Melanie Klein: Breaking into the Boys Club of Psychology

Psychoanalysis in the early 20th century is often described as a men’s discipline, with Freud’s theories creating and dominating the field. In contrast, the second half of the 20th century confirmed that psychoanalysis wasn’t always destined to be a boys’ club. It was during this time that several key women began to distinguish themselves as theorists.

Perhaps none was more noteworthy than Melanie Klein, who had a tremendous impact on both psychological theory and practice, and her innovative work involving child therapy places her among the most prominent mental health experts of the 20th century. Klein, a young divorcee with small children and no Bachelor’s degree achieved recognition using her experiences as a mother to analyze children, studies which hadn’t yet been attempted.  

Born to a middle class Jewish family from Vienna in 1882, Klein was the youngest of four children. Klein married her husband, Arthur, at age 21, and the pair had three children. After seven years of marriage,  Klein followed her husband to Budapest, where she began her career as a psychoanalyst. Studying under Sandor Ferenczi, Klein developed her interest in studying children.

Unhappy in her marriage, Klein separated from Arthur in 1923. As a newly single mother seeking asylum from the anti-Semitism in Budapest, Klein moved to Berlin, the most exciting psychoanalytic centre of the time. Poor, and with few acquaintances, Klein was confident that her interest in child psychoanalysis would be welcomed here. Upon her arrival, Klein began studying under Karl Abraham, one of Sigmund Freud’s best students, who later proclaimed: ‘The future of psychoanalysis rests with child analysis.’

Klein observed what were considered ‘troubled’ children, monitoring the ways in which they played with dolls, animals, and drawings, concluding that parental figures played a huge part in children’s fantasy lives. It was through these studies that Klein theorized that children’s play was their primary mode of emotional communication.

Though she was a pioneer in child psychology, her work was largely ignored by the community in Berlin. Her work was one of the first to suggest that children’s psyches should be analyzed, to which critics responded with fear, believing there were consequences of probing into a child’s unconscious mind. This changed in 1926, when British psychoanalyst Ernest Jones invited Klein to give a series of lectures in London, where she later moved.

Her work and theories remained largely unchallenged until 1938 when Anna Freud published research that was contradictory to Klein’s. Freud and Klein’s theories differed in that under the Freudian view, the unconscious drive had a source and aim, but no object. Klein, in contrast, believed that the unconscious drive was focused on an object, even in infants, who would focus on the breast or their mother. It was the first time Klein’s position as leading theoretician and training analyst came under attack.Melanie_Klein_1952

Despite the fundamental differences in Klein and Freud’s theory, Klein continued to write and research, publishing one of her most noteworthy papers in 1946. Titled “Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms,” Klein examined the mental functioning of three month old infants and their relationships with their mothers. While living in London, Klein found larger acceptance for her work, not only from men, but from other women who had also begun studying child psychology. She spent much of the rest of her life traveling until her death in 1960.

Throughout her decades long career, Klein had a major impact on both psychoanalytic theory and technique, especially in Great Britain. As the first person to study psychoanalysis with young children, Klein’s research was a far cry from her counterparts, who applied results from studies performed on adults to children as well. Her work was also instrumental in creating object relations theory, which is still widely used today.

Though the social sciences have often been dominated by men’s theories, women like Klein were able to stake their claim in the field of psychoanalysis, in a time before women in Britain had even gained the right to vote. Her contributions to the field were groundbreaking for children’s’ psychotherapy, and her theories are still widely used and studied to this day.

Written for Sheroes of History by Danika McClure. Danika is a musician from the northwest who sometimes takes a 30 minute break from writing to enjoy a TV show. Lover of Drake, guacamole, and angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion. You can follow her on twitter @sadwhitegrrl

Find out more…

Learn more about Melanie Klein and how her work  continues today through the Melanie Klein Trust.

You can see lots more photos of Melanie Klein on this WikiCommons page.

Of course, if you want to, you can still read Melanie’s ground breaking work today. Many of her books are available. You can see them here. There is also a graphic guide to her theories available here.

Watch this video for an overview of Melanie’s life:

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