Freud is not generally regarded as a founding father of sociology, although he does appear in some texts. Freud, whose ideas became widely known in intellectual circles after the First World War, was not a sociologist, but his ideas have been regarded as seminal by many male sociologists since 1920. Freud’s theories are particularly problematic for feminist sociologists. The relationship between Freud’s own ideas, the popularisation of those ideas in the Anglophone world after 1918, their effects on First Wave feminism, the rise and fall of Freudian ideas among sociologists, and the response from feminists, all need some unpicking here. The best explanation of the devastating impact that Freudian ideas had on the First Wave feminists can be found in Vicinus (1985). The impact was recognised at the time by Second Wave feminists such as Winifred Holtby (1936) and Josephine Tey (1946).
Although Freud was never a sociologist, his ideas, because they decentred God and centred the socialisation of the individual, were as revolutionary for the intelligentsia as Darwin’s and Einstein’s. When the work done in nineteenth-century Vienna reached the Anglophone world, it had two powerful thrusts forcing it into acceptability. The First World War had left many men mentally damaged, and Freud’s therapeutic ideas offered some way to help them. This is vividly portrayed in Pat Barker’s trilogy (1993, 1994, 1995). The need for some help for mentally ill officers is clear in contemporary anti-intellectual novels such as John Buchan’s Mr Standfast (1919) which opens with Richard Hannay visiting an invalid colleague, Blaikie, who is paralysed by shell shock, and stresses that he is not getting any effective treatment. Second, Freudian ideas were opaque, foreign, mysterious, glamorous, and because of their sexual content, ‘modern’. For young intellectuals, they were splendid because they were shocking. For men, they had a wonderful bonus: they destroyed the ‘old’ morality, the ideology that women were morally superior beings whose mission was to raise men to their level. In Freudian theory, as it was understood, women were sexual beings too, and repressing that, through celibacy, or expressing it in Boston marriages, was a form of illness or deviancy. This view of the doyens of First Wave feminism is clear in Clemence Dane’s (1917) novel Regiment of Women and in the sexist writings of Meyrick Booth (1919, 1927). By advocating Freudianism, men could force women back into a heterosexual world or damn them as ‘inverts’ or ‘repressed’ and be thoroughly modern and scientific. The majority of the population never adopted a Freudian viewpoint, of course, but it was among the intelligentsia that First Wave feminism lost its intellectual support (see Delamont, 2003, for an elaboration of this argument).
Freudian ideas were part of the backdrop of American universities in the 1950s, and were blended with Parsonian sociology of gender. This was why Friedan (1963) devoted so much space to an attack on Freud. The sociology of the Frankfurt School (Jay, 1973) was imbued with Freudian ideas, and this gave Freud a new place in sociology after 1968 when that humanistic neo-Marxism became fashionable. Thus in the 1970s most Third Wave feminists were expressing scepticism about Freud, while he was re-appearing in sociology. A minority of feminists set out to reinterpret the Freudian legacy, noticeably Juliet Mitchell (1975) who retrained as an analyst, Sayers (1991) who revitalised the work of four of Freud’s female disciples, (Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, Karen Horney and Helene Deutsch) and Nancy Chodorow (1978, 1987) whose work is routinely cited by feminists. The relationship between psycho-analytic ideas and feminism also produced controversy when Lacan and Irigaray came to Anglophone notice: Lacan’s Freud was radically different from Parsons’s Freud or the Frankfurt School’s
Freud, but because Lacan had been Althusser’s analyst and because the most energetically self-publicising school of French feminists were the Psych-Po group (Psychoanalysis and Politics), a Gallic Freud was forced onto the feminist agenda. In general, feminist sociologists have remained unenthusiastic about Freud as a sociological founding father. As Joan Acker puts it: ‘intense encounters with Freud left me highly suspicious of the value of a psychoanalytic perspective’ (1997: 30).