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Herman, E. (1992). The competition: psychoanalysis, its feminist interpreters and the idea of sexual freedom 1910-1930. Free Associations, 3(3):391-437.

(1992). Free Associations, 3(3):391-437


The competition: psychoanalysis, its feminist interpreters and the idea of sexual freedom 1910-1930

Ellen Herman

If biology has sometimes taken centre stage in women's history, destiny had nothing to do with it. Yet, from the vantage point of the late twentieth century, the notion that psychoanalysis — in theory and in practice — moved inexorably to entangle women in the web of physiological and symbolic reproduction seems like a truism. After all, by the 1930s, marriage ‘maladjustment’ had become a cultural fetish and women were being exhorted to discharge their maternal duties vigilantly and guard their instincts, presumed to be naturally sturdy but still fragile enough to need tender encouragement. By the 1940s and 1950s, ‘insecurity’ in general was something to be avoided at all times, in all places and at all costs. As if to prove that Americans took the state of their mental health seriously, the number of psychiatrists increased by almost 600 per cent between 1940 and 1964.

It may seem obvious that psychoanalysis was a significant ingredient in the cultural recipe that produced this burgeoning mishmash of narcissistic, gender-obsessed and overwhelmingly private concerns by the mid-twentieth century. But is is not.

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