In the wild zone: Psychoanalytic Feminism of Juliet Mitchell

This issue of Samyukta gives a profile of Juliet Mitchell in its regular series on major feminists.

I think there seems overwhelming justification for the charge that the many different psychotherapeutic practices, including those that by the formal definition are within psychoanalysis, have done much to re-adapt discontented women to a conservative feminine status-quo, to an inferiorised psychology and to a contentment with serving and servicing men and children. Furthermore the tendency to judge men and women in terms of conventionalised psychologies and punish them accordingly is on the increase. …Though obviously it cannot be entirely dissociated, on the whole this has nothing to do with Freud, or psychoanalysis, only with its grotesque perversion for punitive or ideological purposes. (Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism, 299-300)

Radical feminism found its culmination in the 1970s, especially the first few years. The suppression of the passionate female sexuality was identified in The female Eunuch; the power relations of biological determinism was programmed in Sexual Politics; the restriction of possibilities of all kinds for women by cultural norms was well explained in Patriarchal Attitudes; and in The Dialectic of Sex there was the social image of modern female all set for a new revolution. Among these ideological manipulations and fundamental revisions, all the feminists obviously and militantly shared one thing – a hearty refutation of Freud’s psychoanalysed female. Then in 1974 came Psychoanalysis and Feminism. The British intellectual feminist Juliet Mitchell, the author, claimed in her introduction to the book that the two partners of the book are Freud’s theory and women’s liberation movement.

“If advocacy of Freud is the theme of this book, the conversation is at all times with the many aspects of feminism”. The New York Review of Books proclaimed it to be “a brave and important book”, and predicted that its influence would not be confined to the feminists. However, the radical reassessment of Freudian psychoanalysis and the resulting ideological shift that took place in feminism made it to add thoughtfully that Mitchell had “risked accusations of apostasy from her fellow feminists”, and that “her book not only challenges orthodox feminism, however, it defies the conventions of social thought in the English speaking countries… .”

Juliet Mitchell, born in New Zealand in 1940, came to England with her family at the age of four and became an English citizen. She read English at Oxford for her post-graduation and worked as a lecturer at the Universities of Leeds (1962-3) and Reading (1965-70). By 1971, she was widely known as a committed social feminist. Mitchell is now working at the Jesus College, University of Cambridge.

Her first books, Women: The Longest Revolution (1966), and Woman’s Estate (1972) initiated an unprecedented examination of women’s experience from different aspects of society and culture. In Woman’s Estate especially, gender was legitimised as a focus of enquiry and the female experience, spread over social, economic and political spheres of oppression was put under serious research. The peculiarity of the work was Mitchell’s analysis of women’s liberation movement in Marxist terms, relating to the civic and social protests of 1960s. The book was virtually a blue print for identifying women’s studies as an interdisciplinary area of academic interest. Mitchell was considered an intellectual feminist theorist, who could pinpoint female experience as the fulcrum of social and cultural norms. But soon she was disillusioned with the so-called socio-cultural analysis of feminism, and felt compelled to re-evaluate the fundamental patriarchal structures of women’s oppression from a new and different angle. Perhaps Kate Millet’s statement, which she shared with Friedan, Figes, and Firestone, that Freud had seen the social explanation of feminine oppression staring him in the face, might have directed Mitchell’s highly sensitive analysis of “the Unconscious”. “It is Freud that most people read and know about”, and “Freudian psychoanalysis has been the most serious threat of all to women becoming human beings” (Figes 147-8). Anyhow Psychoanalysis and Feminism became at once a trend-breaker and a trend-setter and as the New York Review had foreseen, totally eclipsed all other ideological approaches to feminism than psychoanalysis.

Feminist theorists, prior to Mitchell, either misconstrued or repudiated Freud. Psychoanalysis and feminism were considered strange bedfellows, since “psychoanalysis interprets all consciousness of the world, feminism seeks to change it” (Sayers 10). Traditionally psychoanalysis had functioned to support normative practices and agencies rather than to change them in favour of the feminist agenda of the liberated self. It assigned all rationality, intellectual capacity and urge towards autonomy to the male, and, emotionality, intuition, and urge towards connection to the female, thus validating both the traditional stereotypes and the dominant (patriarchal) social order. For feminism in particular, it had served to reinforce myths of femininity and the naturalness of mothering. As Freudian psychoanalytic theory would have it, a woman’s different characteristics were produced as a consequence of her innate narcissism or masochism. Her little sense of justice, less capacity for sublimating instincts, weak social interests and similar “lacks” were related to “the predominance of envy (to men) in her mental life” (Freud, S.E. Vol. xxii, 134). The general feeling was that Freud’s psychoanalysis claimed women to be inferior, as according to him they could achieve true femininity only as wives and mothers. So psychoanalysis was viewed as a justification for the status quo, bourgeois and patriarchal, and for feminists, Freud himself in his own person exemplified these qualities. No wonder he became their target number one as a male chauvinist, whose so called “scientific propaganda” (like “anatomy is destiny”) had been responsible for damning a generation of emancipated women to the passivity of second sex. Feminists like Melanie Klein, Karen Horney, Helen Deutsch and the French liberation group calling itself “Psychoanalyse et Politique” spoke in favour of feminine psychology, but could not do much in abating the fury of the second wave of feminists who have had the decade of the “the psychological sell” (title of Greer’s chapter on Freud in The Female Eunuch). Greer herself told in a television interview about the title of the book that it was not she, but Freud, who said that women were castrated, hence eunuchs, and that the aim of The Female Eunuch was to restore to women their uncastrated identity. An actual description in an American Women’s Liberation Diary for 1971 depicted Freud with a dart board superimposed on his head and a bull’s-eye dart just beneath his left eye, with the label “Misogynist (Male) III”!

