The Effect of the Whip: The Frankfurt School and the Oppression of Women


[Photo: Herbert Marcuse and Angela Davis, 1968]

To mark the publication of Stuart Jeffries' Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School in paperback we're republishing excerpts and pieces related to Frankfurt School thinkers. Here: Stuart Jeffries on the Frankfurt School's absence of women and the points of contact between the thinkers associated with the Institute für Sozialforschung and theorists of feminism.    

When I was researching Grand Hotel Abyss: the Lives of the Frankfurt School, one question kept nagging me. Where were the women? Was the role of women at the Institute für Sozialforschung limited to keeping the male geniuses caffeinated, typing up the manuscripts, and arranging Atlantic passages so its thinkers, who were overwhelmingly, Marxist Jews, could flee Hitler?  

Critical theory, as practised by the thinkers of the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt and American exile, involved spending a lot of time writing and thinking, understandably, about the oppression of Jews, but hardly hardly any on the oppression of women. In part that’s because there were no eminent women in the Frankfurt School. And that is odd, even disgraceful, for a putatively radical group of thinkers in the 20th century. Contrast critical theory as practised by the Frankfurt School with the new and related psychoanalytical theory, where women such as Melanie Klein and Anna Freud made substantial and distinctive contributions. What would the Frankfurt School and critical theory have been like if it had had its Rosa Luxemburg or Simone de Beauvoir or Hélène Cixous or Margaret Thatcher or Kate Millett (of whom more later)? Quite possibly, it would have been less marginalised than it is today.

Perhaps, after all, we can dismiss the Frankfurt School as just another bunch of dead white men whose writings have little to say to us now? Well, we could, but that would be unfortunate. The Frankfurt School was hardly ignorant about the oppression of women and the few passages they wrote on the subject have proved inspiring to some feminist thinkers. In his 1951 book Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life, for instance, Adorno wrote a brilliant single paragraph unpicking the notion of the “feminine character," arguing that it is the product of masculine society. Women, like nature, are dominated and mutilated as part of the Enlightenment project. In our civilisation, nature and the feminine character have this much in common: they seem natural, but are scars of mutilation. “If the psychoanalytical theory is correct that women experience their physical constitution as a consequence of castration,” wrote Adorno mordantly (and the implication is he didn’t accept this theory), “their neurosis gives them an inkling of the truth. The woman who feels herself a wound knows more about herself than the one who imagines herself a flower because that suits her husband.” Women are oppressed and no more so, Adorno thought, than in being reduced to and compelled to perform the role of the feminine character.

In their earlier book Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote an excursus called “Juliette: or Enlightenment and Morals.” There, they argued that a completely secularised scientific knowledge refuses to recognise any moral limits. For Nietzsche if God was dead anything was permitted; for De Sade, whose novel Juliette they deconstructed in this excursus, the cruel subjugation of women, the denial of their subjectivity, their reduction to sex objects was the perverse corollary of the Enlightenment’s mastery of nature. Adorno and Horkheimer argued that Kant’s attempt to ground morality in practical rationality, the application of reason, served to extend the calculating, instrumental, formal rationality that involves the domination of nature and mankind. De Sade, then, is the barbarous dark side to Kant’s enlightenment. The oppression of women may not have dawned with the Enlightenment, but  was extended and intensified by the widespread application of that tool of Enlightenment thinking, instrumental reason, they claimed. Glossing their thoughts on this subject, the  historian of the Frankfurt School Martin Jay argued in The Dialectical Imagination that this instrumental rationality led to the horrors of the 20th century. “In fact,” argued Jay, “the Enlightenment’s sadism towards the ‘weaker sex’ anticipated the later destruction of the Jews — both women and Jews were identified with nature as objects of domination.” 

