Freud’s Theory of Femininity


Freud was one of the great modernist theorists of his time. He broke through conventional ideas that seemed concrete at the time. He brought ideas about the human subconscious to the forefront. Freudian vocabulary and ideas are a part of our everyday lives as is the idea of psychoanalysis and therapy. These days the concept of therapy is evident in almost all areas of our lives. Human beings encounter different forms of therapy such as play therapy, music therapy and talking therapy as a regular part of our culture. It comes up in the music we listen to, the TV programmes we watch, the books we read and even in our everyday learning.  The fact that the term Freudian slip is often used in everyday language shows that Freud for better or worse has had a significant impact on society. One of the difficulties people have with Freud seems to be in relation to his theories of femininity and his views on women in general. Many feminists discredit Freud’s theories due to these opinions. However it would be over simplifying matters if we were to disregard all of Freud’s findings and observations because of his attitudes to women.

When dealing with the issue of sexuality Freud regularly related it to gender. No thinker can avoid tackling the subject of gender because everyone is invested in the structures of gender being themselves either male or female. Freud believed that gender values are set down in early infancy without our awareness. However he also believed that human beings have aspects of male and female in us, the male being active and the female being passive. Freud also believed in the idea of infantile sexuality. This means that all creatures are sexual beings from the start. Even innocent infants begin as sexual beings. Freud did not believe that sexuality was something that could be kept from children until they are older. Freud saw the child as being “polymorphously perverse”. This means that the small infant has not yet separated its sexual desires and wishes from its desire for food, warmth and comfort. The infant is he said “a bundle of appetites” All Freud’s further findings on the development of the child derive from these beliefs. Many people did not agree with Freud’s theories of infantile sexuality because they were not in line with the positive era of the time. His teachings were banned from many institutions and universities including UCC because people felt they threatened their belief system.

In order to fully understand Freud’s theories of feminism it is important to understand that Freud was first and foremost a storyteller. He drew from Greek mythology in order to explain his theories and concepts. He relied heavily on symbolism and metaphors in his work. He did not intend his work to be taken literally. It is to be examined as literature and involves a search for a hidden meaning. It begins with the masculine experience. Freud did not begin to look at infantile sexuality from the female perspective until a much later date. His essay on femininity was published much later in his career and I think not accidentally after the death of his mother. So in order to understand Freud’s views on women we must first understand his views on men. I think Simone de Beavoir says it best in her book The Second Sex when she says “Freud never showed much concern with the destiny of woman; it is clear that he simply adapted his account from that of the destiny of man”. (de Beauvoir 195)

Freud argued that each infant, either a girl or a boy, is born with a sexual love for its mother. In order for the normal structure of gender to be established each infant has to relinquish its love for its mother.  Here we see Freud drawing from the Greek myth Oedipus. Prince Thebes predicted that he would burn down the house of Thebes so his parents exposed him on a mountain so that he will die and the house will be saved. However he is rescued and returns. He goes on to defeat the sphinx, unknowingly kill his father and then marry his mother. In the end when the truth is revealed he blinds himself. Out of this story Freud constructed the Oedipus complex. He argues that every little boy represents this character that is in love with his mother and wishes to kill the father. His father has true possession of the mother and so the boy experiences jealousy towards him. The child believes that this possession is due to the father’s phallus. It is important to remember that this phallus is a symbol for male domination and not relating to the actual object. The fact that the father rules due to his bigger phallus is a symbolic way of understanding male power in society. The little boy first hates his father and wants to be violent towards him but then he sees that his mother is castrated and does not possess a phallus of her own. It is then he becomes fearful that the father too will castrate him. This is the point where the little boy begins to become his more masculine self and relinquishes his desire for the mother. He unconsciously defers his desires for the mother and begins to identify with his father. The desire is postponed until he acquires a woman of his own.

Freud believes that culture is built on the deferral of desire. Human beings constantly have to repress their desires or their urge for instant gratification such as food or sex and this is how society operates. Freud refers to these processes as the pleasure principle and the reality principle. The little boy learns to have a higher regard for the reality principle over the pleasure principle and from there comes art, literature and social order. The child cannot obtain that which he desires and so he constantly looks for something to replace it with. Freud believes that this void cannot be filled and so human beings are constantly experiencing loss but without it there would be no society or order.

