Freud on Femininity

From New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933)

... In conformity with its peculiar nature, psycho-analysis does not try to describe what a woman is — that would be a task it could scarcely perform — but sets about enquiring how she comes into being, how a woman develops out of a child with a bisexual disposition ...

... A little girl is as a rule less aggressive, defiant and self-sufficient; she seems to have a greater need for being shown affection and on that account to be more dependent and pliant. It is probably only as a result of this pliancy that she can be taught more easily and quicker to control her excretions: urine and feces are the first gifts that children make to those who look after them, and controlling them is the first concession to which the instinctual life of children can be induced. One gets an impression, too, that little girls are more intelligent and livelier than boys of the same age; they go out more to meet the external world and at the same time form stronger object-cathexes. I cannot say whether this lead in development has been confirmed by exact observations, but in any case there is no question that girls cannot be described as intellectually backward. These sexual differences are not, however, of great consequence: they can be outweighed by individual variations. For our immediate purposes they can be disregarded.

Both sexes seem to pass through the early phases of libidinal development in the same manner. It might have been expected that in girls there would already have been some lag in aggressiveness in the sadistic-anal phase, but such is not the case. Analysis of children's play has shown our women analysts that the aggressive impulses of little girls leave nothing to be desired in the way of abundance and violence. With their entry into the phallic phase the differences between the sexes are completely eclipsed by their agreements. We are now obliged to recognize that the little girl is a little man. In boys, as we know, this phase is marked by the fact that they have learnt how to derive pleasurable sensations from their small penis and connect its excited state with their ideas of sexual intercourse. Little girls do the same thing with their still smaller clitoris. It seems that with them all their masturbatory acts are carried out on this penis-equivalent, and that the truly feminine vagina is still undiscovered by both sexes. It is true that there are a few isolated reports of early vaginal sensations as well, but it could not be easy to distinguish these from sensations in the anus or vestibulum; in any case they cannot play a great part. We are entitled to keep to our view that in the phallic phase of girls the clitoris is the leading erotogenic zone. But it is not, of course, going to remain so. With the change to femininity the clitoris should wholly or in part hand over its sensitivity, and at the same time its importance, to the vagina. This would be one of the two tasks which a woman has to perform in the course of her development, whereas the more fortunate man has only to continue at the time of his sexual maturity the activity that he has previously carried out at the period of the early efflorescence of his sexuality.

We shall return to the part played by the clitoris; let us now turn to the second task with which a woman's development is burdened. A boy's mother is the first object of his love, and she remains so too during the formation of his Oedipus complex and, in essence, all through his life. For a girl, too, her first object must be her mother (and the figures of wet-nurses and foster-mothers that merge into her). The first object-cathexes occur in attachment to the satisfaction of the major and simple vital needs, and the circumstances of the care of children are the same for both sexes. But in the Oedipus situation the girl's father has become her love-object, and we expect that in the normal course of development she will find her way from this paternal object to her final choice of an object. In the course of time, therefore, a girl has to change her erotogenic zone and her object — both of which a boy retains. The question then arises of how this happens: in particular, how does a girl pass from her mother to an attachment to her father? or, in other words, how does she pass from her masculine phase to the feminine one to which she is biologically destined? ...

... All these factors — the slights, the disappointments in love, the jealousy, the seduction followed by prohibition — are, after all, also in operation in the relation of a boy to his mother and are yet unable to alienate him from the maternal object. Unless we can find something that is specific for girls and is not present or not in the same way present in boys, we shall not have explained the termination of the attachment of girls to their mother.

I believe we have found this specific factor, and indeed where we expected to find it, even though in a surprising form. Where we expected to find it, I say, for it lies in the castration complex. After all, the anatomical distinction [between the sexes] must express itself in psychical consequences. It was, however, a surprise to learn from analyses that girls hold their mother responsible for their lack of a penis and do not forgive her for their being thus put at a disadvantage.

As you hear, then, we ascribe a castration complex to women as well.  And for good reasons, though its content cannot be the same as with boys.  In the latter the castration complex arises after they have learnt from the sight of the female genitals that the organ which they value so highly need not necessarily accompany the body.  At this the boy recalls to mind the threats he brought on himself by his doings with that organ, he begins to give credence to them and falls under the influence of fear of castration, which will be the most powerful motive force in his subsequent development.  The castration complex of girls is also started by the sight of the genitals of the other sex.  They at once notice the difference and, it must be admitted, its significance, too.  They feel seriously wronged, often declare that they want to "have something like it too," and fall a victim to "envy for the penis," which will leave ineradicable traces on their development and the formation of their character and which will not be surmounted in even the most favorable cases without a severe expenditure of psychical energy.  The girl's recognition of the fact of her being without a penis does not by any means imply that she submits to the fact easily.  On the contrary, she continues to hold on for a long time to the wish to get something like it herself and she believes in that possibility for improbably long years; and analysis can show that, at a period when knowledge of reality has long since rejected the fulfillment of the wish as unattainable, it persists in the unconscious and retains a considerable cathexis of energy.  The wish to get the longed-for penis eventually in spite of everything may contribute to the motives that drive a mature women to analysis, and what she may reasonably expect from analysis -- a capacity, for instance, to carry on an intellectual profession -- may often be recognized as a sublimated modification of this repressed wish.

One cannot very well doubt the importance of envy for the penis.  You may take it as an instance of male injustice if I assert that envy and jealousy play an even greater part in the mental life of women than of men.  It is not that I think these characteristics are absent in men or that I think they have no other roots in women than envy for the penis; but I am inclined to attribute their amount in women to this latter influence....

