Women's Studies 3050    Spring 2005    Powell and MacKay

Weeks 7-8    Psychoanalytic Feminism/ Gender and Cultural Feminism

Psychoanalytic Feminism

Psychoanalytic feminists believe that women's psyche is deeply affected by past experiences, thus shaping their future lives. Kate Millet attacked Freud in her influential second wave text Sexual Politics, and described psychoanalysis as irredeemablely patriarchal. Yet with the 1976 publication of Juliet Mitchell's Psychoanalysis and Feminism, some feminists have begun to reevaluate this position.

This perspective focuses on the differences in the ways of knowing, understanding, and perceiving the world created by the patriarchy. While proponents of this strand of feminism tend to reject biological determinism, psychoanalytic feminism is often considered essentialist, as it focuses on the unique female nature. This is to say that men and women are fundamentally different. Whether criticized as essentialist or not, this strand does not limit women to the sphere of work or of home. Rather, it emphasizes the emotional connections that evolve in all daily social interactions.

The Roots of Psychoanalytic Feminism: Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud's developmental theory on the maturation of boys and girls has been a topic of much concern to many feminists. According to Freud, females suffer an Oedipus Complex that is much different than the male counterpart. Freud believed that the difference in the manner which the Oedipus Complex is experienced is associated with a woman's lack of a penis and leaves her scarred with narcissistic traits, vanity, and shame. Due to this absence of a penis, women experience discontent for themselves and feel personally defective as human beings.

Although many have found this theory of maturation to be sexist in nature, some feminists believe Freud can be a highly useful tool when reinterpreted to reject these ideals known as biological determinism.

Rejecting Freud's Biological Determinism

Unlike Freud's belief that biology determines an individual's future, Alfred Adler and Horney believed that gender identity, behavior, and sexual orientation are a result of experiences and not biology. Even though these feminist psychologists believed the lack of a penis was influential on a young woman's life, it was simply because society empowers men and not because women felt themselves to be defective.


Kate Millett did not so much find difficulty in Freud himself, but rather neo-Freudian therapists who claimed male sexual aggression is rooted in biology, with the penis being the power-giving structure envied by women. These neo-Freudian therapists do not interpret women's ability to give birth as a powerful event. Rather, they see birth as an attempt to possess a substitute penis.


According to Alfred Adler, men and women are equal because both sexes are born helpless. Biology, in Adler's opinion, is not absolute destiny to one's life, but rather a way to shape oneself. While Freud believed that women were neurotic because of inadequacies caused by the lack of a penis, Adler believed patriarchy has suppressed women's attempts to overcome infantile helplessness.


Karen Horney believed female inferiority stems from social subordination and not castration. In her mind, women were symbolically castrated by the patriarchal society because it denied women the power a penis represents. Women in this system are forced into feminine roles and then forced to enjoy the subordinate position they have taken in society. According to Horney, as soon as women begin to see themselves as men's equals, society will no longer hold this power over them.


According to Shulamith Firestone, women's sexual passivity does not occur naturally, but rather because of their physical, emotional, and economic dependence on men. In order to abolish this oppression, Firestone advocated abolishing the nuclear family. This alteration in the structure of the family would proscribe male and female struggles for power and create equality across the sexes.


According to Nancy Chodorow, contemporary psychoanalytic feminism begins with its dismissal and the feminist challenge of it. Chodorow was active during the second wave of feminism. She began a study in the early eighties of surviving second-generation women analysts, women who had trained from 1920-1940 titled: Seventies Questions for Thirties Women: Gender and Generation in a Study of Early Women Psychoanalysts. It was a contribution to the growing literature in feminist methodology, reflecting upon gender consciousness among 70's feminists and their foremothers, addressing the cultural and psychological context in which different women ask questions.

Chodorow defines psychoanalysis as "the method and theory directed towards the investigation and understanding of how we develop and experience unconscious fantasies (that form psyche, self, identity) and how we construct and reconstruct our felt past in the present." She linked this at first with Marxist feminist thought during the early period of single cause feminism.

