Freuds Views on Females and Oedipus Complex: Analytical Essay

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What did Freud say about women? And how did feminism respond?

Introduction to psychoanalysis and gender:

According to Freud’s psychosexual theory of personality development, it is suggested that gender development occurs during the phallic stage. This is when a child is between the ages of 3 and 6 years old. Psychoanalytic theories suggest that gender development is different for boys and girls (Freud, 1905). The Oedipus complex is a term created by Freud and implies that through this complex, boys will identify with their father to take on a male gender role. Freud also developed the female aspects of the sexual development theory. He describes the psychodynamics of a girl's sense of competition with her mother for sexual possession of her father as the feminine negative Oedipus complex. Jung, however, coined the term Electra complex to describe female sexual development.

Looking into the processes of the Oedipus complex, Freud believed that the complex is a result of the boy developing sexual and pleasurable unconscious desires for his mother. Feelings of envy and jealousy start to arise towards the boys’ father, as the father is deemed to be the object of the mother's love and attention. With the feelings of attraction toward the mother coupled with the hostile feelings toward the father, the boy is lead to having dreams of replacing the father by getting rid of him, making the boy the centre of his mother’s attention. These hostile feelings towards the father also give way to the boy suffering from ‘castration anxiety. Castration anxiety is an irrational fear that the father will remove the boy's penis as a form of punishment. The boy believes that a girl has been castrated and they do not want to go through the same thing. To deal with this form of anxiety, the boy will start to identify with his father and will choose to take on the same attitudes and values that his father has. At this stage, the father becomes a role model to the boy. The boy stops seeing himself in competition with his father for his mother’s affection. Now that the boy identifies with his father, he develops his male sex role and the feelings towards his mother are replaced with feelings for other women (Aslop, 2002). Freud believed the ‘Little Hans’ case study was evidence that the Oedipus complex existed (Freud 1909).

When looking at the Electra complex, it begins with the girl believing that she has already been castrated. As a result of this, she encounters feelings of what Freud called ‘penis envy’ and blames her mother for this. Much like a boy has to identify with his father to take on a male sex role, a girl has to identify with her mother to take on a female sex role and develop her superego. Feelings of blame towards the mother are repressed to eradicate tension and help the girl to identify with her mother and take on the female gender role. Freud believed that a girl's identification with her mother was less complete compared to a boy's identification towards his father. As a result, Freud viewed a female's superego as weaker and believed that women were not as well developed as men.

Freud believed that our gender identity is unconsciously structured in our early childhood (Aslop, 2002). This essay will look at what Freud’s views were on women and feminism and how feminism decided to respond to what he had to say.

Freud’s Theory on women:

Sigmund Freud’s views on women stirred controversy during his own lifetime and continue to conjure considerable debate today. In his 1925 paper - 'Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes – Freud wrote, ‘Women oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own (Burke, 1998).

Hysteria was at one time a common medical diagnosis. Layman described hysteria as a type of behaviour that appears excessive, extreme and out of control. An individual who is described as hysterical would typically respond to a situation in an unnecessarily overly emotional and over-the-top way. During the Victorian era, the term hysteria was typically used to make reference to a list of symptoms that were most generally only observed in women.

In psychoanalytic theory, repression is when distressing memories, thoughts and feelings are banished from the conscious mind into the unconscious mind. The thoughts will often have something to do with an individual’s sexual and/or aggressive urges. Repression of these unwanted thoughts and feelings is believed to lead to anxiety and neurotic symptoms – such as hysteria. Feelings of anxiety and neurotic symptoms will tend to start when thought from the unconscious mind tries to enter the conscious mind. Freud (1894, 1896), believed that repression was a defence mechanism for the ego.

Freud’s ground-breaking talk therapy evolved from his work with Bertha Pappenheim, most commonly known as Anna O. Anna was a patient who was suffering from hysteria. Amongst her many symptoms, the most prominent ones were hallucinations, loss of memory and partial paralysis. Anna would describe her feelings and experiences to Freud’s colleague, Joseph Bruer. While talking about her feelings, Anna’s symptoms seemed to ease. Anna called this the ‘talking cure. Once Anna’s talk therapy had ended, she became a social worker and made substantial contributions to the women’s movement in Germany. Freud originally proposed that the cause of hysteria was sexual abuse during childhood. He then rejected this theory and instead he suggested that the development of an assortment of neuroses and illnesses were due to the role of sexual fantasies. Freud believed that women had a sexual desire and that by repressing their sexual desire, it could lead to them being diagnosed with hysteria.

