Betty Friedan (1963)


The Feminine Mystique
Chapter 5

The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud

Source: The Feminine Mystique, 1963;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden in 1998, proofed and corrected in March 2005.

IT would be half-wrong to say it started with Sigmund Freud. It did not really start, in America, until the 1940s. And then again, it was less a start than the prevention of an end. The old prejudices – women are animals, less than human, unable to think like men, born merely to breed and serve men – were not so easily dispelled by the crusading feminists, by science and education, and by the democratic spirit after all. They merely reappeared in the forties, in Freudian disguise. The feminine mystique derived its power from Freudian thought; for it was an idea born of Freud, which led women, and those who studied them, to misinterpret their mothers’ frustrations, and their fathers’ and brothers’ and husbands’ resentments and inadequacies, and their own emotions and possible choices in life.

The new mystique is much more difficult for the modern woman to question than the old prejudices, partly because the mystique is broadcast by the very agents of education and social science that are supposed to be the chief enemies of prejudice, partly because the very nature of Freudian thought makes it virtually invulnerable to question. How can an educated American woman, who is not herself an analyst, presume to question a Freudian truth? She knows that Freud’s discovery of the unconscious workings of the mind was one of the great breakthroughs in man’s pursuit of knowledge. She knows that the science built on that discovery has helped many suffering men and women. She has been taught that only after years of analytic training is one capable of understanding the meaning of Freudian truth. She may even know how the human mind unconsciously resists that truth. How can she presume to tread the sacred ground where only analysts are allowed?

No one can question the basic genius of Freud’s discoveries, not the contribution he has made to our culture. Nor do I question the effectiveness of psychoanalysis as it is practised today by Freudian or anti-Freudian. But I do question, from my own experience as a woman, and my reporter’s knowledge of other women, the application of the Freudian theory of femininity to women today. I question its use, not in therapy, but as it has filtered into the lives of American women through the popular magazines and the opinions and interpretations of so-called experts. I think much of the Freudian theory about women is obsolescent, an obstacle to truth for women in America today, and a major cause of the pervasive problem that has no name.

There are many paradoxes here. Freud’s concept of the superego helped to free man of the tyranny of the ‘shoulds’, the tyranny of the past, which prevents the child from becoming an adult. Yet Freudian thought helped create a new super-ego that paralyses educated modern American women a new tyranny of the ‘shoulds’, which chains women to an old image, prohibits choice and growth, and denies them individual identity.

Freudian psychology, with its emphasis on freedom from a repressive morality to achieve sexual fulfilment, was part of the ideology of women’s emancipation. The lasting American image of the ‘emancipated woman’ is the flapper of the twenties: burdensome hair shingled off, knees bared, flaunting her new freedom to live in a studio in Greenwich Village or Chicago’s near North Side, and drive a car, and drink, and smoke, and enjoy sexual adventures – or talk about them. And yet today, for reasons far removed from the life of Freud himself, Freudian thought has become the ideological bulwark of the sexual counter-revolution in America. Without Freud’s definition of the sexual nature of woman to give the conventional image of femininity new authority, I do not think several generations of educated, spirited American women would have been so easily diverted from the dawning realisation of who they were and what they could be.

The concept ‘penis envy’, which Freud coined to describe a phenomenon he observed in women – that is, in the middle-class women who were his patients in Vienna in the Victorian era – was seized in this country in the 1940s as the literal explanation of all that was wrong with American women. Many who preached the doctrine of endangered femininity reversing the movement of American women towards independence and identity, never knew its Freudian origin. Many who seized on it – not the few psychoanalysts, but the many popularisers, sociologists, educators, ad-agency manipulators, magazine writers, child experts, marriage counsellors, ministers, cocktail-party authorities – could not have known what Freud himself mean by penis envy. One needs only to know what Freud was describing, in those Victorian women, to see the fallacy in literally applying his theory of femininity to women today. And one needs only to know why he described it in that way to understand that much of it is obsolescent contradicted by knowledge that is part of every social scientist’s thinking today, but was not yet known in Freud’s time.

Freud, it is generally agreed, was a most perceptive and accurate observer of important problems of the human personality. But in describing and interpreting those problems, he was a prisoner of his own culture. As he was creating a new framework for our culture, he could not escape the framework of his own. Even his genius could not give him, then, the knowledge of cultural processes which men who are not geniuses grow up with today.

