What ever happened to little Jane? Thousands of American schoolchildren in the Fifties learned to read by following the activities of a prototypical WASP family—Father, Mother, Jane and her brother Dick, and their dog Spot (“See Spot run!”). They lived in a Norman Rockwell house with hollyhocks and a blue sky above. In the morning Father went off to The Office and Mother waved him a smiling good-bye. In the evening Father returned from The Office to cheerful Mother, who had been cooking a delicious meal for the family. We can assume that the house also contained a well-thumbed copy of Dr. Spock’s reassuring guide to child-rearing. Everyone was going to live happily ever after.
This is what Freud called a Family Romance, that is, the fantasized family to which one really wanted to belong. If Freud had written the story of Dick and Jane, it would go something like this: as Father leaves for The Office, Mother is preoccupied in the kitchen and Jane is knitting little clothes for her doll. Dick is playing with a toy pistol which he would like to aim at Father’s retreating back. Harboring his own sexual feelings toward his mother, Dick is happy that he now has Mother all to himself (Jane doesn’t count). Nevertheless, when he grows up he wants to be just like Father, and Jane is resigned to being like Mother.
In a modern feminist fable of the family the mother would be standing at the window as Father departs for the office; she senses that she is trapped, having to spend her days cooking and cleaning and driving Dick and Jane to classes, but she is unable to do anything about it. When Father returns home he asks why dinner isn’t ready. After he and Dick throw a football around, he pinches Jane affectionately on the cheek—which could be the prelude to something worse. Jane is only six years old, but already she is determined never, never to be like Mother when she grows up.
In all three versions of Dick and Jane we hardly glimpse the office or school or blacks or neighbors or poor people—or indeed any of the other innumerable influences that impinge upon us from the wider world. The family is a self-enclosed unit; but with both Freud and the feminists, it is a dystopia, a source of deep conflict. Freud did more than any other theorist to make the family the most important single influence on the process of growing up, or what is generally referred to as “development.” Unlike the feminists, however, he did not suggest that the nuclear family struggle should be abolished, simply that we should accept it and try to resolve the dilemmas in a predetermined situation.
The question of how Jane “develops” and what makes her different from Dick has always been a thorny one within psychoanalytic theory. Freud shared the cultural condescension of his time toward women and it is absurd to argue, as some of his defenders do, that his close friendships with women such as Lou Andreas-Salomé and Marie Bonaparte mitigate his clearly expressed positions. One has only to read his condescending letters to his future wife, Martha Bernays.1 Apologists for Freud claim that his premises were based on actual clinical experience, but did he really hear what Dora or any of his other early female patients were actually saying?2
At the turn of the century an eighteen-year-old girl, “Dora,” was brought to Freud by her father. She was suffering rather vague symptoms such as hoarseness and a persistent cough. Dora’s parents, Freud learned, had a tangled relationship with the K. family. Her father appeared to be having an affair with Frau K. while Herr K. had been making sexual overtures to Dora. Dora had previously been nursing her ailing father, who was apparently suffering from syphilis, and she was now, in Freud’s view, being replaced by a rival. He also found it difficult to believe that Dora was not aroused by Herr K.’s attentions. Dora’s “problem” was that she had begun to suspect that her father was encouraging her to succumb to Herr K. so that he could have an undisturbed relationship with his mistress.
One of the striking aspects of Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (1905) is Freud’s deep contempt for Dora’s mother (whom he never met) and how little we actually know about Dora’s suffering. Her voice is seldom heard; largely drawing on two of her dreams, Freud constructs an account of her allegedly repressed sexuality, which he labels as “hysteria.” Feminists have rightly grasped that Dora was in despair because Freud seemed to be colluding with the adults in the web of deceit they were weaving around her. Dora is simply a “case study”; we never come close to a troubled young woman who was unable to find anyone who would accept her version of events.
Hannah Decker’s recently published Freud, Dora, and Vienna 1900 gives a rich description of the milieu of Freud’s early patient. Decker’s impressive research has uncovered the details of Dora’s family background and the anti-Semitic biases and the prejudice against women with which she had to deal. At the time Freud met Dora, he was looking for case material to substantiate The Interpretation of Dreams. He anticipated that the analysis would take about a year, but less than three months later Dora walked out on him. Freud interpreted her gesture as an “unmistakable act of vengeance on her part,”3 but it might have been the most courageous act of her life, a rejection of the interpretations he had imposed on her reality.
In formulating a theory that showed men as superior to women, the most obvious difference Freud could find between the sexes was the male’s possession of a penis. (He never seemed to consider the breast or the process of reproduction as worthy of serious reflection.) From an early age boys were aware of their ownership of this magical instrument, and little girls felt humiliated because they didn’t have one.
