A professor of psychology at San Jose State University in California and a prominent feminist psychotherapist, Ellyn Kaschak has been an important contributor to psychology. In a field that often views the male personality as the norm, Ellyn Kaschak has introduced many crucial theories of feminist psychology. Ellyn Kaschak is most likely best known for her theory of the “Antigone Complex,” introduced in her book Engendered Lives: The Psychology of Women’s Experience. Kaschak’s Antigone Complex takes a hard look at Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus Complex, adapting it to the experiences women face in modern society.
The Oedipus Complex, a part of the theories Sigmund Freud developed more than a hundred years ago, addresses the subject of male development. Freud proposed that boys learned male gender roles via the Oedipus Complex, which was marked by a boy’s sexual desire for his mother. The boy learned to be a man by fearing punishment – and ultimately, castration – at the hands of his father in retaliation for his desires. Freud called this the Oedipus Complex after the Greek tragedy of Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother.
Freud’s theories have long been noted for their treatment of women: Freud alternately saw women as abnormal or avoided theorizing about their development altogether. Ellyn Kaschak, like many theorists and psychotherapists who followed in Freud’s footsteps, has attempted to fill in the blanks with theories that illustrate female development in today’s world. Kaschak’s Antigone Complex attempts to do this by extending the Oedipus myth to cover the female side of the spectrum.
In the Antigone Complex, Ellyn Kaschak makes reference to the plight of Antigone, Oedipus’ daughter. After learning of his wrongdoings – killing his father and fathering children with his mother – Oedipus blinds himself in a dramatic act of punishment by self-mutilation. Afterward, however, his welfare falls upon the shoulders of Antigone, who gives up her freedom and an independent life to care for her father. A lifetime of putting the welfare of the men in her family before her own eventually leads to Antigone's premature death at her own hands. Despite the significant sacrifices Antigone makes for the men in her family, she is at best a minor character in the tragedies of her father and brothers.
Ellyn Kaschak uses the story of Antigone to draw a parallel with women in modern society. She points out that women are socialized to constantly put their loved ones' welfare – especially that of the men in their lives – before their own. Furthermore, Kaschak theorizes that women internalize society’s narrow view of their identities and their usefulness, until their self image becomes aligned with society’s expectations. Therefore, a woman in Kaschak’s Antigone phase considers herself as an extension of the men in her life, often subordinating her own needs and desires in order to ensure that theirs are met.
As an extension of the Antigone Complex, Ellyn Kaschak also theorizes that because many women internalize society’s values and concepts of femininity, their self esteem is determined by how they measure up to society’s standards. For example, many women judge their worth by their sexuality and attractiveness to men. It is important to note that Ellyn Kaschak does not see the Antigone Complex as a permanent barrier to female development. On the contrary, Kaschak theorizes that women can overcome the Antigone Complex by learning to view themselves in terms of their own potential, rather than that of the men they are associated with.