• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Freud and Women

Psychoanalysis and Feminism: Freud, Reich, Laing, and Women

by Juliet Mitchell
Pantheon, 435 pp., $8.95

Women and Analysis

edited by Jean Strouse
Grossman, 375 pp., $12.50

Psychoanalysis and Women

edited by Jean Baker Miller
Penguin (abridged edition), 418 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Recent movements for women’s liberation have put Freud at the top of their Enemies List. “Of all the factors that have served to perpetuate a male-oriented society,” writes Eva Figes in Patriarchal Attitudes, “…the emergence of Freudian psychoanalysis has been the most serious.”

According to the neofeminist indictment, Freud gave Victorian antifeminism the appearance of scientific standing. His theory of penis envy not only took for granted the inferiority of women but provided an ideological rationalization of it. Psychoanalysis thus reinforces the dependence and subordination of women; its refutation, accordingly, becomes crucial to the success of the feminist movement.

This refutation can be accomplished, it would seem, simply by asserting that Freud was “a prisoner of his own culture,” “a child of his own times,” etc.; also by showing that his work fails to meet the exacting standards of modern behavioral psychology. Thus Naomi Weisstein, an experimental psychologist, has argued in a well-known essay that Freud’s attempt “to demonstrate empirically the existence of a castration complex” rests on “contaminated” evidence.1

It has been clear for some time that these arguments are not overwhelmingly convincing. The first is an adhominem attack that proves nothing—even if it were true that Freud was a “prisoner” of his age instead of a thinker who struggled heroically to transcend it. The second rests on a misunderstanding of the nature of the evidence psychoanalysis seeks to explain. Freud’s theories about infantile sexuality, the “castration complex,” and the Oedipus complex are not based on empirical observations of childhood. They are based on interpretations of memories of childhood—memories that have been so ruthlessly repressed that they can be brought to light only with the greatest difficulty. Psychoanalytical theory cannot be refuted, therefore, by “empirical evidence” in the form of experimental psychology but only by a counter-theory that provides a more convincing explanation of the meaning of dreams, fantasies, and neurotic symptoms.

All three of the present works in one way or another reflect dissatisfaction with the neofeminist critique of Freud. They are very different, however, in the means they use to combat it. Juliet Mitchell’s attack on Reich, Laing, and the neofeminists is inspired by unflinching loyalty to the original psychoanalytic concepts, difficult, uncompromising, and seemingly unflattering to women as these concepts are. The two anthologies, on the other hand, contain material that is apparently designed to show that psychoanalytic views of femininity are more varied, and indeed more friendly to feminism, than most critics have imagined.

In neither collection is this intention avowed; yet both give more weight to those who claim to have improved and updated Freud than to Freud himself. The collection edited by Jean Strouse, to be sure, includes Freud’s three essays on women, together with papers by Karl Abraham, Helen Deutsch, Karen Horney, Emma Jung, Marie Bonaparte, Clara Thompson, Erik Erikson, and Robert Stoller. This is a good cross section of psychoanalytic views, but the original essays are accompanied by commentaries which, except in a couple of cases, are written by people unsympathetic to Freud’s psychology of women.

Elizabeth Janeway argues that only by taking Freud’s ideas “symbolically” can we salvage them, since otherwise they are seen to ignore such obvious considerations as the objectively inferior status of women. Margaret Mead, clearly influenced in her opinion by the neofeminist revival, announces that Freud’s ideas on women, which she says she once accepted, “are actually an expression, and an extraordinarily naïve one, of the still contemporary attitudes about women against which the militants are battling.” Marcia Cavell repeats the well-worn accusation that Freud’s sexual theories incorporated mechanistic nineteenth-century biology. Robert Coles praises Karen Horney. Ruth Moulton congratulates Clara Thompson for instituting “a more liberal, progressive approach” to psychoanalysis. The editor herself accuses Freud of “biological determinism,” of ignoring the role of culture, and of encouraging his followers to “make an ideology out of what is at any moment held to be scientifically true.” The reader is likely to come away from this collection with the impression that most of Freud’s ideas have been superseded or overthrown.

