Freud on Women
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.
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”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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)
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)
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).
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.