Building on earlier conceptions of women’s new lease on life in middle age, the journalist Gail Sheehy made the midlife crisis known as a concept of social criticism. Although the psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques coined the term “mid-life crisis” in the 1950s, it only came into general use two decades later, with Sheehy’s best-selling Passages (1976), as a feminist idea that applied to women and men and challenged the work-and-life styles of the nuclear family. Chapter 3 sheds light on Sheehy’s critical engagement with social scientific research and theory. Rather than promoting academic concepts, she drew on them to bolster her own ideas. Moreover, she took a swipe at psychological and psychoanalytic concepts of the life course. Her best-known target was the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, who had formulated one of the most widely circulating concepts of the life course, the “Eight Stages of Man” (1950). Participating in feminist critiques and redefinitions of psychology—among them Betty Friedan’s appropriation of Erikson’s notion of “identity crisis”—Passages contested the psychoanalysts’ androcentric model of human development. By juxtaposing male and female life courses, Sheehy made available to women identities, activities, and opportunities traditionally reserved for men, and revalued empathy, attachment, and subjectivity for men.
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