Freud described the Oedipus Complex as providing the most significant challenge in the process of growing up. The boy’s desire for his mother and his jealousy of his father are “resolved” when the boy is shocked into an acceptance of reality by what he subconsciously perceives as the threat of castration if he does not abandon his incestuous desires. With the repression of desire, and the boy’s subsequent identification with his father, his superego is formed as the arbitrator of conscience, and he gains assurance and autonomy when he no longer fears the possibility of castration.
In Freud’s account, the girl, too, originally desires her mother; but the sight of a penis instills in her a sense of insufficiency. She blames her mother for depriving her of this precious organ and turns to her father, longing for him to give her a child which will serve as a substitute penis. Since she is already castrated, she does not have to undergo the scarring experience of the Oedipal crisis, which is necessary for the formation of the superego that would monitor her attitudes and behavior. Freud concluded that this moral vacuum provided an explanation for what he perceived as a weaker sense of justice in women and their lack of interest in social issues.
Not all women within the psychoanalytic movement subscribed to Freud’s account. During the Twenties and early Thirties a lively debate was initiated by Karen Horney, who claimed that, in fact, men envied women the supreme joy of motherhood and were terrified of the female genitals. What they experienced was a sense of inadequacy in relation to the mother, not to the father. This she concluded in part from her own experience of bearing and raising three daughters. If women envied men the penis, it was simply as a symbol of social and political power.
Melanie Klein also challenged Freud’s scheme. Although she tried desperately to accommodate her new insights to Freud’s work, her revolutionary views threatened to undermine the orthodox structure. From her observation of small children, she became convinced that the infant’s experience of feeding at the breast is the prototype of all future relationships. As the baby seeks nourishment, it has, Klein came to believe, fantasies of extraordinary complexity, and a form of the Oedipal struggle takes place during the first year of life. The infant conceives of everything as oral gratification or frustration, and it comes to imagine sexual intercourse as an act in which the mother and father provide each other with mutual gratification from which the infant is excluded. The mother is subconsciously envied by both boy and girl infants because she has obtained a source of nourishment withheld from the children. The boy is ultimately able to resolve this situation because he is reassured by the ownership of his penis. The girl, on the other hand, has to internalize her resentment. Klein was the first analyst to describe the complexities of this highly ambivalent relationship with the mother.
Freud was forced to respond to these challenges to his theory. By 1931 he tried to cope with the girl’s development in “Female Sexuality,” particularly in his gradual realization that a girl had a prolonged attachment to her mother. But he finally had to admit that
everything in the sphere of this first attachment to the mother seemed to me so difficult to grasp in analysis—so grey with age and shadowy and almost impossible to revivify—that it was as if it had succumbed to an especially inexorable repression.4
Even after analyzing Marie Bonaparte, he wrote helplessly to her, “Was will das Weib?” (“What do women want?”) He was willing to acknowledge that some women analysts had been able to understand the girl’s long early attachment to the mother; but that his condescension was not in the least shaken was evinced in his 1933 statement that middle-aged women showed “psychical rigidity and unchangeability” with “no paths open to future development.”5 Indeed, he said, women who rejected his own view of penis envy were using psychoanalysis illegitimately, as “a weapon of controversy.”6 To the end of his days the psychology of women remained “the dark continent.”7 As for his feminist contemporaries, he regarded them as a subversive force in society; and to label an idea as “feminist” was in effect to denigrate it.
For some years the controversy over the development of women was in abeyance until Simone de Beauvoir wrote her book on the horrors of the bourgeois family and its crippling effects on young girls. (Her own experience was recorded in Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée.) Beauvoir’s La Deuxième Sexe, published in 1949, had an enormous impact in Europe, partly because of her international reputation as Sartre’s partner, but its full effect did not take place in America until it was translated into English in 1952.
Beauvoir argued, contrary to Freud, that because boys were proud of their genitals, girls need not necessarily be ashamed of theirs. Deeply embedded in Western bourgeois culture, she contended, is a distinction between men and women in which men project onto women their own fears and anxieties about sexuality: women became the “other,” a disquieting force that must be controlled. Beauvoir accused psychoanalysis of forcing women into roles that were falsely held to be biologically determined. The Freudians, she charged, ignored the possibility that women could choose to assert their own independence, and refuse to become man’s projected Other.
One effect of the debate stimulated by Beauvoir was to label Freud as the arch-villain who had solidified male dominance in a theory of psychological determinism. Women from widely different backgrounds began to concentrate on various aspects of Freud’s thinking that seemed to devalue women. Mary Ellmann’s Thinking About Women (1968) was a wry, witty criticism of Freud’s derision of women if they displayed the qualities of boldness and independence that he would have applauded in men. Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook (1962) made a strong impression on many women, particularly because of the unusual frankness and perceptiveness of the discussions between the central character and other women about their problems with men. Lessing seemed both aware of psychoanalytic issues and unwilling to accept male assumptions about women’s inferiority.
