It would be no gross exaggeration to say that the contemporary intellectual case for the women’s movement is pretty much that which the movement inherited from the thought of the 18th-century Enlightenment. The modern age, it is true, has added typical features of style to its presentation—elements of rhetoric, of autobiography, of moral fervour—but it would be hard to argue that this has resulted in anything more powerful, more moving, more relevant to present-day concerns, than, say, John Stuart Mill’s essay The Subjection of Women, where the classical arguments are laid out with classical decorum. This singular failure of development may seem all the more remarkable when one reflects that precisely what 20th-century feminism lacks is what 20th-century thought has peculiarly to offer: a psychological dimension. But the situation is, notoriously, not so simple. We are not considering an omission that has only to be identified for it to be put right. On the contrary: if it is psychoanalytic theory that is looked to as that from which the necessary supplementation will come, it is hostility and not mere negligence that has first to be surmounted. For of recent
It is, however, one thing to think of a book in terms of a particular outcome that one might expect of or hope from it, and quite another thing for the book to have been written—that is, for it to have been conceived, constructed and executed—with this outcome as its explicit and overriding aim. Particularly when the issues are highly charged and readily distorted, a book can easily suffer, both as vehicle of truth and as machine for change, from setting out to ensure what it might otherwise be anticipated to achieve. In this review I shall contend that Pychoanalysis and Feminism lays itself open to criticism on both these scores just because of its excessive involvement with the current debate which presumably it ultimately wishes to transcend. This involvement leads Mitchell on one, and the more superficial, level into errors of tact, in that she spends time and energy on issues that do not deserve it; and on another and deeper level, it leads her into failures of perception, in that she sees the issues not as they themselves require but as the debate has set them up. Of course, I am fully aware that this last point is an oversimplification, since where the disagreements between us run deeper there are further influences at work reinforcing her in her views. In setting out the different criticisms that I have of Psychoanalysis and Feminism I shall try as best I can to indicate the measure of disagreement between us as I see it. Another point on which I should like to say more but shall assume throughout is my admiration for the boldness and energy with which the book is written.
The first and most obvious consequence of the book’s excessive involvement with the current debate is its exaggerated length. Essentially Mitchell’s book consists of two parts. The first part, which is expository, treats of Freud’s general theory and then of his views on feminine psychology: thus linked on the assumption, surely correct, that the latter cannot be understood except in the context of the former. The second part, which is speculative, attempts to reconcile Freud’s views on feminine psychology with feminist aspirations. These two parts come to about 200 pages, but the book’s total is swollen to 435 pages by the insertion between these two parts of a long discussion, first, of Wilhelm Reich and R. D. Laing, and then of a number of contemporary feminist writers. This central section—which, it must be emphasized, is warranted solely on grounds of topicality, since Mitchell herself seems to find great difficulty in relating any of the figures here discussed either to Freud’s thinking or to her own speculation—unduly inflates the length of the book. But it also—and this is the second consequence—lowers its tone. Mitchell is fully aware that the feminist
Thirdly, it seems to me an unwarranted concession to contemporary styles of debate to include in a book of this nature the phrase ‘male chauvinism’ as a possible (though in point of fact rejected) explanation of Freud’s view of feminine psychology. For either this phrase finds its equivalent within psychoanalytic theory, in which case we should have it, or else the theory is treated as powerful enough to explain most human behaviour but not apparently errors internal to it.
So far there is no clear disagreement of principle between Mitchell and myself, but the precise point at which this changes is hard to record. It is hard to record because the further consequences of the book’s commitment to the current debate are extremely complex, and they can no longer be treated separately. They interrelate in various ways, and I shall begin by trying to enumerate them.
In the first place, by thinking always of Freud in the context of his critics, Mitchell has failed to grasp the nature, hence the explanatory force, of Freud’s view of feminine psychology. From this failure two errors flow. Having failed to grasp the nature of Freud’s view, Mitchell seriously over-estimates what the view is compatible with. Having failed to grasp the explanatory force of the view, she seriously underestimates what any alternative view would have to offer us to be acceptable. Secondly, by paying too little attention to the psychoanalytic critics of Freud, she tends to think that Freud’s view is all right as far as it goes. Thirdly, by paying too much attention to the non-psychoanalytic critics of Freud, she gets the idea that what is really wrong with Freud’s view is that no limit has been set to its application. By putting all this together she comes up with the ingenious suggestion that we should think of Freud’s view of feminine psychology as of application only to capitalist and pre-capitalist society: it presents ‘the psychology of women under patriarchy’. And this, it is suggested, is compatible with feminist aspirations since they are now free to be realized in postcapitalist society. And the objections that the revised theory—that is to say, Freud plus historical limits—runs the risk of being internally inconsistent and has only dubious explanatory force are not points that Mitchell is in a position to pick up.
To understand the nature of Freud’s view of feminine psychology one must understand how it is clearly integrated with his account of the development of the ego and his general conception of sexuality.