A Forgotten Classic of Feminist Psychoanalysis

Sounds horrible, doesn’t it?  Like the worst of both worlds — academic, jargon-ridden, hatchet-wieldingly ideological?  But no, in this rare case it’s the best of both worlds: humane, expansive, magical.  I’m not sure if it’s possible to change human nature, but Dorothy Dinnerstein thought that if anything could, it would be the new fatherhood.

I found these quotes I’d copied out in some old notebook/ commonplace books.

And this mysterious body, this body whose transience we try so vainly to feel as a fact, is loved with a special reverence for continuing, miraculously, to live, and hated with a special loathing for promising, incredibly, to die.

*     *     *

The sinking sense of falling — loss of maternal support — is the permanent archetype of catastrophe.

*      *      *

[T]he sexual realm . . . is a wildlife preserve in the civilized world, a refuge within which inarticulate, undomesticated private creative initiative is protected from extinction.

They’re from Dinnerstein’s  The Mermaid and the Minotaur, which relates to the Jimmy Buffett lyric, “Some people claim/ that there’s a woman to blame . . .” From Amazon reviews:

I read this book twenty years ago when I was in college. I found (and still find) Dinnerstein’s feminist argument for shared parenting to be one of those books that has the potential to change lives. . . . The kernel of her argument is that so long as we all are raised (exclusively or predominantly) by our mothers or by female caregivers, children will grow up with a deep-seated resentment of the feminine (since no parent can perfectly anticipate a child’s needs, and all children, in growing up, will be conditioned by our infantile rage at our parent’s imperfections). . . . At the age of twenty, I was persuaded by Dinnerstein to be (when I did have kids) an active and equal participant in the raising of my children, from changing diapers to feeding and everything else. I was so convinced of the importance of her analysis, and of its potential to change lives, that I have, in the past few decades, bought and given away as gifts eighty-eight copies to male and female friends. (I figured that if I just told people what a great book it was, few would follow up, but that if I actually bought it and thrust it into their hands, they might be moved to actually read it.) I’m not sure how many of these were actually read by the recipients. But I can report that out of 88 copies given away, eight people came to me afterward and said something to the effect of, “This book changed my life.”

*      *      *
Dinnerstein also relates the fear of death to how women rule the infant’s world and men the adult’s world. Seem unrelated? Phrase “womb to tomb” captures it best perhaps.

*       *       *

it is not “just another” “feminist ” title. Indeed quite a few feminists have objected mightily to it over the years. The big problem, though, it that it has been roundly ignored over the years!

I agree.  Although it is quite Romantic, the book made enormous sense to me when I read it around age 30, especially in explaining the cruel control of women in so many traditional cultures.  Its influence still lingers.


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  1. Of course I have not read the book… BUT

    I have witnessed my daughters and sons-in-law parenting as well as my own father, the father of my children, and their step-father.

    My own upbringing? I have no idea whether my father ever changed my diaper or not. But I do know that he changed my little sister’s whenever he needed to. And he took us with him to work as often as he could and he was fortunate to be able to do so (ie, he was the boss.)

    He was the boss… that had a lot to do with my raising, I suspect. My earliest memory is of handing my father nails while he was building the house we were to live in for the next 5 years. (That house is still in the family, though it’s a tiny part of extensions built later not only by my father but also by his brother and his his brother’s offspring.)

    Well into my teenage years, I remember handing my father tools… and we both laughed just a few years ago when I couldn’t find the tool he needed because he was laying on it… and complaining of his shoulder hurting.

    One thing my husband is a bit uncomfortable with is that I have a somewhat instinctive sense about a car’s performance that he lacks. I think this is entirely because I spent so much time with my father fixing cars and listening to him talk his way through the repairs.

    This habit… or talent? of talking the way through whatever he was doing is something my mother lacked. When she was trying to teach me sew, it was a real effort for her to tell me each step and why. This came naturally to my father.

    This does not mean my mother did not teach me how to sew… but her method was more of the “I’ll show you” type without an explanation as to why.

    Why is one of the things I have found that I really need to know. Yet the older I get, the more likely I am to accept “just because that’s the way it is” as a valid reason. Go figure!

    If that doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry… it doesn’t make sense to me either!

    Fast forward… to my sons-in-law. One of them I think is likely to be “taken in” by his children. He simply cannot stand for them to hurt in any physical or emotional way. My oldest grandchild is his – age 5 now and I have witnessed this man overcome his own fears of his child being hurt… and since he’s got 2 more children now, he’s becoming quite pragmatic in his attitude. Still… both he and my daughter know he is a sucker. His children “own” him in a way that I have not witnessed before. I don’t know how this is going to play out.

    Another is determined that his children will obey him at the drop of his hat. And… I have problems with that. His oldest turned 3 this last Feb. and I think that 3 year olds should be given a little bit of time and leeway to respond to commands… unless those commands have to do with safety. This is where we disagree… and have agreed to disagree.

    Yet this man is more than willing to change diapers and has been fully involved in every aspect of his children’s upbringing. If you want a swaddling expert, he’s the one to consult.

    It’s my husband’s actions that are strange to me… and perhaps he is the norm? He is my 2nd husband… my 1st having died when my oldest child was 10. He is very good with toddlers who have been toilet trained, but he has no idea how to hold a newborn baby and though he could probably manage it in an emergency, would not how to change a baby’s diaper.

    He is completely awkward with newborns… and babies up to about 10 months. He thinks they are cute… but please don’t leave one in his care for more than 10 minutes.

    I wonder about the cultural differences between my father’s time (born in the early 1920s) and my husband’s (born in the early 1940s).

    The huge difference (I think) is that my father was born during a time when everyone in the family pulled together to make ends meet and that my husband was born during a time when the breadwinner was the father and the mother was subordinate.

    It’s my opinion that “feminism” became popular during the 1950s and 60s because that was a time during which women found themselves subordinate in the family. Before that time, women might have been legally subordinate but were equally (monetarily) very important to the family.

    Just my silly theory….

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