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7.1: Feminine Psychology in the Freudian Tradition

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  • Although Sigmund Freud believed that female psychology was the result of an incomplete and frustrated male development, he also acknowledged that he did not fully understand the psychology of women. A particularly interesting passage can be found in his New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis:

    One might consider characterizing femininity psychologically as giving preference to passive aims. This is not, of course, the same thing as passivity; to achieve a passive aim may call for a large amount of activity...we must beware in this of underestimating the influence of social customs, which similarly force women into passive situations. All this is still far from being cleared up… (pgs. 143-144; Freud, 1933/1965)

    So, Freud did suggest the possibility that cultural factors (social customs) play a role in the development of girls and women. Furthermore, he acknowledged that there was much more to learn about these developmental processes. Freud ended his lecture on femininity with the following:

    That is all I had to say to you about femininity. It is certainly incomplete and fragmentary and does not always sound friendly. But do not forget that I have only been describing women in so far as their nature is determined by their sexual function. It is true that that influence extends very far; but we do not overlook the fact that an individual woman may be a human being in other respects as well. If you want to know more about femininity, enquire from your own experiences of life, or turn to the poets, or wait until science can give you deeper and more coherent information. (pg. 167; Freud 1933/1965)

    Published in 1933, this was one of the last times Freud wrote about femininity and the psychology of women. Always the scientist, Freud suggested that future research will provide a better understanding of this topic. The Stone Center group, whose work we will encounter shortly, is perhaps the most complete effort made toward fulfilling Freud’s expectations. First, however, let’s consider the interesting work of Princess Marie Bonaparte, as one of the female psychodynamic theorists who adhered closely to Freud’s perspective.

    Princess Marie Bonaparte

    Marie Bonaparte (1882-1962), Her Royal Highness Princess George of Greece, was a patient, student, and dear friend of Sigmund Freud. She was the great-grandniece of Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, and she married Prince George of Greece in 1907. As a wealthy aristocrat, she was able to help both Freud himself and the financially struggling International Psychoanalytic Publishing House (known more commonly as the Verlag, from its name in German). It was Marie Bonaparte who paid a ransom to the Nazis in Austria in order to secure Freud’s release as World War II approached. Earlier, she had used her wealth to help support the Verlag, which Freud had established to provide a means for publishing a variety of works on psychoanalysis (Gay, 1998; Jones, 1957). However, Bonaparte was far more than just a wealthy colleague.

    Bonaparte shared Freud’s interest in antiquities, and often helped him find the best pieces for his collection (M. Freud, 1983). She also loved dogs, particularly Chows, and Freud came to love that breed as well. As Freud, his wife Martha, and their daughter Anna waited to escape Austria in 1938, Freud and Anna spent some of their time translating books and articles into German. One of those books was entitled Topsy, written by Bonaparte about her favorite dog (M. Freud, 1983; Jones, 1957). But it was not just a simple matter of waiting to leave Austria. In a particularly poignant story, Martin Freud described the time when his sister Anna was arrested by the Gestapo. Bonaparte was with her, and demanded to be arrested as well. However, at that point in time the Nazis were still intimidated by members of the royal houses of Europe, and Anna Freud was taken alone. She was released later, but Freud is said to have paced all day in his house worrying about her (M. Freud, 1983). When the Freud family finally left Austria for England, only Bonaparte was able to safely transfer their gold out of the country. She did so by sending the gold to the king of Greece, who then sent it to the Greek embassy in London (Jones, 1957). Thus, Freud and his family were financially secure upon reaching London, and Freud was able to repay the ransom that Bonaparte had paid for his release.

    Bonaparte also served the field of psychoanalysis in an important way other than her own work. Early in Freud’s career, during the time when he underwent his own psychoanalysis, he had a very close friend named Wilhelm Fliess. So close were these friends, and at such a critical time in Freud’s career, that their correspondence contained a great many intimate details. In addition to personal correspondence, Freud sent many scientific notes about his theory to Fliess. When Fliess died in 1931, his widow asked Freud to return the letters Fliess had written to Freud. However, Freud had destroyed all of them years earlier, and he wanted her to do the same to his letters. However, she chose to sell the letters to a bookseller. The bookseller then sold them to Bonaparte. When Bonaparte told Freud that she had them, he insisted that she destroy them. She refused, however, and those letters eventually became available to the fields of psychology and psychiatry (Gay, 1998; Jones, 1953).

