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.