The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise, 1976
Dorothy Dinnerstein, a professor of psychology, wrote The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and the Human Malaise. The book suggests that society’s current gender arrangements in which women pervasively serve as the primary nurturers of infants and young children result in human pathology. The Mermaid and the Minotaur is considered a classic text in women’s studies and has been translated into seven languages.
Dinnerstein graduated from Brooklyn College and received a Ph.D. in psychology from the New School for Social Research in 1951. She began teaching at Rutgers University, Newark, in 1959. While at Rutgers, she helped to create the Institute for Cognitive Studies, a distinguished graduate program. She also published numerous journal articles in cognitive psychology and fought for equality for women academics.
A political activist as well as an academic, Dinnerstein marched and protested in both New York and Washington, D.C., as a member of Demeter’s Daughters, a civil disobedience group. She was disappointed that many readers of The Mermaid and the Minotaur focused too narrowly on gender inequality and overlooked the book’s larger concern with world peace. The bombing of Hiroshima during World War II had left an indelible mark on Dinnerstein, and she believed that the reckless use of rapidly accelerating technology was symbolic of a destructive force that could only be neutralized by the active involvement of women in the public realm.
Corresponding to Dinnerstein’s interests, her published writing shows a movement from professional academic journal articles based on empirical laboratory research toward writing that is more theoretical in nature, to, finally, writing that is explicitly political. Dinnerstein’s early publications reported laboratory experiments in cognitive psychology. However, one article, “‘The Little Mermaid’ and the Situation of the Girl,” published in Contemporary Psychoanalysis (1967), foreshadowed the themes and methodology that would later make her famous. This article analyzes Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Little Mermaid” in terms of gender and how gender situates the mermaid (girl) in the world. The article was significant because it allowed Dinnerstein to come out of the laboratory and into the messier world of human gender arrangements, a context she explored in greater depth in The Mermaid and the Minotaur. Finally, in one of her last works, “Survival on Earth: The Meaning of Feminism,” published in Healing the Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism (1989), an anthology edited by Judith Plant, Dinnerstein adopts an emotionally charged tone while arguing that the very survival of Earth depends on the reorganization of our present gender arrangements. The essay also suggests how this reorganization can come about.
Dinnerstein described herself as a “slow, slow writer” and left an unfinished manuscript titled “Sentience and Survival: Mobilizing Eros.” Her friends and colleagues remember her loose dresses, which she made from bedsheets, and her startlingly intelligent conversation. Dinnerstein loved the natural world and enjoyed snorkeling and walking on the beach. She died from injuries sustained in a car crash; she had been driving in the rain. The widow of Daniel Lehrman, a comparative psychologist, she left behind a daughter, Naomi Miller, and two stepdaughters, June Lehrman and Nina Lehrman-Davis.