It is interesting to notice that the feminists who took Freud to task had not been very keen on taking a defensive stand against later psychoanalysts who either supported or extended Freud’s postulates of infantile sexuality, psycho- sexual development and sexual motivation. Those who negated his postulate of the psychic apparatus, which is designed to discharge the biological impulses of the Id, got unstinted support. For example, Jung and Adler proposed only modifications to Freud’s concept of sexual energy. They would go for some other striving -Jung for collective unconscious and Adler for the individual’s innate drive for superiority than the sexual drive. In 1930s Anna Freud, Hartmann, Erickson and others complemented Freud’s hypothesis of Id motivation with a theory of Ego motivation. But Lacan’s theory of Ego psychology rewrote the Freudian three-fold psychic structure as imaginary, symbolic, and real. For him, Unconscious was not “a secret psychic space”, but a play of operational signifieds. But none of them was “the enemy” that freud undoubtedly was for the feminists. Mitchell’s affirmation of Freudian psychoanalysis as the ideological basis for female oppression came out when Freud was badly in need of a positive reassessment.

The book is divided into two important parts. Part I, titled “Psychoanalysis and Femininity” discusses in detail Freud’s psychoanalysis and his main concepts of feminine sexuality. This is to prove that a rejection of psychoanalysis and Freudian concepts of femininity and sexuality will be fatal to feminism. “However it may have been used [by popularised Freudianism], psychoanalysis is not a recommendation for a patriarchal society, but an analysis of one. If we are interested in understanding and challenging the oppression of women, we cannot afford to neglect it” (Introduction to Psychoanalysis and Feminism). Mitchell also suggests that a characteristic of most attacks on Freud’s work is that, though the criticism seems to be over specific issues, what is really being rejected is the whole intellectual framework of psychoanalysis. Not even the most hostile critic of Freud will hesitate to pay a tribute to his discovery of the theories of infantile sexuality and adult sexuality. To say thatFreud is the father of psychoanalysis is as good as saying that he is the discoverer of the Unconscious. Although we can have a subjective knowledge of our own unconscious mental life, it is only in its random expressions like dreams, memories, slips of tongue etc. that we recognise it. But Freud, by systematising these manifestations offered objective knowledge about the Unconscious. It is within the understanding of the Unconscious that Freud’s postulates on femininity and female sexuality functions. Mitchell makes it clear that the two fundamental theories of Freudian femininity are thus firstly, the nature of unconscious mental life of women and the particular laws that govern its behavior, and secondly, the meaning of sexuality in human life. Only in the context of these two basic propositions do his theories on the psychological differences between men and women make sense.

Freud’s hypothesis on infantile sexuality is equally important. Psychic energy is the motivational source of both the mind and the behaviour. Its divergent drives are identified in Eros and Thanatos. Psychic energy operated within a personality system composed of Id, Ego and Super ego. During the psycho-sexual developmental phases of the child- oral, anal, phallic, latent and genital- a certain amount of libido is left behind or fixated at each stage and the rest advances to the next stage. If gratification at a particular stage is excessive or minimal, it results in personality traits and psychological vulnerability. Also, fixation at various stages can create conflicts, anxiety reactions and complexes. Here again, the infantile sexuality of the girl is different from that of the boy. It is not until puberty that the sharp distinction between the masculine and the feminine is established. From that time on, this contrast has a more decisive influence than any other, in the shaping of a person’s life. According to Freud, the development of the inhibitions of sexuality like shame, disgust, pity etc. takes place in little girls earlier than in boys; similarly, the tendency to sexual repression seems to be greater in girls. And there is his assumption that draws the highest degree of offended opposition from feminists:

