July 30, 2021
(Paula was a member of the Veteran Feminist Histories Project and the following was written by her family and posted on the VFA website. Please watch her interview for VFA to hear her story.)
Paula Caplan, a pioneering psychologist who exposed how her profession had pathologized a wide range of female traits and social responsibilities, including motherhood, menstruation, and even shopping, died on July 21 at her home in Rockville, Md. She was 74. Her daughter, Emily Stephenson, said the cause was metastatic melanoma.
Starting in the late 1970s, Dr. Caplan merged a rigorous clinical analysis with a fierce feminist perspective to show how many of the problems that psychologists said were innate to women — and especially mothers — had in fact resulted from social structures and dis-crimination that forced them into difficult situations, then medicalized their inevitably negative responses.
For example, in a 1984 article, “The Myth of Women’s Masochism” (and in a subsequent book by the same title), she took aim at Sigmund Freud and his acolytes, who said women suffered from “moral masochism” — that is, that they took pleasure in the frustrations and guilt that often arose from their roles as mothers and spouses. Dr. Caplan demolished Freud’s claim, first by pointing out that most women get no joy out of such pain, and then by showing how such frustration and guilt were often the results of unfair expectations placed on them by a patriarchal society.
Dr. Caplan, the author of 11 books, was perhaps best known for her seven-year battle with the American Psychiatric Association as it planned the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the encyclopedic guide used by millions of doctors to make diagnoses and by insurers to pay for them. She took particular issue with the decision by the manual’s editors to include “premenstrual dysphoric disorder,” in effect a lengthy or intense instance of premenstrual syndrome.