Psychology Constructs the Female
The Critique is Formulated
In 1968 Naomi Weisstein boldly declared that "psychology constructs the female." This was not a compliment. Hers was the opening salvo in a battle that pitted the accumulated wisdom of psychological experts against the growing number of young women who took up the banner of women's liberation.
Weisstein was a Harvard-trained experimental psychologist who decided to investigate the evidence used to support psychological theories of gender development and difference. Like other women who received academic and professional training in the late 1950s and early 1960s, she had been intensely frustrated by her own educational and professional experience in psychology. A graduate of Wellesley College, where, she recalled later, the all-female student body "retarded my discovery that women were supposed to be stupid and incompetent," Weisstein went on to study psychology at Harvard. Denied the use of equipment she needed for her doctoral research (because she might break it), she somehow managed to graduate first in her class in 1964. Prospective employers asked: "How can a little girl like you teach a great big class of men?" and "Who did the research for you?" Even in a booming academic market, Weisstein received no job offers. Disappointed and outraged, she found support, and a feasible explanation for her own experience, in the emergence of feminism. She became a founding member of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. An organized women's movement, she came to believe, was more likely to "change this man's world and this man's science" than were the empiricism and scientific reasoning she had cherished and nurtured for years.
Her 1968 manifesto combined a belief in women's equality with a thorough investigation of the psychological literature, including the work of Erik Erikson, Bruno Bettelheim, Joseph Rheingold, and others. What she discovered was that "psychology has nothing to say about what women are really like, what they need and what they want, essentially because psychology does not know." Because they relied on subjective assessment and not empirical evidence, Weisstein argued, the explanations personality theorists and clinicians offered for gender differences were not what they appeared to be. They falsely embraced the mantle of science when psychology was actually a repository for cultural myths about men and women. Sex differences were ideological, not scientific, constructions, propped up by "psychosexual incantation and biological ritual curses." Significantly, Weisstein remained an advocate for what "real" science could accomplish and pointed out that "psychologists must realize that it is they who are limiting discovery of human potential."
An authentically scientific psychology, in other words, could reveal the truth about gender, according to Weisstein, and would aid the
cause of sexual equality by subverting ossified notions of subordination and difference. In order to do so, it would have to cease its futile quest for inner traits and set its sights on social context, which was "the true signal which can predict behavior." After citing the famous experiments of Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, and other social psychological research directed at understanding conformity and obedience to authority, Weisstein noted that "it is obvious that a study of human behavior requires, first and foremost, a study of the social context within which people move, the expectations as to how they will behave, and the authority which tells them who they are and what they are supposed to do."
In the following years, a steady stream of feminist scholars and activists echoed Weisstein's accusation that psychological experts manufactured gender difference and created "ideological pollution" aimed at maintaining women's second-class status (fig. 18). One by one, they exposed the sexist expectations underlying patriarchal authority. Clinicians were often singled out for especially harsh rebuke. Pauline Bart, a sociologist who had written a dissertation about depression in middle-aged women and who would later become a leading early expert on rape, was a vocal critic of psychotherapists, going so far as to suggest "demanding reparations from the psychotherapists for all the years that so many women have wasted and all the money that so many women have spent in psychotherapy, a psychotherapy based on false assumptions about the nature of women."
Psychologist Phyllis Chesler's work on women, madness, and psychiatric institutionalization was even better known. Not only did she condemn psychological experts for false assumptions about women; she theorized that marriage and psychiatry were two institutions closely implicated in women's subordination: each similarly presented male domination as women's salvation. Further, she wrote, "What we consider 'madness,' whether it appears in women or in men, is either the acting out of the devalued female role or the total or partial rejection of one's sex-role stereotype." Women were categorized as mentally unstable whether they conformed to the dictates of femininity or rebelled against them and femininity defined the territory of abnormality in which clinicians operated. "Madness and asylums generally function as mirror images of the female experience, and as penalties for being 'female,' as well as for desiring or daring not to be." Unwilling to call for a total ban on therapeutic practice because she believed women's unhappiness was genuine, Chesler opposed the treatment of women by male profession-
als ("even their sympathy is damaging and oppressive") and supported the development of "all-female therapeutic communities" and other separatist alternatives.
