Freud's Perspective on Women

Sigmund Freud and Martha Freud
Imagno / Getty Images

Sigmund Freud’s views on women stirred controversy during his own lifetime and continue to evoke considerable debate today. "Women oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own," he wrote in a 1925 paper entitled "The Psychical Consequences of the Anatomic Distinction Between the Sexes."

Donna Stewart, M.D., a professor and chair of women’s health at the University Health Network, explained, "Freud was a man of his times. He was opposed to the women’s emancipation movement and believed that women’s lives were dominated by their sexual reproductive functions."

"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?'" Freud once mused in "Sigmund Freud: Life and Work" by Ernest Jones.

Penis Envy

Penis envy is the female counterpart to Freud’s concept of castration anxiety. In his theory of psychosexual development, Freud suggested that during the phallic stage (around ages 3 to 6 years) young girls distance themselves from their mothers and instead devote their affections to their fathers.

According to Freud, this occurs when a girl realizes that she has no penis. "Girls hold their mother responsible for their lack of a penis and do not forgive her for their being thus put at a disadvantage," Freud suggested (1933).

While Freud believed that his discovery of the Oedipal complex and related theories such as castration anxiety and penis envy were his greatest accomplishments, these theories are perhaps his most criticized.

Female psychoanalysts such as Karen Horney and other feminist thinkers have described his ideas as distorted and condescending. The counterpoint theory to the Oedipal complex is the Electra complex.

Treatment of Hysteria

Freud’s revolutionary talk therapy evolved in part from his work with Bertha Pappenheim, who is known as Anna O. Experiencing what was then referred to as hysteria, she possessed a variety of symptoms that included hallucinations, amnesia, and partial paralysis.

During sessions with one of Freud’s colleagues, Joseph Breuer, Pappenheim described her feelings and experiences. This process seemed to alleviate her symptoms, which led her to dub the method the "talking cure." Pappenheim went on to become a social worker and made significant contributions to the women’s movement in Germany.

Initially, Freud suggested that the causes of hysteria were rooted in childhood sexual abuse. He later abandoned this theory and instead emphasized the role of sexual fantasies in the development of a variety of neuroses and illnesses.

"His understanding of women was notoriously inadequate, but he did make great steps beyond what was understood about women when he came on the scene. It was very unusual in Freud's time even to acknowledge that women had sexual desire, much less to say that the repression of their sexual desire could make them hysterical," explained historian Peter Gay.

The Women in Freud’s Life

While Freud often claimed that he had little understanding of women, several women played important roles in his personal life. Freud was his mother’s eldest child (his father had two older sons from a previous marriage) and has often been described as her special favorite.

"I have found that people who know that they are preferred or favored by their mothers give evidence in their lives of a peculiar self-reliance and an unshakable optimism which often bring actual success to their possessors," Freud once commented.

Freud’s relationship with his wife, Martha, was very traditional. "She was a very good hausfrau (housewife)," explained his granddaughter, Sophie Freud. "She was very thrifty. And my father would say that his mother would rather poison the whole household than throw food away."

Freud was raised with several sisters and later became the father of three sons and three daughters, including Anna Freud, who played a major role in carrying on her father’s work.

Women in Psychoanalysis

While Freud described women as inferior to men, many women were instrumental in the development and advancement of psychoanalysis.

The first woman to run her own psychoanalysis clinic was Helene Deutsch in 1924. She published the first psychoanalytic book on women’s sexuality and wrote extensively on topics such as the psychology of women, female adolescence, and motherhood.

The seminal psychoanalyst (and supposedly Carl Jung's one-time lover) Sabina Spielrein also had an important influence on the development of psychoanalysis. She was originally one of Jung's patients.

During the early years of the Freud and Jung friendship, the two men spent a considerable amount of time discussing Spielrein's case which helped shape many of their views. Spielrein herself is also credited with developing the concept of the death instincts and for introducing psychoanalysis in Russia.

Psychoanalyst Karen Horney became one of the first critics of Freud’s views on feminine psychology. ​Melanie Klein became a prominent member of the psychoanalytic community and developed the technique known as "play therapy", which is still widely used today.

Additionally, his own daughter, Anna Freud, played a vital role in advancing many of her father’s theories and contributed greatly to child psychoanalysis.

Criticism of Freud's Views on Women

Not surprisingly, some important figures in psychology had their own responses to Freud's limited and often offensive take on female psychology. Karen Horney was one such critic, taking on Freud's concept of penis envy and providing her own take on male psychology. Even Freud's own granddaughter would later offer up criticism of her famous relative.

  • Karen Horney: Freud’s concept of penis envy was criticized in his own time, most notably by psychoanalyst Karen Horney. She suggested that it is men who are adversely affected by their inability to bear children, which she referred to as "womb envy."
  • Freud's Response: Freud responded, although indirectly, writing, "We shall not be very greatly surprised if a woman analyst who has not been sufficiently convinced of the intensity of her own wish for a penis also fails to attach proper importance to that factor in her patients" (Freud, 1949). According to Freud, Horney’s concept of womb envy emerged as a result of her own supposed penis envy.
  • Sophie Freud: While Freud’s notions of female sexuality often ran contrary to the patriarchal tendencies of the Victorian era, he was still very much a man of his time. His work is often dismissed as misogynistic and his own granddaughter, Sophie Freud, described his theories as outdated. "His ideas grew out of society. He mirrored in his theories the belief that women were secondary and were not the norm and didn't quite measure up to the norm," she explained.
  • Final Thoughts: Even Freud himself admitted that his understanding of women was limited. "That is all I have to say to you about femininity," he wrote in 1933. "It is certainly incomplete and fragmentary and does not always sound friendly... If you want to know more about femininity, enquire about your own experiences of life, or turn to poets, or wait until science can give you deeper and more coherent information."

Modern Perspectives

Today, many analysts suggest that rather than reject Freud’s theories outright, we should instead focus on developing new views on his original ideas. As one writer said, "Freud revised his theories many times as he accumulated new data and reached fresh insights. Contemporary analysts should do no less."

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Khan M, Haider K. Girls’ first love; their fathers: Freudian theory Electra complex Research Journal of Language, Literature and Humanities. 2015;2(11):1-4.

  2. Kaplan M. Bertha Pappenheim: 1859 - 1936. The Encyclopedia of Jewish Women.

  3. Foazen P. Helen Deutsch: 1884 - 1982. The Encyclopedia of Jewish Women.

  4. Hall K. Sabina Spielrein: 1885-1942. The Encyclopedia of Jewish Women.

Additional Reading
  • Freud S. An Outline of Psychoanalysis. New York: Norton; 1949.

  • Freud S. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. New York: Norton; 1933.

  • Freud S. Some psychical consequences of the anatomical distinction between the sexes. In: Strachey J, ed. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol 19. London: The Hogarth Press; 1925:241-260.

  • Grubin D. Young Dr. Freud. Public Broadcasting Service. Published 2002.

  • Jones E. The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud. New York: Basic Books, Inc; 1953.

  • Lehmann C. Women psychiatrists still battle Freud's view of the sexes. Psychiatric News. Published July 20, 2001.

  • Sayers J. Mothers of Psychoanalysis. New York: W. W. Norton; 1991.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."