Freud on Women

Sandra LaFave

This page describes Freud's views on female social and psycho-sexual development. I discuss Freud in Philosophy of the Person in order to illustrate Freud's style of thought, which emphasizes unconscious sexual motivations. I discuss it also to show Freud's views about female moral inferiority. Most contemporary psychologists reject these views, but Freud was extremely influential in the first half of the 20th century.


See Freud on Femininity for primary source reading.

According to Freud, boys and girls develop similarly through the oral, anal, and even into the phallic stage. In the phallic stage (pre-Oedipal and Oedipal), both boys and girls “derive pleasurable sensations” from their little phalluses — for boys, the small penis, and for girls, the “still smaller” clitoris.


However, female psycho-sexual development is much more complicated than male psycho-sexual development. The boy doesn't have to reject his primary sexual object identification (Mommy, or women in general) or his primary “zone” of erotic gratification (the penis). The girl, if she is to become truly feminine, must give up both Mommy (women) and the clitoris. Because she enjoys her clitoris (phallus), “the little girl  is a little man.” (86)  Later, if all goes well, she will discover her “truly feminine vagina”, from which she will learn to derive truly feminine pleasure (the now-discredited “vaginal orgasm”).


These two renunciations — of Mommy and her clitoris — are extremely difficult, and require so much psychic energy on the part of the girl that she is subsequently unfit for any kind of participation in the world except motherhood. Successful renunciation of the clitoris means the little girl stops acting like a little man — i.e., she stops masturbating by manipulating her “phallus” (clitoris) — and becomes a properly passive female.  The steps are as follows:

  1. The little girl is a little man. She is just like her brother: both love Mommy more than anything, and, in the phallic stage, both play with their little weenies, even though both are warned not to.

  2. The castration complex occurs when the little boy and little girl realize they are different from each other. But this realization has a very different emotional tone for each. The boy’s reaction is terror (“Oh my God, look what Daddy did to her, he really meant it when he said he’d cut it off if I kept masturbating!”). Fear of castration becomes “the most powerful motive force in his subsequent development.” (87) It enables him to develop an effective superego.

  3. The girl feels extreme horror, mortification, and betrayal (“I have been castrated — and so has Mommy! And Mommy didn’t protect me!”). “The discovery that she is castrated is a turning point in a girl’s growth.” (88) Girls then desire intensely to have something like a penis too. They acquire “penis envy,” which “will not be surmounted in even the most favorable cases without a severe expenditure of psychic energy.” (87)  Accepting that she does not have a penis is so difficult that, according to Freud, some girls persist for years in the belief that they can get one (“or something like it”). The desire can remain unconscious throughout life. For example, a grown woman who desires to “carry on an intellectual profession” is really expressing a disguised unconscious wish for a penis.

  4. The little girl now feels “dissatisfied with her inferior clitoris”. Now, “owing to the influence of her penis-envy, she loses her enjoyment in her phallic sexuality. Her self-love is mortified by the comparison with the boy’s far superior equipment and in consequence she renounces her masturbatory satisfaction from her clitoris, repudiates her love for her mother and at the same time not infrequently represses a good part of her sexual trends in general.” (88)

  5. The little girl’s love for Mommy was really love for the “phallic mother” (88). So when the little girl realizes that Mommy has been castrated too, the little girl can never feel the same way about Mommy. Thus, the little girl’s castration complex is the beginning of her rejection of her mother, of women as erotic objects, and the beginning of a devaluing of women in general: “as a result of the discovery of women’s lack of a penis, they are debased in value for girls just as they are for boys and later perhaps for men.” (88)

  6. After abandoning active clitoral masturbation, the little girl generally becomes passive. Her “phallic activity” has now been “cleared out of the way” and the little girl turns her allegiance to her father. He has a penis. The little girl at first just wants his penis (since Bad Mommy turned out not to have one). But for the little girl to move to true femininity, the wish for the penis must be replaced by a wish for a baby. Suddenly, an “ancient symbolic equivalence” of penis and baby begins to work on the little girl; suddenly her most powerful desire (and “the most powerful feminine wish” of all) is to have Daddy’s baby – and especially to have a boy, “who brings the longed-for penis with him” (89).

  7. Now the girl enters her own Oedipal stage. She wants Daddy’s baby, but Mommy’s the one who gets to have sex with Daddy.  The little girl was already mad at Mommy for not having a penis; now her hostility is “greatly intensified”, since Mommy is the girl’s rival for Daddy.

When the girl thus reaches the Oedipal stage, she has fulfilled her psycho-sexual objectives: her allegiance to Mommy (women) has been severed, and she has renounced her clitoris. The normal girl now enters the latency period, ready for genital sexuality.

Note, however, that she never really “grows up”, as a boy does. The boy develops a super-ego as a result of fear of castration. The girl doesn’t, because she thinks she’s already been castrated, and there’s no equivalent threat for girls. Besides, renouncing clitoral sexuality made her renounce activity generally; she now waits for the man to give her erotic satisfaction (“vaginally”) while she is passively receptive. So Freud thinks women remain psychologically and morally childish all their lives.



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