By the late 1970s the effort to eliminate gender bias from psychological theories and practices and establish feminist beachheads in psychotherapy, child guidance, mental testing, psychoanalysis, and other fields had gained ground. Real steps had been taken toward showing exactly how psychology constructed the female: through distinctly male-centered theories of human development, psychiatric diagnoses that pathologized femininity, experimental methods that recapitulated gender dualisms, psychological tests that incorporated biases against women's ways of knowing, and so forth. The faith Weisstein had expressed in the power of science was fading fast, however, as was the conviction that women could ever be legitimately discussed as a unitary group.
Weisstein, who had been active in the Congress of Racial Equality and who also helped form a women's caucus within Students for a Democratic Society, relayed important elements of the New Left's general critique of expertise as she demolished the foundations of psychological knowledge about women and gender. This pattern of multiple political loyalties, of affiliation with a comprehensive "movement," was not unique to Weisstein. Ongoing exchange and influence between social movements was evident in the overall theoretical and organizational direction of feminism, and the new women's movement was deeply indebted to the ideas and strategies that had been forged by civil rights, student, and countercultural activists.
The Place of Antipsychiatry and Radical Therapy
At least as important to feminist assessments of psychological expertise were the movements known as "antipsychiatry" and "radical therapy," which distilled general criticisms of experts as antidemocratic schemers and servants of power into specific indictments of clinical practices and professionals. Centered around the theoretical writing of Thomas Szasz and R. D. Laing, antipsychiatry erased any remaining distinctions between psychological knowledge and politics by holding that the former merely presented the latter in mystified form. Antipsychiatry suggested that psychiatry was politics—not medicine, humanitarian assistance, or anything else. Mental health and
illness were thus labels convenient for protecting existing social arrangements and shielding political repression from effective resistance.
Antipsychiatry turned the historic rhetoric of the "helping professions" entirely on its head. Instead of leaders in the cause of humanitarian progress, psychiatrists and other psychological experts were malevolent conspirators who scapegoated people unfortunate enough to be labeled socially different due to their (nonwhite) race, (female) gender, (homo) sexual orientation, or (impoverished) economic status. Instead of an enviable state of health, sanity designated a pitiful state of adjustment to the alienated conditions of modern existence. Instead of helpless and tormented sufferers, patients were people whose social circumstances placed them at odds with the status quo. However socially unacceptable and personally calamitous, "freaking out" was a way of speaking out.
Indistinguishable from deviance, mental anguish evaporated as a reality and became, in Szasz's famous phrase, a "myth." Much of this critique rested on a conventional, severe distinction between body and mind, between medicine and the healing of souls. Szasz, for example, held that psychiatric work bore no resemblance at all to that of other physicians, who treated actual bodily illnesses. In sharp contrast to the medical challenges of genuine disease, psychiatric clinicians encountered rage, fear, stupidity, poverty, and a variety of other problems in living. Confusing existential quandaries with sickness disguised moral and ethical dilemmas as medical problems and undermined personal responsibility by leading people to believe that they did not control their own behavior when, to a large degree, they did, at least according to Szasz. "It behooves us," he wrote, "to discriminate intelligently and to describe honestly the things doctors do to cure the sick and the things they do to control the deviant."
Szasz was unequivocally hostile to all forms of involuntary intervention (i.e., commitment procedures) and to the growing power of psychiatry in the legal system (i.e., insanity pleas). He warned that measures equating criminality with mental illness would "convert our society from a political democracy to a psychiatric autocracy." Such views led him to oppose all welfare state programs on the grounds that they eroded individual freedoms. For example, Szasz called the policy of community mental health "moral Fascism" and argued that liberty was an absolute value, whereas mental health (whatever it was) was not. Except for these libertarian strands of his thought, which en-
deared him to right-wing ideologues and organizations, much of Szasz's critique was shared by leftists, and it was on the Left that most of antipsychiatry's support was located.