In a sense, then, there is the possibility of a solidarity between Jews and women that could develop from the similar roots of their oppression. Strikingly, some later feminists have found critical theory, and Adorno’s work in particular, inspiring to their work. He and Horkheimer exposed in Dialectic of Enlightenment instrumental reason as a new mythology, a justificatory lie to obscure the oppression, domination and cruelty beneath the smooth workings of bourgeois society. “That which appeared as rational order in bourgeois society was shown by Adorno to be irrational chaos,” wrote Frankfurt School historian Susan Borck-Morss in Origin of Negative Dialectics, “but where reality was posited as anarchic and irrational, Adorno exposed the class order which lay beneath this appearance.’’ This perspective, wrote Renée Heberle in her introduction to Feminist Interpretations of Theodor Adorno, is echoed in feminism. “Where some feminists have shown the historicity of presumably natural qualities of sexed existence, others have shown the irrational, mythic, naturalising force of historically constituted notions of masculinity and femininity.”   

Indeed, Adorno was sensitive to how male philosophers used these historically constituted notions of masculinity and femininity to oppress women. Nietzsche once wrote: “Thou goest to woman? Forget not thy whip.” Adorno, in Minima Moralia, noted that Nietzsche had conflated “woman with the unverified image of the feminine from Christian civilisation that he otherwise so thoroughly mistrusted”. Women weren’t all feminine characters, but it suited Nietzsche to imagine so. In other words, Nietzsche’s advice was worthless since, as Adorno wrote: “Femininity is already the effect of the whip”.

A few years after Adorno published these words, Herbert Marcuse worried about, not femininity, but masculinity, how, in advanced industrial societies like those of the US and western Europe, men had become humanoid machines upholding the performance principle. In his 1955 book, Eros and Civilisation: A  Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, he defined that principle as “the violent and exploitative productivity which made man into an instrument of labour”, and contrasted it with the pleasure principle, or Eros, whose cultivation might well involve liberation from the oppressive, gendered roles men were forced to play. In his 1969 An Essay on Liberation, Marcuse dared to imagine a new type of man “who rejects the performance principles governing the established societies; a type of man who has rid himself of the aggressiveness and brutality that are inherent in the organisation of established society; a type of man who is incapable of fighting wars and creative suffering; a type of man who has a good conscience of joy and pleasure, and who works collectively and individually for a social and natural environment in which such an existence becomes possible.”  

Excellent, but what what about women? In his 1974 essay “Marxism and Feminism”, Marcuse argued that “feminine” qualities such as non-violence, tenderness, receptivity and sensitivity represent a negation of masculine values. “Socialism, as a qualitatively different society, must embody the antithesis, the definite negation of aggressive and repressive needs of capitalism as a form of male-dominated culture.” There is a problem with this analysis of course — if Adorno was right and femininity is the effect of the whip, then co-opting “feminine” qualities into one’s blueprint for utopia is bound to be disastrous.

Indeed, co-opting women’s liberation into a more general utopian project is apt to make some feminists more than a little queasy. Consider, for instance, Kate Millett’s reaction to her meeting with Herbert Marcuse in 1975. I haven’t visited the  Geisel Library at the University of California, San Diego, but I hope to. Somewhere inside the music section are two cassettes, a 90-minute and a 60-minute one, that are our best record of the meeting between Marcuse and Millett that took place on April 25 1975 sponsored by UCSD Women's Center. Her PhD thesis had been published six years previously as Sexual Politics and has since become a classic feminist text.

Online, I’ve found a few unverified, but fascinating, reports of what went on when Kate met Herbert. According to one at, during the discussion Marcuse distinguished between the exploitation of a female sex worker or model posing for nude photographs for a porn magazine and argued that such degradation is not not the same as the brutal exploitation of a member blue-collar working class working long shifts. To which Millet reportedly replied (I’m guessing sarcastically) “Blow jobs and massage parlours are not very heavy work”, apparently adding something intriguing about “great white master, instant slavery”. 

