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  • Tony Georgiadis

On Female Oppression and Gender Inequality Through Psychoanalytic Lens

This articles discusses female oppression and gender inequality from a psychoanalytic perspective, focusing on early infancy and childhood development as well as early power struggles we all face as humans and the gender conflicts that occur. Psychoanalysts such as Melanie Klein and Sigmund Freud have offered significant insights into how our early experiences shape life's first intense emotions and the establishment of early relationships. Their theories, though heavily critiqued, provide a framework to understand the origins of gender inequality and the complex interplay of power dynamics from infancy onward. This article examines these foundational psychoanalytic perspectives as well as newer perspectives that challenge old and potentially obsolete ways of thinking, and proposes potential ways to stop gender inequality and female oppression, and promote gender equality in society.


An Infant - Mother Power Struggle That Goes Back in Time


According to the renowned psychoanalyst and theorist, Melanie Klein, when infants get born, they experience their primary caregiver - typically the mother - as the source of ultimate bliss (when they get fed) and absolute hell (when they are in discomfort and not tended to). During the latter phase, infants feel completely hopeless and powerless, as they rely fully on their mother for their survival. This is one of the first moments we learn that we can be completely powerless in life, not in control of things and with an underlying fear of not surviving. Additionally, experiencing these two extreme states as infants, where the mother is perceived as either attentive and nurturing or absent and harsh, is a way to cope with powerlessness. The mother is essentially perceived as either 'all good' or 'all bad'; the two states are kept separate so that the ‘good’ mother is protected from the ‘bad’ mother. This leads to the infant experiencing a state of panic; the ‘bad’ mother might retaliate in the infant's phantasy, feeding into the tendency of further 'splitting' the mother into the two perceived opposite halves. This splitting attempts to protect the ‘good’ mother and ensure the infant's sense of survival remains intact. This state of panic is what Klein called “persecutory anxieties”. In cases of consistent neglect - which is not uncommon - and based on the infant’s innate predispositions (essentially both environment and personality), the infant might suffer further from persecutory anxieties, feeling more hopeless and powerless.


Klein's theory demonstrates the potential extreme emotional states which we may all universally experience right after birth, and which very often involve the mother, since she is usually the primary caregiver for babies, based on historical societal norms. Hence, it can be hypothesised that when these early infancy conflicts remain unresolved, we may carry these emotional states as well as an innate (unconscious) perception that mother was not only the reason we survived, but also the reason we suffered. This, in itself, may be one of the factors that contribute to aggression being directed at women, caused by both early infancy extreme impulses and the rigid historical role of women in society.



The origin of Gender Conflicts from a Freudian Perspective


Freud first introduced the concept of the Oedipus complex in 1899, inspired by the Greek tragedy "Oedipus Rex" by Sophocles, which tells the story of Oedipus who unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother. Freud believed this myth resonated deeply with humans because it mirrored our own early ‘sexual’ and hostile impulses toward our parents. Over the decades, there has been quite some controversy about the idea of children having ‘sexual’ desires towards parents. Since the purpose of this paper is not to comment on this particular part of Freud’s work, I will use his idea in its more generic form: children establishing a relationship of intimacy with their primary caregivers, most often their parents.


But let’s take a closer look at what Freud thought the Oedipus Complex was about. According to him, the Oedipus Complex is a phenomenon that emerges at the age of 3 to 6 years old, where children start to develop strong feelings of intimacy towards the opposite-sex parent who becomes the main ‘love-object’, and feelings of jealousy and rivalry towards the same-sex parent. This is what Freud called the "positive" Oedipus Complex. It is also possible to develop these feelings the opposite way: having strong feelings of intimacy towards the same-sex parent and feelings of aversion towards the opposite-sex parent; Freud named this the "negative" Oedipus Complex.

Freud thinks that, for boys, the mother is the first love-object, while the father becomes a rival. This rivalry leads boys to experiencing the father as dangerous; as someone who already owns the mother. Freud believed that as the positive Oedipus Complex unfolds, boys fear retaliation from their father. To cope with feelings of anxiety and the power struggle that stems from seeing father as a rival, and to avoid dealing internally with a hostile father, the boy unconsciously identifies with the father in an attempt to become like him and bring himself to an ‘equal’ power level. This identification means that the father, as a figure, is incorporated (introjected) into the boy’s psyche, which solidifies the boy’s masculinity. A similar sequence of events also occurs in the case of the negative Oedipus Complex, where the identification and introjection happen with the same-sex parent. In both cases, the child identifies with the rival parent to cope with the anxiety of the hostile rival, moving this way towards a gender predisposition.


Regardless of whether we agree with Freud’s theory of the Oedipus Complex, what feels important here - and hopefully resonates, especially with regards to our main topic of exploration in this article - is the early conflict between genders due to our innate tendency to experience very early in life a desire to possess a parent, as well as hostile feelings in the form of jealousy and rivalry towards the other parent; feelings that result in identifying with one or the other, and subsequently to the formation of gender identity.