Most of the literature of the time was full of anger. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) and Marilyn French’s novel The Women’s Room (1977) were expressions of outrage at the indignity of women’s lives and the male attitudes to which they submitted themselves—by acceding, for example, to man’s expectations of a “feminine” sexual response. “The feminine mystique,” Friedan wrote,
derived its power from Freudian thought; for it was an idea born of Freud, which led women and those who studied them, to misinterpret their mothers’ frustrations, and their fathers’ and brothers’ and husbands’ resentments and inadequacies, and their own emotions and possible choices in life.8
The identification of specific oppressors and forms of oppression was continued by Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch, 1970), and Phyllis Chesler (Women and Madness, 1972), who in turn blamed men for designating women as unstable and hysterical.
The most important feminist book of this period was Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1969), a widely ranging survey of attitudes toward women, particularly those embodied in literature. Her analysis of Freud’s influence, “The Counter-revolution 1930-60,” deserves rereading. Millett derides Freud for taking the male body as the norm and is skeptical of the assumption that half the human race should be regarded as inferior when so many other factors are involved. And why, she asks, should fear of castration be emphasized and fear of rape be ignored?
What one can observe from this literature is a resentment that Freud had no idea what it was like to grow up as a girl; indeed there was an almost willful blindness in his inability to conceive of what that experience might be. All these women shared the view that women’s opportunities for fulfillment had largely been foreclosed. They had much to say about the real world, and they wanted to change it. The first wave of the new feminists, in their determination to reduce social inequities, were much concerned with pragmatic action. A great many books on women’s history followed during the Sixties and Seventies, celebrating sisters who had survived and triumphed despite all the odds. Affirmative action movements sprang into being, programs in women’s studies were reluctantly admitted into the universities. Anthropological studies turned to the subjection of women in various cultures and literature was scrutinized for examples of patriarchal attitudes. Women’s right to abortion became a burning issue.
The argument concerning the psychology of women was taken up by women other than practicing therapists who were familiar, nonetheless, with psychoanalytic theory. Eva Figes’s Patriarchal Attitudes and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (both published in 1970) are examples of this genre. For Figes, Freud is simply another Jewish patriarch. She is highly critical of his argument for the inferior position of women but she contends that feminists should take psychoanalysis seriously as a misguided modern Church that must be challenged.
As for Freud’s claim that he had rediscovered sex, Figes accepts the research of Masters and Johnson, whose surveys suggested that the vaginal orgasm (achieved by the penis) was a myth, and that women achieved more sexual satisfaction from the clitoris; and she goes on to speculate that, so far as the satisfaction of women is concerned, the penis might be an ir-relevancy except for reproductive purposes. According to Figes and Fire-stone the Oedipus Complex could be used as a model of a power situation in which the child struggles for some kind of authority. Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976) brilliantly developed this line of thought in her account of how children of both sexes are conditioned to accept the patriarchal system through their ambivalent feelings of guilt and hostility toward the mother.
Juliet Mitchell, the most influential Freudian apologist among feminists, replied to the widespread attacks in Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974). Although it is written with grace and intelligence, its logic has failed to convince many feminists, who claim that Mitchell tries to have it both ways, presenting Freud as both a sociologist and a biologist without acknowledging the ways his biological claims were disturbed by the social conventions he accepted. Mitchell agrees with Freud’s view that the source of patriarchal authority derives from the phallus, which forces the child into the real world in the drama of the Oedipal struggle.9 However, while Mitchell insisted that Freud was understandably describing contemporary social attitudes that had been internalized, she seemed impervious to questions why the penis should be invested with this monopoly of desire and power. Nor did she question the assumption that the woman (as a truncated creature) needs the penis for her sexual completion. For Mitchell it is enough to say that this is the case, and that Freud’s discoveries of the unconscious and of infantile sexuality provide the basis for saying so.
It is understandable that many feminists have brushed aside the arguments grounded on these two central tenets of psychoanalysis defended by Mitchell. It is all very well to say that dreams and free association provide the unconscious material Freud interpreted, but surely, they object, he reached his conclusions by a process of assumption and inference, particularly about “castration,” that is open to challenge. Juliet Mitchell, herself a practicing psychoanalyst, does not use case histories to support her position and her assumptions cannot be taken more seriously than Dorothy Dinnerstein’s observations simply because she is a therapist and Dinnerstein is a social observer.
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s anthology, Freud on Women: A Reader, is a useful compendium of Freud’s struggles with the problem of women throughout his career. She claims that the assumption that Freud reflected patriarchal attitudes is spurious because it neglects his evolving views. Unfortunately, her selections do not reflect this evolution. The book opens with discussions taken from the correspondence between Freud and Fliess on the subject of bisexuality. (But why not begin with passages from Freud’s letters to his future wife?) This choice seems to reflect Young-Bruehl’s preoccupation with bisexuality, particularly in women.
