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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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How to cite this page
Cole, Alyson. "Dorothy Dinnerstein." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 24, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/dinnerstein-dorothy>.