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Juliet Mitchell and Psychoanalytic Feminism

Writing in the sixties and seventies, Juliet Mitchell’s work in Woman’s Estate (1971), Mitchell argued that woman’s oppression was linked to FOUR essential social structures: production, reroduction, sexuality and socialization. Mitchell sought to combine a critique of socialist thought and Psychoanalysis for feminist theory in what was one of the earliest attempts to make feminism interdisciplinary, and overtly political (especially in its reliance upon Marxism). In Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974). and her collaborative (co-edited) work with Jacqueline Rose in Feminine Sexuality (1982), Mitchell responded to the accusations levelled by Kate Millet against Freud.

(1) Mitchell, here influenced by Lacanian thought, argues that to abandon Freud would be detrimental to the feminist cause, especially since Freud’s work was a critique and analysis of patriarchal society . Defending the Freudian theory of castration, Mitchell suggests that fantasy rather than fact determines gender.

(2) The unconscious is the “domain….of the reproduction of culture or ideology.” The exchange of women in marriage as a mode of relationship in primitive societies actually renders women as objects to unite society. In Mitchell’s words, women’s identities are determined by their “cultural utilization as exchange objects.”

(3) Since the female is supposed to be anxious over her “lack” (of the male organ) and the male is anxious about losing it through castration, Mitchell argues that the castration is only symbolic, never realized. Definitions of masculinity and femininity are constituted through the symbolic, where man is the self-determining, autonomous agent and the woman is the lacking Other.

(4) Gender is thus a cultural construct, one created as a fantasy in children to explain the unpleasant discoveries of genital differences. It rejects the sexual distinction by presupposing and fictionalising that the sexes were once one (i.e. before castration). This socially conditioned fantasy, rather than an instinctually constructed one institutes the gender divide. Man sees and believes himself to be a unified whole as a result. This makes the feminine at once knowable and the guarantor of fantasy.

(5) This is itself the result of late capitalism where there is the split between the private and the public, and the idealization of male-centred family life.

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Categories: Feminism, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Psychoanalysis

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3 replies

  1. Always like your stuff, but you’ve got at least two typos –
    Since the female is supposed to *he anxious over her “lack” (of the male organ) and the male is anxious about losing it through castration, Mitchell argues that the castration is only symbolic, *er realized.

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