Freud was convinced that there was no such thing as inborn femininity. All children, he wrote, are constitutionally bisexual. “Perversity”—that is, love for the parent of the same sex—was normal for children of both sexes, Freud argued; but Young-Bruehl fails to mention that Freud never deviated from the idea that if homosexuality persisted, it became a perversion. She admits that Freud never described the fundamental sexual drive he called libido as bisexual, although he considered women as constitutionally less endowed with libido than men.
In order to develop into “real” women, Freud argued, girls have to suppress any propensity to masturbation lest they become frigid. As Young-Bruehl explains, for Freud it is not the act of masturbation itself that leads to frigidity but the fact that many mothers quickly detect socially unacceptable activity; and it is their intervention that causes the frigid reaction in young women. Young-Bruehl concludes that “Freud shows himself very sympathetic to the distortions in female sexuality produced by forms of social life based upon oppression of women.” But she does not say much about these forms of oppression except for the implied responsibility of mothers in preventing girls from developing bisexually.
As she traces Freud’s ideas to the end of his life, Young-Breuhl fails to find any real progress (in her terms) in his ideas, but she seems concerned to defend his attitudes toward women when she can. In a discussion of masochism she emphasizes that according to Freud both men and women have masochistic fantasies and that it is a misreading of Freud’s meaning to claim that women alone have a tendency to inflict suffering on themselves. She avoids, however, the implications of Freud’s theory of the castration complex in women. Without specifically naming any of Freud’s female colleagues, she writes that
their bisexuality, so sustaining to their creativity and formative to their characters, may well partly explain why Freud’s analysand trainees were not critical of his female psychology—the criticism came from outside his circle, and outside the reach of the transferences he received.
This is nonsense. Why does Young-Bruehl not give the names of the alleged bisexual colleagues she refers to? She would have difficulty finding a passage in which Freud actually describes female bisexuality as “creative.” One suspects that Young-Bruehl is creating a version of Freud that supports a subtle polemic of her own.
It is increasingly hard to tell what the term “feminism” actually means to many women authors. Recent books, including those under review, reflect the tendency of feminist writers to create Family Romances of their own. Each has her own version of the life of the family, and the ways girls and boys develop within it, apparently drawing on her own experience but only very seldom acknowledging this to be the case. A reader can’t help wondering at times whether the writer was an only child, the oldest child, or the youngest child? Were her parents separated? Was her family poor or well-to-do? Whatever the conditions, virtually all the female therapists who have recently published books feel, as do most women, that they have had a raw deal compared to men. Far too often they speak as though they have been authorized by their own experience to generalize about all women.
In an attempt both to understand themselves and to improve the condition of women, these women create a narrative account of the process of growing up; but the account is organized so as to show how an idealized woman would emerge if only the conditions within the family were different. Accordingly they almost invariably claim to present a new approach to family life that has been revised and improved so as to encourage the development of a desirable, desiring, healthy woman living actively in the world. One finds no claims to a scientific basis for the views put forward and hardly any discussion of the methods by which the writer arrives at the belief that one interpretation is better then another. The writers apparently expect that readers will be persuaded by the argument that corresponds most closely with their own experiences, disappointments, desires, and temperaments. Hence the vast proliferation of current variant readings of psychoanalysis.
Nancy Chodorow’s widely read The Reproduction of Mothering (1978) has been one of the more influential books giving such an account. It was written under the influence of D.W. Winnicott and Michael Balint, two widely admired psychoanalysts who argued that an infant’s feelings of persecution were not inevitable and could be mitigated by a close and loving relationship between mother and baby. Winnicott’s views were based on his long years as a practicing pediatrician.
Chodorow attempts to explore the origins of women’s discontent, for which she assigns full responsibility to the parents. She describes the self-perpetuating cycle that is created when a little girl is brought up to be like her mother and a little boy to be as different from her as possible—a situation that Freud seemed to accept with equanimity. Chodorow claims that girls, because they are reared differently, develop a sense of empathy, of caring for others, while boys, encouraged to be independent and self-sufficient, grow up either to indulge or to despise women. While concentrating on women’s alleged empathy, Chodorow (like Young-Bruehl) implicitly condemns the typical mother, since the mother identifies with her daughter and encourages her son to be as different from her as possible. The way to resolve the radical difference between them, Chodorow suggested, was for both parents to take an equal share in the children’s upbringing.
Henry Higgins asked: “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Chodorow asserts that men must become more like women, presumably more capable of empathy. It is not surprising that many feminists seized on this idea. Among them was the clinical psychologist Carol Gilligan, a professor of education at Harvard, whose book In a Different Voice (1982) made explicit her agreement with a view that was only implied by Chodorow, that women are morally superior to men. Gilligan set out to demolish theories of moral development that she perceived as based on male standards. She praised the “connectedness” or empathetic feeling in women in contrast to the self-sufficiency that men had been taught to cultivate. Like many other feminists, she was exasperated by Freud’s conviction that since women never experience any clear-cut resolution of the Oedipal conflict, their superego is, as he put it, “never so inexorable, so impersonal, so independent of its emotional origins as we require it to be in men.” As a result, Freud concluded, women
show less sense of justice than men, that they are less ready to submit to the great exigencies of life, that they are more often influenced in their judgments by feelings of affection or hostility… 10
The implicit repercussions are dramatic. Whereas Freud had envisaged the possibility of civilization functioning only when the feminine emotions (as well as the unruly id) were held in check, Gilligan finds hope in the cultivation of so-called “female” qualities.
