Review of "Feminism and Its Discontents"

By Mari Jo Buhle
Harvard University Press, 1998
Review by Jonathan M. Metzl, M.D., Ph.D. on Apr 26th 1999
Feminism and Its DiscontentsAcademics, like many professionals, are schooled in the business of nuanced deconstruction. In graduate school, for example, we learn theoretical tricks of the trade that later allow us to poke holes in even the most solid arguments. A, we learn to say in elaborate ways, does not adequately lead to B. Moreover, it certainly does not account for C; let alone consider the perspective effaced by D.

Every once in a while, however, a work comes along that defies the logic of criticism. These rare books anticipate questions, and fill in gaps. They bridge bodies of knowledge, and ways of thinking, through time and space. As such, they successfully challenge the ways we think about seemingly well-traveled paths of intellectual inquiry. When faced with the task of reviewing such a work, as I am in reviewing Mari Jo Bule’s incredible journey through twentieth century thought in Feminism And Its Discontents: A Century of Struggle With Psychoanalysis, it seems only prudent to momentarily drop a critical venire; and in its stead, to give an honest if not entirely skeptical-enough piece of advice: Read this book! It is an amazing work of historiography.

Buhle’s canvas is the co-development of the two great "theories of liberation" of the Twentieth Century, Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Feminism and Its Discontents charts the rise of Feminism in popular consciousness, from its first wave in 1910, through the women’s movement of the 1960’s, and into its diverse contemporary forms. At the same time, the book examines a psychoanalysis that came to America in the early twentieth century as an elitist, European import; and grew to become not only a widely practiced therapeutic modality, but also a well-worn trope of mainstream American culture. Instead of telling two separate histories, however, Buhle compellingly describes the synergy and tension between these two bodies of thought. She examines the often contrasting narratives of theory, practice, and politics; from Freud to Frederick Crews, from Susan B. Anthony to Adrienne Rich. In between, we learn not only about the formation of institutions, but also about the development of foundational ideas. Buhle ties these together by listening to the "continuous conversation" not only in academic journals, but also in the fora of popular representation. As such, Buhle successfully narrates a history—inhabited by artists, filmmakers, and politicians, as well as by academics and practitioners—in which liberation and oppression exist in symbiosis.

Buhle’s great contribution lies in the discovery of points where psychoanalysis, feminism, and popular culture came together—in films such as Ladies in the Dark, in the great orgasm debate, in the social construction of Momism. She is then able to illustrate, in compelling detail, how these two bodies of thought informed not only the public discourse, but also each other. As one example, Buhle grounds the popular appeal of Momism in the resonance between popular perception, popular views of women, and psychoanalysis. Buhle argues that Momism—the attack on the American Mom made famous by Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipersrose from Freudian origins and "its ability to tap into psychoanalysis as a popular discourse" in the 1950’s. The result was an attack on motherhood that, like many advertisements, both mirrored and helped shape popular sentiment. But Buhle compellingly argues that Momism effected psychoanalysis as well. As just one of many examples, Buhle asserts that American ego psychologists: "sought out not motherhood’s beneficent, but malignant potential. With the assistance of populists like Wily, psychoanalysis transformed mothers into the principle agents of children’s disorders, and the maladies that plagued the nation." (131)

Sure, sure—there are holes to be poked. Buhle’s reading is at times too seamless. As such, it does not allow for an explanation of several untold stories in the history of feminist thought (de Beauvoir, as one example, is mysteriously absent.) But I tell you to read this book because these small discrepancies are always and already overshadowed by the breadth, insight, and humor of the work. It is unique in both in scope, and in concept. Many recent works—by both historians of medicine, feminist theorists, and by psychoanalysts—have attempted somewhat similar projects. (Hayle’s The Rise and Crisis of Psychoanalysis in the United States, histories of psychiatry by Shorter and Healy, Mitchell and Black’s Freud and Beyond, Herman and Stewart’s Theorizing Feminism, or Donovan’s Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions of American Feminism as just a few of many examples.) Many of these works touch upon themes and ideas discussed by Professor Buhle. Few however, rival Buhle’s understanding of theoretical concepts, or of their larger, cultural implications. And none, I am sure, is as ambitious.


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