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Infantile sexuality

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 5 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. Freud had suggested that girls will blame their mother for not having a penis and will not forgive her for being ‘put at a disadvantage’ (Freud, 1933) Although Freud believed that his discovery of the Oedipus complex and related theories such as castration anxiety and penis envy were his greatest accomplishments, these are the theories that are probably his most criticized. Horney (1924), stated that the true reason girls experienced penis envy was down to how the female children were treated by their parents. She uses the example that males touch and look at their own genitals in order to urinate and this is allowed and seen as normal. However, a patient of hers had also witnessed a father telling off his little girl for touching ‘that’ part of her body. Her patient questioned the fact the father will touch his own genitals 5 or 6 times a day yet he forbids her to do the same.

Women in Psychoanalysis and Feminist Criticisms:

While Freud depicted women as the less superior gender, numerous women were persuasive in the development of psychoanalysis. Helen Deutsch was the first woman to join Freud's Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in 1918. She was the first person to publish a psychoanalytic book based on the sexuality of a woman. She also wrote about broader topics such as motherhood and teenage females (Deutsch, 1945). Deutsch was a champion of Freud when it came to his theories regarding women. Due to this, she became a prime target by feminists.

Sabrina Spielrein is another influential psychoanalyst who also played a part in the development of psychoanalysis. During Freud’s and Jung’s early friendship, they would discuss together Spielrein’s case, as she was initially one of Jung’s patients. Spielrein went on to introduce the concept of psychoanalysis in Russia and developed the concept of the death instinct. Spielrein (1912), suggested her own version of the drive theory. She bases hers on the conflicting nature of desire and the destructive components of sexuality. Whereas, Freud bases his drive theory on the contradiction amongst sexual drives and survival drives.

Horney became one of the first critics of Freud’s views on feminine psychology as discussed in the previous section of this essay. ​ She suggested that it is men who are affected by their incapability to give birth to a child. She referred to this as womb envy (Horney, 1942). Freud indirectly responded, 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).

Melanie Klein became a prominent member of the psychoanalytic community and developed the technique known as ‘play therapy, which is still widely used today. Klien developed Freud’s understanding of the unconscious mind. In the same way Freud would analyse an individual's dreams, Klien would analyse child’s play and much like Freud believed in the Oedipus complex. She would then go on to discover that the Oedipus complex takes place at an earlier stage that Freud thought.

Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud’s daughter, also played a vital role in evolving of her father’s theories and contributed significantly to child psychoanalysis.

Lou Andreas-Salome is another psychoanalyst who contributed greatly to psychoanalysis. Adreas-Salome (1899), she claimed women were the superior gender due to biological factors, contradicting Freud. Feminists have an interest in Adreas-Salome as she would often exchange differing views with Freud.

Minsky refers to psychologists Firestone (1979) and Millet (1970), and claims that they argued that Freud’s structure of gender and the inequality he portrays between the male and female genders are fixated around the father figure and the phallic stage. Firestone and Millet asked why a child would initially assume that every human being is born with a penis and why this particular body part provokes envy (Aslop, 2002).


In conclusion, it is clear that Freuds view on females was a trigger to many women. Freud’s suggestion that our gender is based on what happens in our unconscious mind during the phallic stage is something that many female psychoanalysts, such as Horney and Firestone disagree with. However, we can also note the controversial views from Freud somewhat paved a way for female psychology to become more and more prominent, as it allowed for female psychanalysts to delve further into the subject so that they could, in their way, show that Freud was wrong.


  1. Alsop, R., Fitzsimons, A., & Lennon, K. (2002). Theorising gender. Oxford: Polity. 39-63
  2. Burke, N. (1998). Gender & Envy. Routledge, New York; London: 20-23
  3. Deutsch, H. (1944-1945). The psychology of women: A psychoanalytic interpretation. Vol. 1: Girlhood; Vol. 2: Motherhood. New York: Green and Stratton.
  4. Freud, S. (1905). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. Se, 7.
  5. Freud, S. (1909). Analysis of a phobia of a five-year-old boy. In The Pelican Freud Library (1977), Vol 8, Case Histories 1, pages 169-306
  6. Freud, S. (1894). The neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 41-61.
  7. Freud, S. (1896). Further remarks on the neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 157-185.
  8. Horney, K. (1924). On the genesis of the castration complex in women. International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 5, 50-65.
  9. Horney, K., (1942). The collected works of Karen Horney (volume II). W.W. Norton Company, New York.
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