Dorothy Dinnerstein

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Dorothy Dinnerstein
Born(1923-04-23)April 23, 1923
DiedDecember 17, 1992(1992-12-17) (aged 69)
Alma materNew School for Social Research
Brooklyn College
Known forThe Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976)
Scientific career
InfluencesMelanie Klein

Dorothy Dinnerstein (April 4, 1923 – December 17, 1992) was an American academic and activist, best known for her book The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976) (also published in the UK as The Rocking of the Cradle and the Ruling of the World). Drawing from elements of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis, particularly as developed by Melanie Klein, Dinnerstein argued that sexism and aggression are both inevitable consequences of child rearing being left exclusively to women.[1] As a solution, Dinnerstein proposed that men and women equally share infant and child care responsibilities.[2] Her theories were not widely accepted at the time they were published.[3] Dorothy Dinnerstein was also a feminist, expressing her position by stating that “it's easier for women than for men to see what's wrong with the world that men have run".[3]


Early life[edit]

Born on April 4, 1923 in the Bronx, Dinnerstein was raised in a Jewish community and was raised by her parents, Nathan Dinnerstein and Celia Moedboth, both progressive Jews.[4][1]

Nathan was an architectural engineer and Celia worked in administration at the Bronx Family Court. Unfortunately, Nathan’s architectural engineer business did not last through the depression, so he then had to earn a living as a bookkeeper at his brother-in-law’s junkyard.[citation needed]

Marriage and family[edit]

During her collegiate years, she met and married Sidney Mintz, who later became a well known anthropologist. Their marriage ended shortly after WWII.

Dinnerstein then married Walter Miller. Miller was a poet and professor at New York University.[4] In the year 1955, the two had their only child, Naomi May. They divorced in 1961.

Dinnerstein married Daniel S. Lehrman in 1961. Lehrman was a psychologist as well. Lehrman, who was previously married, had two daughters of his own, Nina and June, who lived with their mother Gertrude Lehrman in Queens, NY. Daniel and Dorothy lived in the Greenwich Village section of NYC and then in Leonia NJ.

Lehrman taught and did research at Rutgers University, as did Dinnerstein.[5] Lehrman died suddenly of a heart attack in 1972, at the age of 53.


After completing grade school in The Bronx, Dinnerstein attended Brooklyn College and received her undergraduate degree in 1943, earning a bachelor's in Psychology.

Dinnerstein started her graduate studies at Swarthmore College[4] and earned the Ph.D. in psychology from the New School for Social Research in 1951.

Activism and career[edit]

After earning her degree, Dinnerstein was engaged in fighting for liberal causes, women's equality, environmentalism, and against nuclear proliferation. Because of her passion towards these ideals, she facilitated a momentary shutdown of Wall Street.[4][not in citation given][citation needed]

Dinnerstein worked as a research student under Solomon Asch, a prominent social psychologist.

A resident of Leonia, New Jersey, she taught at Rutgers–Newark in New Jersey as a professor of psychology from 1959 until 1989.

While working at Rutgers University, Dinnerstein recruited Asch and they co-founded the Institute of Cognitive Studies at Rutgers.[4]

In addition to her passion for teaching and writing Dinnerstein also had a fervor for feminist politics. Dinnerstein was an active participant in the Seneca Falls Women's Peace Camp in the 1970s.[4]

Before her death in 1992, Dinnerstein was involved in a new project about environmental issues called "Sentience and Survival" which explored the ways in which human cognitive structures interfere with taking appropriate actions.[4]

The Mermaid and the Minotaur[edit]

During her time at Rutgers University, she began writing her first book. The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangement and Human Malaise was published in 1976. She wrote this book to demonstrate her feelings toward feminist ideals and the gender roles in relationships, particularly in relation to child-rearing. Dinnerstein spends a large portion of the book discussing the need for male participation in raising children.[4] Dorothy argues that the lack of a male figure in a child's life makes for an even more intimate relationship between the mother and child.[citation needed] As the book states, "It is in a woman’s arms and bosom that the delicate-skinned infant originally nestles… Her [the mothers] hands clean, soothe, and pat its sensitive bottom… She is the one who rocks or bounces it… who thumps it when it needs to burp."[4][6][clarification needed]