    As Bonaparte became involved in psychoanalysis professionally, Freud both admired and supported her work (Gay, 1998; Jones, 1957). In a letter to Bonaparte after Freud had reviewed her paper on psychoanalysis and time, Freud wrote “The work does you honor.” (cited in Jones, 1957). She was also active in establishing the growing field as a whole. She had helped to establish a psychoanalytic society in France, and Freud later nominated her to be vice-president of the International Psychoanalytic Association. In nominating her, Freud considered her a worthy candidate:

    …not “only because one can show her off to the outside world,” but because she “is a person of high intelligence, of masculine capacity for work, has done fine papers, is wholly devoted to the cause, and, as is well known, also in a position to lend material aid. She has now become 50 years old, will probably turn away increasingly from her private interests and steep herself in analytic work. I need not mention that she alone keeps the Fr[ench] group together.” (pg. 586; cited in Gay, 1998).

    Female Sexuality

    Bonaparte first met Freud as a patient seeking help with her frigidity. The psychoanalysis does not appear to have been successful, but the experience did provide Bonaparte with a new goal in life (Gay, 1998). Given the nature of her own problems, it should not be surprising that her writings on psychoanalysis focused on sexuality. Female Sexuality is a wide-ranging book that draws heavily on Freud’s work, but also relies on the works of Horney and Klein. In addition, she mentions Adler in a somewhat favorable light, though she concludes that both Freud and Adler failed to fully understand female sexuality (as they themselves acknowledged). Still, she bases most of her work on a paper of the same title written by Freud in 1931, although she attempts to describe the development of girls and women more thoroughly and with more consideration given to potential alternatives.

    Bonaparte began by describing three types of women. The so-called “true women” are those who have succeeded in substituting the desire for a penis (penis envy) with a desire to have children (particularly a son); their sexuality is normal, vaginal, and maternal. They are known as acceptives. The second type, the renouncers, gives up all competition with men, fail to seek external love objects, and live largely unfulfilled lives. The claimers, however, deny reality and cling to both psychical and organic male elements present in all women. While it may appear to us today that the claimers are asserting themselves as being proud to be female, Bonaparte considered this position to cause an inability to adapt to one’s erotic function. As Freud had described, in order for a girl to develop, she must transfer both her love object (from mother to father) and her erotogenic zone (from clitoris to vagina). According to Bonaparte, claimers who will not transfer their love object will become lesbians, those who do not transfer their erotogenic zone will never achieve fully satisfying sexual relationships as adults. In other words, they will be frigid. Evidence of the psychical nature of the problem of frigidity can be seen in the responsiveness of patients to psychoanalysis. Patients who are totally frigid, those who experience no pleasure in sexual activity, often respond well to psychoanalysis. However, women who are partially frigid, those who have more specifically not transferred their erotogenic zone from the clitoris to the vagina, tend to be very resistant to psychoanalysis. According to Bonaparte, partial frigidity is much more common than total frigidity. Partial frigidity is also much more common than men realize, since many women hide this reality by pretending to enjoy sexual activity.

    In agreement with Freud, Bonaparte considers boys and girls to begin their sexual lives equally, in an oral erotic stage focused on the mother’s breast. As they transition into the anal stage, there are the beginnings of a contrast between active and passive forces: the expulsion of feces vs. the retention of feces. The important activity of toilet training begins in this stage, and so social conditioning is also coming into play. Although Bonaparte, like Freud, continued to emphasize biological factors in sexual development, the acknowledgement that sociocultural factors related to toilet training come into play lays the foundation for girls being pushed toward the passive role that strict Freudians believe they must play.

