Notes on Freud's theory of femininity

Doug Davis

New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

(Freud, 1933)

33. Femininity


[W]hen one starts making excuses it turns out in the end that it was all inevitable, all the work of destiny.
. . .
Nor will you have escaped worrying over this problem -- those of you who are men; those of you who are women this will not apply -- you are yourselves the problem (Freud, 1933, p. 113)

Freud is pictured in the frontispiece of Volume 22 of the Standard Edition, as he looked in 1929 [age 74]. He sits there, white beard turned toward us, holding a cigar in his left hand.

Freud presents himself as "struggling with an internal difficulty," since he doesn't know at what level to peg his lectures and has therefore found them to be without a raison d'ètre. He summarizes the topics of the first four lectures in the new series, noting that the preceding two must have been hard going. He then jokes about his excuse-making, and introduces this lecture as serving "as an example of a detailed piece of analytic work" and having two things to recommend it: "It brings forward nothing but observed facts, almost without any speculative additions, and it deals with a subject which has a claim on your interest second almost to no other" (Freud, 1933.[1]



Tackling the riddle of femininity:

In conformity with its peculiar nature, psychoanalysis does not try to describe what a women is -- that would be a task it could scarcely perform -- but sets about enquiring how she comes into being, how a woman develops out of a child with a bisexual disposition (Freud, 1933, p. 116).

It is not my intention to pursue the further behavior of femininity through puberty to the period of maturity. Our knowledge, moreover, would be insufficient for the purpose. ... Furthermore, it is our impression that more constraint has been applied to the libido when it is pressed into the service of the feminine function, and that -- to speak teleologically -- in the fact that the accomplishment of the aim of biology has been entrusted to the aggressiveness of men and has been made to some extent independent of women's consent.

I have promised to tell you of a few more psychical peculiarities of mature femininity, as we come across them in analytic observation. We do not lay claim to more than an average vailidity for these assertions; nor is it always easy to distinguish what should be ascribed to the influence of the sexual function and what to social breeding. Thus, we attribute a larger amount of narcissism to femininity,[2] which also affects women's choice of object, so that to be loved is a stronger motive for them than to love. The effect of penis-envy has a share, further, in the physical vanity of women, since they are bound to value their charms more highly as a late compensation for their original sexual inferiority.[3] Shame, which is considered to be a feminine characteristic par excellence but is far more a matter of convention than might be supposed, has as its purpose, we believe, concealment of genital deficiency. We are not forgetting that at a later time shame takes on other functions. It seems that women have made few contributions to the discoveries and inventions in the history of civilization; there is, however, one technique which they may have invented -- that of plaiting and weaving. If that is so, we should be tempted to guess the unconscious motive for the achievement. Nature herself would seem to have given the model which this achievement imitates by causing the growth at maturity of the pubic hair that conceals the genitals. The step that remained to be taken lay in making the threads adhere to one another, while on the body they stick into the skin and are only matted together.[4] If you reject this idea as fantastic[5] and regard my belief in the influence of the lack of a penis on the configuration of femininity as an idàe fixe, I am of course defenceless (Freud, 1933, p. 132).

... Another alteration in a woman's nature, for which lovers are unprepared, may occur in a marriage after the first child is born. Under the influence of a woman's becoming a mother herself, an identification with her own mother may be revived, against which she had striven up til the time of her marriage, and this may attract all the available libido to itself, so that the compulsion to repeat reproduces an unhappy marriage between her parents. The difference in a mother's reaction to the birth of a son or a daughter shows that the old factor of lack of a penis has even now lost its strength. A mother is only brought unlimited satisfaction by her relation to a son; this is altogether the most perfect, the most free from ambivalence of all human relationships[6] A mother can transfer to her son the ambition which she has been obliged to suppress in herself, and she can expect from him the satisfaction of all that has been left over in her of her masculinity complex (SE 22, 133).[7]

[1]This is one of three major treatments of the subject by Freud. Compare: Freud, S. [1925] Some psychical consequences of the anatomical distinction between the sexes. In J. Strachey (Ed.) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: The Hogarth Press, 1961.

Freud begins with the observation that examination of the effects of the effects of earliest childhood "leads us into dark regions where there are as yet no sign-posts," asks himself rhetorically why he doesn't wait until he has proof, observes of himself that "formerly, I was never one of those who are unable to hold back what seems to be a new discovery until it has been either confirmed or corrected," and notes that both The Interpretation of Dreams and "Dora" "were suppressed by me-- if not for the nine years enjoined by Horace-- at all events for four or five years before I allowed them to be published." Strachey notes that the paper was finished in August, 1925, and read for Freud by Anna at the Homberg International Conference September 3. Strachey comments on Freud's protestations starting with the Three Essays that the sexual life of women is "veiled in an impenetrable obscurity" (SE 7, 151; cf. 1900 [ID, SE 4, 257; 1908 [On the sexual theories of children, SE 9, 211]; 1916-17 [Introductory lectures #21]; 1926 [The question of lay analysis, SE 20, 212]; cf. Gilligan, 1984). As Strachey notes, Freud's general stance in these varied contexts is to assert that the sexual and especially Oedipal development of boys and girls are analogous, although he was elsewhere (e.g., 1919 ['A child is being beaten': A contribution to the study of the origin of the perversions, SE 17, 196]


Freud, S. (1933). New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. Lecture 33: Femininity. Standard Edition, v. 22. pp. 136-157.

Gilligan, Carol. (1984) The conquistador and the dark continent: Reflections on the psychology of love. Daedalus (Summer 1984), pp. 75-95.

Rapaport, D. (1953). The metapsychology of activity and passivity. In M.M. Gill (Ed.) The Ccollected papers of David Rapaport. New York: Basic Books, 1967. pp. 530-568.

Silverman, K. (1984). Histoire d'O: The construction of a female subject. In C.S. Vance (Ed.). Pleasure and danger: Exploring female sexuality. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul. pp. 320-349.

This seems to be Freud's argument:
Woman is passive, man active. Activity-passivity is a personality dimension. "Active" is gendered "masculine," "passive" "feminine." One's sex-disparate quality (female masculinity, male femininity) is ego-alien, something one might struggle to control, balance, or release.

[2] Imagine the way this gets sold to the female infant: "Oh what a beautiful baby you are. You're the most beautiful baby in the whole world. You're going to make some man so happy...." See Kaja Silverman (1984, p. 324):

It will be my working hypothesis ... that while human bodies exist prior to discourse, it is only through discourse that they arrive at the condition of being "male" or "female"--that discourse functions first to territorialize and then to map meaning onto bodies. In other words I will argure that the female body cannot be seen as existing outside of discourse... (Silverman, 1984).

[3] Strachey footnotes Freud's 1914 paper "On Narcisisism."

[4]What might Freud's preconscious associations be at this point?

[5]Every time Freud refuses to appologize let's infer superego criticism, i.e., some transient wish to do so..

[6]A favorite example of Freud's, suggesting it touches a significant personal dynamic (cf. Freud's 1899 "Screen Memories"). Strachey footnotes the Introductory Lectures (1916; SE 15, 206), Group Psychology (1921; SE 18, 101), and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930; SE 21, 113). On rivalry with fathers and its vicissitudes, cf. Freud, 1928, "Dostoevsy and Parricide," where he argues (SE 21, 184) that bisexuality, castration fears, and [resultant] "repressed homosexuality" are the "key" to Dostoevsky's "so-called epilepsy."

[7]This dazzlingly obtuse passage surely should have alerted Freud's epigones to the fact something was amiss with the master, back before the First World War.