservations), only when he had attained a clearer understanding of the pre-Oedipal phase in women. Clinical analysis showed that the little girl, like the boy, is first drawn to her mother; nor is this a passive attraction, any more than the boy’s. Children of both sexes, according to Freud, tend to convert passive impressions into an active desire to master and possess the object that aroused those impressions—“this is part of the work imposed [on the child] of mastering the external world.” Accordingly the girl wishes to possess and to penetrate her mother. (“No doubt this sounds quite absurd, but perhaps that is only because it sounds so unfamiliar.” Freud himself found it difficult, he says, to credit the wishes of little girls, until his observations “removed all doubts on the matter.”)

It is only the subsequent discovery of her own “castration” that causes the little girl to relinquish the hope of “giving her mother a baby,” not without a prolonged struggle in which the girl reproaches her mother for not providing her with a proper penis, and ends by repudiating the mother in favor of the father. This shift also requires that the girl translate her sexuality from an active to a passive mode. The wish to possess is transformed into a wish to be possessed.3 The longing for a penis is transformed into a longing for a baby.4

The pre-Oedipal phase, Freud concluded, has “a far greater importance in women than it can have in men,” and it is dissolved only through “an especially inexorable repression.” Whereas a boy has only to translate the wish for his mother into the deferred reward of a future wife, the girl has to go from a “phallic” phase to a passive one—a process “to which there is nothing analogous in the male.” The little boy resolves the Oedipus complex through the fear of castration, which causes him to repudiate the wish to possess his mother, to accept his father’s authority, and thus also to accept the authority of society itself, internalized through the paternal intermediary. The dissolution of the Oedipus complex in the male “leads to the creation of his super-ego and thus initiates all the processes that are designed to make the individual find a place in the cultural community.”

Whereas in the boy the fear of castration dissolves the Oedipus complex, the fact of “castration” initiates it in the little girl. In women, therefore, the Oedipus complex is “a secondary formation,” according to Freud, not only because it is preceded rather than followed by the “castration complex” but, more important, because the “motive for the demolition of the Oedipus complex is lacking.” The little boy not only abandons the wish for the mother but represses it so strongly that it is buried deep in the unconscious—and this “catastrophe to the Oedipus complex (the abandonment of incest and the institution of conscience and morality) may be regarded as a victory of the race over the individual.”

The girl has no comparable motive for the ruthless repression of her father-fixation. The father was second best to begin with. Renunciation of the mother already entailed acceptance of “castration.” The girl therefore does not so much resolve the Oedipus complex as take refuge in it. In doing so she already becomes “a little woman,” in Freud’s words; and although it will later be necessary to renounce her father in favor of another man, this act does not involve, as did the earlier renunciation of the mother, a fundamental shift in the girl’s sexuality. Nor does the dissolution of her Oedipus complex entail, as it does in the boy, the internalization of the father’s authority and with it the prevailing culture and morality. For this reason, Freud thought, women’s “super-ego is never so inexorable, so impersonal, so independent of its emotional origins as we require it to be in men”—a conclusion, he insisted, from which “we must not allow ourselves to be diverted…by the denials of the feminists, who are anxious to regard the two sexes as completely equal in position and worth.”

Freudian theory, wrongly accused of biological determinism, attempts to explain, in effect, how the cultural heritage is acquired and internalized by each generation; it analyzes the psychic consequences of this process, showing, among other things, how these consequences differ in men and women. If women are typically more emotional than men, more dependent on the approval of others, less strongly committed to abstract standards of honor and justice, less fiercely competitive, more loving and “maternal,” psychoanalysis ascribes these differences neither to woman’s nature nor, on the other hand, to the sexual division of labor that assigns child rearing to women.

Femininity” is not innate, but neither is it the product of “cultural conditioning.” For psychoanalysis the important point is not that women are victimized (as they are) by sexual stereotypes perpetrated by men in their own self-interest but that in any culture the process of becoming a woman requires the repression of the active and phallic side of woman’s sexuality, a repression so thorough, and so little accessible to conscious understanding or control, that passivity comes to resemble a fact of nature, an inherent attribute of womanhood.

