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The New Psychology of Women

Freud, Dora, and Vienna 1900

by Hannah S. Decker
Free Press, 299 pp., $22.95

The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender

by Nancy Chodorow
University of California Press, 263 pp., $12.95 (paper)

In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development

by Carol Gilligan
Harvard University Press, 184 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory

by Nancy J. Chodorow
Yale University Press, 286 pp., $14.00 (paper)

Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Postmodernism in the Contemporary West

by Jane Flax
University of California Press, 277 pp., $13.95 (paper)

The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination

by Jessica Benjamin
Pantheon, 304 pp., $16.00 (paper)


What ever happened to little Jane? Thousands of American schoolchildren in the Fifties learned to read by following the activities of a prototypical WASP family—Father, Mother, Jane and her brother Dick, and their dog Spot (“See Spot run!”). They lived in a Norman Rockwell house with hollyhocks and a blue sky above. In the morning Father went off to The Office and Mother waved him a smiling good-bye. In the evening Father returned from The Office to cheerful Mother, who had been cooking a delicious meal for the family. We can assume that the house also contained a well-thumbed copy of Dr. Spock’s reassuring guide to child-rearing. Everyone was going to live happily ever after.

This is what Freud called a Family Romance, that is, the fantasized family to which one really wanted to belong. If Freud had written the story of Dick and Jane, it would go something like this: as Father leaves for The Office, Mother is preoccupied in the kitchen and Jane is knitting little clothes for her doll. Dick is playing with a toy pistol which he would like to aim at Father’s retreating back. Harboring his own sexual feelings toward his mother, Dick is happy that he now has Mother all to himself (Jane doesn’t count). Nevertheless, when he grows up he wants to be just like Father, and Jane is resigned to being like Mother.

In a modern feminist fable of the family the mother would be standing at the window as Father departs for the office; she senses that she is trapped, having to spend her days cooking and cleaning and driving Dick and Jane to classes, but she is unable to do anything about it. When Father returns home he asks why dinner isn’t ready. After he and Dick throw a football around, he pinches Jane affectionately on the cheek—which could be the prelude to something worse. Jane is only six years old, but already she is determined never, never to be like Mother when she grows up.

In all three versions of Dick and Jane we hardly glimpse the office or school or blacks or neighbors or poor people—or indeed any of the other innumerable influences that impinge upon us from the wider world. The family is a self-enclosed unit; but with both Freud and the feminists, it is a dystopia, a source of deep conflict. Freud did more than any other theorist to make the family the most important single influence on the process of growing up, or what is generally referred to as “development.” Unlike the feminists, however, he did not suggest that the nuclear family struggle should be abolished, simply that we should accept it and try to resolve the dilemmas in a predetermined situation.

The question of how Jane “develops” and what makes her different from Dick has always been a thorny one within psychoanalytic theory. Freud shared the cultural condescension of his time toward women and it is absurd to argue, as some of his defenders do, that his close friendships with women such as Lou Andreas-Salomé and Marie Bonaparte mitigate his clearly expressed positions. One has only to read his condescending letters to his future wife, Martha Bernays.1 Apologists for Freud claim that his premises were based on actual clinical experience, but did he really hear what Dora or any of his other early female patients were actually saying?2

At the turn of the century an eighteen-year-old girl, “Dora,” was brought to Freud by her father. She was suffering rather vague symptoms such as hoarseness and a persistent cough. Dora’s parents, Freud learned, had a tangled relationship with the K. family. Her father appeared to be having an affair with Frau K. while Herr K. had been making sexual overtures to Dora. Dora had previously been nursing her ailing father, who was apparently suffering from syphilis, and she was now, in Freud’s view, being replaced by a rival. He also found it difficult to believe that Dora was not aroused by Herr K.’s attentions. Dora’s “problem” was that she had begun to suspect that her father was encouraging her to succumb to Herr K. so that he could have an undisturbed relationship with his mistress.

One of the striking aspects of Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (1905) is Freud’s deep contempt for Dora’s mother (whom he never met) and how little we actually know about Dora’s suffering. Her voice is seldom heard; largely drawing on two of her dreams, Freud constructs an account of her allegedly repressed sexuality, which he labels as “hysteria.” Feminists have rightly grasped that Dora was in despair because Freud seemed to be colluding with the adults in the web of deceit they were weaving around her. Dora is simply a “case study”; we never come close to a troubled young woman who was unable to find anyone who would accept her version of events.

Hannah Decker’s recently published Freud, Dora, and Vienna 1900 gives a rich description of the milieu of Freud’s early patient. Decker’s impressive research has uncovered the details of Dora’s family background and the anti-Semitic biases and the prejudice against women with which she had to deal. At the time Freud met Dora, he was looking for case material to substantiate The Interpretation of Dreams. He anticipated that the analysis would take about a year, but less than three months later Dora walked out on him. Freud interpreted her gesture as an “unmistakable act of vengeance on her part,”3 but it might have been the most courageous act of her life, a rejection of the interpretations he had imposed on her reality.

