Out of the lab and into the home: Rose Franzblau, the trained buttinsky

Posted: Nov 07, 2018

By Elizabeth Johnston & Ann Johnson

We’ve been following with interest the controversies swirling around “power pose” advocate and social psychologist Amy Cuddy (see her wildly popular TED talk here). Cuddy, along with Brené Brown, a Social Work professor who has found success with TED-bred self-help products aimed mainly at women, highlights feelings of insecurity women may feel in male-dominated arenas and promote remedies to boost confidence.

The question of proof has been dogging Cuddy recently – she is at the center of one of psychology’s most public recent internal debates over the so-called replication crisis. There’s a noticeable strain of misogyny in the attacks lobbed at Cuddy from largely male online critics and bloggers (especially interesting from a historical perspective is the complaint of one blogger: “She has no serious conception of ‘science,’” a familiar refrain in our studies of mid-twentieth century American women psychologists). What’s most interesting to us is the background that makes Cuddy’s work intelligible as part of a history of women using their credibility as psychological experts to help other women.

Cuddy and Brown are working within a context of post-second wave feminism, with special attention given to the insecurities and crises of confidence many women experience as they enter the still-male-dominated and harassment-saturated sphere of public life and work. Interestingly, both are trained researchers and depend on the findings of their respective research to bolster their claims (Brown seems to depend most on qualitative studies). This positioning of authority was not always available to the mid-20th-century women psychologists we’ve studied, as many lacked access to labs. They worked in a field where women were not the majority, and were still subject to all kinds of unregulated discrimination (and sometimes regulated discrimination in the form of anti-nepotism rules). Even so, some found a public voice and used their platform as scientists to promote psychological science to the public.

Thinking back over the many women we have identified as second generation American women psychologists, a few stand out as forging new ways to promote the science of psychology beyond the confines of the laboratory and the academic audience reached through conferences and disciplinary journals. One in particular, Rose Franzblau, was an early ‘agony aunt,’ an opinionated, feisty character who dispensed advice on a wide swath of emotional life from the pages of New York newspapers, over radio, on television, and in popular magazine articles. She was recruited by New York’s first female newspaper publisher, Dorothy Schiff, in 1951 to create an advice column in her liberally oriented tabloid, the New York Post. Franzblau’s popular column ran for twenty-five years, and was syndicated in a dozen other papers spread across the country. It drew letters on a host of thorny subjects; she estimated receiving 20-30 letters a week, with two-thirds of the adult letters coming from women, with a more even gender split for her adolescent advice seekers. It was not a woman’s page – men read it and wrote in too. Her forthright, plain speaking responses traded in psychoanalytic concepts without using the jargon, and frequently extolled the virtues of therapy long before it was commonplace.

In a never published New Yorker profile of Franzblau available in the archives of the New York Public Library, journalist Kevin Wallace reports one of her old friends exclaiming “She’s a buttinsky, but only to help, and she’s trained.” Against many odds, Franzblau was indeed a trained psychologist whose life work was to bring concepts of mental hygiene to a mass audience. We could go even further and say that she was instrumental in creating a mass audience for psychological concepts. How did this early 20th century female Jewish immigrant attain the status of psychological authority and what role did her gender play in the process?

Born to Jewish parents in Austria in 1902, Rose Nadler came through Ellis Island as an infant and grew up in an immigrant community on the lower east side of Manhattan. Life was challenging for the Nadlers, living in crowded tenements, and dependent on her father’s work in a clothing manufacturing business, described by Wallace as a “sweatshop of oscillating fortunes.” Franzblau described her father as punitive, a frequent spanker who never praised her, but noted that she earned the family nickname “Rosie spritz mit feuer” for her ability to stand up to him. Her mother died in childbirth when Rose was a teenager, and her father died only two years later, leaving Rose to parent her four younger sisters. She was a stellar student, but dropped out of high school for a time to take care of her siblings, supporting the family with tutoring work in Jewish religious school. She married Abraham Franzblau in 1923 when she was only 21, bringing her “dowry” of four sisters to put through school. Even with her enormous family obligations as a young adult Franzblau pursued her education avidly, earning a bachelors from Hunter College in 1926 and her masters and doctorate from the highly regarded and influential Columbia University Psychology program by 1935 when she was in her mid-thirties. In a blog post written many years after her mother’s death, Franzblau’s daughter Jane Isay (who writes extensively about family relations and is the mother of Storycorps founder Dave Isay: story-telling clearly runs in the family) tells the story of her mother’s shame over an abortion an OB/GYN friend conducted on her husband’s giant home desk. The year was 1934 and abortion was illegal, but the Franzblaus were driven to the decision by the intolerable threat of Rose being thrown out of the Columbia doctoral program.

