Psychoanalysis, Gender, and Femininity
Doug Davis
(teaching notes)


The historical case for psychoanalytic treatments of women has never been dissociable from the individuality of Freud. Freud's personality and life circumstances shaped theory and practice in ways we are once again appreciating. Combined with recent work on the historical and personal sources of Freud's ideas has been a rapid increase of interest in psychology as a whole in problems of gender as these relate to personality development and to psychological functioning in adolescence and adulthood. Within the therapeutic community, few concepts have been as controversial as Freud's ideas of feminity, and a large literature in psychoanalysis has concerned the clinical usefulness (or lack thereof) of psychoanalytic theories of femininity.

With respect to understanding the theoretical implications of Freud's early training, the most important recent work has, it seems to me, been that of McGrath. McGrath is able to identify a number of intellectual predilections of the adolescent Freud which carry over strikingly to the 40-year-old who propounds Oedipal theory.

That Freud's theorizing about women, and about hysteria, shows the clearest evidence of distortion by his personality, has been suggested by a number of authors. including Gilligan (1984) and Balmary (1979).

Freud's major formulations on erotic life, psychosexual development, and gender span thirty years of writing.

Studies on Hysteria (Breuer & Freud, 1895)

The "Seduction Theory" (1896a,b,c)

Self-Analysis: Letters to Wilhelm Fliess (1896-1897 and passim)

Screen Memories (1899)

Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria: "Dora" (1905)

Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905)

  1. The Sexual Aberrations [sic]
  1. Infantile Sexuality
  2. The Transformations of Puberty

The fact that sexual excitement possesses the character of tension raises a problem ....
The problem is how it can come about that an expreience of pleasure can give rise to a need for greater pleasure (Gay, 1989, p. 281).

As we all know, it is not until puberty that the sharp distinction is estblished between the masculinine and feminine characters. From that time on, this contrast has a more decisive influence than any other upon the shaping of human life. It is true that the masculine and feminine dispositions are already easily recognizable in childhood. The development of the inhibitions (shame, disgust, pity, etc.) takes place in little girls earlier than in boys; the tendency to sexual repression seems in general to be greater; and, where the component instincts of sexuality appear, they prefer the passive form (Gay, 1989, p. 287).

Contributions to the Psychology of Love (1910)

Up till now we have left it to the creative writer to depict for us the 'necessary conditions for loving' which govern people's choice of an object, and the way in which they bring the demands of their imagination into harmony with reality. ... Science is, after all, the most complete renunciation of the pleasure principle of which our mental activity is capable (Freud, 1910, p. 165).

Preconditions for loving (pp. 166-167):

(1) rivalry: that there should be 'an injured party'--"the person in question shall never choose as his love-object a woman who is disengaged," but rather "only one to whom another man can claim right of possession as her husband."

(2) Jealousy: that of the woman's being like a prostitute"
... a woman who is chaste and whose reputation is irreproachable never excercises an attraction that might raise her to the status of a love-object," but "only a woman whose fidelity and reliability are open to some doubt."

(3) Compulsive Repetition: "passionate attachments of this sort are repeated with the same peculiarities -- each an exact replica of the others"

(4) Rescue Phantasies: "The man is convinced that she is in need of him, that without him she would lose all moral control and rapidly sink to a lamentable level."

Fetishism (1927)

Freud's almost fetishistic interest in noses, and thence in periodicity, tempts us to imagine a pychodynamic theory of the future as well as the past, a theory truly bio-psycholoical and neurophysiological. This meandering and strangely-structured argument in the (1927) paper on fetishism contains a number of quasi-assertions which could be recast in probabilistic language and made the basis of empirical study of the peculiar conditioning history implied for fetishists.

The first clinical example, simply cited in passing, concerns an English-German male's basing a fetish on the expression 'Glanz auf der Nase'/'glance at the nose.' (p. 152)

It is not true that, after the child has made his observation of the woman, he has preserved unaltered his belief that women have a phallus. He has retained that belief, but he has also given it up. In the conflict between the weight of the unwelcome perception and the force of his counter-wish, a compromise has been reached, as is only possible under the dominance of the unconscious laws of thought--the primary processes. Yes, in his mind, the woman has got a penis, in spite of everything; but this penis is no longer the same as it was before. Something else has taken its place, has been appointed its substitute, as it were, and now inherits the interest which was formerly directed to its predecessor. But this interest sufferes an extraordinary increase as well, because the horror of castration has set up a memorial to itself in the creation of this substitute. Furthermore, an aversion, which is never absent in any fetishist, to the real female genitals remains a stigma indelebile of the repression that has taken place. We can now see what the fetish achieves and what it is that maintains it. It remains as a token of triumph over the threat of castration and a protection against it. It also saves the fetishist from becoming a homosexual, by endowing women with the characteristic which makes them tolerable as sexual objects. In later life, the fetishist feels that he enjoys yet another advantage from his substitute for a genital. The meaning of the fetish is not known to other people, so the fetish is not withheld from him: it is easily accessible and he can readily obtain the sexual satisfaction attached to it. What other men have to woo and make exertions for can be had by the fetishist with no trouble at all.

