Naomi Weisstein (b. 1939)

by Stephanie Austin, Bureau of Women's Health and Gender Analysis, Health Canada

Naomi Weisstein’s now-classic paper Psychology constructs the female (Weisstein, 1971) brought second wave feminism and academic psychology together in the United States.  In this brief sketch, I highlight some of the life experiences that led Naomi Weisstein to initiate a radical feminist tradition in psychology.  I also describe some of the effects of her activism on her career as a neuroscientist, on her life as a passionate feminist, and on the discipline of psychology.  Naomi Weisstein shared her life experiences with me in person, in writing, and through her published papers and recorded music because, as she stated, “it is a point of principle with me to help feminists, especially young, struggling feminists…SOLIDARITY!!” (personal communication, February 28, 2003).

As a young woman, Weisstein was determined to pursue higher education in a stimulating scholarly environment.  Despite her father’s reluctance to support her choice, she moved from New York City to pursue undergraduate study at Wellesley College in the 1950s.  In 1961, when she began her doctoral program at Harvard University, she was made painfully aware that the graduate program at this prestigious institution was not friendly to women.  Although confident in her abilities as a scientist, and optimistic that her research in neuroscience would be judged fairly, she soon encountered sexism.  When preparing to use laboratory equipment at Harvard for her dissertation research, she was told that she could not use the equipment for fear that she might break it - women were thought to be incapable of using the technology.  Undeterred, Weisstein went to Yale to use their equipment, and there ran her novel experiments on parallel brain processing.  Weisstein was ranked first in her Harvard class and obtained her PhD in psychology in 1964. 

Weisstein’s experiences in graduate school marked the beginning of a career characterized by groundbreaking work in neuroscience, coupled with harsh exclusion and alienation from colleagues, departments, institutions, and social systems.  It was by identifying the disjuncture between these experiences that Weisstein developed her feminist consciousness. In her words,

I am a feminist because I have seen my life and the lives of women I know harassed, dismissed, damaged, destroyed. I am a feminist because without others I can do little to stop the outrage. Without a political and social movement of which I am a part – without feminism – my determination and persistence, my clever retorts, my hours of patient explanation, my years of exhortation amount to little (Weisstein, 1977, p. 250). 

In the late 1960s and 1970s, Naomi Weisstein found support, understanding and a springboard for her activism in the emerging United States’ women’s movement.  She has characterized that period as the time when “I found feminism and feminism found me.”  As the second wave of feminism was beginning to build momentum in the United States, Weisstein and some friends started the first independent consciousness-raising group called the Westside Group in Chicago.  Weisstein was also active in the formation of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU), an umbrella organization for all of the women’s groups in the city.  She even started a rock band as a way of creating an alternative to the male-dominated music of the day.  Jesse Lemisch, Naomi Weisstein’s husband for 40 years now, reported that he fell in love with a feminist who was “radical to the core, she educated me in refusal and resistance in ways that have helped to keep us afloat in more recent years, against dreadful and seemingly insurmountable forces” (Lemisch & Weisstein, 1997).

In her academic life, Weisstein was able to find respect and encouragement for her work at Loyola University in Chicago where she held a faculty position in the psychology department between 1967 and 1973.  Unfortunately, despite strong support in this department, Loyola was unable to provide her with the infrastructure she needed to develop a research program.  When she was invited to join a strong group of researchers in cognitive psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Weisstein accepted the academic appointment with enthusiasm.  Little did she know that this would prove to be a disastrous move.

Although her new colleagues had been very impressed with Weisstein’s scientific accomplishments and had lobbied for her during the hiring process, these positive interactions soon turned to conflict.  Professors intimidated her graduate students, denounced her research and tried to uncover information about her scholarship for their own gain.  Because Weisstein was unwilling to play the role of a quiet, subservient woman, her colleagues engaged in unrelenting forms of sexual harassment in the workplace.  By 1979, her husband wrote: “the day-to-day combat with the sharks had almost destroyed her” (Lemisch & Weisstein, 1997).  Exhausted, she decided to take a leave of absence from SUNY Buffalo.  The brutality of these working conditions may well have contributed to a physical illness Weisstein has been living with for 20 years:  chronic fatigue syndrome.  The illness has hit her terribly hard; she has been bedridden since 1983.

Some may interpret Weisstein’s story as a classic case of a woman not being strong or perseverant enough, not being resourceful and creative enough, or not being adaptable and flexible enough to succeed in a competitive scientific environment.  As Weisstein herself suggests, “The lesson appears to be that those (and only those) with extraordinary strength will survive. This is not the way I see it.  Many have had extraordinary strength and have not survived” (Weisstein, 1977, p. 250).  As Weisstein herself has pointed out, it is crucial for psychologists to consider the social context within which women’s acts of strength, resourcefulness, creativity, adaptability, and flexibility are being expressed.  Her article, Psychology constructs the female, articulates this point carefully, and sometimes humorously.  In a social context in which women’s inferiority is assumed a priori, no amount of strength, resourcefulness, etc., will enable women to overcome the barriers they face.             

Weisstein brought her feminist activism into her professional life in many ways.  She was involved in founding the Association for Women in Psychology and the Women’s Caucus of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology.  She published several academic articles on feminism and its implications for psychology.  Her contributions to research and scholarship have awarded her a place of prominence in the field.  As the “herstory” project of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union indicates, Weisstein is: “a Guggenheim Fellow and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Psychological Society, she has written over sixty articles for such publications as Science, Vision Research, Psychological Review and Journal of Experimental Psychology, and served on the boards of Cognitive Psychology and Spatial Vision. Her papers are currently being collected by Harvard-Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library.”  

Despite her traditional and non-traditional accomplishments, Naomi Weisstein’s importance has been underplayed in the history of psychology.  As a feminist historical figure, she has helped inspire a generation of radical feminists in psychology.  She continues to support their work through the power of her presence, the boldness of her writing and the strength of her voice. 

References

Lemisch, J. & Weisstein, N. (1997). Remarks on Naomi Weisstein. CWLU herstory online. Retrieved April 7, 2003, from http://www.cwluherstory.com/CWLUMemoir/weisstein.html

Weisstein, N. (1971). Psychology constructs the female. Journal of Social Education, 35, 362-373.

Weisstein, N. (1977). “How can a little girl like you teach a great big class of men?” the Chairman said, and other adventures of a woman in science. In S. Ruddick and P. Daniels (Eds.), Working it out (pp. 241-250), New York: Pantheon Books.