Without conceding anything to those who wished to see the psychic history of women as parallel to that of men, Freud qualified this characterization of femininity—indeed, called the very concept of femininity into question—by postulating a theory of bisexuality. The feminine psyche, he argued, contains active as well as passive traits (as ought to be abundantly clear from the foregoing analysis). Likewise men are partly “feminine.” Strictly speaking the concepts of masculinity and femininity are without meaning, in the first place because, empirically, any individual will show a combination of “masculine” and “feminine” characteristics, and in the second place because “masculinity” and “femininity” are merely synonyms for activity and passivity, and nothing is gained—as Freud argued on many occasions—by sexualizing these terms. “Psychoanalysis does not try to describe what a woman is—that would be a task it could scarcely perform—but sets about enquiring how she comes into being, how a woman develops out of a child with a bisexual disposition.” This distinction, which is absolutely essential to the psychoanalytic theory of womanhood, was soon forgotten by those who began to dissent from Freud’s findings.

The revisionist movement in psychoanalysis was full of ironies. Attempting to radicalize Freud, the revisionists eliminated what was radical from his thought—the articulation of contradictions without any attempt to resolve them (for example, the contradiction between the bourgeois myth of the autonomous individual and the evidence of unconscious determinism uncovered by the analysis of dreams and neurosis, or the contradiction between “civilized sexual morality” and the rampant, insatiable sexuality underlying it). In attempting to rid psychoanalysis of its “biological reductionism” in favor of an emphasis on culture, the revisionists lost sight of the fact that psychoanalysis is precisely a theory about the ways in which culture is assimilated and handed on. As a result, they often fell into a biological reductionism of their own, as we shall see. Finally, the feminist version of this reformist criticism of Freud accused Freud of an uncritical masculine bias at the very moment when Freud was repudiating the male bias that insisted on seeing the psychology of women as parallel to that of men.

In 1926 Karen Horney published her essay “The Flight from Womanhood,” in which she argued on the one hand that the cultural fact of women’s inferiority is more important than penis envy in explaining the psychology of women, and on the other hand that the concept of penis envy is in any case unnecessary in order to explain the girl’s shift from mother to father. That shift, Horney explained, merely reflects an “elementary principle of nature”—“the mutual attraction of the sexes.” The cofounder of the so-called cultural school of psychoanalysis thus upheld the theoretical primacy of culture only to fall back into biological mystification—“a solution of ideal simplicity,” as Freud wrote in 1933 without mentioning Horney. But it was also a solution that had the unfortunate effect of blotting out the pre-Oedipal phase of the girl’s development, of burying still further her buried desire for her mother, and of obscuring all the ways in which this primal attraction later enters into her relations with fathers and husbands.

Already the insights of psychoanalysis were giving way to “common sense.” In her eagerness to argue that “femininity” establishes itself in earliest infancy, moreover, Horney showed no awareness of the problem to which Freud referred when he warned that psychoanalysis could not hope to define the essence of femininity but could only explain how the girl becomes a woman.

Horney’s arguments were elaborated in subsequent papers by herself, Clara Thompson, Freida Fromm-Reichmann, Gregory Zilboorg, Ruth Moulton, and others—most of them reprinted in the Miller anthology. These writers either qualified the concept of penis envy by proposing an equivalent “womb envy” in the male or dismissed it altogether as an expression of Freud’s “androcentric” bias. In both cases—as this inconsistency suggests—the intention seems to be not so much to understand what is distinctive about women’s psychic development as to exonerate women from what the revisionists, with their tendency to substitute normative judgments for critical analysis, mistake as an indictment.

The fact of women’s cultural subjection is thus invoked only to be denied. On the one hand the revisionists argue that this subjection tells us all we need to know about women, but on the other hand they refuse to concede that it has any important psychic effects. Their program of exonerating women leads some of these writers so far as to argue that women are biologically the superior sex—in which case it becomes very difficult to account for their historical subjection, on which, nevertheless, the “cultural” argument is obliged to rest.

In their work on women as in the rest of their work, the revisionists prefer to deal with conscious mental processes rather than with unconscious ones and—what comes to the same thing—to play down the importance of sex. The lack of a penis is seen as merely a symbol of women’s cultural inferiority in a patriarchal society, just as a black skin becomes a symbol of inferiority in a racist society. Elaborate theories of sexual antagonism are then proposed to explain the “battle of the sexes,” originating in man’s need to victimize woman and specifically to stigmatize her as biologically inferior. The study of “interpersonal relations” replaces analysis of the unconscious. Politically, the revisionist argument implies a reformist strategy. Just as an attack on racial prejudice was implied by comparable psychoanalytic studies of racism (such as that of Kardiner and Ovesey), so the reduction of penis envy to the status of an incident in the sex war implied an attempt to change sexual attitudes—to get rid of male chauvinism, as feminists would put it today, and to raise the consciousness of women.