The collection edited by Jean Baker Miller is even more one-sided. It includes nothing by Freud or by anyone who could be described as a faithful exponent of his ideas, which are reflected here only in the criticisms of writers who repudiate them under the pretense of “revising” them. Nor is there any acknowledgment that this “revisionism” has itself been subject to sharp counterattack by writers like Herbert Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, and Juliet Mitchell herself.2

As a convenient collection of writings on women by the Freudian revisionists, this anthology is useful—superior in this respect to the Strouse collection, since it contains a much larger number of papers. But it must be understood that it represents only one side of a continuing controversy. To review that controversy is highly instructive: we can now see that the psychology of women was crucial to the debates over revisions of Freud in the Twenties and Thirties. From the very beginning revisionism was informed by feminist criticism of Freud and more broadly by a social-democratic outlook, which objected to the “pessimism” of Freud’s theories and sought to recast them in a form more congenial to reformist and pseudo-revolutionary hopes of social improvement.

The revisionist strategy was to argue that Freud had stressed biology at the expense of culture. Thus in his psychology of women he allegedly attributed to biology (the lack of a penis, leading to penis envy) a sense of inferiority that was in fact rooted in social reality—the objectively inferior position of women in Western society. It is easy to see why the psychology of women was an issue seemingly made to order for the purpose of a “cultural” refutation of Freud.

The continuing criticism of Freud both by feminists and by writers claiming to work in the psychoanalytic tradition makes it important to be clear about what Freud actually said about women, especially since his critics cannot be trusted to represent his ideas correctly. Freud did not pay much attention to the psychology of women, as such, until the 1920s. Although his first patients were women (women who furnished, indeed, most of the material on which he based his interpretations of dreams and hysteria), the theory of the Oedipus complex—the culmination of this early work and the core of psychoanalytic theory—attempted in effect to explain the psychology of the male on the assumption that “with little girls,” as Freud later put it, “things must be similar, though in some way or other they must nevertheless be different.”

The vague sense that things must be different was enough to make Freud reject the concept of the “Electra complex” when it was proposed by Jung in 1913 to describe the female equivalent of the Oedipus complex—an experience more or less exactly paralleling that of the male, it was thought, with the sexual roles reversed. But it was not until 1925, with the publication of a short paper entitled “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes,” that Freud decisively repudiated the supposition that the psychic history of men and women runs along parallel lines. He now began to realize that “what we have said about the Oedipus complex applies with complete strictness to the male child only.” Two further essays—“Female Sexuality” (1931) and “Femininity” (1933)—explored the implications of this statement and provided for the first time the outlines of a psychoanalytic theory of womanhood.

As Juliet Mitchell explains in her account of Freudian theory, Freud rejected theories of parallel development, to which he himself had subscribed (with reservations), only when he had attained a clearer understanding of the pre-Oedipal phase in women. Clinical analysis showed that the little girl, like the boy, is first drawn to her mother; nor is this a passive attraction, any more than the boy’s. Children of both sexes, according to Freud, tend to convert passive impressions into an active desire to master and possess the object that aroused those impressions—“this is part of the work imposed [on the child] of mastering the external world.” Accordingly the girl wishes to possess and to penetrate her mother. (“No doubt this sounds quite absurd, but perhaps that is only because it sounds so unfamiliar.” Freud himself found it difficult, he says, to credit the wishes of little girls, until his observations “removed all doubts on the matter.”)

It is only the subsequent discovery of her own “castration” that causes the little girl to relinquish the hope of “giving her mother a baby,” not without a prolonged struggle in which the girl reproaches her mother for not providing her with a proper penis, and ends by repudiating the mother in favor of the father. This shift also requires that the girl translate her sexuality from an active to a passive mode. The wish to possess is transformed into a wish to be possessed.3 The longing for a penis is transformed into a longing for a baby.4

The pre-Oedipal phase, Freud concluded, has “a far greater importance in women than it can have in men,” and it is dissolved only through “an especially inexorable repression.” Whereas a boy has only to translate the wish for his mother into the deferred reward of a future wife, the girl has to go from a “phallic” phase to a passive one—a process “to which there is nothing analogous in the male.” The little boy resolves the Oedipus complex through the fear of castration, which causes him to repudiate the wish to possess his mother, to accept his father’s authority, and thus also to accept the authority of society itself, internalized through the paternal intermediary. The dissolution of the Oedipus complex in the male “leads to the creation of his super-ego and thus initiates all the processes that are designed to make the individual find a place in the cultural community.”