The physicist’s relativity, which in recent years has changed our whole approach to scientific knowledge, is harder, and therefore easier to understand, than the social scientist’s relativity. It is not a slogan; but a fundamental statement about truth to say that no social scientist can completely free himself from the prison of his own culture; he can only interpret what he observes in the scientific framework of his own time. This is true even of the great innovators. They cannot help but translate their revolutionary observations into language and rubrics that have been determined by the progress of science up until their time. Even those discoveries that create new rubrics are relative to the vantage point of their creator.

Much of what Freud believed to be biological, instinctual, and changeless has been shown by modern research to be a result of specific cultural causes. Much of what Freud described as characteristic of universal human nature was merely characteristic of certain middle-class European men and women at the end of the nineteenth century.

For instance, Freud’s theory of the sexual origin of neurosis stems from the fact that many of the patients he first observed suffered from hysteria – and in those cases, he found sexual repression to be the cause. Orthodox Freudians still profess to believe in the sexual origin of all neurosis, and since they look for unconscious sexual memories in their patients, and translate what they hear into sexual symbols, they still manage to find what they are looking for.

But the fact is, cases of hysteria as observed by Freud are much more rare today. In Freud’s time, evidently, cultural hypocrisy forced the repression of sex. (Some social theorists even suspect that the very absence of other concerns, in that dying Austrian empire, caused the sexual preoccupation of Freud’s patients.) Certainly the fact that his culture denied sex focused Freud’s interest on it. He then developed his theory by describing all the stages of growth as sexual, fitting all the phenomena he observed into sexual rubrics.

His attempt to translate all psychological phenomena into sexual terms, and to see all problems of adult personality as the effect of childhood sexual fixations also stemmed, in part, from his own background in medicine, and from the approach to causation implicit in the scientific thought of his time. He had the same diffidence about dealing with psychological phenomena in their own terms which often plagues scientists of human behaviour. Something that could be described in physiological terms, linked to an organ of anatomy, seemed more comfortable, solid, real, scientific, as he moved into the unexplored country of the unconscious mind. As his biographer, Ernest Jones, put it, he made a ‘desperate effort to cling to the safety of cerebral anatomy’. Actually, he had the ability to see and describe psychological phenomena so vividly that whether his concepts were given names borrowed from physiology, philosophy, or literature – penis envy, ego, Oedipus complex – they seemed to have a concrete physical reality. Psychological facts, as Jones said, were ‘as real and concrete to him as metals are to a metallurgist’. This ability became a source of great confusion as his concepts were passed down by lesser thinkers.

The whole superstructure of Freudian theory rests on the strict determinism that characterised the scientific thinking of the Victorian era. Determinism has been replaced today by a more complex view of cause and effect, in terms of physical processes and phenomena as well as psychological. In the new view, behavioural scientists do not need to borrow language from physiology to explain psychological events, or give them pseudo-reality. Sexual phenomena are no more nor less real than, for instance, the phenomenon of Shakespeare’s writing Hamlet, which cannot exactly be ‘explained’ by reducing it to sexual terms. Even Freud himself cannot be explained by his own deterministic, physiological blueprint though his biographer traces his genius, his ‘divine passion for knowledge’, to an insatiable sexual curiosity, before the age of three, as to what went on between his mother and father in the bedroom.

Today biologists, social scientists, and increasing numbers of psychoanalysts see the need or impulse to human growth as a primary human need, as basic as sex. The ‘oral’ and ‘anal’ stages which Freud described in terms of sexual development the child gets his sexual pleasure first by mouth, from mother’s breast, then from his bowel movements – are now seen as stages of human growth, influenced by cultural circumstances and parental attitudes as well as by sex. When the teeth grow, the mouth can bite as well as suck. Muscle and brain also grow; the child becomes capable of control, mastery, understanding; and his need to grow and learn, at five, twenty-five, or fifty, can be satisfied, denied, repressed, atrophied, evoked, or discouraged by his culture as can his sexual needs. Child specialists today confirm Freud’s observation that problems between mother and child in the earliest stages are often played out in terms of eating; later in toilet training. And yet in America in recent years there has been a noticeable decline in children’s ‘eating problems’. Has the child’s instinctual development changed? Impossible if, by definition, the oral stage is instinctual. Or has the culture removed eating as a focus for early childhood problems – by the American emphasis on permissiveness in child care, or simply by the fact that in our affluent society food has become less a cause for anxiety in mothers? Because of Freud’s own influence on our culture, educated parents are usually careful not to put conflict-producing pressures on toilet training. Such conflicts are more likely to occur today as the child learns to talk or read.

In the 1940s, American social scientists and psychoanalysts had already begun to reinterpret Freudian concepts in the light of their growing cultural awareness. But, curiously, this did not prevent their literal application of Freud’s theory of femininity to American women.