At the hands of the revisionists the concept of bisexuality suffered a fate similar to that of penis envy. The phallic phase in women was explained away as a reaction, essentially “regressive” in character (according to Ernest Jones), to the fact of woman’s subordination. Accurately perceiving her fate as a woman, the little girl may seek to deny her femininity—Karen Horney’s “flight from womanhood”—in acts and fantasies that must not be misinterpreted as evidence of a primary identification with the mother. The validity of Freud’s phallic theory—and therefore, by extension, of the theory of bisexuality—was further undermined, we are told, by empirical evidence showing that girls discover the vagina and its pleasurable feelings at an early age.

Except for its glorification of the vagina, the womb, and motherhood, which many feminists would now find objectionable, this early feminist criticism of Freud by Horney, Thompson, Jones, and others anticipates all the strictures of the neofeminists. The latter, however, because they mistakenly identify psychoanalysis with “reactionary” ideas about women, have not availed themselves of this criticism, relying instead on the seemingly more radical work of Wilhelm Reich and, to a lesser extent, of R.D. Laing. It is against Reich and Laing, therefore, and against the neofeminists themselves, that Juliet Mitchell, after a long and detailed account of Freudian theory, directs the full force of her Psychoanalysis and Feminism.

The work of Reich, she argues, is valuable for its criticism of the bourgeois family and of bourgeois sexual morality, but it rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of the unconscious. Reich conceives of the unconscious as pure libido and of socialization as the repression of sexuality by the growth of conscious moral prohibitions. Seeking to combine Marxism and psychoanalysis, Reich treats repression as if it were a peculiar feature of bourgeois or patriarchal society (terms he uses interchangeably). As he writes,

The fear of castration, which Freud discovered in bourgeois man, is historically rooted in the economic interests of the budding patriarchate. And the same motives which originally created the basis for the castration complex maintain this complex in capitalism today: the patriarchal private enterprise system’s interest in monogamous permanent marriage.

Or as he wrote elsewhere: “The ‘Oedipus complex,’ which Freud discovered, is not so much a cause as it is a result of the sexual restrictions imposed upon the child by society.” In a society where sexuality is allowed free play—as among the Trobriand Islanders described by Malinowski—the Oedipus complex, Reich thought, is unknown.

After postulating a clear-cut conflict between capitalist morality and sexuality, Reich envisions its resolution as a return to matriarchy, in which the underlying unity of nature and culture will be re-established. It is easy for him to imagine women as the principal agents of such a transformation—to equate the emancipation of women with the emancipation of society—because he sees women as closer to nature, pre-social; and Reich’s social vision, as Mitchell notes, in the end boils down to the wish to “get us back to some invented entity of ‘pre-social’ man.”

With Freud, the battle between nature and culture inheres in the very fact of culture and is irreconcilable. The struggle between them takes place largely within the unconscious, which is formed precisely out of the warfare between the pleasure principle and the cultural heritage internalized in the form of identification with parents and other upholders of authority. For Reich, on the other hand, sexual repression is overt and explicit. Events that were treated by Freud as psychic events—for instance, the threat of castration, which as Mitchell notes “was not necessarily, as he had once thought, the real threat of nursemaids or parents, but a more tenuous amalgam of this and of the child’s fantasy fears”—become in Reich’s hands real social events connected with what he called “the imposition of sexual morality.” The conclusion follows more or less automatically that a more enlightened morality, even if it takes a “revolution” to bring it about, will overcome repression and allow the re-emergence of “orgonic” energy. At the heart of Reich’s radical psychoanalysis we find an essentially reformist view of social change, one that relies on diffusion of a new and supposedly less repressive sexual morality.

