“I’m Not a Feminist, But . . .”: Psychoanalytic Feminism

We hear people say this all of the time, and yet they often go on to express “feminist” ideas and could identify as a feminist. There are many reasons why people distance themselves from the feminist movement. I can’t possibly explain or guess them all. But I can explain the different types of feminism according to Rosemarie Tong’s book Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction (2009). There are many types of feminism, and we know that “all feminists do not think alike” (p. 1). However, labeling different schools of thought help us to “mark the range of different approaches, perspectives, and frameworks a variety of feminists have used to shape both their explanations for women’s oppression and their proposed solutions for its elimination” (p. 1).

This series will outline and define the many feminisms. Maybe you’ll be able to identify where you agree and disagree with feminist thought.

feminist thought cover

Today’s focus is Psychoanalytic Feminism. (Last week I posted about Marxist and Socialist Feminism.)

All feminist theories are interested in getting at the cause and solutions of women’s oppression. Psychoanalytic feminism sees the answer in the psyche. Freud’s stages of development and ultimate conclusions suggested that women had penis envy and suffered from a lack of being male. Psychoanalytic feminists dispute this and tend to base their theories off of where Freud went wrong. Many of them also focus on Lacan, taking parts of his work and adjusting it to make more sense for women.

Three early feminists that critiqued Freud were Alfred Adler, Karen Horney, and Clara Thompson. Adler surmised that “men and women are fundamentally the same because all human beings are born helpless” (p. 136). He believed that women could heal themselves and that “patriarchal society is sick” (p. 136). Horney emphasized environmental influences on women and saw “women’s feelings of inferiority” as coming from “women’s realization of their social subordination” (p. 137). Thompson focused on “women’s guilt, inferiority, and self-hatred” as not biological but “society’s interpretation of these facts” (p. 137).

Dinnerstein and Chodorow also focused on Freud to develop theories. Ultimately, they focused on dual parenting as one solution. According to Dinnerstein, “[D]ual parenting would enable us to stop projecting our ambivalence about carnality and mortality onto one parent . . .[,] overcome our ambivalence about growing up . . . [,] overcome our ambivalence toward the existence of other separate beings . . . [,] [and] help us overcome our ambivalence about enterprise” (p. 142-43). Other theorists criticized the dual parenting idea for “failing to explain it in terms of differently-structured [sic] families” (p. 146).

Feminist theorists who focus on a Lacanian perspective include Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. Irigaray suggested that women create a female language and a female sexuality (p. 156-57). She also promoted miming “the mimes men have imposed on women” (p. 157). This included taking “men’s images of women and reflect[ing] them back to men in magnified proportions” (p. 157). Kristeva focused on difference in general and saw value in refusing both extremes. “[A]void both total father-identification and total mother-identification” p. 161).

I like the idea of dual parenting for my own household. I think my husband and I do it pretty well, but I feel guilty much of the time. I feel a lot of pressure from culture in general to be a certain kind of mother.

Some of the questions that came up for me while reading about this type of feminism follow. Are women treated as any less hysterical when it comes to some of the sexual issues faced, such as rape or sexual harassment? How about mental illness? How do we change this false view of women, despite the fact that the term “hysterical” isn’t necessarily used medically anymore?

Next week I’ll post about Care-Focused Feminism.

24 thoughts on ““I’m Not a Feminist, But . . .”: Psychoanalytic Feminism

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  1. Ooh i am intrigued. I might need to get myself a copy of this book and see which types i most resonate with. I used to say the “I’m not a feminist but…” thing all the time until i came to realise that it wasn’t being a feminist i was denying, it was being the media propaganda’s stereotype of extreme feminist that i didn’t want to label myself as.

    1. How interesting! You might find this book a little dry and theory heavy, but I do encourage you to read more about feminism. It sounds like you’d enjoy it! Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  2. Reading this is like looking back over a familiar who’s who of feminist critics I studied at uni (I’ve come to the conclusion my dissertation supervisor was a psychoanalytic feminist!) but I wish I’d had such a succinct description of what psychoanalytic feminism was as your article provides! Great article, looking forward to catching up with the rest of the series!

    1. This must be a fun walk down memory lane, and how cool to have an adviser who was a psychoanalytic feminist! I hope you enjoy the other posts and upcoming ones too.

  3. When I began studying psychology in college, I felt like I was a Freudian–minus all that sexual hang-up business. Despite the fact that the sexual drive motivates a lot of our actions, I thought Freud was a little too frustrated, if you know what I mean. I was a Freudian because I truly believed our childhood foundations basically built our adult personality–either including or excluding the decisions we think we’re making on our own. Feminism from this perspective is interesting because it’s really looking inside the mind of the woman–how she views herself, how she thinks others are viewing her–and how she lives based off of certain perspectives and perceptions. That’s not to say any of that is her fault, as much as how she handles her responses to situations either within or outside of her control. Great post!

    1. Thanks! I really connected with Freud as an undergrad too. I was a psych major for a few semesters before switching to English, and I was taken with the idea of lack, that we can become taken with making up for what we lack, either in childhood or later on. Thanks for adding your thoughts on Freud to this discussion!

  4. Emily, this has been a thoroughly thought provoking series. As I waded through the above with the context of previous posts, I think Aristotle got it right when he said we are creature of habits. To me, habits can be individualistic or communal, making them more cultural or at least imbedded in culture. So, I believe some of the explanation can be that people fall into patterns of behavior based on expectations or what they are taught or shown. Thinking of an agrarian society, the boys and girls were taught different duties based on the labor needed and gender based patterns dictated the delegation of duties.

    This is why it has taken so long to effectuate change for women and, in some places, it is further behind. These patterns or habits need to be broken and broken again untl the new habits are formed. Maybe I am over simplifying it, but I am convinced this is not about penis envy per Freud.

    Again, great post and series. You are making us think. Well done, BTG

    1. I love what you are saying. Habits are certainly a huge part of being human, and they can make us or break us. I think it is easy to do things the way we have always done them. It is hard to make change and hard to accept the consequences of change. Thanks for always making me think!

  5. I don’t identify as feminist, because even if I find a form of feminism that I agree with, people will assume I am a different type of feminist until I explain. And if I have to explain anyway, there isn’t much point to using the term.

    1. Ah, that makes some sense. I kind of feel that too, where I’ve mashed together a bunch of ideas across the different types, but it is hard to explain exactly what that means. I still go with “feminist,” but yes, it can be hard to explain.

  6. Ever since taking a class in Medical Anthropology, I’ve struggled with the entire concept of psychoanalysis. So much of it is based on the false notion of the Cartesian Divide – a.k.a, your physical body is separate from your mental spirit (brain), even though those two things are irrevocably intertwined. You can’t claim that all women’s issues are purely sociological, because the social impact springs from an interpretation the physical, biological body… It confuses me just thinking about it!

    1. Yep, all of these issues are certainly intertwined. I think you are echoing what another commenter said about different feminisms, that they all work together and can we really separate them?

  7. if I want to apply a feminist theory on studying gender in the holocaust, what will it be ? Thank u in advance for any help as I am doing my master thesis on this subject

  8. Thank u so much ❤ I liked your article , it did help me a lot . It is organized and rich. I just wanted to know if there were a feminist critical theory I could apply on the importance of studying the feminine identity in the Holocaust and how women had to suffer because of that at the hands of the Nazis ? I will ask my advisor but I want to take your worthy opinion first

    1. You might look at feminist standpoint theory, especially if you have the first-person accounts of women from that time, like diaries or interviews.

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