The fact is that to Freud, even more than to the magazine editor on Madison Avenue today, women were a strange, inferior, less-than-human species. He saw them as childlike dolls, who existed in terms only of man’s love, to love man and serve his needs. It was the same kind of unconscious solipsism that made man for many centuries see the sun only as a bright object that revolved around the earth. Freud grew up with this attitude built in by his culture – not only the culture of Victorian Europe, but that Jewish culture in which men said the daily prayer: ‘I thank Thee, Lord, that Thou hast not created me a woman,’ and women prayed in submission: ‘I thank Thee, Lord, that Thou has created me according to Thy will.’

Freud’s mother was the pretty, docile bride of a man twice her age; his father ruled the family with an autocratic authority traditional in Jewish families during those centuries of persecution when the fathers were seldom able to establish authority in the outside world. His mother adored the young Sigmund, her first son, and thought him mystically destined for greatness; she seemed to exist only to gratify his every wish. His own memories of the sexual jealousy he felt for his father, whose wishes she also gratified, were the basis of his theory of the Oedipus complex. With his wife, as with his mother and sisters, his needs, his desires, his wishes, were the sun around which the household revolved. When the noise of his sisters’ practising the piano interrupted his studies, ‘the piano disappeared,’ Anna Freud recalled years later, ‘and with it all opportunities for his sisters to become musicians.’

Freud did not see this attitude as a problem, or cause for any problem, in women. It was woman’s nature to be ruled by man and her sickness to envy him. Freud’s letters to Martha, his future wife, written during the four years of their engagement (1882-6) have the fond, patronising sound of Torvald in A Doll’s House, scolding Nora for her pretences at being human. Freud was beginning to probe the secrets of the human brain in the laboratory at Vienna; Martha was to wait, his ‘sweet child’, in her mother’s custody for four years, until he could come and fetch her. From these letters one can see that to him her identity was defined as child-housewife, even when she was no longer a child and not yet a housewife.

Tables and chairs, beds, mirrors, a clock to remind the happy couple of the passage of time, an armchair for an hour’s pleasant daydreaming, carpets to help the housewife keep the floors clean, linen tied with pretty ribbons in the cupboard and dresses of the latest fashion and hats with artificial flowers, pictures on the wall, glasses for everyday and others for wine and festive occasions plates and dishes ... and the sewing table and the cosy lamp, and everything must be kept in good order or else the housewife who has divided her heart into little bits, one for each piece of furniture, will begin to fret. And this object must bear witness to the serious work that holds the household together, and that object, to a feeling for beauty, to dear friends one likes to remember, to cities one has visited, to hours one wants to recall. ... Are we to hang our hearts on such little things? Yes, and without hesitation. ...

I know, after all, how sweet you are, how you can turn a house into a paradise, how you will share in my interests, how gay yet painstaking you will be. I will let you rule the house as much as you wish, and you will reward me with your sweet love and by rising above all those weaknesses for which women are so often despised. As far as my activities allow, we shall read together what we want to learn, and I will initiate you into things which could not interest a girl as long as she is unfamiliar with her future companion and his occupation ...

On 5 July 1885, he scolds her for continuing to visit Elise, a friend who evidently is less than demure in her regard for men:

What is the good of your feeling that you are now so mature that this relationship can’t do you any harm? . . . You are far too soft, and this is something I have got to correct, for what one of us does will also be charged to the other’s account. You are my precious little woman and even if you make a mistake, you are none the less so.... But you know all this, my sweet child ...

The Victorian mixture of chivalry and condescension which is found in Freud’s scientific theories about women is explicit in a letter he wrote on 5 November 1883 deriding John Stuart Mill’s views on ‘female emancipation and the woman’s question altogether’.

In his whole presentation, it never emerges that women are different beings – we will not say lesser, rather the opposite from men. He finds the suppression of women an analogy to that of Negroes. Any girl, even without a suffrage or legal competence, whose hand a man kisses and for whose love he is prepared to dare all, could have set him right. It is really a stillborn thought to send women into the struggle for existence exactly as man. If, for instance, I imagined my gentle sweet girl as a competitor, it would only end in my telling her, as I did seventeen months ago, that I am fond of her and that I implore her to withdraw from the strife into the calm, uncompetitive activity of my home. It is possible that changes in upbringing may suppress all a woman’s tender attributes, needful of protection and yet so victorious, and that she can then earn a livelihood like men. It is also possible that in such an event one would not be justified in mourning the passing away of the most delightful thing the world can offer us – our ideal of womanhood. I believe that all reforming action in law and education would break down in front of the fact that, long before the age at which a man can earn a position in society, Nature has determined woman’s destiny through beauty, charm, and sweetness. Law and custom have much to give women that has been withheld from them, but the position of women will surely be what it is: in youth an adored darling and in mature years a loved wife.

