Monday, February 25, 2008

Edging forward

A story from the Science section of Time magazine:

Dr. Helene Deutsch, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, has published a scholarly tome called Psychology of Woman, based on 30 years of research. According to Deutsch, the normal feminine woman is passive and masochistic by nature. She enjoys her own suffering. She is always conservative and matriarchal.

"Woman's intellectuality is to a large extent paid for by the loss of valuable feminine qualities," writes Deutsch. "Everything relating to exploration and cognition, all the forms and kinds of human cultural aspiration that require a strictly objective approach, are with few exceptions the domain of the masculine intellect, or man's spiritual power, against which women can rarely compete."

The intellectual woman is masculinized, says Deutsch; she has yielded her warm intuitive knowledge to cold unproductive thinking. An aggressive woman is often concealing a fear of her own femininity.

Does something seem fishy about this story? It's from Time magazine, all right, but from the issue for June 12, 1944. A salutary lesson in taking science with a grain of salt.

Deutsch thought she had doped out the essential nature of woman, but few psychologists today would accept her view that women are by nature passive and masochistic. She is sometimes accused of having given a stamp of inevitability to self-denigrating female behavior. The feminist writer Kate Millet accused Deutsch of advocating a "doctrine of female subjugation."

Of course, Deutsch's Psychology of Woman, like all science, was a product of its time. She was a female psychiatrist working in a world of mostly male professionals, dominated by the influence of the great male myth-maker Sigmund Freud, whose student she was. The world was at war -- a war presided over and fought by men. All this is undoubtedly reflected in her work.

Will the science we read about today seem as wrongheaded 64 years from now? Perhaps, in some cases, but that's no reason to dismiss it. What's called for always is confidence hedged with skepticism. Science isn't a perfect instrument of progress, but it would seem to be the best we have.

Helene Deutsch's science may have been flawed, but she was herself a woman of impressive force and intellectuality. She grew up in a time and place -- the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- when women were denied access to higher education and important clinical positions. Nevertheless, she carved out for herself a considerable reputation in international psychiatry, and had a long, productive life as analyst, spouse and mother.