Richard Wollheim (‘Psychoanalysis and Feminism’, nlr 93) argues for a biological interpretation of Freud’s account of sexual development. As a group of feminists concerned with the theoretical elaboration of unconscious sexual formations, we wish to argue that Wollheim’s view is both idealist and reactionary in its implications for feminist practice: biology constitutes neither a sufficient nor an adequate basis for a future materialist interpretation of Freud. Wollheim admonishes Juliet Mitchell for her ‘failures of perception’, but it is Wollheim who invites us to see the issues ‘not as they themselves require’. We shall demonstrate the way in which he does this; first, however, let us look at Wollheim’s arguments as he presents them.

The value of Freud’s account for Wollheim is that he can acquire from it a theory of the bodily ego and therefore a developmental norm. According to Wollheim, the growth of the ego and the growth of its accompaniment, the ego concept, are structured within the bodily organism, and will reflect the dominant organization of the libido (the oral, anal, phallic and genital phases) at each stage of maturation. None of these stages are gender specific; in the development of the bodily ego along the lines of sexual maturation its objects and its aims remain the same for boys and girls.

Having outlined a theory of the development of the ego, and having attributed that theory to Freud, Wollheim argues that Freud’s account of the Oedipal stage is not of a piece with the theory of ego which confines itself to biology and its internal representatives: the output of the theory of bodily ego is not the correct input to a theory of the Oedipal stage.

Wollheim argues that Freud’s theory of ego development as it stands is an inadequate basis upon which to erect a theory of feminine sexual development, since with its insistence on phallic monism, it ‘seems to underestimate the early role of the vagina’. He sketches out some features of an alternative theory that he considers would remain compatible with the concept of the bodily ego. His revision calls for a greater emphasis on the processes of projection, introjection and identification in accounting for sexual development and differentiation.

Wollheim considers that the roots of sexual discrimination are to be found in the relations between parts of an individual’s sexuality (‘mankind’s essential bisexuality’), and not in the relations between the sexes. In this way, he implicitly posits a pre-given aversion to the other sexes’ ‘natural’ characteristics, and a projection of this aversion onto social forms (‘what women have suffered from over the centuries is man’s inability to tolerate the feminine side of his nature’).