Dave Isay credits his ‘wacky’ grandmother as an inspiration for Storycorps. In Listening is an Act of Love he describes her as larger than life, “a small whirlwind of a lady, who filled up every room she walked into.” Listening to this archived online recording of Franzblau speaking in 1965 at a symposium entitled “The Uncertain Quest – The Dilemmas of Sex Education,” held at the University of California School of Medicine, San Francisco, gives a strong sense of her forthright (some might even say scolding) tone and the authority she claimed as a psychological expert. In this lecture on Sex and the Mass Media, Franzblau spoke out forcefully about the evils of pornography and urged the media to self regulate to attain responsible, healthy standards. Listening to this piece confirms New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling’s description of her as “a severe lady psychologist named Dr. Rose Franzblau, who invariably exposes the unworthy motivations of her correspondents.” Franzblau was a powerful cultural figure who succeeded in translating her empirical training into a career as a promoter of psychology, creating her own larger space beyond the laboratory.

There is much to admire about the vibrant and outspoken Franzblau: some of her admonitions resonate strongly in our current “me too” context. At the same time, close reading of her advice makes it plain that she hewed to (and promoted) a version of gender roles and sexuality that often propped up an androcentric and heteronormative status quo: Her view of homosexuality as a perversion, for example, is made plain in her Sex and the Mass Media lecture, and is underscored by reading her published columns.

And her advice on marriage issues looks distinctly patriarchal from a contemporary standpoint. This is evident in some of the materials we have linked to here. In the one column quoted in her New York Times obituary Franzblau advised a woman who was concerned about her adopted son’s hostility towards her husband that “Your son needs to see a loving and considerate attitude to his father and to witness your deferring to your husband’s opinion and wishes.” The obituary writer was fair in describing this as a typical column: there are many other instances in her published collections of columns where Franzblau endorsed male dominance in the family and made it clear that she considered a woman’s primary role to be that of wife and mother. In several columns responding to the concerns of working wives for example, Franzblau insisted that chief responsibility for physical and emotional domestic work still lay with the wife, even if she worked outside the home.

Reading through Franzblau’s columns provides an education in how gender norms become so entrenched, and they demonstrate how divergent gender roles and hierarchies are actively maintained in the face of changing patterns of paid work. The progressive moves she endorses — like supporting married women working outside the home — are undercut by the implicit admonition that the balance of power should tip toward the husband. It’s not hard to imagine the confusion felt by women trying to follow this advice in real life. Reading Franzblau now provides insight into why the reconstruction of gender roles takes so much effort and is often unsuccessful, even now in our supposedly “post-feminist” era.

As feminist historians of psychology, study of mid-century women pioneers prompts us to ask if we can see similar patterns echoed in our current situation. The emergence of feminist psychology in the 1970s made explicit endorsement of patriarchal norms less acceptable, but the focus on individual women finding solutions to the inequities created by those norms has endured in our discipline. It is not only the replication gurus who have questioned Amy Cuddy’s power pose studies, feminist theorists have also challenged Cuddy’s vigorous promotion of the idea that entrenched power structures can be undone with strong body language. Selective focus on body position effectively downplays the complex and often structural barriers to women’s advancement in public life that have proven so difficult to dismantle. Study of the history of women’s work in psychology illuminates the many subtle and blatant ways that the fundamental and intricate social category of gender is maintained. In this light it will be interesting to track efforts to disrupt the gender binary — efforts that will require hard conceptual work and an ongoing commitment to feminist critical consciousness within psychology.

Author Bios

Elizabeth Johnston is a long time professor of psychology at Sarah Lawrence College, a progressive institution that encourages creative and critical work from all members of its community. Her writing and teaching interests include art and visual perception, memory, emotion, mindfulness, and the gendered history of psychology. A fortunate meeting with Ann Johnson at a Cheiron meeting fifteen years ago initiated a productive, friendly collaboration on the history of American psychology from a feminist standpoint.

Ann Johnson is professor of psychology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN and serves as Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement there. She teaches History of Psychology when she can and enjoys every opportunity to work with longtime friend and research/writing collaborator Elizabeth Johnston on projects related to women and gender in the history of psychology.

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