The Freud Museum

Events Archive

21 May 1994

Psychoanalysis and Feminism: 20 Years On

Conference Report

The Psychoanalysis and Feminism conference took place at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) on May 21st 1994. It was held to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Juliet Mitchell's path-breaking book of the same title. This anniversary marked quite a significant trajectory in our recent history, for both women and men. It also marked a generational change. The daughters of feminism were now themselves mothers - what knowledge did they want to pass on to their offspring? And for those feminists who had subsequently become psychotherapists, what was the relation between their former political practice and their current therapeutic work?

In the opening session of the conference Juliet Mitchell was joined on the platform by Joanna Ryan, Joan Raphael-Leff and Margot Waddell. Each gave a short talk to signpost some of the many ways that an interest in psychoanalysis and feminism has been taken up in the last twenty years. Juliet Mitchell explained something of the political context in which her book was written and also described the profound change that had ocurred in her way of thinking as a result of her training as a psychoanalyst. Joanna Ryan argued against the uncritical approach that some feminists had adopted towards psychoanalysis. She observed that this led to a sidelining of issues about lesbianism and female desire, and the many theoretical problems about gender identification and sexual object choice opened up by these considerations.

Pursuing a similar theme, Margot Waddell stressed forms of psychoanalysis (associated predominantly, she said, with the work of Bion and his followers) which focus on processes of 'being' and 'becoming' in analysis and everyday life. Rather than laying down the law of theoretical orthodoxy, she argued that such approaches value the heterogeneity of human development. However, using a telling example from her own practice, she warned that 'feminism' can become as much an Establishment (in Bion's sense) as can 'psychoanalysis' at times.

Joan Raphael-Leff gave an elegiac account of her own life experiences - 'stretching across four continents and far into my own ancestral past' - to answer the question 'why are we here?'. Her story described how the dynamics of racial struggles, the civil rights movement and nationalism were all complexly interwoven with the origins of the modern feminist movement. She also talked about her work as a psychoanalyst specializing in women's experience of childbearing and mothering, and the question of 'what it means to be a woman' in this very concrete sense.

After such a stimulating opening session there was naturally a great deal to talk about. The atmosphere during the coffee break was almost tangible, and people were eager to resume their seats for the next talk. Carol Gilligan, in a paper summarized in her absence by Elaine Showalter, made the point that feminist thought can enrich psychoanalytic concepts and understanding in many ways. To illustrate her ideas she gave examples from her work with adolescent girls - whose psychical health depended in part on their resistance to patriarchal structures.

The following paper, by Parveen Adams, was perhaps the most difficult of the day. Taking an uncompromisingly Lacanian stance, she looked at the film Peeping Tom to interrogate the processes of representation, in art and cinema, in which male and female subject positions are assigned. Parveen argued vigorously for a theoretical and political use of psychoanalysis that was not grounded in the clinical situation, and her views provoked a lively debate in the discussion.

In the afternoon Susie Orbach and Luise Eichenbaum presented their joint paper From Objects to Subjects. The title itself is replete with significance, and their paper marked some of the shifts 'from objects to subjects' which women have struggled for in social life and as psychotherapists. They described their early encounter with psychoanalytic thinking and the political necessity to engage with it: 'Along with others we were impresed at the intransigence and persistence of the structures and unconscious rules governing femininity we had absorbed. Psychoanalysis with its account of the subjective and its transgressive potential was a partner in our wish to dissect and transform the conditions of femininity'.

Iréne Matthis also looked at the impact of women on the development of psychoanalysis. But this time her focus was on Freud's early women patients - in particular the little known 'Lucy R' - and the impact they had on his theories. She gave a brilliant overview of the theories of hysteria in the last 100 years and exhaustively documented her view that 'Psychoanalytic theory was born out of the bosom of hysteric women'. Finally Ann Scott used her own 'archive' of copies of Spare Rib and recent issues of Cosmopolitan, to look at changes which have taken place in the debate about women's place in society since the publication of Juliet's book. She drew attention to the paradox of the importance of the incest taboo in Juliet's book as a founding moment of social organization, and the current emphasis on the widespread breaking of the taboo in relation to sexual abuse.

The day ended with a plenary session which was chaired by Sally Berry of the Womens Therapy Centre. We would like to thank everyone who gave so much time and goodwill to make this event such a success, as well as Miss Donaldson and all the staff at RIBA who made sure that everything ran smoothly on the day.

Some of the papers from the conference were published in New Formations 26 edited by Lesley Caldwell; also in the British Journal of Psychotherapy Vol 12 No. 1 Autumn 1995.

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