Susan Faludi, one of my favorite contemporary American journalists, recently wrote a widely circulated piece in The New Yorker on the life and death of feminist Shulamith Firestone, author of the groundbreaking 1970 manifesto, The Dialectic of Sex. Faludi’s article briefly examines some of Firestone’s key ideas—ideas that helped shape the women’s liberation movement.
The Dialectic of Sex, an innovative, 200-page reinterpretation of Marx and Freud, contended that the male-female antagonism was the most enduring form of oppression, and that, as such, it had to be confronted on its own terms, not as a mere addendum to the class struggle. As one among many contentious points, Firestone argued that the “biological family” was a “tapeworm of exploitation” and had to be completely uprooted.
But more than an intellectual history, Faludi’s article is a biographical piece about how a brilliant and powerful activist came apart at the seams; about how Firestone suffered from debilitating mental illness most of her adult life; and about how her illness ultimately killed her. A two-sentence abstract provided by The New Yorker condenses the point of Faludi’s article in provocative fashion. “Shulamith Firestone helped to create a new society. But she couldn’t live in it.”
Depending on how it’s interpreted, this short summary is potentially misleading (leading me to suspect that someone other than Faludi wrote it).
Here’s why: it might imply that Firestone helped create more freedom for women, but that she couldn’t live with such newfound freedoms. Those disposed to view feminism unfavorably might infer that Firestone lost her mental faculties because she lurched against nature. Faludi, of course, argues no such thing. She doesn’t even hint that Firestone’s schizophrenia was the result of her wholesale rejection of her family’s Orthodox Jewish traditions—traditions which, thanks to her misogynistic father, Firestone experienced as an intimate form of oppressive patriarchy. Rather, Faludi seems to assume that Firestone’s mental illness was the byproduct of the harsh sectarianism that rocked the feminist movement of the early 1970s. The schisms of the feminist movement left Firestone friendless and alone, a perennial recipe for mental sickness.
Several feminist activists were psychologically damaged by all the infighting and backbiting. Faludi describes how, after one particularly bitter meeting, many women simply dropped out of the movement, and some, according to one activist, “ended up in the hospital with nervous breakdowns.” Faludi writes:
After Ti-Grace Atkinson resigned from the Feminists, a group she had founded in New York, she declared, “Sisterhood is powerful. It kills. Mostly sisters.” The observation rang true for so many that it soon became one of the lines most frequently quoted by feminists, or, rather, misquoted: the “mostly” was dropped.
Whether feminist activists were more or less likely to suffer from mental illness is a loaded question, since those who resist patriarchy are often diagnosed as unbalanced. I’m more interested in another question that the Faludi piece raised for me, one less fraught, and more compelling: why do questions about sex and gender often involve the psyche? Or, why the close affinity between feminist theorizing and psychoanalysis?
Nancy Chodorow’s 1989 book Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory is perhaps the best exploration of these connections. Early-twentieth-century feminist theory was often explicitly pitched as a response to Freud, who posited that the female psyche was defective. But feminist psychoanalysis was more than merely reactive. More recently, it has proven itself a rich theory because, as Chodorow argues, “our experiences as men and women come from deep within, both within our pasts and, relatedly, within the deepest structures of unconscious meaning and the most emotionally moving relationships that help constitute our daily lives.” Many feminist struggles, including those over “abortion, marriage, divorce, the regulation of sexuality, parenting,” are carried out in “the personal and familial” spheres. Coming to terms with the significance of such struggles necessitates an understanding of how “concerns in the emotional realm are tied up with notions of human fulfillment—selfhood, agency, meaningful relationship, depth and richness of experience, a comfortable centering of our bodies and in our sexuality.” In other words, “the personal is political” was more than a mere slogan.
In the hands of Chodorow and other feminist theorists, psychoanalysis “provides a particularly useful arena in which to see the relational and situated construction of… gender difference.” In this way, it was a powerful counterargument to biological determinism and gender essentialism. “How anyone experiences, fantasizes about, or internally represents her or his embodiment,” she argued, “grows from experience, learning, and self-definition in the family and in the culture.” Furthermore: “We cannot know what people would make of their bodies in a non-gendered or non-sexually organized world, what kind of sexual structuration or gender identities would develop.” In other words, bodily difference might seem obvious, but how we conceptualize and use the body is not self-evident outside of culturally specific ways—outside of gender relations. “Differentiation,” one of the central psychoanalytical concepts, helps explain that identity-formation—selfhood—is always relational, always-already gendered. In this way, the postmodern dissolution of the self is inexorably tied up with the dissolution of modern patriarchy (a connection that informs James Livingston’s quirky analysis of Hollywood male masochism in The World Turned Inside Out).
Not surprisingly, the psyche has also featured prominently in antifeminist thought, as detailed in Chapter 12 of Faludi’s award-winning 1991 book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women, titled, “It’s All in Your Mind: Popular Psychology Joins the Backlash.” During the 1980s, a number of popular psychologists captured the national imagination with their argument that “feminism leads to professionalism,” which then “leads to psychosis.” Faludi terms this the “stock backlash chain of causation.” Underpinning their analysis was the message that women had to adjust their psyches to the order of things. “Instead of assisting women to override the backlash, the advice experts helped to lock it in female minds and hearts—by urging women to interpret all of the backlash’s pressures as simply ‘their’ problem.” Backlash psychology rejected all feminist principles: instead of changing society, women were asked to mold to it; women, not men, were told to make sacrifices. Such was the only path to female happiness, which the backlash psychologists assumed synonymous with marriage.
Backlash psychology was not limited to popular culture. In 1985, the APA’s Committee on Women sought to add a disorder to the important Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM): “masochistic personality disorder,” which was described, not by characteristics of people who got pleasure from pain, but rather by “the self-sacrificing and self-denigrating sort of behavior that is supposed to typify ideal femininity.” In other words, according to Faludi, “the APA panel had neatly summed up female socialization—and stamped it a private, psychiatric malfunction.” This example of antifeminist psychology had serious consequences, since a lawyer of an abusive husband could conceivably use the new DSM-listed disorder as evidence that his or her client battered his wife only because she courted such abuse.
In any case, one thing seems clear: the history of feminism is tangled up in the intellectual and cultural history of the psyche.