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A Very Short Summary of
Psychoanalytic Feminist Theory and Practice

by Marian Staats 


1. Psychoanalytic feminists explain women’s oppression as rooted within psychic structures and reinforced by the continual repetition or reiteration of relational dynamics formed in infancy and childhood. Because of these deeply engrained patterns, psychoanalytic feminists wanted to alter the experiences of early childhood and family relations, as well as linguistic patterns, that produce and reinforce masculinity and femininity. Critical of Freudian and neo-Freudian notions of women as biologically, psychically, and morally inferior to men, psychoanalytic feminists addressed political and social factors affecting the development of male and female subjects. Like radical feminists, they saw as key issues sexual difference and women’s “otherness” in relation to men.


2. The two major schools of psychoanalytic feminism are Freudian and Lacanian. Freudian feminists, mostly Anglo-American, are more concerned with the production of male dominance and the development of gendered subjects in societies where women are responsible for mothering, whereas Lacanian feminists, mostly French, analyze links between gendered identity and language.


3. Early “feminist” appropriations of Freud in the work of Alfred Adler, Karen Horney and Clara Thompson emphasized the uniqueness of each human being over rigidly gendered developmental tracks and explained women’s psychic pathologies as generated and sustained by their inferior social status within patriarchy, rather than biologically determined lack. These theorists reinterpreted some women’s neuroses as creative attempts to address ongoing social subordination.


4. Later feminist appropriations of Freud critique the “traditional” family structure in which primarily women mother and assume other care-taking responsibilities. In The Reproduction of Mothering, Nancy Chodorow, for instance, argued that differential experiences in infancy orient girls and boys toward different developmental paths, with boys definitively separating from their mothers to identify with the father’s social power and girls developing a more symbiotic/continuous sense of self in relation to the mother. These relational dynamics that emphasize autonomy and separation for boys render men emotionally stunted and less capable of intimate personal relationships, but better prepared for public life and the world of work. Girls, who in contrast develop as subjects in closer relation with their mother, have more fluid psychic boundaries that facilitate a greater capacity for intimacy but leave them less prepared to negotiate the public sphere. Chodorow and other object relations theorists advocated dual parenting as one way to eliminate the characterological imbalances generated by gendered extremes, as children would be able to view both parents as individuals-in-relation, experience men and women as both self- and other-oriented, and view both sexes as inhabiting private and public domains.


5. Putting into practice Chodorow’s theoretical restructuring of the family would, of course, require considering some substantial changes in current policies and practices: reasonable parental leave, adequate compensation for part-time work, quality childcare staffed with both male and female caretakers, and early/elementary education with both male and female teachers.


6. Psychoanalytic feminists in the Lacanian mode privileged the analysis of self-construction through discourse over the biological and psychosocial implications of parenting, arguing that, in order to alter gender relations, we need to change language. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the phallus is symbolic of the child’s entry into language and culture under “The Law of the Father,” and Lacanian feminists wanted to interrogate and resist oppressive constructions of gender and sexuality encoded in language.


7. One group of French Lacanian feminists – including Luce Irigarary, Helene Cixous and Catherine Clement – is known for their project of “ecriture feminine,” an attempt to write from or to discursively embody the position of woman in order to challenge women’s positioning in phallogocentric culture. These writers argued that women needed to forego neutral, scientific masculine language and embrace a rebellious creativity based in subjective experience of the body and the feminine. In this they attempted to realize a female/feminine sex/subject outside of patriarchal definitions of woman. For Irigaray and Cixous, this involved celebrating women’s diffuse and autoerotic sensuality, in contrast to the linear, focused dynamic of “phallic” sex, as well as critiquing the symbolic order through parody.


8. Some classic psychoanalytic feminist texts:


Judith Butler, Gender Trouble

Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering

Helene Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”

Teresa DeLauretis, Alice Doesn’t and The Practice of Love

Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur

Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies

Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One

Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language and Tales of Love

Juliet Mitchell, Women’s Estate and Psychoanalysis and Feminism

Jacqueline Rose, Feminine Sexuality






Author: Hollace Graff
Oakton Community College
Updated: February 15, 2012