Feminist Psychoanalysis and Freud

Sigmund Freud is the father of psychoanalytic theory. In the early 1900’s, this was a new field of social science that is based on the unconscious mind. Psychoanalytic therapy aims to make unconscious thoughts conscious, so repressed feelings are released and the patient gains some insight of their own mind. Freud’s theories are notorious for being based the male mind, and how women constantly wished they were men – inevitably receiving a lot of criticism from feminist spheres, in particular a Karen Horney.


Though being a giant in his field at the time, many current academics wouldn’t dare to use his work as a credible source. His methods and theories are outdated and have been under question for decades – yet his work is still considered important. Not only for feminists who use psychoanalysis to reveal how a patriarchal society oppresses women, but his work also laid the foundation for modern theories on the unconscious mind and the personality.

A handful of his theories revolved around the idea that women wished they were men. Penis envy for example, is a stage in female psychosexual development, where girls would feel anxiety over the fact they don’t have a penis. This would then be followed by competition between a daughter and her mother for the attention and affection of the father. Boys on the other hand would suffer from castration anxiety.

He believed women were sexually passive, only partaking in sex because they desired children (a side effect to women coming to terms with not having a penis). He believed women were morally inferior to men, and incapable of fully developing a superego. His views on female sexuality were not only heteronormative, but were centered around his idea of the man.

Karen Horney was one of the first critics of Freud. She became the founder of feminist psychology and made considerable contributions to the field. Helene Deutsch was also one of the most prominent female leaders in psychoanalysis – working with Freud she expanding his narrow and male-dominated view on women.

Karen Horney


Karen Horney, 1938

Horney was born in 1885 Germany, to a religious father and a well-educated mother. As a young teenager she battled with depression and continued to throughout her life, something that is said to have influenced her in her choice of study. Without her parent’s support, she entered medical school, being one of the first women in Germany at the time to go to university.

She developed an interest in psychoanalysis early on when she observed behaviour that did not fit Freudian theory, stating that penis envy was caused by the way daughters were treated by their parents – rather than an inherent trait to the mind of the woman, as Freud revelled. She developed her theories surrounding this: women were not envious of men’s penises, rather the authority and power they held in a patriarchal society. Womb envy was a term she coined to suggest the envy men had towards women being able to bear children was far greater than the envy women had towards men. She also argued that it is society that affects one’s own perception of self-worth and narcissism, and that it wasn’t part of human nature.

Since her ideas of the environmental impacts on human psychology directly contradicted that of Freud’s, she faced fierce backlash and eventually was kicked out of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. She continued to write however, and is still considered a very influential feminist psychologist.

Helene Deutsch


Helene Deutsch

Deutsch was born in 1884 Poland, to Jewish parents. Similarly to Horney, she studied medicine and then found her interest in psychoanalysis. During WWI, she worked unofficially as Julius Wagner-Jauregg assistants, a high post which, as a woman, she was unable to formally declare.

While adhering to Freudian theory, she explained her theories on women’s psychological development in her body of works. She concluded that femininity was made of three essential traits – narcissism, passivity and masochism; receiving much criticism from figures such as Susan Brownmiller. In her book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, Brownmiller analyses Deutsch’s assumptions of femininity in relation to rape. Describing an inherent trait of femininity as being masochist and passive suggested, like Freud, that sex is not only a painful and instinctively traumatic occurrence but women learn to cope as a “service to the species”.

Helene Deutsch’s work mirrored the views and assumptions of the Victorian era. Although some of her work deserves its rightful criticism, she was one of the most successful female psychoanalysts of her time. She is more known and respected for her “as if” personality descriptions. She describes people with “as if” personality to present themselves (as if) they have real feelings and emotional bonds and relationships with others, despite upon close inspection being essentially empty. These personalities were later coined borderline states, and her work on the “as if” personalities are still relevant today.


Both Karen Horney and Helene Deutsch were pioneers of female psychoanalysis of their time. Deutsch, although criticised for perpetuating the same harmful stereotypes as Freud (criticised by Horney, too), she made extensive analyses on the psychology of women through her clinical observations. Both women expanded and sought to look into women’s psychoanalysis post-Freud, and the effect of shared experiences on a woman’s attitude and demeanour.



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