In the view of British countercultural psychiatrist R. D. Laing, psychiatry appeared to be as controlling as it was for Szasz, but madness was much less wicked. In fact, breakdown dissolved into breakthrough in the more extreme statements of Laing's antipsychiatric position toward the end of the 1960s. Early in the decade, he had claimed that psychosis resulted from two things: first, a rupture between self and social (especially familial) context and, second, a perception of the resulting abnormality by a psychiatric expert assumed to be capable of making such judgments. "Sanity or psychosis is tested by the degree of conjunction or disjunction between two persons where the one is sane by common consent." In spite of his desire to offer a theoretical explanation for schizophrenia, Laing stressed the ultimate incomprehensibility of madness, the lonely gulf necessarily separating the experience of one human being from the next. By the end of the decade, Laing turned away from the effort to grasp what was really a tragic existential distinctiveness and instead promoted a highly romanticized version of that difference in subjective experience. The reinterpretation converted schizophrenia into a mode of prophetic transcendence and healing in a society gone haywire, "one of the forms in which, often through quite ordinary people, the light began to break through the cracks in our all-too-closed minds."
The central theoretical works of antipsychiatry were not intended as feminist statements and all of the movement's major thinkers were men. It is nevertheless easy to see the exquisite fit between feminist denunciations of conventional gender expectations and the antipsychiatric assumption that what passed for mental anguish was a product of exploitation and alienation. The emerging outlines of feminist social thought dovetailed neatly with the core propositions of antipsychiatry: that the medical establishment had inappropriately usurped authority over vital social issues, including gender and sexuality; that psychotherapeutic practice harmed women by teaching that their problems were personal and intrapsychic rather than social and relational; that the neutral language of testing, diagnosis, and treatment concealed clinicians' complicity with male domination and their determination to make women adjust to sexism; that "mental health" was nothing but shorthand for gender conformity; that faith in experts (especially male ex-
perts) was counterproductive because experience—not expertise—imparted deserved authority. Only women could liberate themselves.
Radical therapy was an activist analogue to antipsychiatric theory. It consisted of a loose alliance between Left-leaning professionals, former mental patients, and radicals interested in psychotherapy. It appealed to large numbers of women (just as conventional psychotherapy had) and frequently addressed issues being debated within feminist circles, from sexuality to self-defense. It emphasized that while mental disturbance was fictive, sexism, and other types of oppression, were quite genuine. In his 1969 "Radical Psychiatry Manifesto," Claude Steiner wrote,
PARANOIA IS A STATE OF HEIGHTENED AWARENSS. MOST PEOPLE ARE PERSECUTED BEYOND THEIR WILDEST DELUSIONS. THOSE WHO ARE AT EASE ARE INSENSITIVE.
Based on a thoroughly negative appraisal of psychotherapy's political function and worth, radical therapy nevertheless retained a kernel of hope that therapeutic practice could, if revolutionized, expedite both personal liberation and social change. This coincided with the majority view among feminist critics, such as Bart and Chesler, that while psychotherapy as it existed was bad, abolishing it entirely might be worse. "Feminist therapy," they agreed, was preferable, even if it was difficult to define beyond the obvious: it would be emptied of objectionable sexist biases but still capable of offering help and insight to women in pain.
Feminist Activists Challenge the Psychological Establishment
The proposition that illegitimate (male) experts had fabricated mental disturbances like "hysteria" and "depression" in order to keep patriarchy insulated from effective opposition was the theoretical rationale behind the activist campaign feminists mounted against the psychological establishment in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Antipsychiatry permeated the style, as well as the substance, of feminist protest. Dramatic zap actions were organized at conventions of the American Psychiatric Association and other institutional strongholds of psychological expertise, sometimes in conjunction with gay men and lesbians. Typically, activists would interrupt the proceedings, shout slo-
gans like "The Psychiatric Profession Is Built on the Slavery of Women," and present a set of demands. Among other things, feminists called for an end to mother-blaming, freedom for the "political prisoners" living in mental institutions, assistance in filing legal claims against abusive clinicians, and a ban on sexist advertisements in professional journals and offensive exhibits at professional meetings. One typical communication, from San Francisco Redstockings to the American Psychiatric Association in 1970, offered the following suggestions to sympathetic clinicians:
1. Begin compiling a list of psychiatrists in every city who are willing to back women filing malpractice suits against psychiatrists who have fucked them over. . . .
