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Canadian Review of American Studies 1992 Special Issue, Part II Domestic Discontents: Feminist Reevaluations of Psychiatry, Women, and the Family Mina Carson 171 In 1972, Phyllis Chesler framed an indictment of American psychiatrists: "They are more willingto pity women than to respect them; more comfortable with unhappy women than with angrywomen" (246). She offered this judgment in her book Women and Madness (1972), an angry and pathbreaking reassessment of women's relation to the psychological "helping professions." Chesler invoked the fates of women, some famous (Zelda Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath), some not so famous (Elizabeth Packard, Ellen West), who had sought or been forced to seek psychologicalassessment and treatment, and who, in the course of "treatment," had been physically, emotionally, and/or sexually abused within interlocking "mental health" systems powered by male-determined constructions of female roles and capacities. When women came up against psychiatry, Chesler asserted, women lost. A few years after Chesler's eloquent salvo, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English published For Her Own Good (1979, see esp. ch. 6 and 7), a book that also gave special attention to psychiatry's career as a premier agent of social disciplinefor women, particularly after World War II. These authors went further, however, suggesting that psychological theory and practicewere only the most recent, though in some waysthe most insidious, sources of ex cathedra pronouncements concerning women's nature and behaviours. Most students of American culture now understand that since the birth of the Republic, a series of prescriptive literatures have designated 172 Canadian Review of American Studies women the keepers of the civic and psychic health of their families and communities. From Linda Kerber's (1980) "republican motherhood'' to Betty Friedan's (1963) "feminine mystique," scholars and writers have reperiodized the nation's history in terms of the shifting context of women's roles and responsibilities, real and symbolic.1 Ehrenreich and Englishts conclusions (1979)jibed with the consensus in this emerging literature: that in the guise of offering women a critical role in shaping American culture, the "experts"were using new language to confine American women to variants of older roles. As educators, pundits, and psychological professionals ostensibly "empowered" women by placing them at the centre of the family, they disempowered women inside the family as well as beyond its boundaries . Of course the most obvious reason for this outcome is that the family has never been a centre of power in American society, except possibly among the upper classes in a few times and places. Women's position at the centre of American families has reinforced their marginalization in American society. (By the same token, families are not power centres in American society because they have been relegated to female custodianship.) Another reason, arising from more insidious patterns of power relations, is that women's nominal authority in the family is created and sustained by men, who have long held, in shifting forms, the power and authority to shape and define American families. Nowhere are the paradoxes of American women's postwar roles clearer than in the literatures of psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and psychotherapy. And, not surprisingly, given the interdependence of ideas of "women" and "family" in American society and many others, no part of those literatures brings these issues into finer focus than the foundational writings of the family therapy movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Through these accounts of casework, research, and theory-building, we can track the construction and the beginnings of a deconstruction of gender role ideals from the 1940s to the present. The theoretical origins of family therapy are most easily found in Freud's reformulation of the Oedipus myth. Psychoanalysis, though a hermetic, oneto -one endeavour, is based on what Freud finally decided was an interior family drama, in which the child projects her- or himself into her or his par- Mina Carson I 173 ents' sexual and romantic lives. And, though marriage counseling as a couple-centred project was first attempted in Europe and the United States inthe 1920sand 1930s,most students of familytherapy today learn that the immediate clinical and theoretical origins of their craft may be found in the work of a handful of clinicians durin~ and after World War II...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 171-192
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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