Female Oppression and Psychoanalytic Perspectives


The previously mentioned theories of Melanie Klein and Sigmund Freud provide insights into the early emotional and psychological development of infants and their implications for understanding gender conflicts; they suggest that our earliest interactions and the resultant power dynamics with primary caregivers are critical in shaping our future emotional health, relationships, and gender identities. The core element in both theories is the early power struggles and gender conflicts we all face after our birth, which make this experience an empirical universal learning that stays with us, laying the foundation for deep-rooted gender conflicts from the get-go. Furthermore, Klein's theory of infancy impulses sheds light into how infancy's extreme feelings directed primarily towards mothers - due to the rigid society has been historically attributing to them - may be setting the foundation for female oppression. It is important to note that Freud’s theory of the Oedipus Complex has been heavily criticised due to the fact that a lot of focus was given initially on how boys experience the complex, as well as the ‘phallus’ (penis) as a core element of it. Specifically, Freud considered the penis to be ‘a superior organ’: one which is highly desired by girls who feel inferior for not having it - a phenomenon that Freud called “penis envy" - and one which boys fear losing - called “castration anxiety” - since they are threatened by the rival father due to wanting to possess the mother. Additionally, Freud termed the developmental stage during which the Oedipus Complex occurs the "phallic stage" and did not accept Carl Jung's renaming of the complex to the "Electra Complex"; instead, he chose to name it the "female Oedipus Complex".


In this part of Freud’s psychosexual theory, it is observed that Freud takes a rather arbitrary theoretical stance: to consider the penis as the universally superior organ, one that is desired by girls and used as a treasure by boys, and to keep the male gender as the central element in many of his developmental theories (i.e. mother as object of desire, phallic stage, penis envy, castration anxiety, female Oedipus). Freud's psychoanalytic perspective, which centrally positions traits and ideas associated with the significance of masculinity, has been heavily criticised by female psychoanalysts who developed their ideas later, and which I consider indicative of an expression of female oppression, through the development of psychoanalytic theory.


Here are a few examples of female psychoanalysts and their ideas on the topic. Karen Horney, a prominent critic of Freud's theories regarding women, argued against the concept of penis envy and proposed that what Freud interpreted as penis envy was more accurately a reflection of societal and cultural oppression of women. She counteracted Freud’s theory by proposing the idea of "womb envy", suggesting that men might feel envy towards women's ability to bear children. She argued that societal structures and cultural norms, rather than inherent biological differences, contribute to feelings of inferiority in women. Horney went even further to question the universality of the Oedipus complex, arguing that it was not a fundamental part of childhood development but rather a product of specific family dynamics and cultural conditions. She emphasised the role of culture in shaping personality and gender identity, arguing that many of the differences between men and women are culturally constructed rather than biologically or psychologically determined.


Nancy Chodorow, a feminist psychoanalyst, made significant contributions with her book "The Reproduction of Mothering" (1978). She combined psychoanalytic theory with feminist sociology to explain how family structures perpetuate gender roles and female oppression. She argued that the traditional mothering role creates psychological patterns that sustain male dominance and female subordination. Particularly, Chodorow argues that the traditional practice of women being the primary caregivers leads to them developing relational capacities and emotional attunements that are undervalued in a patriarchal society. She suggests that relational orientation in women contributes to their continued roles as caregivers and nurturers, perpetuating gender inequalities in both the private and public spheres. Children grow up to expect women to be the primary caregivers, and this expectation perpetuates the cycle of gendered division of labour and power imbalances. Chodorow highlights the need for changes in the family structure and the division of labour to achieve gender equality. By advocating for shared parenting and caregiving responsibilities, she envisions a society where both men and women can engage equally in nurturing roles, thus disrupting the cycle of gendered oppression.


Jessica Benjamin's work, particularly in "The Bonds of Love" (1988), explores the dynamics of power, recognition, and domination in gender relationships. She integrates psychoanalytic theory with feminist thought to understand how gender inequality is reproduced through relational patterns. She also examines how the desire for recognition and the fear of annihilation shape gendered interactions and societal structures. Benjamin emphasises the concept of intersubjectivity, which involves recognising and validating the subjectivity of another person, an element essential for balanced and healthy relationships. Benjamin explores how the need for recognition is fundamental to human development and relational dynamics, suggesting that the failure to achieve mutual recognition leads to domination and submission, with men historically seeking to assert control over women in order to maintain their own sense of identity and power.


