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Freud & Women: Freud's Perspective on Women

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Freud & Women: Freud's Perspective on Women

Sigmund Freud, 1907. Freud's views of women continue to generate controversy today.

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  • karen horney
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"The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is 'What does a woman want?'"
-From Sigmund Freud: Life and Work by Ernest Jones, 1953

Sigmund Freud?s views on women stirred controversy during his own lifetime and continue to evoke considerable debate today. "Women oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own," he wrote in a 1925 paper entitled "The Psychical Consequences of the Anatomic Distinction Between the Sexes."

Donna Stewart, M.D., a professor and chair of women?s health at the University Health Network, explained, "Freud was a man of his times. He was opposed to the women?s emancipation movement and believed that women?s lives were dominated by their sexual reproductive functions" (Lehmann, p. 9).

Penis Envy:

Penis envy is the female counterpart to Freud?s concept of castration anxiety. In his theory of psychosexual development, Freud suggested that during the phallic stage (around ages 3-5) young girls distance themselves from their mothers and instead devote their affections to their fathers.

According to Freud, this occurs when a girl realizes that she has no penis. "Girls hold their mother responsible for their lack of a penis and do not forgive her for their being thus put at a disadvantage," Freud suggested (1933).

While Freud believed that his discovery of the Oedipal complex and related theories such as castration anxiety and penis envy were his greatest accomplishments, these theories are perhaps his most criticized. Female psychoanalysts such as Karen Horney and other feminist thinkers have described his ideas as distorted and condescending.


Freud?s revolutionary talk therapy evolved in part from his work with Bertha Pappenheim, who is known as Anna O. Suffering from what was then referred to as hysteria, she experienced a variety of symptoms that included hallucinations, amnesia and partial paralysis.

During sessions with one of Freud?s colleagues, Joseph Bruer, Pappenheim described her feelings and experiences. This process seemed to alleviate her symptoms, which led her to dub the method the "talking cure." Pappenheim went on to become a social worker and made significant contributions to the women?s movement in Germany.

Initially, Freud suggested that the causes of hysteria were rooted in childhood sexual abuse. He later abandoned this theory and instead emphasized the role of sexual fantasies in the development of a variety of neuroses and illnesses. "His understanding of women was notoriously inadequate, but he did make great steps beyond what was understood about women when he came on the scene. It was very unusual in Freud's time even to acknowledge that women had sexual desire, much less to say that the repression of their sexual desire could make them hysterical," explained historian Peter Gay (Grubin, 2002).

Women in Freud?s Life:

While Freud often claimed that he had little understanding of women, several women played important roles in his personal life. Freud was his mother?s eldest child (his father had two older sons from a previous marriage) and has often been described as her special favorite. "I have found that people who know that they are preferred or favored by their mothers give evidence in their lives of a peculiar self-reliance and an unshakable optimism which often bring actual success to their possessors," Freud once commented (Grubin, 2002).

Freud?s relationship with his wife, Martha, was very traditional. "She was a very good hausfrau (housewife)," explained his granddaughter, Sophie Freud. "She was very thrifty. And my father would say that his mother would rather poison the whole household than throw food away" (Grubin, 2002).

Freud was raised with several sisters and later became the father of three sons and three daughters, including Anna Freud, who played a major role in carrying on her father?s work.

Women in Psychoanalysis:

While Freud described women as inferior to men, many women were instrumental in the development and advancement of psychoanalysis. The first woman to join Freud?s Vienna Psychoanalytic Society was Helene Deutsch in 1918. She published the first psychoanalytic book on women?s sexuality and wrote extensively on topics such as the psychology of women, female adolescence and motherhood (Sayers, 1991).

Psychoanalyst Karen Horney became one of the first critics of Freud?s views on feminine psychology. Melanie Klein became a prominent member of the psychoanalytic community and developed the technique known as "play therapy, which is still widely used today. Additionally, his own daughter, Anna Freud, played a vital role in advancing many of her father?s theories and contributed greatly to child psychoanalysis.

Opposing Viewpoints:

  • Karen Horney - Freud?s concept of penis envy was criticized in his own time, most notably by psychoanalyst Karen Horney. She suggested that it is men who are adversely affected by their inability to bear children, which she referred to as "womb envy."

  • Freud's Response - Freud responded, although indirectly, writing, "We shall not be very greatly surprised if a woman analyst who has not been sufficiently convinced of the intensity of her own wish for a penis also fails to attach proper importance to that factor in her patients" (Freud, 1949). According to Freud, Horney?s concept of womb envy emerged as a result of her own supposed penis envy.

  • Sophie Freud - While Freud?s notions of female sexuality often ran contrary to the patriarchal tendencies of the Victorian era, he was still very much a man of his time. His work is often dismissed as misogynistic and his own granddaughter, Sophie Freud, described his theories as outdated. "His ideas grew out of society. He mirrored in his theories the belief that women were secondary and were not the norm and didn't quite measure up to the norm," she explained (Gretel, 2003).

  • Final Thoughts - Even Freud himself admitted that his understanding of women was limited. "That is all I have to say to you about femininity," he wrote in 1933. "It is certainly incomplete and fragmentary and does not always sound friendly... If you want to know more about femininity, enquire of your own experiences of life, or turn to poets, or wait until science can give you deeper and more coherent information" (p. 362).

Understanding Freud's Views Today

Today, many analysts suggest that rather than reject Freud?s theories outright, we should instead focus on developing new views on his original ideas. As one writer said, "Freud revised his theories many times as he accumulated new data and reached fresh insights. Contemporary analysts should do no less" ("Liberating women," 1977).


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