OBITUARY: Jean Baker Miller, 1927 - 2006
“Growth is the Great Gift”
By Abigail J. Stewart
Psychoanalyst and author Jean Baker Miller died on July 29 at age 78, after a thirteen-year struggle with emphysema and post-polio syndrome.
Miller was born on September 29, 1927, in New York City. She received a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College and attended medical school at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University—one of ten women in the 1952 graduating class of 100.
Miller’s legacy is assured, and yet it deserves our protection. Her paradigm-shifting book, Toward a New Psychology of Women (1976), changed lives when it was first published. A bestseller, it is still in print. Together with Miller’s subsequent books and articles, it is still changing lives. Miller was the first director of the Stone Center for Developmental Services and Studies, established at Wellesley College in 1981, where she led a collaboration among theorists, researchers, and clinicians to treat and prevent women’s mental health problems. In 1995 the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute was established within the Stone Center “to train people in the relational-cultural approach in psychotherapy.” [Also in 1995, the Stone Center and the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, founded in 1974, joined to form the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW). Women’s Review of Books is a project of WCW.] Miller’s relational-cultural approach is reflected in the work of the many brilliant theorists and therapists who worked with Miller and one another at the Center. Although their work and that of the students they have trained ensure that Miller’s legacy will endure and grow, we must acknowledge and understand the unique, special power of Miller’s own writing to do justice to her accomplishments.
In my own classes and during office hours, I regularly hear my women students’ passionate testimonials to the impact upon them of Miller’s writing. “Non-traditional-age” students often tell me that reading Toward a New Psychology of Women made it possible for them to rethink their lives, go back to school, and take themselves seriously. For the younger women in the class, these older women, eyes shining with new prospects for self-development, leaning forward with hope and energy, provide cautionary tales about the difficulties ahead. They also embody solutions. It is testimony to the slow pace of change as well as the enduring power of Miller’s insights that these transformative experiences continue today, thirty years after Toward a New Psychology first appeared.
What gave Miller’s writing such power—both to transform individual lives and to create an alternative approach to psychotherapy? I think it is a very special combination of features: clear, straightforward prose; examples drawn from clinical practice with a wide range of different kinds of women; acknowledgment of women’s difficulties and sympathy with their pain; analysis of the sources of those difficulties in relations of domination and subordination, combined with recognition of the strengths women have developed in adverse circumstances; and a vision of alternative relations that could be less damaging and more enabling. All this compressed into fewer than 150 pages!
Miller’s perspective grew out of her critical engagement with psychoanalysis and with the women’s movement. In an interview, she described how, in the early 1970s, she began to read feminist writers. Her patients were joining consciousness-raising groups, and she remembered thinking, “Oh my god, these groups are doing more than I am!” So she too joined a group:
The group was really varied, in terms of age, economics, and interests. And it was a force, along with the writings, which led to great personal change….I began to be able to see things, such as the larger framework of what the culture does to women. And then I began to see a path which leads from the culture to what we call “psychopathology.”
Miller notes, though, that
[T]here was one tendency in the women’s movement that could not be right…it seemed to me that there was the theme of trying to get what men had, and therefore trying to be like men…. I felt that if we really meant what we said about patriarchy being oppressive, then the model which it holds out for men’s development can’t be the right one. If it isn’t right for men, then women should not be trying to emulate it.
Miller combined these clinical and personal insights with her psychoanalytic training to fashion a new perspective. In the conclusion to her classic collection of writings, Psychoanalysis and Women (1973), she emphasizes three themes: the importance of analyzing women’s experience in its own terms (rather than starting from men’s); the importance of relationships and connections as the context for human growth; and the need for new theory of human growth and development. She writes:
The devaluation of one sex has pushed our model of growth toward a paradigm based on renouncing and overcoming rather than on taking in and creating. The tasks that are set for boys may have led us to an unnecessarily tortuous view of growth and may have served to obscure the more obvious, yet strangely neglected observation that psychological growth is the great gift and inexorable fact of human life.”
In a certain way, all of her later work explored the implications—for individual psychology and for psychotherapy—of this fundamental insight.
The simplicity of Miller’s language is part of its power. Christina Robb, in her book about the relational-cultural movement in psychology, This Changes Everything (2006), said of Miller that she “is as brave as she is unassuming, and as bold as she is clear.” The description is as true of her prose as of her ideas. Chapters have titles that are both resonant and affirming of painful and paradoxical experiences, such as “The importance of unimportant people,” and “Doing good and feeling bad.” The key theoretical terms are ordinary language: “ties to others,” “power,” “dominance,” “subordination,” “conflict,” “strengths.”
Another crucial—and controversial—source of the power of Miller’s work is that she locates a potential for social change in women’s strengths. She writes,
Practically everyone now bemoans Western man’s sense of alienation, lack of community, and inability to find ways of organizing society for human ends. We have reached the end of the road that is built on the set of traits held out for male identity—advance at any cost, pay any price, drive out all competitors, and kill them if necessary.
And she suggests that,
A most basic social advance can emerge through women’s outlook, through women putting forward women’s concerns…. Here, again, it is not a question of innate biological characteristics. It is a question of the kind of psychological structuring that is encompassed differentially by each sex at this time in our development as a society of human beings—and a question of who can offer the motivation and direction for moving on from here.”
Always balancing her appreciation of women’s strengths with her recognition that they can be distorted by unequal power relations, Miller concludes,
The central point here is that women’s great desire for affiliation is both a fundamental strength, essential for social advance and at the same time the inevitable source of many of women’s current problems….what is most important is to see that even so-called neuroses can, and most often do, contain within them the starting points, the searching for a more advanced form of existence.”
It is the complexity of this articulation that is unique to Miller—the combination of a critique of the damage that unequal power relations do to both men and women, and recognition of the strengths women have preserved and developed under conditions of subordination that can become tools to create social changes that would benefit everyone. Many women (and some men) experience a “shock of recognition” when they read Miller’s work, because it captures the paradoxes and contradictions in their situations. The sense of being understood allows them to embrace a new vision for their own lives and the wider culture. It is this subtle and nuanced account that is, I think, what we have gained from Miller, and risk losing with her death.
Jean Baker Miller is survived by her husband of more than fifty years, S.M. Miller of Brookline, Massachusetts; two sons, Jonathan F. Miller of Sleepy Hollow, New York, and Edward D. Miller of New York City; and her grandson, Jacob Miller.
Abigail J. Stewart is Sandra Schwartz Tangri Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. Her current research examines educated women’s lives and personalities; race, gender and generation among graduates of a Midwest high school; and gender, science and technology among middle-school-age girls, undergraduate students, and faculty.
For Further Reading:
Psychoanalysis and Women, by Jean Baker Miller. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1973.
Toward a new psychology of women, by Jean Baker Miller. Boston: Beacon Press, 1976.
“Learning from women,” by Jean Baker Miller and A. S. Welch, In P.Chesler, E.D. Rothblum & E. Cole (Eds.), Feminist Foremothers, Women’s Studies, Psychology, Mental Health. New York: Haworth Press, 1995.
This Changes Everything: The Relational Revolution in Psychology, by Christina Robb. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.