Ichabod's Kin
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Women and Freud

Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, smok...

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It’s a marvel that the “second wave” of a movement to awaken and empower women in America was called “feminism” given that, at the time, to be “feminine” meant quite the opposite.

The month of March, annually, is one of attention to women’s place, role and history. The second wave mentioned began in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when I had the good fortune to gain valuable contacts with the movement and to interview various feminists, including Gloria Steinem, Kate Millett and Betty Friedan.

Despite their shrill reputations, both Steinem and especially Millett were quite soft-spoken: concerned that my recorder might not pick up the latter’s voice I wrote the entire interview furiously in longhand. The interview with Friedan was a disaster: she was already controversial for her insistence that lesbian issues be excluded from the feminist agenda, and I made the only such mistake I would ever make again, and too soon broached the matter. She stood abruptly and without further comment left the interview.

Today we are amid the “third wave,” but the climate is much different. The niece of Phyllis Schlafly has co-authored a book with her aunt claiming that the feminist movement was the worst thing to happen to women. Some of their assertions however are as extreme as certain ones by the Second Wave leaders.

One was the denigration of Sigmund Freud. Steinem later had a role in the furious objection to a proposed exhibit on the life and work of Freud that was to be held at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

Their assessment of his legacy was a bit of a stretch and overlooked his contribution, though flawed, to women as well as the rest of society. But certain feminist leaders found an effective punchline with which to smear Freud beyond recognition: his (in)famous quote, “…my god, what do women want?” Millett went so far as to throw him into the cauldron with Nazism and the USSR, as if he had written the ideologies for them.

It wasn’t enough that his comment was but an aside in a letter to one of his many intellectual women friends, who were diverse and extraordinary, and his relations with them no more complex than with men like Carl Jung.

Among them was Helene Deutsch, who came to make her own significant contribution to the analysis of the feminine, and whose life was incredibly identical to those who came to be known as the Second Wave of the movement: rebellion against her mother; family repression as well as sexual seduction by her brother; a struggle for independence and education (opposed by her father followed by success against daunting odds); early pregnancy and abortion when such were shameful; and ambivalence toward motherhood. And that’s a short list.

But those who are lionized come often to be eaten by lions, and such was the fate suffered by Deutsch, among whose predators were other women. Freud, who had opened doors to the unconscious for women as well as men, fell from grace as well. Friedan as the first to blame him when World War II ended and men returned to reclaim jobs temporarily and ably filled by the other sex.

In time, Karen Horney and Melanie Klein challenged Freud but continued to hold him with great respect. Curiously, Jung never became a target as did Freud, though Jung’s archetypal Mother had very unflattering connotations is his model of the psyche, but one useful to analysts like Marion Woodman. Connie Zweig also said that such explorations require a new relation to the “Father World” comprising “personal fathers, husbands and lovers, sons and brothers…” as a key to spiritual growth in the feminine ego; to which Woodman added that women must seek “to relate to the Father archetyupe without identifying with it.

Marie Bonaparte, to whom Freud wrote the infamous line, was not offended by the reference, perhaps because, like the Jungian, Robert Johnson, she may have recognized that it harkened from an Arthurian tale in which the future king, on pain of death, was obliged to ascertain the answer to what women wanted.

The legend features a repugnant hag who demanded marriage to Arthur’s good friend, Gawain, which the studly and honorable knight considered not too much to ask of a buddy. He allowed the  woman to choose for herself in matters that affected Gawain himself, which resulted in her transformation into a stunning beauty–the reward for his giving her respect and control over her own life.

This was a lesson not only to that older society, which went largely unheeded, but to ours, if we will only embrace it.

As Johnson concluded: if men feel that feminism is the ugly side of women, it is because they have been driven there, and the magic of transformation, fashioned from respect, dignity, choice and freedom will restore beauty of spirit to both men and women.

2 Responses to “Women and Freud”

  1. Had not thought about Phyllis for a bit. What a privilege I have had living in the same town as Phyllis and Rush! We think so much alike–NOT!

  2. “As Johnson concluded: if men feel that feminism is the ugly side of women, it is because they have been driven there, and the magic of transformation, fashioned from respect, dignity, choice and freedom will restore beauty of spirit to both men and women.”

    I somewhat am surprised that you did not throw “justice”, to say nothing of “equity, and compassion”, in there. After all, equal rights for women *is* a justice issue.


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