Since all of Freud’s theories rested, admittedly, on his own penetrating, unending psychoanalysis of himself, and since sexuality was the focus of all his theories, certain paradoxes about his own sexuality seem pertinent. His writings, as many scholars have noted, give much more attention to infantile sexuality than to its mature expression. His chief biographer, Jones, pointed out that he was, even for those times, exceptionally chaste, puritanical, and moralistic. In his own life he was relatively uninterested in sex. There were only the adoring mother of his youth, at sixteen a romance that existed purely in fantasy with a girl named Gisele, and his engagement to Martha at twenty-six. The nine months when they both lived in Vienna were not too happy because she was, evidently, uneasy and afraid of him, but separated by a comfortable distance for four years, there was a grande passion of 900 love letters. After their marriage, the passion seems to have quickly disappeared, though his biographers note that he was too rigid a moralist to seek sexual satisfaction outside of marriage. The only woman on whom, as an adult, he ever focused the violent passions of love and hate of which he was capable was Martha, during the early years of their engagement. After that, such emotions were focused on men. As Jones, his respectful biographer, said: ‘Freud’s deviation from the average in this respect, as well as his pronounced mental bisexuality, may well have influenced his theoretical views to some extent.’

Less reverent biographers, and even Jones himself, point out that when one considers Freud’s theories in terms of his own life, one is reminded of the puritanical old maid who sees sex everywhere. It is interesting to note that his main complaint about his docile Hausfrau was that she was not ‘docile’ enough – and yet, in interesting ambivalence, that she was not at her ease with him, that she was not able to be a ‘comrade-in-arms’.

But, as Freud was painfully to discover, she was not at heart docile and she had a firmness of character that did not readily lend itself to being moulded. Her personality was fully developed and well integrated: it would well deserve the psychoanalyst’s highest compliment of being ‘normal’.

One gets a glimpse of Freud’s ‘intention, never to be fulfilled, to mould her to his perfect image’, when he wrote her that she must ‘become quite young, a sweetheart, only a week old, who will quickly lose every trace of tartness’. But he then reproaches himself:

The loved one is not to become a toy doll, but a good comrade who still has a sensible word left when the strict master has come to the end of his wisdom. And I have been trying to smash her frankness so that she should reserve opinion until she is sure of mine.

As Jones pointed out, Freud was pained when she did not meet his chief test – complete identification with himself, his opinions, his feelings, and his intentions. She was not really his unless he could perceive his “stamp” on her. Freud even admitted that it was boring if one could find nothing in the other person to put right. And he stresses again that Freud’s love could be set free and displayed only under very favourable conditions. ... Martha was probably afraid of her masterful lover and she would commonly take refuge in silence.

So, he eventually wrote her, ‘I renounce what I demanded. I do not need a comrade-in-arms, such as I hoped to make you into. I am strong enough to fight alone.... You remain for me a precious sweet, loved one.’ Thus evidently ended ‘the only time in his life when such emotions [love and hate] centred on a woman’.

The marriage was conventional, but without that passion. As Jones described it:

There can have been few more successful marriages. Martha certainly made an excellent wife and mother. She was an admirable manager – the rare kind of woman who could keep servants indefinitely – but she was never the kind of Hausfrau who put things before people. Her husband’s comfort and convenience always ranked first.... It was not to be expected that she should follow the roaming flights of his imagination any more than most of the world could.

She was as devoted to his physical needs as the most doting Jewish mother, organising each meal on a rigid schedule to fit the convenience of der Papa. But she never dreamed of sharing his life as an equal. Nor did Freud consider her a fit guardian for their children, especially of their education, in case of his death. He himself recalls a dream in which he forgets to call for her at the theatre. His associations ‘imply that forgetting may be permissible in unimportant matters’.

That limitless subservience of woman taken for granted by Freud’s culture, the very lack of opportunity for independent action or personal identity, seems often to have generated that uneasiness and inhibition in the wife, and that irritation in the husband, which characterised Freud’s marriage. As Jones summed it up, Freud’s attitude towards women ‘could probably be called rather old-fashioned, and it would be easy to ascribe this to his social environment and the period in which he grew up rather than to any personal factors’.