Gilligan does not deny the frequently asserted view that men are more interested than women in abstract principles of justice and in organizing their personal relations so that they won’t be interfered with, but her book is intended to show that women speak not with an inferior but with a “different” voice. She takes issue with the inferences about women of her former collaborator, the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, who for some years has done research on the formation of moral judgments.
In one of Kohlberg’s studies eleven-year-old boys and girls were presented with a case of a man with a difficult dilemma.11 The children were asked, Suppose a man cannot afford the drug that will save his wife’s life, and the druggist will not give it to him. Is he justified in stealing it? One of the boys questioned, Jake, argues that the man should steal the drug, but since stealing is illegal, the man must face the consequences, a judgment that rests on the assumption that people share an obligation to abide by social rules. Amy, on the other hand, is more concerned about the relationship between the man and his wife and is critical of the druggist’s failure to help another human being.
Gilligan then suggests that Amy, unlike Jake, sees the world not as a system of rules but as a network of relationships in which people bear responsibility for one another. But surely there are other, and more appropriate, moral questions that could be put to the children? What about the doctor who prescribed the drug? Would he be willing to see his patient suffer? And why should the pharmacist, who mainly sells laxatives and aspirin and who may not be aware of the dire need for the drug, be cast in the role of moral villain?
Like many other feminist theorists, Gilligan evokes a stereotypical woman who, when faced with the problem of whether to gratify her own needs or to act unselfishly, decides to be responsible and concerned about others. It is never altogether clear from Gilligan’s account whether women are innately “good” or have been trained to be that way; in any case, Gilligan clearly believes that if men were as caring as women, the world would be a better place. The nineteenth-century Angel in the House has become the Savior of the World. One finds oneself musing about how Gilligan would view the selfish and narcissistic women one has known or the women political leaders who have been quite as capable of ruthlessness as men. She does not mention them or try to account for them.
Gilligan describes men as fearful about entering into intimate relationships, and describes women (citing examples from George Eliot) as trapped in marriages, family situations, and emotional relationships in which they are powerless. But may not the feelings of “connectedness” Gilligan praises have something to do with their alleged predicament? What Gilligan calls “connectedness” may in some ways resemble dependence. And however suggestive the world of Middlemarch may be about the condition of women, Gilligan has nothing to say about its differences from the contemporary world of the “narcissistic” or (depending on one’s point of view) “emancipated” generations.
I find myself even more critical of Gilligan’s recent book, Making Connections: The Relational Worlds of Adolescent Girls at Emma Willard School, in which Gilligan and a group of researchers pose a series of questions to adolescents at a private school for well-to-do girls in New York State. In her preface Gilligan talks at length about the relationships between mothers and daughters, and refers to Margaret Atwood’s poem “This is a Photograph of Me” as a vision of the adolescent suddenly losing her confident sense of self. (It is a touching, pathetic picture, but what, one might ask, about the beastly way girls treat one another in Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, which is not mentioned?) Gilligan speaks of the deep sense of loss many mothers experience when their daughters reach adolescence. She does not consider the possibility that this might sometimes be connected with the mother’s loss of power.
Gilligan says that in Making Connections she is trying to discover what it means for a woman to be a good mother, for a mother to love her daughter, and for a daughter to love both her mother and herself. These questions are never answered. A section of the book supposedly devoted to some of these issues was conducted and written by one of the junior members of the research team, who is described as a Ph.D. in education who works as “financial planner teaching women about money management and is the mother of an infant daughter.” Her evaluation, “Daughters’ Views of Their Relationships with Their Mothers,” is the shortest in the book and is wholly unsatisfactory. The researcher, Sharon Rich, concludes:
Developmental theory long held that an important developmental task for adolescents was to separate from their parents, especially mothers. This study of girls offers a new perspective on this question. By listening to the voices of the girls in this sample as they describe their relationships with their mothers, the dimensions of differentiation in relationships with their mothers becomes clearer.
The “new perspective” is never made clear; nor does the researcher ask whether interviews with twenty girls in an isolated, expensive school provide an adequate sample on which to base conclusions about adolescents generally. It may well be that, at about age eleven, the confidence that has sustained girls through childhood begins to be eroded, but the book provides no insight into how and why this happens. At eleven many of the girls have probably begun to menstruate, but the effects of this traumatic experience are ignored. Their attitudes toward sexual decisions, we are told elsewhere in the book, are “based on notions of connection and interdependence.” This is certainly the sort of response Gilligan would expect from the girls she studied; but in its implication that there is something inherently benign in the relationships it examines, the book seems saturated with sentimentality.
