Founding Fathers and Foundling Daughters

By Mary Montaut

The woman (at the Women’s Caucus table) repeatedly stated that although they had complaints, the Association for Humanistic Psychology was nicer to women than other organizations and that as women we should be very grateful.

Pat Webbink, “Therapist Turned Women” in The Radical Therapist, 1974 (Penguin Books).

Nearly twenty years ago Pat Webbink walked out of AHP and joined the Women’s Movement. The Personal was the Political and feminism would sort out women’s personal problems where psychotherapy, that male-dom­inated system, had failed. She was not alone. Four years earlier in a “Letter to Her Psychiatrist” Nadine Miller wrote, “You think I am running away from my problems. Well, God damn it, I am tired of thinking it is my prob­lem, rather than a political problem.” (This article is also included in The Radical Therapist already mentioned). The theories and practice of psycho­therapy had “political” content just like all the other aspects of our lives under patriarchy. We could question it. We suddenly became free to laugh at “penis envy” and to pity the female followers of Freud who had struggled to make sense of it:

“It is indisputable that penis envy does essentially condition the forms in which the castration complex manifests itself in women … (but) penis envy by no means precludes a deep and wholly womanly love attachment to the father…” (Karen Horney, Genesis of the Castration Complex in Women, 1922)

‘The dread of injury to her womanhood exercises a profound influence on the castration complex of the little girl, for it causes her to over-estimate the penis which she herself lacks; this exaggeration is then much more obvious than is the underlying anxiety about her own womanhood …” (Melanie Klein, The Early Stages of the Oedipus Complex, 1922)

However, when we deliberately sought out texts by women, we found that they were just as aware as we were ourselves of the “political”, that is to say, anti-female, bias in the work of the founding fathers. For example, Karen Horney saw right through Freud’s paper on female sexuality (1931) with no trouble:

“We must consider … certain fixed ideologies concerning the “nature” of woman; such as doctrines that woman is innately weak, emotional, enjoys dependence, is limited in capacities for independent work and autonomous thinking. One is tempted to include in this category the psychoanalytic belief that woman is masochistic by nature. It is fairly obvious that these ideologies function not only to reconcile women to their subordinate role by presenting it as an unalterable one, but also to plant the belief that it represents a fulfil­ment they crave, or an ideal for which it is commendable and desirable that they strive …” (Karen Horney, The Problem of Feminine Masochism, 1933).

Although Horney’s objections were acknowledged by Freud (who quotes her revision of his castration theory with puzzled approval at the end of his paper on female sexuality), they did not seem to affect his theorizing. It was some time after triumphantly reclaiming Horney’s work as compatible with our feminism that I began to wonder what it was that made her adhere to Freud’s camp, when she could so obviously see its misogyny. After all, his male followers found it easy enough to break away.

I found that it is not very difficult to detect similar bias against women in most of the theoretical writings of post-Freudian psychology. For instance, it still comes to me as a shock when Winnicott, who is so careful most of the time to refer to the baby in an ungendered way, suddenly lapses into “he” and goes on to describe the “unfortunate man” that the baby may grow into if mother doesn’t get things right. Even more surprising, because he repudiates the Freudian idea about castration so completely, is the sudden eruption in Grof’s work of strangely hostile references like this one from Beyond the Brain (1985):

“During birth female genitals have killed or almost killed a number of children.”

No one can dispute that babies can die at birth, but the phrase “killed” seems to me a bit more than that. In both Winnicott’s and Grof’s work, this vivid form of expression is plainly intended to show the putative feelings of the child. But I would ask if there is any equivalent shock of bias in reading these works if you are male? However, there is no need to be so subtle about it: both Perls and Rogers, for example, make no bones about calling both client and therapist “he” much of the time.

Put simply, it would seem that a woman reading these theoretical works which are, after all, basic training texts for psychotherapists has either to put her gender to one side (pretend she is male) and ignore the unconscious expressions of bias against her sex which crop up now and then, or else to repudiate them as Pat Webbink and Nadine Miller chose to do.

Now perhaps it might seem that the logical outcome would be for women to get out of psychotherapy, but the reverse is in fact true. The profession has always had more female than male clients. It has presently considerably more female than male trainees. And humanistic psychotherapy at any rate seems to have more female than male practitioners, judging from current lists. The trend is still increasing. Unless one reverts to the ludicrous theory of “natural” feminine masochism (which I trust is disposed of sufficiently by Horney’s neat analysis quoted above), one would have to consider the possibility that, somehow, the profession is getting it right for women. On this hopeful assumption I have some suggestions to make.

First of all, I don’t believe the patronizing explanation given recently in an article in a Sunday paper that “caring” is what women are good at doing, so they “naturally” wish to become psychotherapists. This could only be the view of a layman. Even the most rudimentary training for psychotherapists includes sufficient personal work to clear up the projection involved in such “caring for others”. Besides, the explanation is illogical because, since women are cast in “caring” roles throughout society, they hardly need to take expensive professional training to satisfy that particular urge.

It is odd and interesting that the theoretical writing I have been quibbling about, though written largely by men or, in some cases, by women struggling with men’s ideas, is nonetheless largely based on observation of women. Freud’s practice, for example, consisted mostly of wealthy Viennese women. Though he observed them through the thick lens of his masculine prejudices about women, it seems to me that in some wonderfully ironic way, he did see and describe some realities. He did understand that civilization was driving them mad, that they were sexual beings, that they had to hate him as much as he feared he might hate them. He could see their “unconscious” desires and motivations, though so hilariously blind to his own. His bias against women is so undisguised, so blatant, that it is easy to allow for when I read him. It doesn’t seem so very difficult to sift out the useful bits and ignore the nonsense. (Perhaps it was a similar lack of awe that enabled Karen Horney, Helene Deutsch and his other female colleagues to stay around.)

Strangely enough, I find it more difficult to sift out recent theoretical writings by men because they seek so earnestly to repudiate the charge of sexism. Still, as I suggested earlier, despite the carefully-phrased “he or she”, “the child”, “the person”, the odd phrase betrays the masculine point of view. I hope it is clear that I have no objection to this, indeed it is a relief to find visible signs that the texts are not written by neuters. The pretence of a neutral stance seems to me to belong to the phoney objectivity associated with academic, rather than practical, discourses. When Grof’s “unconscious” dread of women’s genitals makes him able to call them killers, I breathe a sigh of relief. I know where he stands and where I stand. And I would be the first to admit that it is Old Father Freud who has alerted me to such parapraxes (The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, 1901).

It seems to me that the damaging potential of the theory derives solely from an illusion we might cherish that it is without gender bias. Perhaps it was the loss of that illusion which made Pat Webbink so angry that she walked out of AHP. I wonder if the angry “backlash” against feminism which is currently inspiring some men’s groups arises similarly from the loss of the illusion that feminist theory could provide men with objective truths? The anger of the Women’s Movement against Freud et al has provided the energy for some startlingly effective therapy such as Susie Orbach’s work, and the brilliant new theories which are to be found in the work of, for example, Chodorow and Dinnerstein or Alice Miller.

I once walked a group of schoolchildren right off a map. In retrospect I think I may have held the damned thing the wrong way round so that I would be able to read the writing, but in any case we ended up way off its left hand edge. At that point, there was nothing to do but go by the landscape. And, of course, there were plenty of landmarks we could recognize, and we all knew that the sun would set somewhere in the west and we managed to get back to base in time for dinner. There was nothing wrong with the map – later I could see quite clearly where I had gone wrong – but the map wasn’t the territory. And it wasn’t the way I would have drawn it.