This Feminist Psychologist-Turned-Rock-Star Led a Full Life of Resistance

Naomi Weisstein fought against the idea of women as objects in both the fields of psychology and rock ‘n roll

Naomi Weisstein was a feminist activist, a neuropsychologist and, for a brief time, a rock 'n roll musician. (© Jo Freeman)
smithsonian.com

As a neuropsychologist in the 1970s, Naomi Weisstein fought against the prevailing belief that women were a “social disease” that belonged exclusively in the home. If women were sick, she said, it was because society and its various institutions had deemed them so. Unlike most social scientists, however, she was also able to articulate her perspective in song:

I went to the doctor

I said, “Doctor can you help me please?”

Flames came out of his ears

He roared, “you’ve got a social disease.”

Weisstein wrote these lyrics, from the song "VD Blues," along with her band, the Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band—because in addition to being a psychologist, she was also a women’s activist and rock ’n roller. In both her music and her science, Weisstein's work was united by one theme: a “resistance to tyrannies of all kinds,” in the words of her husband, Jesse Lemisch.

Weisstein earned a PhD in psychology from Harvard in 1964. It was there that she began a career marked by resistance. In her essay “How can a little girl like you teach a great big class of men?” from a collection titled Working It Out: 23 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk About Their Lives and Work, Weisstein details the barrage of gender discrimination she encountered throughout her career, from professors at Harvard telling her that “[w]omen don’t belong in graduate school” and barring her from using the lab to sexual harassment to male colleagues shamelessly attempting to steal her work. Yet Weisstein resisted, going on to graduate first in her Harvard class in just two and a half years.

In “How can a little girl like you teach a great big class of men?” Weisstein recalls the difficulty she faced during her job search after Harvard. Besides the titular question, she encountered insulting queries from potential employers including, “Who did your research for you?” Despite these slights, she received a National Science Foundation post-doctoral fellowship in mathematical biology at the University of Chicago. Ultimately, she was awarded a research grant by the psychology department at Loyola University in Chicago, where she was also granted a faculty position.

While researching in Chicago in 1969, Weisstein help found the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union—an organization that galvanized second-wave feminism in the city. Around that time, she recalls listening to “Under My Thumb” by Mick Jagger, a song in which he compares his girlfriend to a “squirmin’ dog who’s just had her day.”

"How criminal," Weisstein recalls thinking, "to make the subjugation of women so sexy.” 

Weisstein, along with other feminists, listened to rock music because they identified with the counter-culture it engendered. Yet Weisstein believed rock’s gender and sexual politics needed a radical change. So, with little experience but a whole lot of motivation, she decided to start a rock band with five other members of CWLU, and the Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band was born.

In her words: “Why not see what would happen if we created visionary, feminist rock?”

The band formed in 1970 with an explicit and unapologetic political angle. Their lyrics and performance resonated with women who loved rock music but also sought female solidarity. In 1973, the band broke up under the weight of internal conflicts. Yet despite their inexperience as musicians and short lived run, CWLRB accomplished their goal: creating rock music that was not about women's subjugation, but about their liberation. 

At the same time as Weisstein was attempting to shake up the world of rock of music, she was also pushing the boundaries of psychology. In a blistering 1968 essay entitled “Kinder, Küche, Kirche as Scientific Law: Psychology Constructs the Female,” Weisstein called out the failure of the male dominated field and its practitioners to properly investigate the nature of women. "Kinder, küche, kirche," or the three Ks, is a German phrase meaning "children, kitchen, and church," which defined the role of women as mothers, wives and moral nurturers. 

Weisstein argued that psychologists worked from this same cultural script that subjugated women and relegated them to the home. She gave examples of respected psychologists like Bruno Bettelheim of the University of Chicago who said that “as much as women want to be good scientists or engineers, they want first and foremost to be womanly companions of men and to be mothers,” and Erik Erikson of Harvard who questioned whether or not a woman could “have an identity before they know who whom they will marry.”

The paper was as scholarly as it was indicting. By relying on theory without evidence, psychologists, Weisstein argued, had integrated these stereotypical cultural ideas about women into their practice without examining the social context that shaped them. After an initial blowback, her paper irrevocably changed the field of psychology. In a special issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly dedicated to Weisstein’s work, psychologists Alexandra Rutherford, Kelli Vaughn-Blout, and Laura C. Ball argue that it was “[c]entral, if not catalytic, to the invention of feminist psychology."

With “Psychology Constructs the Female,” Weisstein brought the demands of the women’s liberation movement to psychology’s doorstep. Within the American Psychological Association, she co-founded Division 35, dedicated to the psychology of women. Meanwhile, she was also bringing psychology to the women’s liberation movement. Only two years after her essay was published, it was anthologized in the 1970 publication of Sisterhood is Powerful: an Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement, today a classic volume in the literature of second wave feminism.

Yet while Weisstein is best known today for her resistance music and “Psychology Constructs the Female,”  Lemisch says, “the center of her life was in neuroscience.” Weisstein’s work in neuroscience was part of what we now call the Cognitive Revolution, which focused on the brain's agency in forming perceptions. She showed that the brain did not just passively receive information; it was active in forming perceptions visually received and assigning meaning to them.

Though not immediately apparent at the time, this too was a form of resistance. Weisstein was pushing back against prevailing beliefs that humans were passive receivers by showing, even down to the neurons in the brain, humans could be active agents in forming how they see the world.

In 1973, Weisstein was invited to SUNY Buffalo to join a prominent group of cognitive psychologists. Instead of finding a home for her and her research, she found an environment more hostile and discriminatory than Harvard. Colleagues would meet with Weisstein’s students to try to uncover details about her research while some more blatantly tried to run her experiments without her, which she describes in an essay titled “Theft.” On top of the degradation of her work, she also endured relentless sexual harassment, which she later wrote about.

In March 1980, Weisstein was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. From 1983 to 2013, she was bedridden. “I do believe that the horrors at Buffalo played a role in making her sick in 1980,” says Lemisch. Still, Weisstein continued to work. After her diagnosis, she remained on journal editorial boards, kept her lab in Buffalo going for eight more years, and published 17 more articles, the last in 1992.

To Lemisch, the diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome opened up “a whole new world of bigotry.” Chronic fatigue syndrome was understudied and vastly misunderstood. The doctors “characterize[d] it as psychosomatic and ‘female hysteria,’ to use the old, sexist term,” Lemisch says. As her illness continued, it became clear to her husband that “the years of struggle within science now meant a struggle with the medical profession.” 

In the weeks leading to Weisstein’s death in 2013, her doctor insisted she did not have cancer, despite her ongoing concern of vaginal bleeding. Though eventually diagnosed and admitted to Lenox Hill hospital for cancer, the doctor there failed to find a benign tumor near her stomach—even though she could point right to it. The tumor kept her from eating and drinking, but the doctor insisted that she just wasn’t trying. Weisstein died on March 26, 2015 of ovarian cancer—a death that was certainly hastened by the medical profession’s dismissal of a woman’s pain.

“There were many Naomis,” says Lemisch. The diverse group of people who spoke at her memorial—from feminist icon Gloria Steinem to neuroscientist Patrick Cavanaugh—reflect the many arenas that Weisstein influenced, disrupted, and changed. Weisstein loved rock music and science, but she also believed that they could liberate women instead of degrade them. Although she ultimately became a victim of the same dominant stereotypes about women that she fought against, she helped transform psychology and neuroscience into a better field than when she had found it. 

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