Gender Feminism

Gender feminism is a phrase coined by Christina Hoff Sommers in her book Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women (Simon & Schuster, 1994). Dr. Sommers was an associate professor of philosophy at Clark University. Sommers makes a crucial distinction early in this book between "equity feminism" and "gender feminism." As she explains it, equity feminism arises out of classical liberal beliefs that all people should enjoy simple equality under and before the law. In contrast, Dr. Sommers characterizes gender feminism as self-preoccupied, elitist, divisive, gynocentric and misandric (man-hating).

Many conservative theorists are critical of gender feminists. A reasoned critique is offered by Dale O'Leary writing in 2004 for L'Osservatore Romano, the newspaper of the Holy See.

Wendy McElroy offers a more alarmist warning that gender feminism is being imposed  by the U.S. on Africa (2003). McElroy has become a strident critic of contemporary feminism.

Cultural Feminism

Tong uses "gender feminism" as referring to "cultural feminism." Cultural feminism is a variety of feminism which emphasizes "essential" differences between men and women, based on biological differences in reproductive capacity. Cultural feminism attributes to those differences distinctive and superior virtues in women.  What women share, in this perspective, provides a basis for "sisterhood," or unity, solidarity and shared identity.

Many cultural feminists support their arguments by examining the behavior of women in both the distant past and the present. Jacob Bachoffen's (1815-87, Swiss legal historian and antiquarian )groundbreaking work on early matriarchal societies, Myth, Religion, and Mother Rights,  is often used as evidence that women were the earliest and most important members of society. In societies led by women, or "matriarchies," there are vastly different rules governing sexuality and marriage, property inheritance, and the distribution of power than those rules operative in societies led by men, or "patriarchies." When women have greater social control than men, less stringent social sanctions are imposed on female sexual activities and choice of partners. Illegitimacy is absent, and inheritance and descent are organized through female ancestors. Matriarchal societies are generally non-militaristic, with the dramatic exception of Amazons. Religion, arts, and crafts are organized around female symbols of fertility and anatomy.

Jane Addams (1860-1935), one of the founders of sociology and social work, was a cultural feminist.

Many researchers have embraced cultural feminism in an attempt to recover lost or marginalized women's works and traditions and create a culture that nurtures and supports women's experiences and values. Music, literature and other arts form a large part of this endeavor. Argues that existing institutions and the values they represent are male-dominated

In the 1970s as radical feminism died out as a movement, cultural feminism got rolling.  In fact, many of the same people moved from the former to the latter.  They carried the name "radical feminism" with them, and some cultural feminists use that name still.  (Jaggar and Rothenberg [Feminist Frameworks] don't even list cultural feminism as a framework separate from radical feminism.)  The difference between the two is quite striking: whereas radical feminism was a movement to transform society, cultural feminism retreated to vanguardism, working instead to build a women's culture.  Some of this effort has had some social benefit: rape crisis centers, for example; and of course many cultural feminists have been active in social issues (but as individuals, not as part of a movement).

As various 1960s movements for social change fell apart or got co-opted, folks got pessimistic about the very possibility of social change.  Many of then turned their attention to building alternatives, so that if they couldn't change the dominant society, they could avoid it as much as possible.  That, in a nutshell, is what the shift from radical feminism to cultural feminism was about.  These alternative-building efforts were accompanied with reasons explaining (perhaps justifying) the abandonment of working for social change.  Notions that women are "inherently kinder and gentler" are one of the foundations of cultural feminism, and remain a major part of it.  A similar concept held by some cultural feminists is that while various sex differences might not be biologically determined, they are still so thoroughly ingrained as to be intractable. http://www.uah.edu/woolf/feminism_kinds.htm

Readings: Tong: Chapter 4

A February 2005 interview with Carol Gilligan.

Project: Fairy Tale Analysis