Nancy Chodorow was born January 20th, 1944 in New York City. Her father, Marvin, was a professor of applied physics. She married Michael Reich, a professor of economics and had two children with him, Rachel and Gabriel. The couple separated in 1977.
Nancy received her BA from Radcliffe College. She was trained by Beatrice and John W.M. Whiting in culture and personality anthropology. Looking back, these teachings were prefeminist because the nature of her studies was gender and generation sensitive. Some books that influenced her personality anthropology studies are Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society, Oscar Lewis’s Children of Sanchez and Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture. They all focus on how the individual creates a self and psyche under certain cultural and social conditions, and how these conditions shape and yet constrain psychological experience.
In graduate school, she studied readings on father-son, father-daughter, and mother-son relationships, but was unsatisfied with not being able to find theories on mother-daughter relationships. She formed a Mother-Daughter group that first met in 1968 to better understand these relationships. The focus of the group was emotionally charged issues, and involved discussion and analysis to raise consciousness about psychodynamic understanding. Some of the issues that were explored included shame, guilt, anger, different family alliances, and desires about maternal presence or absence.
She received her PhD from Brandeis University in 1975. She studied under Philip Slater and was influenced by his protofeminist psychoanalytic sociology, and he advised her to focus more on the unconscious in order to better understand personality.
Nancy is a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. Her work is highly influenced by Karen Horney’s work, whose early essays on femininity strongly questioned Freudian theory. Melanie Klein is another early female psychoanalyst she identified with. Nancy’s personal and cultural circumstances led her to feminism and feminist psychoanalysis.
Her interests in her field include psychoanalytic theory and clinical methods, gender and sexuality, psychoanalytic sociology and anthropology, and feminist theory and methods. She challenges Freud’s claims for the biological foundation of gender personality and roles, and looks to understand the near-universal secondary status of women. Nancy also generated the idea that femininity is more easily obtained than masculinity, which is attained through doing rather than being, and performance rather than identity. Another point she makes is that the separateness and individuation of the male can be a defense mechanism rather than a triumph.
She has published four books: The Power of Feelings: Personal Meaning in Psychoanalysis, Gender, and Culture (1999), The Reproduction of Mothering (1978), Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory (1989), and Femininities, Masculinities, Sexualities: Freud and Beyond (1994). In The Reproduction of Mothering, she develops an account of the adolescent creation of a female self connected to mother and in a bisexual oedipal triangle, and of a male self that becomes preoccupied with rejection of dependence, and separateness.. This book won an award from the ASA, and along with Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory led to focused articles on her theories in America and abroad. Her books provide parameters for psychotherapists treating women, who need new ways of understanding what their patients/clients tell them.
The concept of why women desire motherhood is central to Nancy’s studies. She uses Freudian psychoanalytic theory to argue that young girls remain identified with the mother even after the Oedipus complex detaches the male child from his mother. She believes that the acceptance of the domestic ideal is the foundation of the oppression of women, and asserts a model of women with positive feminine qualities and self-valuation against Freud’s model of the inferior, castrated female.
According to Nancy, daughters who are raised by their mothers and develop a desire to be a mother herself. However, to develop a masculine identity, boys will repress their relationship with their mother (and indeed other women in their lives). The notion of male superiority thus arises. When raised by their mothers, girls never identify themselves as separate from their mothers in the way that boys do.
Nancy considers revised psychoanalytic and feminist theories to be the most powerful account we have of the gendered and sexual psyche. In it she sees the potential to improve self-understanding, psychological change and emotional well-being.
Relevance to Class Material
Freudian theory, revolutionary in the field of psychology, is phallocentric and androcentric in nature. By integrating Freudian theory with a feminist perspective, Nancy Chodorow has achieved great recognition in feminist psychology. I think in order to widen one’s perspective on the broad and complex subject of psychology, it is important to acknowledge revisions and criticisms made on even the most well-recognized schools of thought. In this class we’ve learned that feminist psychology spans across a wide variety of specialty areas, because gender intersects through most if not all of them.
“Becoming a Feminist Foremother” (1996), Nancy Chodorow, Feminist Foremothers in Women's Studies, Psychology, and Mental Health, Volume 1 by Ellen Cole, Esther D Rothblum, Phyllis Chesler
Half the Human Experience: The Psychology of Women, Janet Shibley Hyde, Chapter 2
“Nancy Chodorow” (2011), Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition