The New Psychology of Women

Freud, Dora, and Vienna 1900

by Hannah S. Decker
Free Press, 299 pp., $22.95

The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender

by Nancy Chodorow
University of California Press, 263 pp., $12.95 (paper)

In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development

by Carol Gilligan
Harvard University Press, 184 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory

by Nancy J. Chodorow
Yale University Press, 286 pp., $14.00 (paper)

Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Postmodernism in the Contemporary West

by Jane Flax
University of California Press, 277 pp., $13.95 (paper)

The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination

by Jessica Benjamin
Pantheon, 304 pp., $16.00 (paper)

The Spectral Mother: Freud, Feminism, and Psychoanalysis

by Madelon Sprengnether
Cornell University Press, 264 pp., $24.95


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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.