Now that we understand the theory when it is applied it to the masculine model we must now look at it from the feminine perspective. Freud found the subject of women very troubling. The big question as far as Freud was concerned was “what do women desire/want?” Freud delivered his paper in 1933 entitled “Femininity” to an audience, a large portion of which was well educated women. He said, “You are yourselves the problem”. (Freud)  Freud seemed to have huge anxiety at the thought of women as thinkers. Another concept that is worth looking at in relation to Freud is how he viewed the self. He thought of the self as having three parts. The Id, this is the Latin for it, the ego and the super ego. The id was the part that was the young infant. It is controlled by its drives and instincts. As the infant grows and comes to the point of the Oedipal crisis it begins to develop an ego. The infant starts out physically connected to the mother but then begins this process of relinquishing her. The ego begins when the infant experiences barring from the mother, by the father who is in the position of power. The individual then internalizes this and the super ego is formed. The super ego is all about control, inhibition and strength. The difficulty here in relation to women is that Freud wasn’t able to think of women as having a fully developed super ego. The super ego according to Freud is the internalized father whose cultural role is to say no. Freud did not think this was a feminine trait and so saw women as inferior. “After a woman has become aware of the wound of her narcissism, she develops, like a scar, a sense of inferiority” (Freud 253)

Freud saw women as something of an enigma saying that femininity was itself a riddle. After much speculation Freud arrives at these theories to explain the Oedipus complex in relation to girls. He believes that it is not just little boys who desire their mother. The little girls love object is also their mother. Freud first describes how girls arrive at the Oedipus crisis. This is the moment where they notice the penis and they immediately recognise it as superior to their genitals and from then on they feel envious. “They notice the penis of a brother or playmate, strikingly visible and of large proportions, at once recognise it has the superior counterpart of their own small and inconspicuous organ, and from that time forward fall victim to envy for the penis”. (Freud 252) This is known as penis envy.

Freud also explains how this feeling of envy will persist throughout the life of a woman unless she can obtain a penis through giving birth to a boy. Little girls begin to diverge after they reach the Oedipal crisis just like boys. However in order for a girl to arrive at normal femininity she has to go through two steps instead of one. She has to relinquish masturbation and relinquish the site of her pleasure from the clitoris to the vagina. Freud refers to the vagina as truly feminine. The little girl can now pass out of the phallic phase.The second step is that she must change her love object from the mother to the father. The little girl cannot according to Freud retain her site of pleasure or her love object. She unlike the little boy must make these changes so that she can be a normal girl.

There were many early female psychoanalysts for example Melanie Klein who were well respected. Many of them broke away from Freud in light of his views on femininity. They found Freud’s views very troubling. His opinions are of course influenced by the fact that Freud grew up in the Victorian era. This was a period in history where society was extremely dominated by men. Women were expected to be very submissive and men ruled their thoughts and actions. Feminist theorists argue that Freud was so concerned with ideals of gender and the denial of female sexuality that he could not even entertain the idea that a woman was capable of pleasuring herself. They also find fault with the idea that the girl infant is identified as male until after the phallic phase. In his paper Freud says “the little girl is a little man” (Freud 118) They argued that this shortcoming of Freud’s meant that he cannot think of the infant as a little girl therefore his theories are invalid. Feminists regularly draw from the very famous case of Dora to reinforce this point. Freud worked Dora in an effort to help her with hysteria but in the end she left Freud claiming that he simply did not understand women.

Jessica Benjamin argues that “the self does not proceed from oneness and separation, but evolves by simultaneously differentiating and recognizing the other, by alternating between being with and being distinct”. (Benjamin) She argues that the tendency towards separation is innate and that no outside agitator such as the father is needed in order for this to occur. Melanie Klein also argued against Freud’s feminist theory of  penis envy. She believes this is a way to disguise the envy men feel towards women for being able to have babies. Klein maintains that this womb envy is much more threatening to men then penis envy is to women. Here she alludes to the fragility of the male ego and their anxiety around not being able to bear a child. “Even yet it is often not realised how much boys envy girls, and especially envy women, for their breasts and milk, and above all for the mysterious capacity women’s bodies have of forming and creating babies.” ( Klein 36)

It is clear that there are many feminists who disagree with Freud’s theories of femininity. However I believe that these theories have allowed for many important discussions and more research into a topic that continues to evolve. Even though many do not agree with Freud’s theories about women it is impossible to argue with the fact that Freud has made other valuable contributions to the field of psychoanalysis and the subconscious mind. As society progresses and changes so does the idea of feminism. I am personally delighted that feminism has come so far but I also value the fact that he took on the topic of female sexuality at a time when very few people were willing to approach it. Hopefully feminism will continue evolve from where it is now and scholars will look back at research that is emerging now and also think about how far they have come.


                                                             Work Cited


Benjamin, Jessica. The Bond of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination. London: Virgo, 1990. Print.


Bernheimer, Charles. Kahane, Claire. In Dora’s Case. London: Virago Press Limited, 1985. Print.


de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Second. London: Jonathan Cape, 2009. Print.


Freud, Sigmund. “Femininity, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis” 1931. Print.


Freud, Sigmund. “Some Psychical Consequence of the Anatomical Differences Between the Sexes.” Psychological Works of Freud. Vol. 19 (1923-25): 243-258. London: Vintage, 2001. Print.


Klein, Melanie. Riviere, Joan. Love, Hate and Reparation. New York: Norton, 1964. Print.




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