Nancy Chodorow’s second book, Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory, lacks the polemical vigor of her earlier The Reproduction of Mothering. Trained originally as an anthropologist, she now describes herself as “a self-defined ‘interpretive,’ or even ‘humanistic’ psychoanalytic sociologist and psychoanalytic feminist.” She is also, she notes, “a social scientist who writes in the field of object-relations psychoanalytic feminism and practices as a clinician.”
Having become a practicing therapist since writing The Reproduction of Mothering, she acknowledges that she has now become passionately “hooked” on psychoanalytic theory, so that at times she now sounds as much an apologist for Freud as Juliet Mitchell or Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. Notwithstanding the clinical work in which she is engaged, she does not describe a single case from her own practice or that of other analysts to substantiate her Freudian view. Her somewhat disorganized, repetitious book consists mainly of papers written over the last fifteen years, but she raises some complex and disturbing questions. While she had previously argued that the sort of defective mothering men receive was “the cause or prime mover of male dominance,” she now turns to the distressing matter of the relations between men and women. “I have yet to find,” she writes, “a convincing explanation for the virulence of masculine anger, fear, and resentment of women, or of aggression toward them” that goes beyond Karen Horney’s explanation of men’s fear of powerful mothers. Unfortunately her account of the war between the sexes stops at this point. She goes on to discuss how in our culture men are still valued for “doing,” women for “being”—a stereotype close to Gilligan’s, which she supports with her own version of the family romance.
The development of the girl, according to Chodorow, is more complex than that of the boy because of her prolonged and intense identification with her mother. As a result of this closeness, although women in most societies become defined by their relations to others, they still have a comparatively secure sense of identity as women. Or do they? It is not clear here whether Chodorow is describing an actual process of identification she approves of or is arguing that it should take place.
In one essay, “Oedipal Asymmetries and Heterosexual Knots,” she accepts the Freudian explanation that the girl’s sexual feeling for her father provides her with a psychological means of separation from her mother. However, because he is unavailable—both sexually and in the life of the family, from which he is usually more absent than the mother—the feelings of attraction to the father are, according to Chodorow, confined largely to fantasies and idealization.
Chodorow agrees with Freud that the boy experiences the Oedipus Complex earlier than the girl in order to escape the hovering presence of his mother. However, unlike Freud, she believes that the price the boy pays is the repression of his feminine self in denying his instinctual need to feel close to his mother. Because women have maintained a close identification with their mothers, their inner lives are far richer than those of men, and they do not need the other sex with the same intensity that men crave women. Men fear intimacy, she argues, but they fall in love far more romantically than women since the affective side of their natures has been repressed. This account of the furtive dependency of males seems to be Chodorow’s explanation for her earlier comments on the virulence of masculine aggression toward women.
Chodorow believes that if the shadowy father could become a more clearly defined figure in family life, polarized emotional attitudes would disappear. Why she thinks this should be so is not clear since she accepts the Oedipal conflict as a self-evident truth; if it is, wouldn’t a father more engaged with the life of the family still be a source of sexual attraction and conflicts?
Chodorow, as a believer, does not seem to take the slightest notice of any criticism of Freudian concepts such as the Oedipus Complex, although one cannot be sure because she writes in an extremely dense and convoluted way. She is particularly fond of the phrase “gender salience”—referring to some way by which gender should be seen as pertinent to the subject under discussion. On four pages I counted the word “salient” eighteen times. Whatever one may think about Freud, he wrote clearly and elegantly, whereas the experience of reading most of these books is like clearing a jungle with a bowie knife.
By contrast, another therapist, Jane Flax, the author of Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Postmodernism in the Contemporary West, has a tough, skeptical mind that is suspicious of large designs and panaceas, although from the outset she states her conviction that psychoanalysis and feminism offer the most promising ways out of the impasse in which women smolder under male domination. She asks what sort of psychoanalysis and feminist theory is helpful for women but, as her book demonstrates, it is easier to demolish theories about “the family” than to construct a new model of how it should work.
She refuses to make Freud the only scapegoat, because ever since Aristotle woman has been “defined as a deficient man.” Nevertheless, Flax raises some disturbing questions about Freud. “What,” she asks, “did Freud think he was doing during all those hours in his consulting room?” It certainly never occurred to him that his most fundamental concepts were not universally valid but might be rooted in prevailing emotional assumptions about gender. It had long been taken for granted in European culture that a son could enter the privileged masculine world only by denying his dependence on his mother. It was Freud who contributed the theory, based, Flax contends, on his own experience, that the boy dreads castration and needs his father’s protection. Flax is particularly acute in bringing together in her criticism of Freud both his unacknowledged cultural assumptions and his tendency to project his own psychological conflicts onto the theories he presented as having general application.