So far there has been no question of the Oedipus complex, nor has it up to this point played any part. But now the girl’s libido slips into a new position along the line -there is no other way of putting it- of the equation ‘Penis-child’. She gives up her wish for a penis and puts in place of it a wish for a child; and with that purpose in view she takes her father as love-object. Her mother becomes the object of her jealousy. The girl has turned into a little woman. (Freud, S.E.Vol xix, 256)

Mitchell analyses each and every postulate of Freud on infantile sexuality in chapters like “Pre-Oedipal sexuality”, “The Castration Complex and Penis- Envy”, and “Faeces-Penis-Baby”. Freudian woman’s sexuality is analysed in “Sexuality”, “Narcissism”, “Masculinity, Femininity and Bisexuality”, and “The Clitoris and the Vagina”. The first chapter discusses the inevitable relationship between psychoanalysis and the Unconscious. In the first part of the book, Mitchell also gives illustrations as to how the feminist critics of Freud have extrapolated his ideas about sexuality from their context, while it is only in its context that these concepts do have their meaning.

Yet it is only this context that gives meaning to such notorious concepts as say, ‘Penis-Envy’-without their context such notions certainly become either laughable or ideologically dangerous. …Thus in ‘Penis-Envy’, we are talking not about an anatomical organ, but about the ideas of it that people hold and live by within the general culture, the order of human society. It is this last factor that also prescribes the reference point of psychoanalysis (Introduction).

The second part of the book contains two sections: “Radical Psychotherapy and Freud” and “Feminism and Freud”. In the first section, Mitchell considers the alternative radical psychologies developed by Wilhelm Reich and R.D. Laing. She analyses why feminism has embraced both their theories of the claustrophobic nuclear family and the schizophrenic scapegoated woman. If Freud’s interpretations of femininity and patriarchy can be understood only in the light of his whole science of psychoanalysis, with Reich and Laing it is the other way-their insights are to be freed from their political ideology and radical humanism. Both Reich and Laing bequeathed to the women’s movement a vocabulary of protest. But counter-posed to Freud, their theories have no intrinsic merit to offer, despite political radicalism. Reich was a pioneer of sexual politics (the term is his), and offered a theoretical analysis of sexuality as a particular area of oppression of prime significance for feminism. It appeared to be crucial for libertarian socialist politics and cultural revolutionaries. But there is a “stunning contemporaneity” present throughout The Sexual Revolution, and he himself is confused over his attitude to woman’s sexuality. In his eagerness to reject Freud he feels that there is basically no difference in the sexual patterns of men and women. Mitchell specially questions his findings, such as, a great majority of men and an overwhelming percentage of women rarely attained sexual satisfaction. She takes a footnote from Reich Speaks of Freud and puts it as the introductory remark on Reich himself: “What I did was to put my eagle’s egg in the nest of chicken’s eggs. Then I took it out and gave it its own nest”(202). On the other hand, Laing’s wish for a “new science of persons” seemed to have sprung from his dissatisfaction of psychoanalysis and the inspiration he received from the disciplines of sociology and phenomenology. He is the chief spokesman of the radical counter-ideology of “personalism”, i.e., the restoration of whole undivided selves. In the Divided Self, he proposes two projects for his study of human beings: the analysis of a person as person, and an analysis of interpersonal relationships. Mitchell analyses these two projects and comes to the conclusion that Laing has no satisfactory explanation for the primary question what a person is. He tries to weave experience and behaviour together to formulate a consistent theory, and at a very concrete level tries to find out whether psychosis, especially schizophrenia, is induced by definable type of social interaction. Laing has identified the family as the place in which the inferiorised psychology of femininity is produced. So Mitchell proves that Laing’s ideological influence on feminist movement is subject to critical assessment.