Whatever his intellectual opinions may have been in the matter, there are many indications in his writing and correspondence of his emotional attitude. It would certainly be going too far to say that he regarded the male sex as the lords of creation, for there was no tinge of arrogance or superiority in his nature, but it might perhaps be fair to describe his view of the female sex as having as their main function to be ministering angels to the needs and comforts of men. His letters and his love choice make it plain that he had only one type of sexual object in his mind, a gentle feminine one....

There is little doubt that Freud found the psychology of women more enigmatic than that of men. He said once to Marie Bonaparte: ‘The great question that has never been answered and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is, what does a woman want?’

Jones also remarked:

Freud was also interested in another type of woman, of a more intellectual and perhaps masculine cast. Such women several times played a part in his life, accessory to his men friends though of a finer calibre, but they had no erotic attraction for him.

These women included his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays, much more intelligent and independent than Martha, and later women analysts or adherents of the psychoanalytic movement: Marie Bonaparte, Joan Riviere, Lou Andreas-Salomé. There is no suspicion, however, from either idolators or hostile biographers that he ever sought sexual satisfaction outside his marriage. Thus it would seem that sex was completely divorced from his human passions, which he expressed throughout the productive later years of his long life in his thought and, to a lesser extent, in friendships with men and those women he considered his equals, and thus ‘masculine’. He once said: ‘I always find it uncanny when I can’t understand someone in terms of myself.’

The motive force of woman’s personality, in Freud’s theory, was her envy of the penis, which causes her to feel as much depreciated in her own eyes ‘as in the eyes of the boy, and later perhaps of the man’, and leads in normal femininity, to the wish for the penis of her husband, a wish that is never really fulfilled until she possesses a penis through giving birth to a son. In short, she is merely an homme manque, a man with something missing. As the eminent psychoanalyst Clara Thompson put it: ‘Freud never became free from the Victorian attitude towards women. He accepted as an inevitable part of the fate of being a woman the limitation of outlook and life of the Victorian era.... The castration complex and penis envy concepts, two of the most basic ideas in his whole thinking, are postulated on the assumption that women are biologically inferior to men.’

What did Freud mean by the concept of penis envy? For even those who realize that Freud could not escape his culture do not question that he reported truly what he observed within it.

In the boy the castration-complex is formed after he has learned from the sight of the female genitals that the sexual organ which he prizes so highly is not a necessary part of every woman’s body . . . and thenceforward he comes under the influence of castration-anxiety, which supplies the strongest motive force for his further development. The castration-complex in the girl, as well, is started by the sight of the genital organs of the other sex. She immediately notices the difference and, it must be admitted, its significance. She feels herself at a great disadvantage, and often declares that she would like to have something like that too and falls a victim to penis envy, which leaves ineradicable traces on her development and character-formation, and even in the most favourable instances, is not overcome without a great expenditure of mental energy That the girl recognises the fact that she lacks a penis does not mean that she accepts its absence lightly. On the contrary, she clings for a long rime to the desire to get something like it, and believes in that possibility for an extraordinary number of years and even at a time when her knowledge of reality has long since led her to abandon the fulfilment of this desire as being quite unattainable, analysis proves that it still persists in the unconscious, and retains a considerable charge of energy. The desire after all to obtain the penis for which she so much longs may even contribute to the motives that impel a grown-up woman to come to analysis, and what she quite reasonably expects to get from analysis, such as the capacity to pursue an intellectual career, can often be recognised as a sublimated modification of this repressed wish.

‘The discovery of her castration is a turning-point in the life of the girl,’ Freud went on to say. ‘She is wounded in her self-love by the unfavourable comparison with the boy, who is so much better equipped.’ Her mother, and all women, are depreciated in her own eyes, as they are depreciated for the same reason in the eyes of man. This either leads to complete sexual inhibition and neurosis, or to a ‘masculinity complex’ in which she refuses to give up ‘phallic’ activity (that is, ‘activity such as is usually characteristic of the male’) or to ‘normal femininity’, in which the girl’s own impulses to activity are repressed, and she turns to her father in her wish for the penis. ‘The feminine situation is, however, only established when the wish for the penis is replaced by the wish for a child – the child taking the place of the penis.’ When she played with dolls, this ‘was not really an expression of her femininity’, since this was activity, not passivity. The ‘strongest feminine wish’, the desire for a penis, finds real fulfilment only ‘if the child is a little boy, who brings the longed-for penis with him.... The mother can transfer to her son all the ambition she has had to suppress in herself, and she can hope to get from him the satisfaction of all that has remained to her of her masculinity complex.’

