A frequent criticism of Freud is that he did not understand women and that his theory of personality was strongly oriented toward men. There is a large measure of truth to this criticism, and Freud acknowledged that he lacked a complete understanding of the female psyche.
Why didn't Freud have a better understanding of the feminine psyche? One answer is that he was a product of his times, and society was dominated by men during those times. In 19th century Austria, women were second-class citizens, with few rights or privileges. They had little opportunity to enter a profession or to be a member of a professional organization—such as Freud's Wednesday Psychological Society.
Thus, during the first quarter century of psychoanalysis, the movement was an all-men's club. After World War I, women gradually became attracted to psychoanalysis and some of these women, such as Marie Bonaparte, Ruth Mack Brunswick, Helene Deutsch, Melanie Klein, Lou Andreas-Salomé, and Anna Freud were able to exercise some influence on Freud. However, they were never able to convince him that similarities between the genders outweighed differences.
Freud himself was a proper bourgeois Viennese gentleman whose sexual attitudes were fashioned during a time when women were expected to nurture then husbands, manage the household, care for the children, and stay out of then husband's business or profession. Freud's wife Martha was no exception to this rule (Gay, 1988).
Freud, as the oldest and most favored child, ruled over his sisters, advising them on books to read and lecturing to them about the world in general. An incident with a piano reveals further evidence of Freud's favored position within his family. Freud's sisters enjoyed music and found pleasure in playing a piano. When music from then piano annoyed Freud, he complained to his parents that he couldn't concentrate on his books. The parents immediately removed the piano from the house, leaving Freud to understand that the wishes of five girls did not equal the preference of one boy.
Like many other men of his day, Freud regarded women as the "tender sex," suitable for caring for the household and nurturing children but not equal to men in scientific and scholarly affairs. His love letters to his future wife Martha Bernays are filled with references to her as "my little girl," "my little woman," or "my princess" (Freud, 1960). Freud undoubtedly would have been surprised to learn that 125 years later these terms of endearment are seen by many as disparaging to women.
Freud continually grappled with trying to understand women, and his views on femininity changed several thnes during his lifethne. As a young student, he exclaimed to a friend, "How wise our educators that they pester the beautiful sex so little with scientific knowledge" (quoted in Gay, 1988, p. 522).
During the early years of his career, Freud viewed male and female psycho-sexual growth as mirror hnages of each other, with different but parallel lines of development. However, he later proposed the notion that little girls are failed boys and that adult women are akin to castrated men. Freud originally proposed these ideas tentatively, but as thne passed, he defended them adamantly and refused to compromise his views. When people criticized his notion of femininity, Freud responded by
Chapter 2 Freud: Psychoanalysis 59
adopting an increasingly more rigid stance. By the 1920s, he was insisting that psychological differences between men and women were due to anatomical differences and could not be explained by different socialization experiences (Freud, 1924/1961). Nevertheless, he always recognized that he did not understand women as well as he did men. He called them the "dark continent for psychology" (Freud 1926/1959b, p. 212). In his final statement on the matter, Freud (1933/1964) suggested that "if you want to know more about femininity, enquire from your own experiences of life or turn to the poets" (p. 135).
Although some of Freud's close associates inhabited the "dark continent" of womanhood his most intimate friends were men. Moreover, women such as Marie Bonaparte, Lou Andreas-Salomé, and Minna Bernays (his sister-in-law), who did exert some influence on Freud were mostly cut from a similar pattern. Ernest Jones (1955) referred to them as intellectual women with a "masculine cast" (p. 421). These women were quite apart from Freud's mother and wife, both of whom were proper Viennese wives and mothers whose primary concerns were for their husbands and children. Freud's female colleagues and disciples were selected for their intelligence, emotional strength, and loyalty—the same qualities Freud found attractive in men. But none of these women could substitute for an intimate male friend. In August of 1901, Freud (1985) wrote to his friend Wilhehn Fliess, "In my life, as you know, woman lias never replaced the comrade, the friend" (p. 447).
Why was Freud unable to understand women? Given his upbringing during the middle of the 19th century, parental acceptance of his domination of his sisters, a tendency to exaggerate differences between women and men, and his belief that women inhabited the "dark continent" of humanity, it seems unlikely that Freud possessed the necessary experiences to understand women. Toward the end of his life, he still had to ask, "What does a woman want?" (E. Jones, 1955, p. 421). The question itself reveals Freud's gender bias because it assumes that women all want the same things and that their wants are somehow different from those of men.
Was this article helpful?