The latter section of the second part discusses radical feminism’s rejection of Freud and psychoanalysis. This is done in the most expansive manner, by taking up every objection, whether silly or serious, raised by eminent feminists against Freud and analysing each one of them thoroughly. Anti- Freudian arguments of Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Eva Figes, Germaine Greer, Shulamith Firestone, and Kate Millet are taken up, each in a separate chapter. Simone de Beauvoir set up a counter psychological philosophy to Freud’s, based on the “other” concept, in The Second Sex. She objected to Freud’s masculine biased model while describing the polymorphous sexuality of the child. According to her “the Freudian norm is the boy and the girl is only a deviation from it” (76). Mitchell points out that this has more to do with the values elicited than an original superiority in the male. Finding that Freud has failed to account for the high valuation placed on male sovereignty, de Beauvoir endeavours to make good his failure by placing the insights on psychoanalysis in a historical and philosophical context. Betty Friedan in Feminine Mystique condemned Freud’s theory of femininity and resorted to historicist explanation: that Freud’s discoveries were culture-bound, and that he could not escape the Victorian hysterical woman. What she has forgotten is that Freudian psychology with its emphasis on freedom from a repressive morality to achieve sexual fulfillment is part of the ideology of women’s emancipation (92). Eva Figes in Patriarchal Attitudes echoes Friedan, when she declares that “Freud’s whole theory of civilization is based on the narrow world he lived in” (140), and that “Freud was a child of his own times” (136). Mitchell effectively contradicts these arguments by placing Freud in current social and cultural context, and points out that Figes’ criticism is on the basis of Freud’s reactionary social and political cast of mind, not feminine psychology. Mitchell takes up Germaine Greer’s impassioned and even sarcastic comments like: “Freud is the father of psychoanalysis. It had no mother,” or something like “the best approach to Freud’s assumption about women is … that of psychoanalysing himself” (91), and reasons out in favour of Freudian sexuality. Shulamith Firestone, in The Dialectic of Sex considered “Freud’s genius was poetic rather than scientific, his ideas more valuable as metaphors than literal truths”(52). But Mitchell’s real tug of war is with Kate Millet, who has described Freud as “the strongest individual counter revolutionary force in the ideology of sexual politics”(178), and who is the only feminist theorist to make a thorough and detailed study of his theories. According to her psychoanalysis is a form of biological essentialism, i.e., a theory that reduces all behaviour to inborn sexual characteristics. Her distaste for Freudian penis-envy, female narcissism, masochism and castration complex makes her say that “the subjectivity in which, all those events are cast tends to be Freud’s own, or that of a strong masculine bias, even of a rather gross male supremacist bias” (182). Millet negates the very jumping-off point of Freud, namely the psychical reality and substitutes it with social reality, just as, she says, she will substitute real rape for fantasied castration. She declares boldly that Freud invented psychoanalysis precisely so as to avoid acknowledging social reality. Her empirical spirit, running riot through Sexual Politics denies the Unconscious or any other attribute of the mind except that of rationality. Her conclusion is that “Freud appears to have made a major and rather foolish confusion between biology and culture, anatomy and status” (187). Mitchell concludes her arguments thus: “This feminist belief in the exclusive presence of the reality-principle is wish-fulfillment indeed. But, speaking seriously, this places everything Freud had to say about women in an entirely false context”(355).

That Mitchell had the last say in feminism versus psychoanalysis changed the ideological focus of feminism considerably. In addition to the above-mentioned chapters, Mitchell also takes up the practice of psychoanalysis in modern times and its historical fluctuations. There is a separate section called “Conclusion” with the subtitle “The Holy Family and Feminity”, where she takes up Lacan and juxtaposes him to Freud. In the chapter “Cultural Revolution”, she speaks of the real revolution initiated by working class women -which will be the general ideological change of feminism. “When the potentialities of the complexities of capitalism -both economic and ideological- are released by its over throw, new structures will gradually come to be represented in the Unconscious. It is the task of feminism to insist on their birth” (415). The book gives the idea that in the ideological and sexual fight of modern feminism, the only discourse that exists today on sexuality and the Unconscious is that of Freud and his psychoanalysis.

It will not be eulogy to say that Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism inaugurated a new direction for feminist studies and ideology-based theories. In her later works she only elaborated and burrowed deep into the intricacies of psychoanalytic feminism. The Rights and Wrongs of Women (Co-editor with Anne Oakley), What is Feminism, The Selected Melanie Klein, and Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the ‘ecole freudienne (with Jaqueline Rose), all show that this London-based practising psychoanalyst’s contribution to feminist theory is everlasting and not ephemeral.

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. 1948. London: Jonathan Cape, 1960.

Figes, Eva. Patriarchal Attitudes. London: Faber & Faber, 1970.

Firestone, Shulamith. The Dialectics of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. New York: Bantam Books, 1970.

Freud, Sigmund. Standard Edition. Vols. XIX and XXII. London: Hogarth, 1964.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. London: Penguin, 1965.

Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. 1971. New York: Bantam Books, 1972.

Laing, R.D. The Divided Self. 1960. London: Penguin, 1965.

Millet, Kate. Sexual Politics. New York: Double day, 1970.

Mitchell, Juliet. Psychoanalysis and Feminism. London: Penguin, 1974.

Reich, Wilhelm. The Sexual Revolution. 1936. New York: New Left Books, 1969.

Sayers, Janet. Sexual Contradictions: Psychology, Psychoanalysis and Feminism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986.

Teaches at the S.D.College, Alappuzha in Kerala. She is awaiting her doctoral degree. Is well versed in gender studies and feminist literary theory. Has published many research articles and is actively involved in the field of Women’s Studies. Her other areas of interest include translation.

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Teaches at the S.D.College, Alappuzha in Kerala. She is awaiting her doctoral degree. Is well versed in gender studies and feminist literary theory. Has published many research articles and is actively involved in the field of Women’s Studies. Her other areas of interest include translation.

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