But her inherent deficiency, and the resultant penis envy, is so hard to overcome that the woman’s super-ego – her conscience, ideals – are never as completely formed as a man’s: ‘Women have but little sense of justice, and this is no doubt connected with the preponderance of envy in their mental life.’ For the same reason, women’s interests in society are weaker than those of men, and ‘their capacity for the sublimation of their instincts is less’. Finally, Freud cannot refrain from mentioning ‘an impression which one receives over and over again in analytical work’ – that not even psychoanalysis can do much for women, because of the inherent deficiency of femininity.

A man of about thirty seems a youthful, and, in a sense, an incompletely developed individual, of whom we expect that he will be able to make good use of the possibilities of development, which analysis lays open to him. But a woman of about the same age, frequently staggers us by her psychological rigidity and unchangeability.... There are no paths open to her for further development; it is as though the whole process had been gone through and remained unaccessible to influence for the future; as though, in fact, the difficult development which leads to femininity had exhausted all the possibilities of the individual ... even when we are successful in removing the sufferings by solving her neurotic conflict.

What was he really reporting? If one interprets ‘penis envy’ as other Freudian concepts have been reinterpreted, in the light of our new knowledge that what Freud believed to be biological was often a cultural reaction, one sees simply that Victorian culture gave women many reasons to envy men: the same conditions, in fact, that the feminists fought against. If a woman who was denied the freedom, the status, and the pleasures that men enjoyed wished secretly that she could have these things, in the shorthand of the dream, she might wish herself a man and see herself with that one thing which made men unequivocally different – the penis. She would, of course, have to learn to keep her envy, her anger, hidden: to play the child, the doll, the toy, for her destiny depended on charming man. But underneath, it might still fester, sickening her for love. If she secretly despised herself, and envied man for all she was not, she might go through the motions of love, or even feel a slavish adoration, but would she be capable of free and joyous love? You cannot explain away woman’s envy of man, or her contempt for herself, as mere refusal to accept her sexual deformity, unless you think that a woman, by nature, is a being inferior to man. Then, of course, her wish to be equal is neurotic.

It is recognised now that Freud never gave proper attention, even in man, to growth of the ego or self: ‘the impulse to master, control or come to self-fulfilling terms with the environment’. Analysts who have freed themselves from Freud’s bias and joined other behavioural scientists in studying the human need to grow, are beginning to believe that this is the basic human need, and that interference with it, in any dimension, is the source of psychic trouble. The sexual is only one dimension of the human potential. Freud saw women only in terms of their sexual relationship with men. But in all those women in whom he saw sexual problems there must have been very severe problems of blocked growth, growth short of full human identity – an immature, incomplete self. Society as it was then, by explicit denial of education and independence, prevented women from realising their full potential, or from attaining those interests and ideals that might have stimulated their growth. Freud reported these deficiencies, but could only explain them as the toll of ‘penis envy’. He saw that women who secretly hungered to be man’s equal would not enjoy being his object; and in this, he seemed to be describing a fact. But when he dismissed woman’s yearning for equality as ‘penis envy’, was he not merely stating his own view that women could never really be man’s equal, any more than she could wear his penis?

Freud was not concerned with changing society, but in helping man, and woman, adjust to it. Thus he tells of a case of a middle-aged spinster whom he succeeded in freeing from a symptom-complex that prevented her from taking any part in life for fifteen years. Freed of these symptoms she ‘plunged into a whirl of activity in order to develop her talents, which were by no means small, and derive a little appreciation, enjoyment, and success from life before it was too late’. But all her attempts ended when she saw that there was no place for her. Since she could no longer relapse into her neurotic symptoms, she began to have accidents; she sprained her ankle, her foot, her hand. When this also was analysed, ‘instead of accidents, she contracted on the same occasions slight illnesses, such as catarrh, sore throat, influenzal conditions or rheumatic swellings, until at last, when she made up her mind to resign herself to inactivity, the whole business came to an end).

Today, when women’s equal intelligence has been proved by science, when their equal capacity in every sphere except sheer muscular strength has been demonstrated, a theory explicitly based on woman’s natural inferiority would seem as ridiculous as it is hypocritical. But that remains the basis of Freud’s theory of women, despite the mask of timeless sexual truth which disguises its elaborations today.

Because Freud’s followers could only see woman in the image defined by Freud – inferior, childish, helpless, with no possibility of happiness unless she adjusted to being man’s passive object – they wanted to help women get rid of their suppressed envy, their neurotic desire to be equal. They wanted to help women find sexual fulfilment as women, by affirming their natural inferiority.

