Naomi Weisstein’s Contribution to Psychology, Science, and Women’s Liberation

tags: psychology, Science, Naomi Weisstein, Womens Liberation

 Jesse Lemisch is a New Left Historian and author of, among other things, “Jack Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America,” “The American Revolution Seen from the Bottom Up,” and “On Active Service in War Peace: Politics and Ideology in the American Historical Profession.” From 1965 until her death in 2015, he was married to Naomi Weisstein; “people,” he notes, “correctly thought of us as a sect of two.”

This post is written in response to a recent post by LD Burnett on the “career” of Naomi Weisstein’s essay “Kinder, Kuche, Kirche as Scientific Law” (1968).— Ben Alpers

LD Burnett’s “Back to the Well” is an excellent piece, and I fully agree with Burnett that the concrete actualities of the spread of ideas should be an important part of intellectual history. Burnett does a fine job of tracing the various early versions of the essay, anchoring the perhaps too frequent abstractions of the field in actual reality. (For more information about further versions of Naomi’s essay, her papers are available at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women.)

Burnett leads us well though the thicket of the various lives, births and rebirths of “Kinder, Kuche, Kirche as Scientific Law: Psychology Constructs the Female” [hereafter, KKK]. Reading Burnett and re-reading Naomi’s essay so many years after having lived through it with Naomi, I’m impressed by the similarity between 1) the spread of her work on psychology and women in the 1960s-70s and since; and 2) the rapid movement of ideas on the internet since the 1990s. We may have reached the point where US demographics have shifted to the point where many people have simply not experienced life as it was before the internet. There were internet-like phenomena before there was an internet. What follows is a beginning attempt to sketch in some of the contexts in which Naomi’s essay took place.A major ingredient of the spread of the essay was that she wrote amidst the rise of the Women’s Liberation Movement. What comes to mind as a more recent parallel was the rise of the Bernie Sanders candidacy in 2016: you know that you have a movement when increasing numbers of people who you didn’t plan for keep turning out. The various revisions and expansions of the essay occurred in response to multiplying requests to reprint, with Naomi updating content and adapting the piece to specific audiences.

Naomi later said that “the women’s movement gave me my voice.” When I organized an early Vietnam teach-in at the University of Chicago (1965 or 1966) she spoke nervously, her voice varying uncontrollably in pitch. Later in the sixties, as she was invited to various places as a feminist speaker, she developed an immensely moving, persuasive and distinctive manner of presentation. I am recalling in particular her talk at the Yale Law School in 1970 on the occasion of the admission of the first women to Yale College. Her style remained somewhat awkward, marked by her interjections, but comic, passionate, desperate — she had just learned of the intended theft by the editors of the journal to which she had submitted a pioneering piece in what was to be called the Cognitive Revolution — for Naomi’s short account, see her article, “Theft” — and totally in tune with her audience, which was wildly responsive and participatory. It had the flavor of the back-and-forth between minister and congregation in the Black churches at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. (I remember with deep emotion the sight of her speaking from a platform that looked like the bow of a ship, seeming to be navigating ahead through stormy seas.) Word of her oratory and ideas spread rapidly and she was overwhelmed with speaking invitations, rushing from her lab to O’Hare.

Here are some sources of Naomi’s thought that went into KKK.

She was, characterologically, deeply anti-authoritarian. (I speculate that she developed this in part as a survival strategy, growing up in a sometimes cruel family environment.)

She was a scientist, and committed to the pursuit of evidence, with a passion for reason that was rare in the movements of the sixties. She begins her “’How Can a Little Girl Like you Teach a Whole Big Class of Men?’ the Chairman said, and Other Adventures of a Woman in Science” by mentioning her reading, as a child, Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters on Leeuwenhoek’s tenacity in holding firmly — against Royal Society opposition — to  his report of the “beasties” that he observed through his microscope. She wrote:

It was very important to me that he could reply that he had his evidence… Evidence and reason: my heroes and my guides.

Anybody reading KKK today will see that it is permeated with Naomi’s scientism. The essay is to a great extent a sophisticated critique of the methodologies that formed the allegedly factual basis of such oppressive ideologies as misogyny.

As a graduate student at Harvard, she had moved from “soft” psychology into hard science, influenced in part by a presentation in one of her courses of a woman in a mental institution near Boston. The woman was deeply Catholic and had had an abortion after her boyfriend left her pregnant. Hearing this woman’s account, Naomi thought she was handling her situation pretty well, but Naomi was dismayed when the psychiatrist took the patient off stage and then offered the class an unsympathetic and deeply disrespectful take on her. Here was a germ of Naomi’s statement in KKK:

Psychology has nothing to say about what women are really like, what they need and what they want, especially because psychology does not know.

(When we lived around, and in spite of, the University of Chicago, Naomi was exposed to the local sanctification of Bruno Bettelheim, with his “refrigerator mother” and other noxious scams.)

At Harvard, Naomi was pals with Stanley Milgram and converted for feminist purposes his work then in progress that became his major studies on obedience to authority. She was also tuned in to rigorous work in social psychology showing the polluting effects of social expectations: psychology reports not so much what people are but rather what people, including psychologists, expect them to be.


Naomi’s public speaking on psychology and women came to an end when her sisters in the Chicago movement silenced her, fearing that she would become a “heavy” amidst in an anti-elitist movement: what a loss, to Naomi and to the movement! She continued speaking about her work in visual psychophysics, bringing the same qualities to scientific presentation: original, deep and comical. Then in the 1980s she fell ill and lost her job and lab. Bedridden for thirty-plus years, she fell victim to some of the same barbaric ideology in the medical profession that she  had earlier criticized in psychology: doctors and insurers haughtily determined that if a female was bedridden with a mystery disease – called, inadequately, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome — it must be psychosomatic, “Just try,” said the doctor as she lay dying in Lenox Hill Hospital; “the pain is all in your head.” It’s time for someone to write “Kinder, Kuche, Kirche as Scientific Law: Medicine Constructs the Female.”

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