In formulating a theory that showed men as superior to women, the most obvious difference Freud could find between the sexes was the male’s possession of a penis. (He never seemed to consider the breast or the process of reproduction as worthy of serious reflection.) From an early age boys were aware of their ownership of this magical instrument, and little girls felt humiliated because they didn’t have one.

Freud described the Oedipus Complex as providing the most significant challenge in the process of growing up. The boy’s desire for his mother and his jealousy of his father are “resolved” when the boy is shocked into an acceptance of reality by what he subconsciously perceives as the threat of castration if he does not abandon his incestuous desires. With the repression of desire, and the boy’s subsequent identification with his father, his superego is formed as the arbitrator of conscience, and he gains assurance and autonomy when he no longer fears the possibility of castration.

In Freud’s account, the girl, too, originally desires her mother; but the sight of a penis instills in her a sense of insufficiency. She blames her mother for depriving her of this precious organ and turns to her father, longing for him to give her a child which will serve as a substitute penis. Since she is already castrated, she does not have to undergo the scarring experience of the Oedipal crisis, which is necessary for the formation of the superego that would monitor her attitudes and behavior. Freud concluded that this moral vacuum provided an explanation for what he perceived as a weaker sense of justice in women and their lack of interest in social issues.

Not all women within the psychoanalytic movement subscribed to Freud’s account. During the Twenties and early Thirties a lively debate was initiated by Karen Horney, who claimed that, in fact, men envied women the supreme joy of motherhood and were terrified of the female genitals. What they experienced was a sense of inadequacy in relation to the mother, not to the father. This she concluded in part from her own experience of bearing and raising three daughters. If women envied men the penis, it was simply as a symbol of social and political power.

Melanie Klein also challenged Freud’s scheme. Although she tried desperately to accommodate her new insights to Freud’s work, her revolutionary views threatened to undermine the orthodox structure. From her observation of small children, she became convinced that the infant’s experience of feeding at the breast is the prototype of all future relationships. As the baby seeks nourishment, it has, Klein came to believe, fantasies of extraordinary complexity, and a form of the Oedipal struggle takes place during the first year of life. The infant conceives of everything as oral gratification or frustration, and it comes to imagine sexual intercourse as an act in which the mother and father provide each other with mutual gratification from which the infant is excluded. The mother is subconsciously envied by both boy and girl infants because she has obtained a source of nourishment withheld from the children. The boy is ultimately able to resolve this situation because he is reassured by the ownership of his penis. The girl, on the other hand, has to internalize her resentment. Klein was the first analyst to describe the complexities of this highly ambivalent relationship with the mother.

Freud was forced to respond to these challenges to his theory. By 1931 he tried to cope with the girl’s development in “Female Sexuality,” particularly in his gradual realization that a girl had a prolonged attachment to her mother. But he finally had to admit that

everything in the sphere of this first attachment to the mother seemed to me so difficult to grasp in analysis—so grey with age and shadowy and almost impossible to revivify—that it was as if it had succumbed to an especially inexorable repression.4

Even after analyzing Marie Bonaparte, he wrote helplessly to her, “Was will das Weib?” (“What do women want?”) He was willing to acknowledge that some women analysts had been able to understand the girl’s long early attachment to the mother; but that his condescension was not in the least shaken was evinced in his 1933 statement that middle-aged women showed “psychical rigidity and unchangeability” with “no paths open to future development.”5 Indeed, he said, women who rejected his own view of penis envy were using psychoanalysis illegitimately, as “a weapon of controversy.”6 To the end of his days the psychology of women remained “the dark continent.”7 As for his feminist contemporaries, he regarded them as a subversive force in society; and to label an idea as “feminist” was in effect to denigrate it.


For some years the controversy over the development of women was in abeyance until Simone de Beauvoir wrote her book on the horrors of the bourgeois family and its crippling effects on young girls. (Her own experience was recorded in Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée.) Beauvoir’s La Deuxième Sexe, published in 1949, had an enormous impact in Europe, partly because of her international reputation as Sartre’s partner, but its full effect did not take place in America until it was translated into English in 1952.

  1. 1

    This attitude has been reflected in the history of the psychoanalytic movement. No woman has ever been president of the International Association of Psychoanalysis, and few women have been presidents of constituent societies or chairmen of training committees.

  2. 2

    See In Dora’s Case, edited by Charles Bernheimer and Claire Kahane, particularly the papers by Toril Moi, Jane Gallop, and Neil Hertz (Columbia University Press, 1985, 1990).

  3. 3

    Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, Standard Edition, Vol. VII, p. 109.

  4. 4

    Sigmund Freud, “Female Sexuality” (1931), Standard Edition, Vol. XXI, p. 226.

  5. 5

    Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures in Psycho-Analysis (1933), Standard Edition, Vol. XX, pp. 134–135.

  6. 6

    Freud, “Female Sexuality” (1931), p. 230.

  7. 7

    The Question of Lay Analysis” (1926), Standard Edition, Vol. XX, p. 213.

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