But society, which defined that inferiority, had changed drastically by the time Freud’s followers transposed bodily to twentieth century America the causes as well as the cures of the condition Freud called penis envy. In the light of our new knowledge of cultural processes and of human growth, one would assume that women who grew up with the rights and freedom and education that Victorian women were denied would be different from the women Freud tried to cure. One would assume that they would have much less reason to envy man. But Freud was interpreted to American woman in such curiously literal terms that the concept of penis envy acquired a mystical life of its own, as if it existed quite independent of the women in whom it had been observed. The real injustices life held for women a century ago, compared to men, were dismissed as mere rationalisations of penis envy. And the real opportunities life offered to women now, compared to women then, were forbidden in the name of penis envy.

The literal application of Freudian theory can be seen in these passages from Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, by the psychoanalyst Marynia Farnham and the sociologist Ferdinand Lundberg, which was paraphrased ad nauseam in the magazines and in marriage courses, until most of its statements became a part of the conventional, accepted truth of our time. Equating feminism with penis envy, they stated categorically:

Feminism, despite the external validity of its political programme and most (not all) of its social programme, was at its core a deep illness. ... The dominant direction of feminine training and development today ... discourages just those traits necessary to the attainment of sexual pleasure: receptivity and passiveness, a willingness to accept dependence without fear or resentment, with a deep inwardness and readiness for the final goal of sexual life impregnation.

It is not in the capacity of the female organism to attain feelings of well-being by the route of male achievement.... It was the error of the feminists that they attempted to put women on the essentially male road of exploit, off the female road of nurture....

The psychosocial rule that begins to take form, then, is this: the more educated the woman is, the greater chance there is of sexual disorder, more or less severe. The greater the disordered sexuality in a given group of women, the fewer children do they have.... Fate has granted them the boon importuned by Lady Macbeth; they have been unsexed, not only in the matter of giving birth, but in their feelings of pleasure.

Thus Freud’s popularisers embedded his core of unrecognised traditional prejudice against women ever deeper in pseudo-scientific cement. Freud was well aware of his own tendency to build an enormous body of deductions from a single fact – a fertile and creative method, but a two-edged sword, if the significance of that single fact was misinterpreted. Freud wrote Jung in 1909:

Your surmise that after my departure my errors might be adored as holy relics amused me enormously, but I don’t believe it. On the contrary, I think that my followers will hasten to demolish as swiftly as possible everything that is not safe and sound in what I leave behind.

But on the subject of women, Freud’s followers not only compounded his errors, but, in their tortuous attempt to fit their observations of real women into his theoretical framework, closed questions that he himself had left open. Thus, for instance, Helene Deutsch, whose definitive two-volume The Psychology of Woman – A Psychoanalytical Interpretation appeared in 1944, is not able to trace all women’s troubles to penis envy as such. So she does what even Freud found unwise, and equates ‘femininity’ with ‘passivity’, and ‘masculinity’ with ‘activity’, not only in the sexual sphere, but in all spheres of life.

While fully recognising that woman’s position is subjected to external influence, I venture to say that the fundamental identities ‘feminine-passive’ and ‘masculine-active’ assert themselves in all known cultures and races, in various forms and various quantitative proportions.

Very often a woman resists this characteristic given her by nature and in spite of certain advantages she derives from it, displays many modes of behaviour that suggest that she is not entirely content with her own constitution . . . the expression of this dissatisfaction, combined with attempts to remedy it, result in woman’s ‘masculinity complex.’

The ‘masculinity complex’, as Dr Deutsch refines it, stems directly from the ‘female castration complex’. Thus, anatomy is still destiny, woman is still an homme manque. Of course, Dr Deutsch mentions in passing that ‘With regard to the girl, however, the environment exerts an inhibiting influence as regards both her aggressions and her activity.’ So, penis envy, deficient female anatomy, and society ‘all seem to work together to produce femininity’.

‘Normal’ femininity is achieved, however, only in so far as the woman finally renounces all active goals of her own, all her own ‘originality’, to identify and fulfil herself through the activities and goals of husband, or son. This process can be sublimated in non-sexual ways – as, for instance, the woman who does the basic research for her male superior’s discoveries. The daughter who devotes her life to her father is also making a satisfactory feminine ‘ sublimation’. Only activity of her own or originality, on a basis of equality, deserves the opprobrium of ‘masculinity complex’. This brilliant feminine follower of Freud states categorically that the women who by 1944 in America had achieved eminence by activity of their own in various fields had done so at the expense of their feminine fulfilment. She will mention no names, but they all suffer from the ‘masculinity complex’.

How could a girl or woman who was not a psychoanalyst discount such ominous pronouncements, which, in the forties, suddenly began to pour out from all the oracles of sophisticated thought?