2. Begin dealing with the treatment of women under welfare and the conditions of women in the state hospitals across the nation. . . .
3. Stop helping your male patients develop "healthy" male egos. . . .
4. Mother is not public enemy number one. Start looking for the real enemy. . . .
5. There are some exhibits at this convention that are oppressive to women. Trash them.
Feminists denounced the racist, sexist, and homophobic prejudices of psychological expertise and appealed for open discussion. Not infrequently, their bold actions were jeered by the (overwhelmingly male) professionals in attendance, who sometimes greeted the unwelcome feminists with "You're a paranoid fool, you stupid bitch!" and "Why don't you idiot girls shut up!" On the other hand, radicals within the professions, many of whom were seeking to eliminate "psychiatric atrocities" such as lobotomy and electroshock or put their professions on record against the Vietnam War, functioned as important allies. Cooperation between movement activists and dissident professionals was often the key to effective publicity and change. At the 1970 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, for example, the Radical Caucus distributed literature to those attending the conference in a compilation rifled "Psychic Tension" and presented a series of documents to the association's annual business meeting. One leaflet simply confronted the assembled masses with the question: "ARE YOU A MALE CHAUVINIST?" Another, "A Credo for Psychiatrists," embodied many of the themes of the feminist critique, reviewed above.
At least get off our backs. . . . It's not penis envy or inner space or maternal urges or natural passivity or hormone-caused emotionality that determines our lives. It's an upright, repressive male supremists [sic ] social structure and set of social attitudes that prevents us from seeing ourselves as full human beings struggling to live out our potential. . . . The only legitimate role for therapists is to catalyse our struggles. Psychiatry that tries to adjust to a bad situation is not help. It is betrayl [sic ] in the guise of benevolence. Psychiatrists, heal thyselves. . . . Help us become our own psychiatrists, to write our own theories, to define our own natures. If you can't do that then get out of the way. We don't want your crazy trips laid on us. We want LIBERATION NOW.
Feminist professionals also worked tirelessly to reform their colleagues' theories and practices and to advance the professional interests of women, usually through the formation of women's caucuses, radical caucuses, and autonomous professional organizations. For example, the Association for Women Psychologists (AWP) was founded in 1969 during the annual APA meeting in Washington, D.C., which was marked by protest from other dissident groups on the Left: Psychologists for Social Action, Psychologists for a Democratic Society, the Association of Black Psychologists, and the Association of Black Psychology Students. In response, the APA passed an abortion rights resolution and agreed to eliminate sex designations in its own job listings after women threatened to shut down the offending job placement booths themselves and sue the APA for sex discrimination. (The Women's Equity Action League filed suit in April 1970 anyway.)
At its inception and during its early years, AWP clearly represented the prevailing mood of radical feminist anger and adhered to the leaderless organizational style common among radical women's liberation groups. Phyllis Chesler, speaking on behalf of the new organization, demanded monetary "reparations" to be used to release women from mental hospitals and psychotherapy, a suggestion that, however heartfelt, was not taken very seriously. Nancy Henley, another founding mother of the organization, reflected in disgust that "talking to psychologists about action is like talking to Spiro Agnew about engaging in civil disobedience." Early structural decisions decentralized AWP authority by eliminating all elected officers, making all organizational roles voluntary, and warning members against "the creation of 'stars' by forces outside our organization."
Steeped in the politics of protest, the founding documents of the AWP nevertheless disclosed the positive role its authors hoped psychology might play. The statement of purpose declared that "AWP is dedicated to . . . exploring the contributions which psychology can, does
and should make to the definition, investigation, and modification of current sex role stereotypes." In ensuing years, the AWP called repeatedly on the APA to make good on that organization's founding promise "to advance psychology as a means of promoting human welfare" and to assist "the realization of full human potential in all persons."