The term “midlife crisis” conjures the image of an affluent, middle-aged man in a red sports car with a woman half his age. He leaves behind his wife and children; yet he — not they — is in “crisis.”

But the midlife crisis was initially a feminist idea. In the mid-’70s, “midlife crisis” described how men and women abandoned traditional gender roles: Approaching 40, women re-entered the world of work, while their husbands stepped in to help at home. Since then, however, the midlife crisis has focused on men in a way that limits women’s rights and advancement.

Take Yale social psychologist Daniel Levinson, who presented an early and influential formulation of the male midlife crisis with the 1978 book “The Seasons of a Man’s Life,” based on a study of 40 men between 35 and 45 years old, mostly white and educated. The book’s key case study, “Jim Tracy,” was a vice president at a Connecticut-based arms manufacturer. After sexual escapades, he divorced his wife, married a younger woman and opened his own business. Levinson, who died in 1994, held that such a “mid-life transition” was a universal feature of human life — human male life, that is. He did not study women’s lives, though he did interview the men’s wives to learn about their husbands.

In “Seasons,” Levinson emphasized the importance of marriage to a man in his 20s and early 30s. He used the term “special woman” to describe the devoted, at-home wife and mother who helped a man to become successful, or, in Levinson’s terms, fulfill his “Dream.” If the “special woman” had a job, it was in an occupation such as teaching or nursing “where she is appropriately maternal, sub-ordinate and non-competitive with men.”

Levinson contrasted the “special” with the “liberated” woman, whose involvement in a career produced “bitter discontent and conflict” in a marriage. The wife as special woman was also a “transitional figure,” since he would not necessarily need her after mid-life: “In the Mid-life Transition, he will have to become a more individual person … he will be more complete in himself and will have less need of the special woman.”

A man’s midlife crisis, then, was a justification for abandoning his wife. At middle age, her “special” qualities were considered “overly controlling,” “smothering,” “depriving and humiliating.” The psychologist bemoaned that some wives became “destructive” and “selfish” using “both her strength and her weakness to keep him in line and prevent him from becoming what he truly wants to be.”

Levinson claimed that a woman’s “growing assertiveness and freedom” in middle age would result in her partner’s “severe decline.” He warned of the moment when a wife “seeks to expand her own horizons and start new enterprises outside the home.” Years later, Levinson’s follow-up “The Seasons of a Woman’s Life” argued that in midlife, women discovered that it was impossible for them to find satisfaction in work or professional careers. A woman’s place was in the home.

Levinson’s ideas came with scientific credentials and were quickly picked up in the academy and beyond, considered by some to be as important and authoritative as Kinsey’sreports on human sexual behavior.

During the 1980s, as an anti-feminist backlash became widespread in the United States, Levinson’s ideas were frequently reiterated. Psychological and psychiatric experts who published on the topic, often with reference to Levinson’s “Seasons,” were now joined by physicians. In his 1984 book “Crisis Time!,” surgeon Robert Nolen suggested married women wait for their husbands: “Can she absolutely not tolerate his relationships with other women? Or can she write it off as ‘men will be men?’ ” Similarly, the Californian psychiatrist Jim Stanley, who regularly treated middle-aged couples, charged women for holding “unrealistic” expectations and advised them to be “more accepting” of their husbands’ midlife behavior.

In 1989, Levinson turned “Seasons” into a documentary. Broadcast on PBS, “Halftime: Five Men at Midlife” chronicled the midlife crises of five male Yale graduates, Class of 1963, selected by Levinson, who also interviewed them. Among them were Hollywood executive Steve Sohmer — complete with fat cigar, Rolls Royce and Rolex — who talked about his experience of going through multiple marriages, love affairs and jobs; and Mike Redman, a former Olympian, who aired his anger over his wife’s request for a divorce.

By then, midlife crisis was an accepted cultural phrase. Its academic cachet allowed it to parade as a scientific, methodologically rigorous discovery — and advance a profoundly anti-feminist stance, despite its beginnings.

Susanne Schmidt is research associate and lecturer in history at Free University Berlin and author of the forthcoming “Midlife Crisis: The Feminist Origins of a Chauvinist Cliché.” She originally wrote this essay for Zocalo Public Square.