It would be ridiculous to suggest that the way Freudian theories were used to brainwash two generations of educated American women was part of a psychoanalytic conspiracy. It was done by well-meaning popularisers and inadvertent distorters; by orthodox converts and bandwagon faddists; by those who suffered and those who cured and those who turned suffering to profit; and, above all, by a congruence of forces and needs peculiar to the American people at that particular time. In fact, the literal acceptance in the American culture of Freud’s theory of feminine fulfilment was in tragi-comic contrast to the personal struggle of many American psychoanalysts to reconcile what they saw in their women patients with Freudian theory.

A New York analyst, one of the last trained at Freud’s own Psychoanalytic Institute in Vienna, told me:

For twenty years now in analysing American women, I have found myself again and again in the position of having to superimpose Freud’s theory of femininity on the psychic life of my patients in a way that I was not willing to do. I have come to the conclusion that penis envy simply does not exist. I have seen women who are completely expressive, sexually, vaginally, and yet who are not mature, integrated, fulfilled. I had a woman patient on the couch for nearly two years before I could face her real problem – that it was not enough for her to be just a housewife and mother. One day she had a dream that she was teaching a class. I could not dismiss the powerful yearning of this housewife’s dream, as penis envy. It was the expression of her own need for mature self-fulfilment. I told her: ‘I can’t analyse this dream away. You must do something about it.’

This same man teaches the young analysts in his postgraduate clinic at a leading Eastern university: ‘If the patient doesn’t fit the book, throw away the book, and listen to the patient.’

But many analysts threw the book at their patients and Freudian theories became accepted fact even among women who never lay down on an analyst’s couch, but only knew what they read or heard. To this day, it has not penetrated to the popular culture that the pervasive growing frustration of American women may not be a matter of feminine sexuality. Freud was accepted so quickly and completely at the end of the forties that for over a decade no one even questioned the race of the educated American woman back to the home. When questions finally had to be asked because something was obviously going wrong, they were asked so completely within the Freudian framework that only one answer was possible: education, freedom, rights are wrong for women.

The uncritical acceptance of Freudian doctrine in America was caused, at least in part, by the very relief it provided from uncomfortable questions about objective realities. After the depression, after the war, Freudian psychology became much more than a science of human behaviour, a therapy for the suffering. It became an all-embracing American ideology, a new religion. It provided a convenient escape from the atom bomb, McCarthy, all the disconcerting problems that might spoil the taste of steaks, and cars and colour television and backyard swimming pools. And if the new psychological religion – which made a virtue of sex, removed all sin from private vice, and cast suspicion on high aspirations of the mind and spirit – had a more devastating personal effect on women than men, nobody planned it that way.

But the practice of psychoanalysis as a therapy was not primarily responsible for the feminine mystique. It was the creation of writers and editors in the mass media, ad-agency motivation researchers, and behind them the popularisers and translators of Freudian thought in the colleges and universities. Freudian and pseudo-Freudian theories settled everywhere, like fine volcanic ash. Sociology, anthropology, education, even the study of history and literature became permeated and transfigured by Freudian thought. The most zealous missionaries of the feminine mystique were the functionalists, who seized hasty gulps of pre-digested Freud to start their new departments of ‘Marriage and Family-Life Education’. The functional courses in marriage taught American college girls how to ‘play the role’ of woman – the old role became a new science. Related movements outside the colleges – parent education, child-study groups, prenatal maternity study groups and mental-health education – spread the new psychological super-ego throughout the land, replacing bridge and canasta as an entertainment for educated young wives. And this Freudian super-ego worked for growing numbers of young and impressionable American women as Freud said the super-ego works – to perpetuate the past.

Mankind never lives completely in the present; the ideologies of the super-ego perpetuate the past, the traditions of the race and the people, which yield but slowly to the influence of the present and to new developments, and, so long as they work through the super-ego, play an important part in man’s life, quite independently of economic conditions.

The feminine mystique, elevated by Freudian theory into a scientific religion, sounded a single, over-protective, life-restricting, future-deriving note for women. Girls who grew up playing baseball, baby-sitting, mastering geometry almost independent enough, almost resourceful enough, to meet the problems of the fission-fusion era – were told by the most advanced thinkers of our time to go back and live their lives as if they were Noras, restricted to the doll’s house by Victorian prejudice. And their own respect and awe for the authority of science – anthropology, sociology, psychology share that authority now – kept them from questioning the feminine mystique.

Further Reading:
Feminist Writers | History of Women's Liberation Movement | Review by Evelyn Reed | Biography | De Beauvoir | Kate Millett | Firestone | Frantz Fanon | Freud | Adler | Vygotsky

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