In another unverified report from the meeting, Millett said of Marcuse:  “One gets the impression, and I’m sure it is unintended, of political opportunism. The time is right, the women’s movement is getting along nicely,… let’s utilise this in the eternal struggle, the great holy war, to bring about the fall of capitalism. Women are used to being used.” Next time I’m in San Diego, I’ll have to check if those were her exact words but, if they were they indicate that Millett may not have read Marcuse’s writings, but (you might well think) she’d got his number. 

But, again, there’s more to be said about the relationship between the Frankfurt School and feminism than it being the case of the latter being used by the former. The leading counterexample to the thesis that the Frankfurt School sought merely to co-opt  the struggles of other oppressed groups is, one might well argue, Angela Davis. Her intellectual formation shows, surely, Frankfurt School critical theory being helpful to, rather than exploiting, a leading feminist thinker.

Angela Davis — a woman who later became a African-American activist, feminist, revolutionary, for a while one of the FBI’s “10 Most Wanted”, whom President Richard Nixon called a terrorist and whom California governor Ronald Reagan tried to fire from her university job — was among Marcuse’s American students in the 1960s. On the face of it, she wasn’t the kind of woman who would wind up being captivated by the theoretical work being developed by a bunch of German Jewish Marxists. But she was.

Davis was born in 1944 and brought up in racially segregated, pre-civil rights Birmingham, Alabama, a city notorious during the civil rights struggles. Those African-Americans in the city who dared to protest publicly in favour of their right to vote faced attacks from dogs and dousing from fire hoses — and, according to Davis, worse. “I grew up at a time when, as a response to an interracial discussion group I was involved in, the church where we were having the discussions was burned. I grew up at a time where black people would move in to the white neighbourhood right across the street from where we lived, and bombs would be set in those houses,” she wrote.

Later, she was awarded a scholarship to Brandeis University and came across Marcuse at a rally during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, during which American and Soviet confrontation over Soviet deployment of ballistic missiles in Cuba brought the two nations close to nuclear war, and then became his student. What resonated for her in Marcuse’s writings was, in part what she called “the emancipatory promise of the German philosophical tradition”, but also because he could see the barbarous underside to the American dream. As she put it in her preface to a collection of Marcuse’s letters: “[P]recisely because he was so concretely and immediately involved in opposing German fascism, he was also able and willing to identify fascist tendencies in the US.” Among those fascist tendencies in her homeland, she argued, was the prominent structural role of racism.

One could interpret some of Davis’s later writings and campaigning as a continuation of her one-time teacher’s analysis of fascist tendencies. Davis would later argue that what she called the “prison industrial complex”, militated against the civil rights for which African-Americans fought during the civil rights struggles. “The massive over incarceration of people of colour in general in the US leads to lack of access to democratic practices and liberties. Because prisoners are not able to vote, former prisoners in so many states are not able to vote, people are barred from jobs if they have a history of prison.”

But that over-incarceration of people of colour, she argued, was a result of a shift of capital from human services, from housing, jobs, education, to profitable arenas. “It has meant there are huge numbers of people everywhere in the world who are not able to sustain themselves. They are made surplus, and as a result they are often forced to engage in practices that are deemed criminal. And so prisons pop up all over the world, often with the assistance of private corporations who profit from these surplus populations.” Marcuse didn’t live to see the prison industrial complex flourish, but doubtless he would have approved his student’s astute diagnosis and condemnation.

Like many other students in the 1960s, Davis was an enthusiastic reader of Marcuse’s 1965 essay “Pure Tolerance” which argued that in putatively liberal society, tolerance is a form of mystification, making society accept a subtle form of domination. What was needed, he argued, was a new kind of tolerance including tolerance for revolutionary violence. Like The Thoughts of Chairman Mao, his essay was bound like a prayer book or missal and became devotional reading at student sit-ins (43) But its message was scandalous to some critics such as Alsadair MacIntyre: “The truth is carried by the revolutionary minorities and their intellectual spokesmen, such as Marcuse, and the majority have to be liberated by being educated into the truth by this minority who are entitled to suppress rival and harmful opinions. This is perhaps the most dangerous of all Marcuse’s doctrines, for not only is what he asserts false, but his is a doctrine which it it were widely held would be an effective barrier to any rational progress and liberation.”  