    In the transition from the anal stage to the phallic stage, the interplay between active and passive forces that were present during the anal stage takes a different direction in boys and girls. Very simply, since the boys penis actively protrudes, and his love object can continue to be his mother (or, later, other women as substitutes), the boy will develop an active relationship with the world around him. Girls, however, ultimately need to transfer their sexuality from the clitoris (which had been related to a small penis until this point) to the vagina, a passive organ with regard to sexuality. Girls must also transfer their love object to their father (or, later, to other men), and accept the physical penetration that is required for sexual intercourse. In this manner, according to Freud, Bonaparte, and others, boys grow into aggressive men and girls grow into passive women. Provided, of course, that women accept their role.

    Adding to the complexity of this process for girls, who need to transfer the libidinal cathexes from both the clitoris and the love object of mother, is the consequence of when the girl first experiences an orgasm. Since this potentially can occur at any time during the dynamic processes of transferring these libidinal cathexes, the first orgasm can have a variety of either positive or negative effects. For boys it is simply easier, since the penis is the one obvious source of sexual pleasure, and the boy never has to transfer his love object away from women (though it should transfer from the mother to another woman). This difference in sexual development is summed up by Bonaparte:

    It is on these diverse superimposed courses that the edifice of female sexuality rises. Constitutional factors are its foundation, and life builds thereon. Finally, we see the feminine psychosexual structure in its main varieties, varieties more multiform even than those to which male sexuality is susceptible, centered as it is on the phallus, that highly differentiated organ developed to serve the male erotic function. (pg. 140; Bonaparte, 1953)

    As an interesting side note, Bonaparte also discussed some of the research that had been done up to that point in time on female circumcision/mutilation, particularly in primitive cultures. She speculated on how psychoanalytic theories of sexuality might apply to those practices, and how societies today might compare to primitive cultures that have retained such practices. Can we really say that things have changed since Bonaparte wrote the following passage?

    It would appear that humans, living in communities, cannot dispense with sexual repression of some kind and that, if it has not succeeded in coming from within, it must go on coming from without. (pg. 157; Bonaparte, 1953)

    Before we turn our attention to the Stone Center group, I would like to mention something that may have already entered your mind. This book is about personality, not sexuality. While it may be true that sexuality is an important part of life, it is certainly not the same thing as one’s personality. Unless, of course, you happen to be a strict Freudian theorist, as was Bonaparte. She does tend to equate the psychology of women with their sexuality. The psychologists of the Stone Center group, however, have moved beyond this biased view of the psychology of women.

    Discussion Question \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    In keeping with Freud’s original theory, Bonaparte believed that sexual development is much more difficult for girls than it is boys. Do you agree with that, and if you do, what is it that makes things so much more difficult for girls? Are there any unique challenges that only boys face?

    Placing the Psychology of Women in Context: Sexism vs. Feminism

    Sigmund Freud developed a theory of female sexuality that helped to explain his observation that most people in psychoanalysis were women. Karen Horney agreed that women suffer more than men, but she placed the blame on men, and the patriarchal culture that maintains special privileges for men only. Despite the fact that Freud and Adler admitted that they did not fully understand women, and that there were many women among the neo-Freudians, it was a long time before a unique perspective on the psychology of women developed.

    In contrast to women like Princess Bonaparte and Helene Deutsch, the first leading female member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society (the very first female member, Hermine von Hug-Hellmuth, was murdered in 1924; Deutsch, 1973, Sayers, 1991) and the first person to devote an entire book to the psychology of women (a two volume set published in consecutive years; Deutsch, 1944, 1945), Jean Baker Miller and her colleagues at the Stone Center developed a unique theory on the psychological development and personality of women. Although their theory, based on personal relationships and culture, developed in part as a result of increasing interest in feminist studies in the 1960s and 1970s, the work that continues today strives to include the personality development of all people (women and men).

    There are some women, however, who believe that a feminist perspective can be combined more readily with Freud’s basic ideas (see, e.g., Mitchell, 2000). Nancy Chodorow has worked to combine both psychodynamic and feminist ideas into a comprehensive theory. Although the result is basically an object relations theory, Chodorow’s work has been reserved for this chapter due to her inclusion of the feminist side of the perspective.

    It is also important to note that the work of the Stone Center group and Nancy Chodorow is much more contemporary than that of Bonaparte, Deutsch, and many of the neo-Freudians discussed in this book (most of whom are no longer alive). Thus, the development of feminist perspectives on the psychology of women continues today.