On the Relation Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis
In her article "Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression"1, Bell Hooks claims that the major problem within feminist discourse is the "inability to either arrive at a consensus of opinion about what feminism is or accept definition(s) that could serve as points of unification"2. Without agreed upon definitions, feminism lacks a sound foundation on which to construct a theory or engage in overall meaningful praxis.
Presumably it is also due to this internal vagueness in definition that feminism turned to other, more or less related, schools of thought such as Marxism, science studies or psychoanalysis in order to stabilize itself in the academic world.
From all liaisons with the above mentioned (and many other) analytic fields that feminism entered, I find psychoanalysis to be the most natural, as feminism, for all its difficulties in definition, explicitly aims to end sexist 3 oppression4. In order to do so, it needs to closely analyse sex, sexes, and gender(s), for which it lacks a methodological apparatus of its own. Whereas in other disciplines that feminists have tried to reshape for their purposes (i.e. sciences more concerned with societal problems, such as politics) the argument for gender neutrality or irrelevance can be more easily sustained by traditionalists, the advantages of a feminist psychoanalytic approach are substantial, as Nancy Chodorow5 argues:
In psychoanalytic theory ..., explicit attention to sex and gender, though not approached from a feminist perspective, has been central and basic to both theory and practice. It would be difficult for a psychoanalyst to ignore completely an analysand's sexuality or gender or to argue that a theory of sexuality or gender was irrelevant to the field.6
With Chodorow I therefore argue that the relation between psychoanalysis and feminism is "intrinsic" and that feminism can profit from psychoanalytic theory and practice in that the latter produce knowledge on, for example, the process of engendering in the individual, a point fiercely debated upon in the several schools of feminism.
One of the most controversial of these is Freudian feminism, which I will discuss further on.
In the 1970s, the high times of political feminism, feminists had a tendency to show little interest in psychoanalysis and philosophic discourse. An extreme position taken on by Betty Friedan in the late 1960s held that women's oppression was political, economic, and social; women were certainly psychologically oppressed, but there was no need for a theory as "mystified or complicated"7 — relying on the unconscious — to explain and understand female socialization. For Friedan, it was society that imposed values on women.
Kate Millett, one of the first to take into consideration the meaning of psychoanalysis for women's issues, dismissed it for its obsession with the Freudian instance of "penis envy" which in her opinion left no space for a woman-centred analysis8 ; even more, Freudian theory and therapy were taken to be major factors in women's oppression9. Freudian theory was seen as sexist and misogynist.
Freud denied women their own orgasms; he thought that women were without as great a sense of justice as men, that they were vain, jealous, full of shame, and have made no contributions to civilization except for weaving. He thought it was obvious that any three-year-old would think the masculine genitalia better than the feminine.10
It may be society that imposes values on women, and in this sense, women's oppres- sion may be social"rather than overtly psychological. Yet a political and social organ- ".
ization of gender does not exist apart from the fact that individuals are sexed and gendered. An understanding of the social and political organization of gender is therefore not possible without taking into account processes of sexualization and engendering. Thus gender roles, as opposed to social roles, are not external and cannot be stepped out of — there is no separate self apart from an engendered self. Therefore, Chodorow concludes:11
... when we are interested in questions of gender and sexuality — even when our questions are in the first instance social, political or economical questions — there is no easy line between psyche and society. ... the social organization of gender is built right into our heads and divides the world into females and males; our being sexed and gendered (...) is built right into social organization. They are only given meaning from one anoth-er.12
In defence of Freud and by using Millett's own argument that draws on the crucial feminist distinction between sex and gender — sex being a matter of biology, gender a matter of socialization, something acquired rather than natural —, Juliet Mitchell 13 argued that Freud's great achievement — for feminism, ironically —, was the theory of en gendering14. Mitchell's defence of Freud seems to continue Simone de Beauvoir's argument that "One is not born a woman; rather, one becomes a woman"15, a genuinely feminist idea. Even more, he describes the special difficulty girls have in attaining an expected passive, heterosexual genital adulthood, thereby "admitting" that female sexuality (and sexuality as such) is not given but is formed by early experiences and adjustments. As for Freud's sexism, he obviously favoured the Oedipal drama as the explanatory schema for the acquirement of sexual identity. Though this may be seen as paradigmatic for patriarchal oppression of women and may even fuel this situation, it was useful as it urged feminists to pay greater attention to the pre-Oedipal stage, which is shaped by the child's relationship to the primary caretaker, i.e., in most cases, the mother16
1 Hooks, "Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression".
2 Ibid., p. 22.
3 Italics added.
4 Hooks, "Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression", p. 25.
5 Nancy Chodorow is a highly influential figure in psychoanalytic feminism and has been publishing from the 1970s on.
6 Chodorow, "Introduction: Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory.", p. 2
7 Chodorow, "Feminism, Femininity, and Freud", p. 166.
8 Cf. Con Davis, Robert and Schleifer, Ronald, "Introduction to Feminism and Gender Studies", p. 565.
9 Cf. Chodorow, p. 165.
10 Chodorow, p. 166.
11 Social oppression of women may be concerned with issues of wage inequality, job segregation, wife abuse etc
12 Chodorow, "Feminism, Femininity, and Freud", p. 168.
13 Cf. Barry, "Feminist Criticism", p. 130.
14 Italics added.
15 Barry, "Feminist Criticism", p. 130.
16 It is in this pre-Oedipal stage that object-relations-theorists find moments constitutive of identity and gender rather than during the Oedipal stage. This shift in attention displaces a central theoretical premise of patriarchal culture, namely that fathers determine sexual identity, but it also bears the danger of reducing mothering, in itself a mere social postulate, to a biological destiny.