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  • Feminism and Its Discontents: A Century of Struggle with Psychoanalysis
  • Judith M. Hughes
Feminism and Its Discontents: A Century of Struggle with Psychoanalysis. By Mary Jo Buhle (Cambridge Mass., Harvard University Press, 1998) 432 pp. $35.00

This must have been a difficult book to write. It is based, as Buhle notes, “on the premise that feminism and psychoanalysis developed dialogically, that is, in continuous conversation with each other.” Buhle’s aim is to provide a record of that conversation (3). But psychoanalysis and feminism are not the same type of enterprise: Psychoanalysis is an intellectual/scientific discipline embracing assorted professional organizations, with Sigmund Freud’s work as a fixed point of departure; feminism is a political movement, without central institutions or canonical texts. How, then, to choose the interlocutors? Since the story that Buhle tells is about American psychoanalysis and American feminism, it would have been relatively easy to draw up a roster on the psychoanalytic side that most readers would have found acceptable, or at least unobjectionable. The problem of selection on the feminist side loomed larger—and Buhle [End Page 152] does not address it. Since, to her, neither psychoanalysis nor feminism has been monolithic, she feels free to ignore the disparity between them.

A second disparity—between two aims of the book—compounds the difficulty occasioned by the first. On the one hand, Buhle intends to record the conversation between psychoanalysis and feminism; on the other, she plans to offer a narrative that fastens on a “seemingly . . . prosaic rivalry . . . in modern feminism, the conflict between motherhood and careers,” while charting “the increasing determination of Freud’s successors to tighten the nexus between the spheres of production and reproduction” (20). This narrative thread, which has an intrinsic appeal, is frequently lost. Nowhere is its disappearance more telling than in the last chapter, which details the impact of French feminist theorizing on American literary academics. Chronologically, Buhle is obliged to end at this point, but she finds herself on the defensive in her final pages, trying to rescue the social reality of gender from the onslaught of French verbiage.

Although Buhle tries to suggest that feminism influenced psychoanalysis, by and large the influence—or better, the appropriation—ran the other way. Psychoanalysis in the United States constituted less a body of thought than a climate of opinion. In the early years of the century, it was bound to inform discussions of female sexuality; subsequently it was bound to pervade debates about gender differences. In short, it lay ready at hand for feminists—and anti-feminists—to exploit. Buhle has an arresting chapter that delineates how psychoanalytic thinking figured in mid-century attacks on “Momism.” (She is mistaken in claiming that Heinz Hartmann and his co-workers were instrumental in bringing the mother-child relationship to the fore.) Writing about the second half of the century, she discerns more and more echoes of themes already sounded in the first. The moral of her tale echoes George Santayana’s maxim that those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat it.

For Buhle, remembering the past of feminism cannot be separated from remembering the past of psychoanalysis. They have too much in common to be disentangled from one another:

The odd couple of the century cannot either resolve or abandon the difficulty inherent in reconciling biological and social factors in their theories of causation. They also share a related near-impossibility of defining “woman” as distinct from “man” while making a claim for their common humanity. For these reasons, “biology versus culture” and “equality versus difference” play themselves out in a variety of often surprising ways. Yet, despite all possible combinations and permutations, psychoanalysts and feminists together advanced the modernists’ project of selfhood.


Not all feminists would recognize this project as their own. I, for one, would.

Judith M. Hughes
University of California,, San Diego

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pp. 152-153
Launched on MUSE
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