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Dorothy Dinnerstein

April 4, 1923–1992

by Alyson Cole

In Brief

Dorothy Dinnerstein earned a PhD in psychology at the New School for Social Research in 1951. She taught at Rutgers University from 1959 to 1989 and cofounded the Institute for Cognitive Studies there in 1966. In The Mermaid and the Minotaur, her most famous work, Dinnerstein argued that patriarchy and misogyny are rooted in women’s monopoly over childrearing. She claimed that the mother’s role as both nurturer and disciplinarian makes the child want to reclaim power by subjugating women. She believed that only a radical shift in gender roles could fix humanity’s core problems. In her later work, Dinnerstein shifted her focus to ecology and nuclear disarmament. When she died, she was working on a new project called “Sentience and Survival,” examining how human cognitive processes interfere with people taking action to save the environment and prevent nuclear destruction.

Since its publication, Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise (1976) has been recognized as one of the most important contributions to modern feminist thought. The book, translated into at least seven languages, is widely used in women’s studies courses and is an influential text outside academia as well. Comparing Dinnerstein’s book to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, one reviewer declared that this seminal essay not only belongs in “every feminist library” but in the “library of every well-educated person.”

Early Life and Family

Dorothy Dinnerstein was born in New York City on April 4, 1923, and spent her childhood in a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx. Within this social and cultural context, she came to view her political activities as integral to her Jewish identity, believing that Judaism and socialism were inseparable.

This was in part her parents’ legacy. Both of her parents were politically progressive Jews: her mother’s family came from Bialystok, Poland, and her father’s family emigrated from Minsk, Russia. Celia Moed Dinnerstein, her mother, was an administrative assistant at the Bronx Family Court. Her father, Nathan Dinnerstein, was an architectural engineer, but lost his business early in the Depression. He worked thereafter as a bookkeeper in his brother-in-law’s junkyard; he died before the Depression was over. Dinnerstein was married to Walter Miller, a poet and professor at New York University, and they had a daughter, Naomi May, born in 1955. Dinnerstein also had two stepdaughters, Nina and June Lehrman, from her second marriage to the ethologist Daniel Lehrman.

Psychology and Feminism

After graduating from Brooklyn College in 1943, she began graduate studies at Swarthmore College under mentors Wolfgang Kohler, father of Gestalt psychology, and Max Wertheimer. She went on to complete her Ph.D. in psychology at the New School for Social Research as a student of Solomon Asch, a prominent social psychologist. Dinnerstein would later recruit Asch to be the first director of the Institute for Cognitive Studies, which she cofounded at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. She taught and researched at Rutgers for thirty years before retiring as a distinguished professor emerita.

According to Dinnerstein’s Mermaid, the roots of patriarchy and misogyny lie in women’s traditional monopoly over child rearing. Departing from earlier feminist thinkers who viewed asymmetrical patterns of parenting as a symptom of societal oppression of women, Dinnerstein was among the first to claim that women’s role as primary caretakers causes fear and loathing of women and of things culturally inscribed as “female.” Combining insights taken primarily from Freudian psychoanalysis and Gestalt psychology, Dinnerstein argued that the infant’s ambivalent relationship with his or her mother, who is both a nurturer and a disciplinarian, is the source of sexual, social, and ecological pathologies that are the content of “human malaise.” Humans are unable to live in harmony with themselves, each other, and their environment.

The symbols of the mermaid and the minotaur represent “the pernicious prevailing form of collaboration between the sexes,” the tacit consent of both men and women to sustain gender arrangements within which “both man and woman will remain semi-human [and] monstrous.” Dinnerstein’s style is bold, disrupting the expected language of academic discourse and is, in fact, a diversion from the scope and style of her early work, which was within the scientific tradition of empirical psychology. Dinnerstein admittedly tried to enrage the reader because she believed that a radical revision of gender roles is both possible and imperative if we are to preserve the human species. Although she contended that a greater equality between men and women in child rearing might hold the solution to many of our emotional and social problems, Dinnerstein was well aware of the formidable resistance to changing traditional practices, since these patterns of child rearing still serve “defensive psychological functions.”

A Turn to Ecology

Dinnerstein’s involvement in feminist politics reflected her particular interest in ecology and nuclear disarmament. She was an active participant in the Seneca Women’s Peace Camp, Women’s Pentagon Action, Demeter’s Daughters, and in other aspects of the feminist peace movement. Ecological concerns were also paramount in Mermaid. Dinnerstein maintained that the abuse of nature (“Mother Nature”) by human beings is closely tied to gender inequality. In later publications, environmental issues occupied an increasing role.