Julia Kristeva, a psychoanalyst and philosopher, explores the intersection of language, psychoanalysis, and feminism. Kristeva introduced the concepts of the "semiotic" and the "symbolic". The semiotic is associated with the maternal body, characterised by rhythm, tone, and movement. It is a space of fluidity, creativity and freedom. The symbolic, on the other hand, is associated with language, structure, and law, typically governed by paternal authority. It represents the realm of culture, order, and rationality. The semiotic is often repressed in patriarchal societies that prioritise the symbolic order, which contributes to the marginalisation of the feminine and the maternal. Kristeva argues that Western culture has historically devalued the maternal and the feminine, associating them with chaos and disorder. She suggests that the maternal body represents a threat to the symbolic order because it embodies the semiotic, which disrupts the stability and coherence of the symbolic through its creativity and freedom. Kristeva examines the complexities of love and sexuality too, particularly how they are developed and maintained by cultural norms and societal structures. She argues that traditional conceptions of love and desire often reinforce male dominance and female subordination, suggesting the need for new forms of relationality that acknowledge and respect the otherness of the partner.



Stopping Gender Inequality and Female Oppression

Drawing from insights gained from both the original psychoanalytic thinking centred around infancy power struggles and gender conflicts, the original focus of psychoanalytic theory on masculinity, as well as later female psychoanalytic theorists who offered their rich thinking, here are some suggestions and ideas for resolving gender conflicts to prevent further female oppression.


Redefining Family and Parenting Roles


  • Promote Shared Parenting: We can advocate for and implement shared parenting responsibilities, encouraging both men and women to equally participate in caregiving and nurturing roles. This can help disrupt the traditional expectations that women are the primary caregivers and reduce the psychological patterns that sustain gender inequality.

  • Parental Leave Policies: We can support and develop policies that provide equitable parental leave for both mothers and fathers. This can allow both parents to bond with their children and share caregiving responsibilities from an early stage.


Cultural and Educational Reform


  • Educate on Gender Equality: We can integrate gender equality education into school curricula, teaching children from a young age about the value of both genders and the importance of mutual respect and shared responsibilities.

  • Challenge Gender Norms: We can create and promote media, literature, and cultural narratives that challenge traditional gender norms and highlight diverse and egalitarian role models.


Promoting Mutual Recognition in Relationships


  • Foster Intersubjectivity: We can encourage practices and communication strategies that promote mutual recognition and validation of each partner's subjectivity in relationships as well as the expectations partners set for each other. This can help balance power dynamics and reduce tendencies toward domination and submission.

  • Therapeutic Interventions: We can develop and support therapeutic practices that focus on improving relational dynamics by fostering empathy, understanding, and mutual respect between partners.


Valuing Relational Capacities


  • Acknowledge and Reward Caregiving: We can recognise and value caregiving and relational skills in both private and professional spheres, encourage workplaces to value emotional intelligence and relational skills as essential competencies, rather than considering organising skills and intellectual capabilities as superior.

  • Support Caregiving Professions: We can improve the status and compensation of caregiving professions, which are often undervalued and predominantly occupied by women.


Rebalancing Symbolic and Semiotic Realms


  • Encourage Creative Expression: We can promote spaces and opportunities for creative and semiotic expressions, such as art, music, and dance. These activities can challenge the dominance of the symbolic order and provide a platform for feminine and maternal values.

  • Revalue the Maternal: We can advocate for a cultural shift that revalues the maternal and feminine aspects of society. This includes recognising the importance of nurturing, empathy, and emotional support as fundamental to societal well-being.


Reframing Love and Sexuality


  • New Forms of Relationality: We can promote new forms of love and relationships that respect the uniqueness and diversity of partners, encouraging relationships based on equality, mutual recognition, and respect rather than traditional power dynamics.

  • Sexuality Education: We can provide sexuality education that includes discussions about gender equality, consent, and respectful relationships. This can help challenge harmful stereotypes and promote healthier dynamics.


Policy and Structural Changes


  • Legal Reforms: We can advocate for legal reforms that protect against gender discrimination and support gender equality. This may include laws related to employment, parental leave, domestic violence, and reproductive rights.

  • Economic Empowerment: We can promote policies and programs that support the economic empowerment of women, such as equal pay initiatives, entrepreneurship support, and access to education and training.


Supportive Networks and Communities


  • Foster Support Networks: We can encourage the development of support networks and communities for both men and women. These networks can provide resources, support, and advocacy for gender equality and the dismantling of oppressive structures.

  • Mentorship Programs: We can develop mentorship programs that support women in leadership roles and help men become allies in promoting gender equality.



Conclusion


Exploring the roots of female oppression through the lens of psychoanalytic theory reveals insights into how the early developmental stages and ongoing societal dynamics perpetuate gender inequality and female oppression. From Freud's foundational concepts of the Oedipus Complex to Melanie Klein's views on early emotional experiences, these theories shed light on how power dynamics and gender roles are established from infancy onwards.


Critiques by contemporary psychoanalysts like Karen Horney, Nancy Chodorow, Jessica Benjamin, and Julia Kristeva have further enriched the topic of gender inequality and female oppression, challenging traditional notions and advocating for societal changes that promote equality and mutual recognition. By understanding these complex human innate experiences and feelings we might all carry in us, as well as the societal intricacies that contribute to the issue of gender inequality, we can strive towards creating a more equitable future where gender differences are celebrated rather than oppressed, and where each individual's potential for growth and fulfillment is nurtured irrespective of gender.

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