|Why Was Sigmund Freud Unable to Understand Women?
A frequent criticism of Freud is that he did not understand women and that his theory of personality is mostly a theory oriented toward men. There is a large measure of truth to this criticism, and Freud acknowledged that he lacked a complete understanding of the female psyche. Near the end of his life, he was still asking, "What does woman want?" (Jones, 1955, p. 421).
Why didn't Freud know what women wanted? One answer is that he was a product of his times, and society during those times was dominated by men. In 19th century Austria, women were second-class citizens, with few rights or privileges. They had little opportunity to enter a profession or to be a member of a professional organization—such as Freud's Wednesday Psychological Society.
Thus, during the first quarter century of psychoanalysis, the movement was an all-men's club. After World War I, women gradually became attracted to psychoanalysis and some of these women, such as Marie Bonaparte, Helene Deutsch, Melanie Klein, Lou Andreas-Salomé, and Anna Freud were able to exercise some influence on Freud. However, they were never able to convince him that similarities between the genders outweigh differences.
Freud himself was a proper bourgeois Viennese gentleman whose sexual attitudes were formed during a time when women were expected to nurture their husbands, manage the household, care for the children, and stay out of their husband's business or profession. Martha Freud was no exception to this rule. She showed no interest in Sigmund's professional life, ran the household, provided meals, accepted primary responsibility in rearing their six children, and generally tried to make her husband's life as easy as possible (Gay, 1988).
If we examine Freud's early experiences with women, we can see reasons why his portrait of them was skewed toward a masculine bias. Freud was born in 1856, the oldest and most privileged child in a family that included mostly sisters. Julius, a younger brother and potential rival died in 1858 at 7 months of age. Then, during the next 5 years, Freud's mother gave birth to five daughters, each born about a year apart: Anna in 1858, Rosa in 1860, Marie in 1861, Adolfine in 1862, and Pauline in 1863. Surrounded by five sisters—all of who were within 7 years of his age—Sigmund reigned supreme in this feminine world. When his brother Alexander was born 3 years after the youngest sister, the parents allowed 10-year-old Sigmund to select the child's name. Freud chose Alexander after Alexander the Great, a warrior with whom he identified.
As the oldest and most favored child, Sigmund ruled over his sisters, advising them on books to read and lecturing to them about the world in general. An incident with a piano reveals further evidence of Sigmund's favored position within his family. Anna, along with Freud's other sisters, enjoyed music and found pleasure in playing the piano. When music from Anna's piano lessons annoyed the studious Sigmund, the boy complained to his parents that he couldn't concentrate on his books. The parents immediately removed the piano from the house, leaving Sigmund's sisters—the four youngest of whom later perished in Nazi extermination camps—with no opportunity to learn to play. The wishes of five girls did not equal the preference of one boy.
Like many other men of his day, Freud regarded women as the "tender sex," suitable for caring for the household and nurturing children but not equal to men in scientific and scholarly affairs. His love letters to his future wife Martha Bernays are filled with references to her as "my little girl," "my little woman," or "my princess" (Freud, 1960). Freud undoubtedly would have been surprised to learn that 120 years later, these terms of endearment are seen by many as disparaging to women.
Although Freud referred to his fiancée as "my little girl" and "my little woman," he saw his courtship with Martha as one-sided—in her favor! Freud had fallen in love with Martha at first sight, but he worried that she did not love him as much as he loved her. Halfway through their 4-year engagement he wrote to her, saying "I really think I have always loved you much more than you me. . . . I forced myself upon you and you accepted me without any great affection" (Freud, 1960, p. 117). During his courtship with Martha, and perhaps for the only time in his adult life, he saw himself in a subordinate position to another person. He nearly deified Martha, placing her on a pedestal and writing more letters to her than she wrote to him.
Like most men of his time, however, he assumed that after marriage his wife would come down from that lofty perch and perform the menial household duties expected of middle-class Viennese women. Soon after they became engaged, he wrote to Martha detailing the contents of a happy home. These included a stove, tables, chairs, beds, a clock, and "carpets to help the housewife keep the floors clean." Freud went on to say "there will be so much to enjoy, the books and the sewing table and the cozy 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" (Freud, 1960, p. 27).