The same is true, according to Mitchell, of Laing, although for some-what different reasons. If Reich’s “cardinal error” is to simplify the conception of the unconscious, Laing’s is to postulate an essential self, one that inhabits, in Mitchell’s paraphrase, a “pre-egoic world of oneness and life.” The two concepts, Reich’s and Laing’s, have in common that both see the development of the ego as a betrayal of the true self, which Reich identifies with “genitality” and Laing with pure subjectivity. It is because this pristine selfhood is in conflict with the demands of the real world that reality is “schizophrenic,” according to Laing. As Mitchell astutely observes, “He resists classifying the patient ‘schizophrenic’ only to classify those that drove him thus.” Substituting value-judgments for analysis, Laing postulates a therapy in which the analyst will replace the family, not (as in psychoanalysis) in the sense that the patient transfers to the therapist the love he formerly felt for his parents but in the quite different sense that the therapist supplies the love the family denied. “The main agent in uniting the patient,” Laing writes, “…is the physician’s love, a love that recognizes the patient’s total being, and accepts it, with no strings attached.” As Mitchell points out, the analyst is hereby transformed into a guru.

Having demolished Reich and Laing, Mitchell proceeds to criticize, more briefly, the major theorists of modern feminism: Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Eva Figes, Germaine Greer, Shulamith Firestone, and Kate Millett. Since her criticisms of these writers restate much of what she says about Reich and Laing (and of what has been said here about the other revisionists), it is unnecessary to summarize them. All these writers, according to Mitchell, share “a strong protest against the fact of an unconscious mind.” They retranslate mental life into social reality. What she says of Firestone—who treats Freud somewhat more sympathetically than the other feminists, but as a “poet”—can stand as a general commentary not only on neofeminist interpretations of Freud but on all the reinterpretations I have mentioned. Firestone, Mitchell argues, reduces Freud

to the social realities from which he deduced his psychological constructs. Freud never denied that the father had the power, but what he was interested in was how this social reality was reflected in mental life. What Firestone has achieved in her efforts to free Freudianism from poetry is to get rid of mental life.

In the last section of her book, Mitchell tries to assess the political implications of her defense of Freud and her refutation of his critics. At first glance, her analysis would seem to make the liberation of women more dubious and remote than ever. If Freud is right, women are deeply disabled by their early experiences. Nor can feminists find much consolation in his assurance that there are of course exceptional women who are more “masculine” than “feminine.” Psychoanalysis, moreover, strongly suggests that the subjection of women, like the Oedipus complex, is universal. Without rejecting Freud, therefore, one cannot take refuge in the view that women’s subjection is peculiar to certain forms of social organization.

Far from flinching from these conclusions, Mitchell reinforces them with the anthropological theory of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who argues that the exchange of women is the basic fact of cultural life. Human society, according to Lévi-Strauss, originates in the rule whereby fathers and brothers renounce marriage with their daughters and sisters, giving their women—the most valuable gift they can bestow—to other groups, who reciprocate with gifts of their own women. (The Oedipus complex, then, appears as the psychic reflection of this fact—of the incest prohibition which is necessary to institute the exchange of women.)

Patriarchy, in other words, is synonymous with culture, and the feminist myth of a matriarchal stage preceding the present organization of society has to be firmly rejected. So too does the hope that women’s liberation can be achieved through technology, which will at last free women from childbearing. Not biology but culture is at the root of woman’s degradation. The hope of a technological conquest of biology is “redundant,” according to Mitchell, since the transformation of biology is already inherent in culture. “It is thus not on account of their ‘natural’ procreative possibilities but on account of their cultural utilization as exchange-objects…that women acquire their feminine definition.”

This very fact, however, allows us to hope for a transformation of woman’s condition—and not merely to hope, but to see it as a real historical possibility. If the incest taboo and the exchange of women are the historic preconditions of culture, it can be argued that these conditions long ago became obsolete. The “socialization of labor” under bourgeois rule, according to Mitchell, makes the exchange of women irrelevant, a “social non-necessity.” Mankind is now for the first time united by the work of modern society and no longer needs such primitive agencies of cohesion as kinship.

Similarly Mitchell argues that the prohibition of incest has become unnecessary in a society where “the mass of mankind, propertyless and working socially together en masse for the first time in the history of civilization, would be unlikely, were it not for the preservation of the family, to come into proximity with their kin and if they did, it wouldn’t matter.” The generous use of italics, here and throughout the last chapters of Psychoanalysis and Feminism, seems to betray a dwindling confidence in the clarity and forcefulness of the argument. At this point Mitchell confesses, “These are complex questions that I cannot do more than raise here.”

