This article will discuss psychoanalytic feminism, not feminist psychoanalysis (i.e., except indirectly, it will not address ideas about developing feminist principles in clinical practice, although most of the authors discussed below are trained analysts). Psychoanalysis develops a theory of the unconscious that links sexuality and subjectivity ineluctably together. In doing so, it discloses the ways in which our sense of self, and our political loyalties and attachments, are influenced by unconscious drives and ordered by symbolic structures that are beyond the purview of individual agency. It might appear at the outset that any alliance between feminism and psychoanalysis would have to be coordinated on treacherous ground: in Sigmund Freud's lecture on “Femininity,” for instance, while discussing the“riddle of femininity” (Freud 1968 , 116) or of sexual differentiation, Freud's rhetoric impeaches women as“the problem” (113) and excuses members of his audience from this indictment by offering the hope that they are “more masculine than feminine” (117). Many feminists have been wary both of the biases contained in Freud's oratory and of the overt content of his claims. This article will explain how and why feminist theory has, nonetheless, undertaken a serious reading of Freud and developed careful analyses of his fundamental concepts, working out their limits, impasses, and possibilities.
In the same essay cited above, Freud writes that“psychoanalysis does not try to describe what a woman is—that would be a task it could scarcely perform—but sets about enquiring how she comes into being, how a woman develops out of a child with a bisexual disposition” (Freud 1968 , 116). In using the term ‘bisexual,’ Freud refers to a quality of the sexual instinct, not a relation to a sexual object (which would be denoted by the term ‘inversion’); the bisexual child is one who psychically is not yet either a man or a woman, whose instinctual life functions prior to sexual difference. Freud here portrays femininity as one trajectory of the Oedipal Complex and indicates that sexed identity is a fragile achievement rather than a natural given or essence. By circumscribing the terrain on which the psychoanalytic account of sexual difference moves, and by seeing unresolved, even unresolvable, riddles where others might see the work of nature or culture, Freud problematizes any causal, seamless, or direct tie between sex, sexuality, and sexual difference. Psychoanalytic inquiry does not fit comfortably with, and even unsettles, biological theories of sex and sociological theories of gender, thus also complicating the sex/gender distinction as it has often been formulated in feminist debates. While sex and gender are sometimes construed in feminist theory in terms of the contrast between biology and culture, or nature and nurture, Freud's theory, as discussed below, challenges these dualisms, developing an account of the sexual drive that traverses the mental and the physical, and undergoes idiosyncratic vicissitudes rather than assuming a uniform anatomical or social shape. Whatever the hazards of Freud's writings on women, then, his work explores in new ways the meaning and possibilities of sexed identity. Likewise, as I will argue below, psychoanalytic feminism interrupts many assumptions about what feminism is and the conceptual and material objects it theorizes, including especially the very concept of woman. In unsettling our understanding of this concept, psychoanalysis also poses questions to feminism about the value of difference and the quest for equality, and the unresolved tensions between these divergent pursuits.
While there is no doubt a vast ouvre of disparate positions that might fall within the framework of psychoanalytic feminism, what is shared in common is a descent from, respect for, and some minimal borrowing of Freudian accounts of the unconscious, even while criticizing and/or revising his theoretical apparatus. Any properly psychoanalytic theory must at the least offer an account of the unconscious and its bond with sexuality and, arguably, death. Precisely this descent, however, has also provided a barrier to feminist deployment since Freud is sometimes read, at least superficially, as proffering misogynist, and perhaps Procrustean, elaborations of psychic structuration, curtailing and diminishing the diversity of individual women's experiences into a restricted and unvarying formula that will fit within its own theoretical parameters. Nevertheless, Freud's reflections and hypotheses concerning hysteria, the Oedipal Complex, female sexuality and femininity, and women's role in civilization, among other ideas, have provided the volatile grounds, the sites of contention, for feminist re-articulation. Before any of the multiple and divergent articulations of psychoanalytic feminism can be discussed in more detail, we must thus first establish their historical roots and the conceptual terrain on which they arise. Since a great deal of psychoanalytic feminist theory is specifically concerned with revising the Oedipal narrative of Freud, this article will devote particular attention to Freud's theories of the unconscious as they pertain to the Oedipal Complex. . . .