U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Feminism and the Dialectic of the Psyche

Shulamith Firestone

Shulamith Firestone

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.

18 Thoughts on this Post

  1. AH: Thanks for this post. I’m glad you agree with me that the Faludi article contained a significant chunk of intellectual history/history of ideas. On the psyche of various groups we study, well, I’ve been delving deeper and deeper into Critical Theory. I’m becoming less fearful—à la Professor Livingston—of utilizing the terms of psychology to help me get at certain tricks we play with ourselves (e.g. false consciousness), or to describe feelings that seem to be in the air (however elusive). As such, I wonder which historian of feminism has best used Critical Theory in terms of the 20th century history of American women? Perhaps it’s Chodorow, but maybe there are others, especially historians, that avoid Lacan (sorry, my visceral reaction to him and his disciples) but use Freud productively in terms of political economy and gender? – TL

    • Tim: I thought someone else had noticed the intellectual history in the Faludi piece, but I couldn’t remember who, or I would have given you credit! There are plenty of historians and various other scholars who put psychoanalysis to work in their examinations of gender. Luce Irigaray comes to mind. Even Judith Butler, who is much more in the deconstructionist vein, uses psychoanalysis. Of course, both Irigaray and Bitler rely upon Lacan more than Freud. I’d be interested in some reader comments with more suggestions here.

  2. Andrew, what a great post. Thanks for laying everything out so carefully.

    Here’s a statement I find interesting, from your summary of Chodorow’s argument: “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.”

    This is a helpful way of thinking about gender as a web of cultural relations, a web whose shape is not determined by biology but whose structure is at least partly anchored in biology. In other words, one of the main strands of the web of gender is tied to “obvious” bodily difference, not between individual people so much as between “men” and “women” broadly construed as performing different functions in human reproduction. Underneath all the cultural innovation and creativity and performativity of gender, all the long history of how humans have understood themselves and one another, is a very basic awareness of this most basic functional difference. If I understand you correctly, this is what Firestone was getting at: the gender system is tied to the cultural meaning given to (among many other things) human reproduction.

    Dan Wickberg commented on your last post that “gender is a relationship.” True enough — but it is (now? so far? always?) an asymmetrical relationship. It’s true that in a cultural system, when one thing moves or changes, everything is changed, because the relationships of all the parts to the whole are reconfigured to one degree or another. But I’m not quite convinced that changes in notions of “the feminine” necessarily correspond in some balanced or offset way to concomitant changes in “the masculine.” Indeed, it’s quite possible that one gender has “come a long way, baby” while the other really hasn’t. Or it’s possible that what has seemed like change is in fact a re-assertion of that which is not liable to change. In other words, I’m not convinced that by not giving comparable attention to Robert Bly and the Promise Keepers you’re leaving out a really important part of the story. (But as you know, you’re probably better off taking Dan Wickberg’s historiographic advice than mine.)

    In any case, this post highlights the enormous difficulty of talking about any of this stuff, at least for me. I mean, I am the last person to argue for biological determinism or essentialism. What counts as “feminine” (or “effeminate”), “masculine” (or “mannish”), varies enormously not just between cultures but within them, and has much to do with age, class status, etc., as well as with perceived biological difference. The internet, which allows people to detach identity from embodiment — whether they mean to or not — only serves to highlight the importance that this perceived biological difference has in assigning / performing gender.

    In other words, I find it difficult to imagine discussing gender without discussing embodiedness — which may explain why it is sometimes difficult to talk about gender in the academy, a place that is (or aims to be) about as far from embodiedness as one can get. But it’s awful hard to get away from what you always carry with you. And, speaking in the broadest and most general terms, the burden of those meanings that are culturally ascribed to embodiedness (ideas of gender and race and god knows what else) is not equally or evenly distributed — not even in the academy.

    • Great comments, LD. i agree with just about everything you write. I certainly second the idea that analyzing gender is difficult. I’m finding my sex/gender chapter more difficult than any of the seven chapters I’ve written thus far, including my chapter on race. I was even doubting myself while writing this post. Perhaps you’ve pinpointed the reasons for this.

    • Just wanted to say I appreciated LD’s insight above about continuities in American masculinity. I remember being at a conference hearing a paper about the “crisis of masculinity” of the 1920s. I just finished a book about the Cold War as a “crisis of masculinity.” So, when HASN’T masculinity been in some sort of crisis? Or, is crisis simply the norm? At least, it seems to me that 1890s “muscular Christianity” became a kind of normative tradition during the twentieth century–not at all unlike the jeremiad. Witness muscular Christianity 32.0:

      (be sure to watch the video!)

      Anyways, thanks for these observations.

