Psychoanalysis and Feminist Theory

In his controversial essays, Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes (1955; original 1925) and Female Sexuality (1975; original 1931), Sigmund Freud laid out the implications – as he saw them – of his theory that gender difference is based on the psychical effects of the realisation of anatomical difference which forces boys ‘to believe in the reality of the threat’ of castration, a belief which is strong enough to destroy the Oedipus complex. In girls it can have a multitude of consequences. According to Freud these include the development of a masculinity complex which hinders the acquisition of healthy femininity; disavowal of difference, that is, refusal to ‘accept the fact of being castrated’; the development of a sense of inferiority; ‘the character-trait of jealousy’; ‘a loosening of the girl’s relation with her mother as a love object…’ - (1975: 32-3; original 1925). Summarizing his theory, Freud notes:

I cannot evade the notion (though I hesitate to give it expression) that for women the level of what is ethically normal is different from what it is in men. Their super-ego is never so inexorable, so impersonal, so independent on its emotional origins, as we require it to be in men. Character-traits which critics of every epoch have brought up against women – that they show less sense of justice than men, that they are less ready to submit to the great exigencies of life, they are more often influenced in their judgements by feelings of affection or hostility – all these could be amply accounted for by the modification in the formation of the super-ego which we have inferred above. - (Sigmund Freud, 1975: 36; original 1925)

The fundamental Freudian assumptions about the male body being the desirable norm is the key factor determining the intellectual and moral differences between men and women.

On this score, Nancy Chodorow’s form of ‘difference feminism’ may be usefully compared with the ‘equality feminism’ of liberal feminists. Chodorow challenges mainstream Freudian notions of woman being deficient. For Chodorow difference between the sexes is formed out of the inequitable social arrangements - women’s unequal responsibility for nurturing – and yet is seen as offering possibilities for a better world.

In theory, Chodorow advocates a dual system approach and hence sees women’s position as at least linked to both class and sex (capitalism and patriarchy). In practice, however, she pays little attention to class or race and perceives sex largely in terms of inner psychological processes, that is, in terms of the unconscious (the psyche), sexual identity and personality.

Psychoanalysis became an issue for first-wave feminism initially through Kate Millett’s attack on Freud in Sexual Politics (1970). In Millet’s view, Freud became an apologist for women’s oppression rather than an observer and therapist in the midst of oppression. Not only was Millett decidedly resistant to biological determinism in any way, shape, or form, she found Freud’s concept a transparent instance of male egocentrism. “Freudian logic has succeeded in converting childbirth, an impressive accomplishment...into nothing more than a hunt for a male organ” - (Millett, 1970: 185).

The development of subsequent feminist thought on psychoanalysis has depended on challenges to this interpretation of Freud. Toril Moi, for example (1985: 27), has argued that Millett’s interpretation distorted Freud’s meaning by treating Freud’s work as unified and coherent, ignoring his cautions and revisions.

Commenting on ‘Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes’, Juliet Mitchell writes:

It seems to me that in Freud’s psychoanalytical schema, here as elsewhere, we have at least the beginnings of an analysis of the way in which a patriarchal society bequeaths its structures to each of us (with important variations according to the material conditions of class and race), gives us, that is, the cultural air we breathe, the ideas of the world in which we are born and which, unless patriarchy is demolished, we will pass on willy-nilly to our children’s children. - (Juliet Mitchell, 1974: 49)

Undoubtedly, Mitchell set out to make constructive use of Freud’s insights for feminist politics. She drew on Althusser and Lacan in order to treat Freud’s work as a scientific account of the development of femininity. She located Freudian feminism at the level of sexual ideology.

Jacques Lacan’s influence on feminism outside France was limited by the abstraction of the concepts he used. He proposed a return to the texts of Freud with himself as their correct interpreter. He tried to dissociate psychoanalytic concepts from their anatomical referents more than Freud had done, however.

Michele Barrett (1980: 56) has argued that Mitchell took an ‘unduly charitable’ reading of Freud, in that she overlooked the sexist implications of Freud’s work, in particular his treatment of masculinity as active and femininity as passive. Jacqueline Rose (1983: 9) argues, against Mitchell’s critics, that psychoanalysis reveals women’s resistance to their socially constructed feminine identity.

Why then have so many feminists turned to psychoanalysis over the last few decades? Since the 1970s feminists working in many areas of social and cultural theory have turned to psychoanalysis in order to theorise sexual difference and theories of difference gendered subjectivity. There are assumptions about gender difference which underpin psychoanalysis and form the basis for feminist appropriations of Freud and Lacan. Indeed the appeal of psychoanalysis for feminists lies in its claims to see gender as a psychic and social construct rather than as the natural expression of biological differences between the sexes.


  • Barrett, M. 1980. Women’s Oppression Today. London: Verso, 56.
  • Chodorow, N. 1978. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Freud, S. 1975. Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes (original 1925). In Strouse (ed), 32-33, 36. 
  • Freud, S. 1975. Female Sexuality (original 1931). In Strouse (ed.), 75.
  • Lacan, J. 1977. ‘The Mirror Phase as Formative of the Function of the I’ (original 1949). In Ecrits: A Selection. trans. A. Sheridan. London: Tavistock, 1-7. -Millet, K. 1970. Sexual Politics. New York: Doubleday, 185.
  • Mitchell, J. 1974. Psychoanalysis and Feminism. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 49. 
  • Moi, T. 1985. Sexual/Textual Politics. London: Methuen, 27. 
  • Rose, J. 1983. ‘Femininity and is Discontents’, Feminist Review, no. 14, 9. 
  • Rubin, G. 1975. ‘The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex’, in R.R. Reiter (ed.), Towards an Anthropology of Women. New York: Monthly Review Press, 197.
  • Williams, J. 1977. Psychology of Women: Behaviour in a Biosocial Context. New York: W.W. Norton, 27.


More by :  Attreyee Roy Chowdhury

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