Turning to the currently fashionable theories of the “object-relations” school of analysis,12 Flax is disturbed that such theorists write about human development almost exclusively from the point of view of the child. Winnicott’s “good enough mother,” i.e., the mother capable of a satisfactory relationship with the infant, is primarily the child’s object, and remains obscure as a person in her own right.13 She is critical of Nancy Chodorow, who, like her early mentor Winnicott, is reluctant to acknowledge that families have changed, and that differences of class and race, among other circumstances, can affect the experience of being a mother.
Flax is also skeptical about the theories that exalt women’s capacity to “relate,” that idealize the mother-daughter relationship, and that assume that emotional “nurturance” naturally occurs in ties between women. She finds a conspiratorial silence among feminists about the physical violence that often occurs between mothers and daughters; she suggests that female aggression and longing for freedom are frequently inhibited as much by mothers as by any patriarchy.
Jessica Benjamin, a therapist trained in object-relations psychology, in The Bonds of Love has made an impressive contribution to the continuing discussion of women’s psychology—although the discussion seems to be conducted too exclusively with other feminists such as Chodorow, Gilligan, and Mitchell. She is concerned with the strong puritanical streak among feminists and its consequences. In their attacks on pornography and campaigns for its censorship, some seem to have rejected sex, its fantasies, and its pleasures altogether. This prudishness, Benjamin suggests, can be linked to the tendency to desexualize the idealized mother, who is characterized by the ability to nurture children but is free of sexual desire. Like a number of French feminists, she pleads for the restoration of the sexuality to which women are entitled.
Benjamin also departs from mainstream radical feminism in that she does not dispute the existence of female masochism. She describes the female masochist as a woman who finds herself in a double bind: she clings to her helplessness by attaching herself to someone who, in her fantasies, represents the liberating father rather than the engulfing mother. In view of present attitudes, some women, she argues, find identification with the mother insupportable; anything would be better than to recapitulate the mother’s experience. A pathological pattern is established when the woman can be satisfied only with a man who is both exciting and domineering. If both the father and the mother made it clear that the woman had sexual desires of her own, she says, the girl would finally have an adequate model. Acceptance of sexuality, according to Benjamin, is symbolic of a wider response to life:
Thus girls should get what boys get from their father; and girls and boys should get it from their mothers as well—recognition of agency, curiosity, movement toward the outside. Consequently, I do not think that women should discount the world of phallic, symbolic functioning in order to celebrate their own sphere, nor do I think they should embrace the male world at the expense of denying the experiences that are part of the female world.
In “The Oedipal Riddle” Benjamin confronts the most controversial aspect of Freudian thinking for feminist thinkers. According to the orthodox account, the Oedipal struggle is the crucial rite of passage reserved for the boy. In renouncing his incestuous feelings for his mother, the boy is enabled to achieve identification with his father by absorbing his standards and attitudes. Where Freud saw these as admirable elements in the creation of a conscience, Benjamin accepts the prevailing feminist claim that they value condescension toward women and approval of the kinds of active, if not aggressive, behavior that women find unacceptable. Benjamin contends that there is also a maternal superego that curbs aggression, and the acceptance of both superegos would create a more balanced person. Here she is surely reverting to what is sometimes referred to as the “essentialist” view of the sexes—that is, polarized stereotypes.
Benjamin tries valiantly to resist facile solutions in which women are depicted either as victims or as creators of a new world based on nurturance. But it is disturbing that most of her examples are drawn from movies or literature, and none from case studies or actual personal observations. As a result there is an airy tone to the general discussion, which seems, moreover, to be addressed to an exclusive group of women who are interested in feminist theory. The feminist commentators appear either uninterested in or indifferent to the important recent work, some of it critical of Freudian concepts, that is based on direct observation of infant behavior.14
An evident danger for some feminist theorists is that they might become so enamored of complicated explications of theory that practical questions like what to do about inequality in the workplace or violence in family life are ignored.15 There is also a possibility that feminism could become as divorced from reality as poststructuralism. Too frequently clarity is clouded by jargon and is over schematized, and the ideology of implied female superiority too frequently infiltrates and sentimentalizes the logic of the arguments. 16
This cannot be said of Madelon Sprengnether, whose The Spectral Mother—Freud, Feminism, and Psychoanalysis addresses itself to the Dora case I have earlier discussed as well as the many other instances in which Freud ignored the presence of the mother or relegated her to the shadows. In her impressive book, which deserves wide recognition, Sprengnether, a professor of English at the University of Minnesota, links Freud’s attitudes to his own ambivalent relationship with his cold and strong-willed mother. She makes us understand better why, even as a grown man, he almost invariably had stomach cramps before he dutifully visited her each Sunday. His denial of the mother’s crucial importance in early development, Sprengnether argues, is reflected in his case studies, in which mothers become simply supernumeraries in the psychodramas he describes. This is evident, she shows, not only in the story of Dora but in all the other famous cases—Little Hans. The Rat Man, Judge Schreber, and The Wolf Man.