The discovery that she is castrated is a turning-point in a girl's growth.  Three possible lines of development start from it: one leads to sexual inhibition or to neurosis, the second to change of character in the sense of a masculinity complex, the third, finally, to normal femininity.  We have learnt a fair amount, though not everything, about all three.

The essential content of the first is as follows: the little girl has hitherto lived in a masculine way, has been able to get pleasure by the excitation of her clitoris and has brought this activity into relation with her sexual wishes directed towards her mother, which are often active ones; 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 renounced 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. No doubt her turning away from her mother does not occur all at once, for to begin with the girl regards her castration as an individual misfortune, and only gradually extends it to other females and finally to her mother as well.  Her love was directed to her phallic mother; and with the discovery that her mother is castrated it becomes possible to drop her as an object, so that the motives for hostility, which have long been accumulating, gain the upper hand.  This means, therefore, that 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.

... Along with the abandonment of clitoridal masturbation a certain amount of activity is renounced.  Passivity now has the upper hand, and the girl's turning to her father is accomplished principally with the help of passive instinctual impulses.  You can see that a wave of development like this, which clears the phallic activity out of the way, smooths the ground for femininity.  If too much is not lost in the course of it through repression, this femininity may turn out to be normal.  The wish with which the girl turns to her father is no doubt originally the wish for the penis which her mother has refused her and which she now expects from her father.  The feminine situation is only established, however, if the wish for a penis is replaced by one for a baby, if, that is, a baby takes the place of a penis in accordance with an ancient symbolic equivalence. It has not escaped us that the girl has wished for a baby earlier, in the undisturbed phallic phase: that, of course, was the meaning of her playing with dolls.  But that play was not in fact an expression of her femininity; it served an an identification with her mother with the intention of substituting activity for passivity.  She was playing the part of her mother and the doll was herself; now she could do with the baby everything that her mother used to do for her.  Not until the emergence of a wish for a penis does the doll-baby become a baby from the girl's father, and thereafter the aim of the most powerful feminine wish.  Her happiness is great if later on this wish for a baby finds fulfillment in reality, and quite especially so if the baby is a little boy who brings the longed-for penis with him. Often enough in her combined picture of "a baby from her father," the emphasis is laid on the baby and the father left unstressed.  In this way the ancient masculine wish for the possession of a penis is still faintly visible through the femininity now achieved. ...

With the transference of the wish for a penis-baby on to her father, the girl has entered the situation of the Oedipus complex.  Her hostility to her mother, which did not need to be freshly created, is now greatly intensified, for she becomes the girl's rival, who receives from her father everything that she desires from him.  ... For girls the Oedipus situation is the outcome of a long and difficult development; it is a kind of preliminary solution, a position of rest which is not soon abandoned, especially as the beginning of the latency period is not far distant.  And we are not struck by a difference between the two sexes, which is probably momentous, in regard to the relation of the Oedipus complex to the castration complex.  In a boy the Oedipus complex, in which he desires his mother and would like to get rid of his father as being a rival, develops naturally from the phase of his phallic sexuality.  The threat of castration compels him, however, to give up that attitude.  Under the impression of the danger of losing his penis. the Oedipus complex is abandoned, repressed, and in the most normal cases, entirely destroyed, and a severe super-ego is set up as its heir.  What happens with a girl is almost the opposite.  The castration complex prepares for the Oedipus complex instead of destroying it; the girl is driven out of her attachment to her mother through the influence of her envy for the penis and she enters the Oedipus situation as though into a haven of refuge.  In the absence of fear of castration the chief motive is lacking which leads boys to surmount the Oedipus complex.  Girls remain in it for an indeterminate length of time; they demolish it late and even so, incompletely.  In these circumstances the formation of the super-ego must suffer; it cannot attain the strength and independence which give it its cultural significance, and feminists are not pleased when we point out to the the effects of this factor upon the average feminine character.

... A woman's identification with her mother allows us to distinguish two strata: the pre-Oedipus one which rests on her affectionate attachment to her mother and takes her as a model, and the later one from the Oedipus complex which seeks to get rid of the mother and take her place with the father.  We are no doubt justified in saying that much of both of them is left over for the future and that neither of them is adequately surmounted in the course of development.  But the phase of the affectionate pre-Oedipus attachment is the decisive one for a woman's future: during it, preparations are made for the acquisition of the characteristics with which she will later fulfill her role in the sexual function and perform her invaluable social tasks.  It is in this identification too that she acquires her attractiveness to a man, whose Oedipus attachment to his mother it kindles into passion. ...

The fact that women must be regarded as having little sense of justice is no doubt related to the predominance of envy in their mental life; for the demand for justice is a modification of envy and lays down the condition subject to which one can put envy aside.  We also regard women as weaker in their social interests and has having less capacity for sublimating their instincts than men.  The former is no doubt derived from the dissocial quality which unquestionably characterizes all sexual relations.  Lovers find sufficiency in each other, and families too resist inclusion in more comprehensive associations.  The aptitude for sublimation is subject to the greatest individual variations.  On the other hand I cannot help mentioning an impression that we are constantly receiving during analytic practice.  A man of about thirty strikes us as a youthful, somewhat unformed individual, whom we expect to make powerful use of the possibilities for development opened up to him by analysis.  A woman of the same age, however, often frightens us by her psychical rigidity and unchangeability.  Her libido has taken up final positions and seems incapable of exchanging them for others.  There are no paths open to further development; it is as though the whole process had already run its course and remains thenceforward insusceptible to influence -- as though, indeed, the difficult development to femininity had exhausted the possibilities of the person concerned....