Angela Davis took a different message from Marcuse. Herbert Marcuse taught me that it was possible to be an academic, an activist, a scholar, and a revolutionary.”  She studied with Marcuse in Brandeis and with Adorno in Frankfurt, and then, in 1966 when the Black Panther Party was founded, she felt drawn back to the United States, in part, to work in radical movements. Adorno had been sceptical: “He suggested that my desire to work directly in the radical movements of that period was akin to a media studies scholar deciding to become a radio technician.”  

Undaunted, she joined the Black Panthers and the Che-Lumumba Club, an all-black group within the US Communist Party. She also became professor of philosophy at the University of California in Los Angeles, but was fired because of her membership of the Communist Party. She was later reinstated and then, in June 1970, fired again for using inflammatory language, in making speeches describing the police as pigs and murderers for their role in suppressing a student protest at the People’s Park on the Berkeley campus the previous year. By August 1970, she was a fugitive from justice.

Davis was then on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list, sought for her alleged role in supplying guns to Black Panthers who sprung some three men, the so-called Soledad Brothers, from a courthouse where they were being tried for the murder of a prison guard. She was finally arrested and faced charges of conspiracy to kidnap and murder, charges for which she could have been executed. At her trial in 1972, she was acquitted, while other co-defendants, former Black Panthers were jailed — some for more than half a century.

For Davis, her former professor was an intellectually liberating figure. “Marcuse played an important role during the late sixties and early seventies in encouraging intellectuals to speak out against racism, against the Vietnam War, for student rights. He emphasised the important role of intellectuals within oppositional movements, which, I believe, led more intellectuals to frame their work in relation to these movements than would otherwise have done so. And Marcuse’s thought revealed how deeply he himself was influenced by the movements of his time and how his engagement with those movements revitalised his thought.”  

But perhaps the most surprising aspect of his influence on Davis was how it shaped her vision of the utopian possibilities contained in art, literature and music. But wasn’t he too steeped in high European culture for that, I asked when I interviewed Davis in 2014? Surely he had no sense of popular music as being resistant to the status quo, but rather regarded it as Adorno regarded jazz, part of the culture industry that kept the status quo in place. “He started to change. He had this very classical, European formation, so culture for him was high culture, but I think he later began to recognise that we shouldn’t be concerned with high versus low culture. We should be concerned with the work that culture does.”  

In her 1998 book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Davis wrote about how singers such as Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday ''provided a cultural space for community-building among working-class black women . . . in which the coercions of bourgeois notions of sexual purity and 'true womanhood' were absent.'' Marcusean notions of art as a semi-autonomous zone or another dimension where utopias could be imagined in opposition to the dominant cultures it indicted infuse this book.

Marcuse, following Adorno, who in turn was following Stendhal, wrote of art as offering promesse du bonheur. He explained what that meant in One-Dimensional Man, writing that the prevailing order was “overshadowed, broken, refuted by another dimension which was irreconcilably antagonistic to the order of business, indicting it and denying it”. Marcuse found that promesse du bonheur in 17th century Dutch painting, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, the English novel of the 19th century and Thomas Mann; Angela Davis heard it in Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday.  

None of the foregoing should be read as suggesting  that the Frankfurt School made Angela Davis a feminist or a revolutionary thinker for African-American liberation in the United States. She, doubtless, would have got there without Marcuse or Adorno, and the struggles she recounts in her soon-to-be republished book If they come in the morning… , were not theirs. But the thoughts of these dead white men were undeniably spurs to her lifelong struggles against racism and misogyny.