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November 8: Therese Benedek and the Psychosexual Life of Women

November 8, 2014

benedekPsychoanalyst Therese Benedek, who left Germany for the U.S. in 1935 and became a researcher about the psychosexual development of women, including their emotional and psychological responses to hormonal fluctuations and motherhood, was born in Hungary on this date in 1892. Shortly after her lifelong marriage began, she underwent five months of psychoanalysis with Sandor Ferenczi, and through him was admitted to the Berlin Psychoanalytic Association in 1924. Benedek’s five books, all written in the U.S., included The Sexual Cycle in Women (1947), Psychosexual Functions in Women (1952), and Insight and Personality Adjustment (1946). Throughout her career (primarily at the Chicago institute for Psychoanalysis), Benedek combined research with writing and therapeutic practice. Much of her analysis of modern women’s lives reads today as rather non-feminist: she critiqued the “unmotherly modern woman” and viewed the reluctance of women to be slaves to their reproductive “duties” to be a form of psychopathology. Benedek lived to 84 and was active until the end in teaching, clinical practice, and work in support of the psychoanalytic profession.

“In collaboration with Boris Rubenstein, an endocrinologist, Benedek began a pioneering investigation in the sexual cycle of women. They monitored... hormonal levels through the menstrual cycle and correlated them with the dreams and verbal content of psychoanalytic sessions. In their findings, published in 1942, they linked estrogen activity with an outward-directed tendency that gave way, during the production of progesterone, to a passive, receptive, narcissistic attitude in which the woman turns away from the outer world.” —Lawrence Balter, Parenthood in America