In a later letter, Freud complained to Martha that he had no control over her. "I found you so fully matured and every corner in you occupied, and you were hard and reserved and I had no power over you" (Freud, 1960, p. 117). However, after the glow of romance faded with marriage, Freud gained control over Martha, as he did with nearly all his intimate friends. In the Freud household, Martha's role was clearly delineated. It was she who cleaned house, prepared meals, nurtured children, paid bills, and provided refreshments to members of the Wednesday Psychological Society when they met in Freud's home. Freud no doubt loved his children, but he was only marginally involved in their upbringing. His attitude toward them may have been expressed in a letter to Martha written while on vacation in Venice and 6 months before the birth of their youngest child. "I hope you and all the brats are very well" (Freud, 1960, p. 231).
Freud continually grappled with trying to understand women, and his views on femininity changed several times during his lifetime. As a young student, he exclaimed to a friend, "How wise our educators that they pester the beautiful sex so little with scientific knowledge" (quoted in Gay, 1988, p. 522). During the first half of his psychoanalytic career, he viewed male and female psychosexual growth as mirror images of each other, with different but parallel lines of development. From about 1923 onward, however, he proposed the notion that little girls are failed boys and that adult women are akin to castrated men.
Freud proposed these ideas tentatively, but he defended them adamantly and refused to compromise his views. When people criticized his notion of femininity, Freud responded by adopting an increasingly more rigid stance. By the 1930s he was insisting that psychological differences between men and women were due to anatomical differences and could not be explained by different socialization experiences. Nevertheless, Freud always recognized that he did not understand women as well as he did men. He called them the "dark continent for psychology" (Freud, 1926/1959b, p. 212). In his final statement on the matter, Freud (1933/1964) suggested that "if you want to know more about femininity, enquire from your own experiences of life or turn to the poets" (p. 135).
Although some of Freud's close associates inhabited the "dark continent" of womanhood, his most intimate friends were men. Moreover, women such as Marie Bonaparte, Lou Andreas-Salomé and Minna Bernays (his sister-in-law) who did exert some influence on Freud, were mostly cut from a similar pattern. Ernest Jones (1955) referred to them as intellectual women with a "masculine cast" (p. 421). These women were quite apart from Freud's mother and wife, both of whom were proper Viennese wives and mothers whose primary concerns were for their husband and children. Freud's female colleagues and disciples were selected for their intelligence, emotional strength, and loyalty—the same qualities Freud found attractive in men. But none of these women could substitute for an intimate male friend. In August of 1901, Freud (1985) wrote to his friend Wilhelm Fliess, "In my life, as you know, woman has never replaced the comrade, the friend" (p. 447).
Freud's preference was for male comrades, such as Fliess, Carl Jung, and the six members of his "Place Guard," a relative clandestine committee composed of Otto Rank, Karl Abraham, Max Eitingon, Ernest Jones, Sandor Ferenczi, and Hanns Sachs. With these men, Freud could reveal his private thoughts and feelings. Toward women, however, his attitude was more ambivalent. He admired and respected those who projected "masculine" qualities, but he reserved a special passion for his mother and wife, whose "feminine" traits were so attractive to him.
Why was Freud unable to understand women? Given his upbringing during the middle of the 19th century, parental acceptance of his domination of his sisters, a tendency to exaggerate differences between women and men, and his belief that women inhabited the "dark continent" of humanity, it seems unlikely that Freud possessed the necessary experiences to understand women. Toward the end of his life, he still had to ask, "What does woman want"? The question itself reveals Freud's gender bias because it assumes that women all want the same things and that their wants are somehow different from those of men.
Freud, S (1926/1959b). The question of lay analysis. In Standard edition (Vol. 20).
Freud, S. (1933/1964). New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. In Standard edition (Vol. 22).
Freud, S. (1960). Letters of Sigmund Freud (E. L. Freud, Ed.; T. Stern & J. Stern, Trans.). New York: Basic Books.
Freud, S. (1985). The complete letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904 (J. M. Masson, Ed. and Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gay, P. (1988). Freud: A life for our time. New York: Norton.
Jones, E. (1955). The life and work of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 2). New York: Basic Books.