Femininity as such was feared by Freud in whatever form it manifested itself. Women, he would argue in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), actually exercise a “retarding and restraining influence” on the progress of civilization. In his late paper, Analysis Terminable and Interminable (1937), he wrote:
The two corresponding themes are in the female, an envy for the penis, a positive striving to possess a male genital—and, in the male, a struggle against his passive or feminine attitude to another male.17
As Sprengnether remarks perceptively, Freud attempted “to master rather than to explore his own homosexual inclinations.”
Sprengnether’s cool and detached case has power because it is based on a very close study of Freud’s texts, and shrewd insights into his actual behavior. Her book—for this reader at least—is far more convincing than those in which the writers try, on the basis of incomplete readings, to radically reconstruct the Freudian system and use their own version of it to air their grievances, hopes, and values, implicitly arguing backward to their own experience of childhood.
It is a striking fact that most of the women whose books I have discussed here blame psychoanalysis for misusing its power and at the same time turn to it for possible reinterpretations to help clear up the mess. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl asserts that “Freud’s views on female psychology remain the uniquely important and influential touchstone in the current discussion,” although she emphasizes that Freud was aware of the incomplete nature of his knowledge. Perhaps in time women will find that they need Freud less and less. Perhaps they would strengthen their cause if they ceased reacting against this brilliant but drastically limited theorist and struck out on their own.
October 24, 1991
This attitude has been reflected in the history of the psychoanalytic movement. No woman has ever been president of the International Association of Psychoanalysis, and few women have been presidents of constituent societies or chairmen of training committees. ↩
See In Dora’s Case, edited by Charles Bernheimer and Claire Kahane, particularly the papers by Toril Moi, Jane Gallop, and Neil Hertz (Columbia University Press, 1985, 1990). ↩
Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, Standard Edition, Vol. VII, p. 109. ↩
Sigmund Freud, “Female Sexuality” (1931), Standard Edition, Vol. XXI, p. 226. ↩
Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures in Psycho-Analysis (1933), Standard Edition, Vol. XX, pp. 134–135. ↩
Freud, “Female Sexuality” (1931), p. 230. ↩
“The Question of Lay Analysis” (1926), Standard Edition, Vol. XX, p. 213. ↩
Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (Laurel, 1983), p. 103. ↩
Louise J. Kaplan is one of the few theorists to draw a clear distinction between a penis and a phallus: “A penis is an anatomical part. A phallus is a fictitious genital, a symbol of power, and it is a fact that traditionally in most societies, those with penises have the power, a power associated with an erect penis and its sexual performance. Males, however, are not inherently phallic and not castrated beings psychoanalysts were reflecting the power structure and gender stereotypes of their social order.” (Female Perversions, Doubleday, 1991, p. 79.) ↩
Sigmund Freud, “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes,” Standard Edition, Vol. XIX, p.257. ↩
See Lawrence Kohlberg, “Continuities and Discontinuities in Childhood and Adult Moral Development Revised.” In Collected Papers on Moral Development and Moral Education (Cambridge: Moral Education and Research Foundation, 1973), and The Philosophy of Moral Development (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981). ↩
It is called object-relations theory because the personality is seen as developing from the interaction with a significant other (almost always the mother). While the term may sound bloodless, it is difficult to call it a “persons’ theory” since experiences and fantasies about the other are internalized into our own psychic world. ↩
Had Flax read Melanie Klein’s “A Contribution to the Psychogenesis of Manic-Depressive States” (1935) she might have reversed her view. Here Klein describes the crucial stage of development to have been reached when the infant recognizes the mother as a person in her own right, with interests and needs separate from those of the baby. ↩
See, for example, Daniel Stern’s The First Relationship—Infant and Mother (Harvard University Press, 1977) and The Interpersonal World of the Infant (Basic Books, 1985). ↩
Women Who Kill (Fawcett, 1980) by Ann Jones is a moving account of what happens too frequently when women are driven to violence. Two excellent anthologies on women’s issues are What Is Feminism? edited by Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley (Pantheon, 1986), and The Psychology of Women, edited by Mary Roth Walsh (Yale University Press, 1987). Essential Papers on the Psychology of Women, edited by Claudia Zanardi (New York University Press, 1990), is a compendium of views on both sides of the Atlantic. ↩
Few of them go as far as to say that feminists make the best therapists but, presumably, this is a fairly general attitude. See, for example, Healing Voices: Feminist Approaches to Therapy with Women, edited by Toni Ann Laidlaw and Cheryl Malmo (Jossey-Bass, 1990), p. 3: “We differ from our nonfeminist colleagues in a number of significant ways. First and foremost, feminist therapists understand that women constitute an oppressed group in our culture. (Understanding sexism, feminists also have an understanding of people who are oppressed by classism, racism, homophobia, ageism, and prejudice based on religious or ethnic affiliation.)” ↩
Standard Edition, Vol XXII, p. 250. ↩