Whereas in the boy the fear of castration dissolves the Oedipus complex, the fact of “castration” initiates it in the little girl. In women, therefore, the Oedipus complex is “a secondary formation,” according to Freud, not only because it is preceded rather than followed by the “castration complex” but, more important, because the “motive for the demolition of the Oedipus complex is lacking.” The little boy not only abandons the wish for the mother but represses it so strongly that it is buried deep in the unconscious—and this “catastrophe to the Oedipus complex (the abandonment of incest and the institution of conscience and morality) may be regarded as a victory of the race over the individual.”

The girl has no comparable motive for the ruthless repression of her father-fixation. The father was second best to begin with. Renunciation of the mother already entailed acceptance of “castration.” The girl therefore does not so much resolve the Oedipus complex as take refuge in it. In doing so she already becomes “a little woman,” in Freud’s words; and although it will later be necessary to renounce her father in favor of another man, this act does not involve, as did the earlier renunciation of the mother, a fundamental shift in the girl’s sexuality. Nor does the dissolution of her Oedipus complex entail, as it does in the boy, the internalization of the father’s authority and with it the prevailing culture and morality. For this reason, Freud thought, women’s “super-ego is never so inexorable, so impersonal, so independent of its emotional origins as we require it to be in men”—a conclusion, he insisted, from which “we must not allow ourselves to be diverted…by the denials of the feminists, who are anxious to regard the two sexes as completely equal in position and worth.”

  1. 1

    ‘Kinder, Küche, Kirche’ as Scientific Law: Psychology Constructs the Female,” reprinted in Robin Morgan, ed., Sisterhood Is Powerful (New York, 1970).

  2. 2

    And still more recently by Russell Jacoby in a study of “conformist psychology,” to be published by Beacon next winter.

  3. 3

    This is the significance of the much-debated thesis that the girl transfers her sexual feelings from the clitoris to the vagina—a theory against which neofeminists, with the help of Masters and Johnson, have directed some of their heaviest fire. Here as elsewhere they were anticipated by the revisionists, who tried to show that vaginal sensitivity developed much earlier than Freud believed—indeed that this development preceded the Oedipal crisis. The neofeminists, on the other hand, claim that the clitoris remains the center of sexual pleasure in women and that the vaginal orgasm is a “myth.” These arguments define sexuality too narrowly, identifying it exclusively with orgasm, and neither of them weakens the main point—that women have to transfer their sexual drive from mother to father (whereas men merely transfer their affections from the mother to a suitable substitute), and that this change also requires the transformation of female sexual energies from an active to a passive form.

    The Freudian theory, it must be insisted once again, rests on the interpretation of memories, fantasies, and neurosis, not on laboratory studies of “female sexual response.” It cannot be refuted by the latter, for the simple reason that those studies explain physiological, not mental, phenomena. When opponents of the Freudian theory turn to the latter realm in search of evidence supporting their own ideas, they are likely to fall flat on their faces. Thus Marcia Cavell, in the Strouse anthology, unwittingly provides support for the theory she is laboring to refute when she writes that in adult women “clitoral masturbation is accompanied by phantasies of all kinds, and the sensations are not those of ‘mastery’ [whoever said they were?] but typically of being overwhelmed.”

  4. 4

    Feces, penis, and baby are closely associated in unconscious thought, not only because they are physical extensions of oneself but because they represent gifts presented by the child to its parents. It was this kind of evidence (not some naïve “biological determinism”) that Freud had in mind when he made his famous remark that “anatomy is destiny.”

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print