Probably no male human being is spared the fright of castration at the sight of a female genital. Why some people become homosexual as a consequence of that impression, while others fend it off be creating a fetish, and the great majority surmount it, we are frankly unable to explain. It is possible that, among all the factors at work, we do not yet know those which are decisive for the rare pathological result. We must be content if we can explain what has happened, and may for the present leave on one side the task of explaining why something has not happened. (SE 21, pp. 153-155)

Femininity (Freud, 1933, Lecture 33)

Freud is pictured in the frontispiece of Volume 22, 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'être. 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 ["it turns out in the end that it was all inevitable, all the work of destiny."], 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 [SE 22, 112-113].

Tackling the riddle of femininity:

The suppression of women's aggressiveness which is prescribed for them constitutionally and imposed on them socially favours the development of powerful masochistic impulses, which succeed, as we know, in binding erotically the destructive trends which have been diverted inwards. Thus masochism, as people say, is truly feminine. But if, as happens so often, you meet with masochism in men, what is left to you but to say that these men exhibit very plain feminine traits?
(Freud, 1933, p. 116)

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.

. . . [paragraph on the sexual frigidity of women] . . .

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 validity 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, 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. 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. If you reject this idea as fantastic and regard my belief in the influence of the lack of a penis on the configuration of femininity as an idêe 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 not 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. 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 (Freud, 1933, p. 133).

Seeming to anticipate Gilligan (1982), Freud argues that:

[T]he phase of the affectionate pre-Oedipus attachment is the decisive one for a woman's future: during it preparations are made for the acquisition of the characteristics with which she will later fulfill her role in the sexual function and perform her invaluable social tasks. It is in this identification too that she acquires her attractiveness to a man, whose Oedipus attachment to his mother it kindles into passion. ... One gets the impression that a man's love and a woman's love are a phase apart psychologically (1933, p. 134).

1The last few years (this was written in the late 1980s) have seen the "Archives" controversy (Malcom, 1982; Masson, 1984), the "Minna Bernays" scandal (Swales, 19), the "White Hotel" publicity, and, most important, the publication of the Freud-Fliess letters (Masson, 1985).

2McGrath (1985) was given access to Freud's unpublished letters to Edw. Silberstein, in which Freud comments in detail about his intellectual preoccupations during college and his reactions to the teaching of Brücke and Brentano.

3I am thinking here especially of a chain of commentators including Norman O. Brown, Dorothy Dinnerstein, Jaques Lacan, and Gayle Rubin.


5Suggesting the strange equation: p(foot-fur-flower fetishism/childhood glimpse of [matrem's?] _____)= ??

6This 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 observartion 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 (where the "dark continent" metaphor is used)]; 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: Note that Freud is here discussing beating phantasies and sexual masochism generally, and he actually notes that the male phantasies are the more puzzling to him. He goes on (p. 197) to suggest as a clinical generalization that the males who employ such phantasies and engage in masochistic acts "invariably transfer themselves into the part of a woman; that is to say, their masochistic attitude coincides with a feminine one."]

Strachey footnotes Freud's 1914 paper "On Narcisisism."

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

Every time Freud refuses to apologize let's infer superego criticism.

Strachey footnotes the Introductory Lectures (1916; SE 15, 206:

In the son's eyes the father embodies every unwillingly tolerated social restraint; his father prevents him from exercising his will, from early sexual pleasure and, where there is common property in the family, from enjoying it. In the case of an heir to the throne this waiting for a father's death reaches an almost tragic height. There seems less danger to the relation between father and daughter and mother and son. This last provides the purest examples of an unchangeable affection, unimpaired by any egoistic considerations.

Cf. Group Psychology (1921; SE 18, 101), and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930; SE 21, In the latter Freud is discussing (as an "untenable illusion") communism's attribution of all social evil to ownership of private property, which makes his insistence on the freedom from hangups of the "mother's relation to her male child" especially surprising.]). 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 epilipsy."

This dazzlingly obtuse passage surely should have alerted his epigones to the fact something was amiss with the master, back before the Great War.