The book became a classic of U.S. second-wave feminism and was later translated into seven languages.[5] Her book contributed to the women’s movement; using Freudian methodology she made important statements about men having the responsibility to raise children.[5]


On December 17, 1992, at the age of 69, Dinnerstein was killed in a car accident.[5] She was survived by a daughter and two step-daughters.[5]

Theories and contributions[edit]

In The Mermaid and the Minotaur, Dinnerstein takes a multidisciplinary approach to analyzing the ways in which sexist habits develop out of a society in which childcare is handled chiefly by women. She wrote from the perspectives of a microsociologist, a feminist, a humanist, an ecologist, and a psychoanalyst.[3] Dinnerstein’s theory recognized a series of long-term societal consequences that result from women being the sole childcare providers. Women are infantilized and degraded as a result of false perceptions that they are associated with the realm of childhood as opposed to the world of adulthood.[7] Women become the scapegoats of adult resentment towards authority figures because they served as controlling authority figures during childhood.[7] Women are blamed for life’s pitfalls because of the early-childhood perception one’s mother takes care of everything, so if something is wrong, it’s the mother's fault for not making it all right.[8] Men must use sexism and patriarchal means to control resented authority figures (women).[7] Men are isolated from the world of emotions and interpersonal relations usually associated with childhood, creating an impossible and harmful standard of male infallibility, invincibility, and invulnerability.[7] Dinnerstein concluded her book by saying that she recognized that families have started to move toward shared parenting for reasons unrelated to the consequences of female-dominated childcare, nonetheless, she wanted shared parenting to be “fortified by full awareness of these considerations. This effort of theirs, moreover, is supported by all the forms of action now being taken toward equity in the economic, political, legal, etc., spheres".[6]


  • Dinnerstein, D. (1965). Previous and concurrent visual experience as determinants of phenomenal shape. The American Journal of Psychology, 78(2), 235-242.
  • Dinnerstein, D. (1976). The mermaid and the minotaur: Sexual arrangements and human malaise. New York: Harper & Row. Dinnerstein, D. (1988). What does feminism mean? Women & Environments, 10, 7-8. Dinnerstein, D. (1990). Survival on earth: The meaning of feminism. Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 2(4), 7-10.
  • Dinnerstein, D., Gerstein, I. & Michael, G. (1967). Interaction of simultaneous and successive stimulus groupings in determining apparent weight. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 73(2). 298-302.
  • Dinnerstein, D. & Wertheimer, M. (1957). Some determinants of phenomenal overlapping. The American Journal of Psychology, 70(1), 21-37.


  1. ^ a b Dinnerstein, Dorothy (1987). The Rocking of the Cradle and the Ruling of the World (trade paperback) (Reprint with new introduction ed.). London: The Women's Press. p. 26 and 33–34. ISBN 0-7043-4027-5.
  2. ^ Dinnerstein, Dorothy (1987). The rocking of the cradle and the ruling of the world. London: Women's Press. ISBN 0-7043-4027-5.
  3. ^ a b c Broughton, J., & Honey, M. (1988). Gender arrangements and nuclear threat: A discussion with Dorothy Dinnerstein. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 8(2), 27-40.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Cole, Alyson. "Dorothy Dinnerstein." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on ) <>
  5. ^ a b c d e "Dorothy Dinnerstein; Feminist Writer Was 69"(Obituary). The New York Times. December 19, 1992. Retrieved April 2, 2011.
  6. ^ a b Dinnerstein, D. (2010). The mermaid and the minotaur. Other Press, LLC.
  7. ^ a b c d Bynum, G. L. (2011). The Critical Humanisms of Dorothy Dinnerstein and Immanuel Kant Employed for Responding to Gender Bias: A Study, and an Exercise, in Radical Critique. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 30(4), 385-402.
  8. ^ Prozan, C. K. (1992). Feminist psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Jason Aronson.