Lévi-Strauss is important to Mitchell’s argument not only because his work reinforces the contention that femininity is a cultural rather than a biological category, but because it contradicts the widespread assumption that the family is the basis of society. According to Lévi-Strauss, human society originates not in the biological family but in the establishment of alliances between families (alliances cemented by the exchange of women). It cannot be argued, therefore, that society depends on the preservation of the family. Such at least is Mitchell’s contention.

It is unfortunate that the concluding sections of her book are exceedingly sketchy and schematic. To say that the objective conditions for the overthrow of patriarchy have existed for some time does not tell us any more than similar statements about the overthrow of capitalism. What remains to be explained is why capitalism and patriarchy still persist in spite of their historic obsolescence. If the fact of their persistence argues a failure of the subjective conditions for revolution, then we have to undertake an analysis of contemporary culture in order to explain the sources of that failure. It will not do to maintain that patriarchy wes its survival to a strenuous propaganda campaign on behalf of the nuclear family—a suggestion that hardly does credit to the level of analysis sustained throughout the rest of Mitchell’s book. In bourgeois society the family still serves not only as an agency that inculcates work discipline and respect for authority but as a bulwark of privacy, in which values opposed to those of the market place retain some vigor, however attenuated. The bourgeois myth of the family as a refuge from an inhuman world cannot be dismissed as pure ideology. Precisely in the degree to which the myth expresses an undeniable reality it constitutes the severest indictment of the bourgeois world.

The weakness of the concluding sections of this work—in which the contradiction between women’s emancipation and the history of all previous culture is resolved, it seems to me, in a purely formal and schematized fashion—by no means undermines Mitchell’s central claim, namely that Freud tells us far more about women’s degradation than the enemies of Freud can ever begin to tell us. In making this claim, Juliet Mitchell has risked accusations of apostasy from her fellow feminists. Her book not only challenges orthodox feminism, however, it defies the conventions of social thought in the English-speaking countries (with which feminist thought is thoroughly entangled)—cultural relativism, historicism, an empiricism hostile to theory in almost any form. Psychoanalysis and Feminism is a brave and important book, and its influence will not be confined to feminists. Anyone who thinks Freud’s work has been conclusively revised, updated, or overthrown will have to contend for a long time to come with this withering rejoinder.

  1. 1

    ‘Kinder, Küche, Kirche’ as Scientific Law: Psychology Constructs the Female,” reprinted in Robin Morgan, ed., Sisterhood Is Powerful (New York, 1970).

  2. 2

    And still more recently by Russell Jacoby in a study of “conformist psychology,” to be published by Beacon next winter.

  3. 3

    This is the significance of the much-debated thesis that the girl transfers her sexual feelings from the clitoris to the vagina—a theory against which neofeminists, with the help of Masters and Johnson, have directed some of their heaviest fire. Here as elsewhere they were anticipated by the revisionists, who tried to show that vaginal sensitivity developed much earlier than Freud believed—indeed that this development preceded the Oedipal crisis. The neofeminists, on the other hand, claim that the clitoris remains the center of sexual pleasure in women and that the vaginal orgasm is a “myth.” These arguments define sexuality too narrowly, identifying it exclusively with orgasm, and neither of them weakens the main point—that women have to transfer their sexual drive from mother to father (whereas men merely transfer their affections from the mother to a suitable substitute), and that this change also requires the transformation of female sexual energies from an active to a passive form.

    The Freudian theory, it must be insisted once again, rests on the interpretation of memories, fantasies, and neurosis, not on laboratory studies of “female sexual response.” It cannot be refuted by the latter, for the simple reason that those studies explain physiological, not mental, phenomena. When opponents of the Freudian theory turn to the latter realm in search of evidence supporting their own ideas, they are likely to fall flat on their faces. Thus Marcia Cavell, in the Strouse anthology, unwittingly provides support for the theory she is laboring to refute when she writes that in adult women “clitoral masturbation is accompanied by phantasies of all kinds, and the sensations are not those of ‘mastery’ [whoever said they were?] but typically of being overwhelmed.”

  4. 4

    Feces, penis, and baby are closely associated in unconscious thought, not only because they are physical extensions of oneself but because they represent gifts presented by the child to its parents. It was this kind of evidence (not some naïve “biological determinism”) that Freud had in mind when he made his famous remark that “anatomy is destiny.”