Before her untimely death in a car accident on December 17, 1992, Dorothy Dinnerstein was engaged in a new project about environmental issues. Under the working title “Sentience and Survival,” she was exploring the ways in which human cognitive structures interfere with our taking appropriate actions to prevent world destruction. This work reflected her deep commitment, as explored in her political activism, to examine the genocidal tendencies in the human species, including the destruction of the environment, and what she saw as the inevitability of nuclear holocaust.

Selected Works by Dorothy Dinnerstein

“Afterward: Toward the Mobilization of Eros.” In Face to Face: Essays for a Non-Sexist Future, edited by M. Murray (1983).

“AL and Structural Interaction: Alternate or Complimentary Concepts?” Adaption-Level Theory (1971).

“Contextual Determination of Apparent Weight as Demonstrated by the Methods of Constant Stimuli,” with F. Curcio and J. Chinsky. Psychonormic Society 5 (1966).

“Figural After-effects in Kinesthesis,” with W. Kohler. In Miscellaneous Psychologic, edited by Albert Michotte (1947).

“Interaction of Simultaneous and Successive Stimulus Groupings in Determining Apparent Weight,” with T. Gerstein and G. Michel. Journal of Experimental Psychology 73 (1967).

“Intermanual Effects of Anchors on Zones of Maximal Sensitivity in Weight Discrimination.” American Journal of Psychology 45 (1965).

“The Little Mermaid and the Situation of the Girl.” Contemporary Psychoanalysis (1967).

The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise (1976).

“On the Development of Associations,” with H. Egeth. In Psychologische Beitrage, edited by J. Ceraso (1962).

“Previous and Concurrent Visual Experience as Determinants of Phenomenal Shape.” American Journal of Psychology 78 (1965).

“Some Determinants of Phenomenal Overlapping,” with M. Wertheimer. American Journal of Psychology 70, no. 1 (1957).

“The ‘Source’ Dimension of Second-Hand Evidence.” Journal of Social Psychology 45 (1957).

“Techniques for the Diagnosis and Measurement of Intergroup Attitudes and Behavior,” with J. Harding et al. Psychology (1948).

“What Does Feminism Mean?” In Rocking the Ship of State: Toward a Feminist Peace Politics, edited by A. Harris and Y. King (1989).

Bibliography

Alford, C. “Psychoanalysis and Social Theory: Sacrificing Psychoanalysis to Utopia?” Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought 13, no. 4 (1990): 483–507.

Bart, P. “The Mermaid and the Minotaur, a Fishy Story That’s Part Bull.” Contemporary Psychology 22, no. 11 (1977): 834–835.

Baruch, E., and L. Serrano. Women Analyze Women: In France, England and the United States (1988).

Burack, C. The Problem of the Passions: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and Social Theory (1994).

Chodorow, N., and S. Contratto. “The Fantasy of the Perfect Mother.” In Rethinking the Family: Some Feminist Questions, edited by B. Thorne (1982).

Eisenstein, H. “The Cultural Meaning of Mothering: II. The Mermaid and the Megamachine.” In Contemporary Feminist Thought (1983): 79–86.

Gottleibe, R. “Mothering and the Reproduction of Power: Chodorow, Dinnerstein and Social Theory.” Socialist Review 14, no. 5 (1984): 93–119.

Haaken, J. “Freudian Theory Revisited: A Critique of Rich, Chodorow, and Dinnerstein.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 2, no. 4 (Winter 1983): 12–15.

Hirsch, M. “Mothers and Daughters.” Signs 7, no. 11 (1981): 200–222.

“The Mermaid and the Memories.” The Women’s Review of Books X:7 (April 1993): 7–8.

Raymond, J. “Female Friendship: Contra Chodorow and Dinnerstein.” Hypatia 1, no. 2 (Fall 1986).

Snitow, A. “Thinking About The Mermaid and the Minotaur.Feminist Studies 4, no. 2 (June 1978): 192–198.

Steele, R. “Paradigm Lost: Psychoanalysis After Freud.” In Points of View in the Modern History of Psychology, edited by C. Buxton (1985).

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How to cite this page

Cole, Alyson. "Dorothy Dinnerstein." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 29, 2022) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/dinnerstein-dorothy>.