  3. I’d be interested to hear if you find any other social perspective from which to speak or describe the struggle for gender equality and redefinition. Did not other traditions–those with roots that reached beyond or were apart from the Victorian era–suggest possible ways to imagine community? I am thinking of sources as diverse as French Revolution communitarians to women on the American frontier to religious communities. In other words, is there a way to lower the level of abstraction so we might address Firestone’s provocative and evocative description of the biological family as a “tapeworm of exploitation.” There were other critics of the Victorian configuration of the family–did she draw on some groups in particular?

  4. I know it doesn’t fit directly into the question of, does feminism cause mental illness, but this classic anthology work helps show the inverse is true. Men who stick to strict socially acceptable roles, the loose out on the chance to marry socially mobile women, and suffer from an increaseed rate of mental illness as a result. But I’m paraphrasing from 20 years ago me so there should be a grain of salt taken whith my summary..

    Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland
    Nancy Scheper-Hughes

  5. Fascinante. The connection between mental illness–a historical and cultural construct–and women is definitely a loaded question, I find it interesting that feminists like Faludi reproduced these conceptions, projecting them unto the conflicts of the very feminist movement they participated in.

    One could link Firestone to the U.S. feminism that was reading De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, I am thinking of another key 1970 publication, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics. In the 1970s and onward you have a tension in literature departments between feminist critics who appropriated the French feminist theorists, who were in conversation with both Freud and Lacan–Julia Kristeva and Helene Cixous, perhaps more so than Irigaray–and the more historically- oriented feminists who questioned the essentialist positions of the former, often by way of Foucault. Toril Moi is a very important figure in this context, her Sexual/Textual Politics offers great insights on these debates.

  6. Can I suggest Mari Jo Buhle, _Feminism and Its Discontents: A Century of Struggle with Psychoanalysis_ (Harvard UP, 2000) for an analysis of the intellectual history of the extremely ambivalent relationship between feminist thought and psychoanalysis? Also, see Ellen Herman, _The Romance of American Psychology_ on feminism and its critique of psychological analysis.

  7. Kahlil, I have Moi’s reader in French Feminist Thought — there’s a great essay in there by Michèle Le Doeuff on “Women and Philosophy” that I used to inform my argument in a paper on portrayals of the pedagogical relationship in early American novels (on my list of things to revise and submit for publication).

    But I am always a little iffy about porting the theories of psychoanalysis into historical analysis, because (as I think Tim is suggesting in his comment above) they appeal to a kind of abstract transhistorical dynamic to explain/clarify particular historical circumstances. However, as Tim also suggests, if you don’t use those tools, you may miss out on (or avoid?) understanding the tricks we play on ourselves — “we” being not just humans in general, but perhaps historians in particular. For historians, it is perhaps a much less fraught proposition to historicize psychoanalysis than it would be to psychoanalyze historicism. (And I suppose the reverse would be true for psychoanalysts.)

    • I absolutely agree, I mentioned Moi and co. as figures we should be looking at from a historical (and materialist framework, I would add). This is especially fascinating in film studies, where the Mulvey framework–Hollywood cinema as reproducer of the male gaze–was either abandoned, or reconfigured through anti-essentialist, historical lens that complicated abstract, transhistorical conceptions of spectatorship and reception.

  8. What a terrific piece. I wonder if the passing of some of the iconic feminists — which will surely accelerate in teh next decade — will bring about the reappraisals of the movement that are long overdue?

  9. Great post, Andrew. I think historians have tended to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to psychoanalysis. Fearing certain kinds of psychobiography form the 60s and 70s, when historians tended to put their historical subject on the couch, as it were. That said, I think that historiographical presumption leads us to forget some wonderful works, like George Forgie’s Patricide in the House Divided, or Jameson’s early essay on Weber (forgetting the title at the moment).

    But I also think that we need not reduce the psychoanalytic to the psychological, which has been a particularly American development in this history of psychoanalysis, something that Lacan was reacting to in the 1950s. More recently, Joan Scott’s most recent work, especially the introduction to the Fantasy of Feminist History and an article in History and Theory, suggest a productive manner in which to engage psychoanalysis and history, especially around questions of gender, sexual difference, and sexuality. If we follow Lacan here, on the distinction between being and having the phallus, then sexual difference is never resolved, as it were. Gender, then, can be read as the historical and fantasmatic attempts to resolve the unresolvable. This, I think, allows for the both the historical and for something to escape complete historicization. And it avoids the problems of transhistorical archetypes, a la Jung.

    Some other potentially relevant citations: Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism; Judith Butler’s recent reassessment of Mitchell in differences; Theresa Brennan, History after Lacan; and Joan Copjec’s refutation of historicism, Read My Desire!: Lacan agains the Historicists.

    Hope this helps – looking forward to you r book!

  10. and there is the great line from deluze and guattari that might be relevant to this post:

    “A schizophrenic out for a walk is a better model than a neurotic lying on the analyst’s couch. A breath of fresh air, a relationship with the outside world.”

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