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Freud, the Feminist?

Suzanne Brom
Duquesne University


Clearly, Sigmund Freud’s work has been the subject of controversy since its beginnings. While components of his writing have survived various assaults, there continues to be a debate regarding his treatment of women and sexuality. Feminist critique centers on phallocentricism and neglect of female sexuality in his theory. While these criticisms are certainly deserving of reflection, I believe it is important to first return to a basic question: How did Freud treat his patients? Prior to being a theorist, Freud was a psychoanalyst situated in a male-dominated culture. Therefore, his work with female patients must be investigated and described from a socio-historical perspective.

My intention in the following paper is to use a phenomenological analysis to characterize Freud and his work with hysterical patients. By phenomenologically bracketing Freud’s method of therapy and using case history texts to describe Freud’s “being-with” his patients, Freud’s admiration of women becomes apparent. Therefore, I will begin by offering a brief schematic review of the history of scholarship with regard to Freud’s relationship to women. I will then discuss the cases considered in Freud’s Studies on Hysteria, as well as Dora and the case of the homosexual woman.

Before undergoing an analysis of Freud and the women he treated, it is necessary to briefly consider the degree to which women were oppressed in his time. Girls raised in bourgeois families were subjected to an extremely restrictive morality. It was not appropriate to express sexual desire, even within the context of marriage. While men’s genitalia were the objects of pride and power, women’s were cloaked in secrecy and shame (Freud, 1909). Further, marriage for women in the Victorian era was not aimed at cultivating women’s independence. Wives were expected to obey their husbands at any cost, and, upon marriage, were expected to relinquish any civil powers they may have previously held. Even if her husband was abusive or unfaithful, it was unfeasible for a woman to divorce; if she did, her reputation was irreparably marred. Simone De Beauvoir elaborates on the 19th century prescription for femininity: “Woman was declared made for the family, not for politics; for domestic cares and not for public functions… Femininity was a kind of ‘prolonged infancy’ that set women aside from the ‘ideal of the race’ and enfeebled her mind… in morality and love women might be superior, but man acted, while she remained in the home without economic or political rights” (De Beauvoir, 1952, p. 111). In short, women were tools for men, creating their children, maintaining their homes, and providing sexual release when necessary.

If non-neurotic women were seen as the ‘second sex’ in Victorian times, hysterical women, spoken of as degenerates, were regarded as possessing even less status. Initially, hysteria was thought to be an exclusively female affliction, and it was Freud who asserted that, while hysteria was a “feminine neurosis,” men could be affected as well. Here is a contention raised by many feminists: Why should hysteria be associated only with the feminine when both men and women are afflicted? Freud theorized that hysteria occurs as the result of anxiety at the threat of lost love, saying: “It is precisely in women that the danger-situation of loss of object seems to have remained the most effective. All we need to do is make a slight modification in our description of their determinant in anxiety, in the sense that it is no longer a matter of feeling the want of, or actually losing the object itself, but of losing the object’s love” (Taken from Freud, ‘Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety’ p. 123, by Mitchell, 1974, p. 90).

If what Freud says is true, women had more to lose by loving. The social agenda directed woman to “place all her eggs in one basket” (as it were), devoting herself to matrimonial and mothering duties. Freud saw woman as “having a cultural fate to dedicating herself more exclusively to sexuality and propagation than did a man… It was thus harder to sublimate these drives in the interest of work or cultural pursuits; for this reason, she lagged behind the man in the achievements of civilization and power, she has had to toss away kingdoms” (Mitchell, 1974, p.433). Clearly, the possibilities Victorian women were offered were quite limited, and Freud considered this in Studies on Hysteria. Frau Emmy von N, with whom Freud first used the cathartic method, was also the first patient he observed as having unfulfilled possibilities and as suffering hysterical neurosis as a consequence. Frau Emmy had struggled throughout her life with sick and dying relatives; her existence was dedicated to nursing others. The hysteria she suffered was a logical result of being spent by giving too much to others and not enough to herself. Freud commented, “The circle of her duties was very wide, and she performed the whole of the mental work which they imposed on her by herself, without a friend or confidant, almost isolated from her family and handicapped by her conscientiousness…” (Freud, 1909, p. 102). In this, Freud is acknowledging that the obligation Frau Emmy felt to others contributed to her neurosis; the sacrifices she made were not without repercussions to her own health.

As a governess, Miss Lucy was also afflicted by an hysteria that resulted, in part, from her deep dedication to others. Though she herself did not have children, she had made a death-bed promise to the mother of the children she cared for that she would take her place, “devoting herself with all her power to the children”. Freud’s treatment of Miss Lucy revealed a deep conflict: While being intensely committed to the children, she was also in love with their father. While on one hand, she desired to leave and perhaps attend to personal interests, she was held to the family by stronger relational factors. Her hysteria spoke of her care, which was present to the point that it became repressed. Freud did justice to the relational dimension of Miss Lucy’s case; he considered what she had said regarding her fondness for the family, and he confirmed the magnitude of her care for them.

Of the patients in Studies on Hysteria, Fraulein Elisabeth may have suffered the most as the consequence of lost loves. Fraulein Elisabeth had chosen to let go of the only man who seemed to understand and appreciate her in order to nurse her dying father, whom she desperately loved. She was especially preoccupied with her family’s happiness, which was evident in her dislike for her brother-in-law, who from her perspective did nothing to contribute to the family. Freud commented, “Here, then, was the unhappy story of this proud girl with her longing for love. Unreconciled to her fate, embittered by the failure of all her little schemes for re-establishing the family’s former glories, with those she loved gone away or estranged, unready to take refuge in the arms of some unknown man—she had lived almost eighteen months in complete seclusion, with nothing to occupy her but the care of her mother and her own pains (Freud, 1909, pp. 143-144). Because of her undying love for those and the anguish associated with it, Elisabeth began her struggles with hysteria. In acknowledging this, Freud affirmed Fraulein Elisabeth’s femininity without debasing it. He did not limit her possibilities to restricted cultural roles, nor did he deny the authenticity of her love.

While many physicians at the time, deeming hysterical women as contemptible, would not venture to treat them, Freud actively and without reservation received hysterical patients. Contrary to the opinion of most of his contemporaries, Freud believed that patients with hysterical neurosis were exceptional in certain respects. He stated, “We had learnt from our observations on Frau Cacilie M. that hysteria of severest type can exist in conjunction with gifts of the richest and most original kind--- a conclusion which is, in any case, made plain beyond a doubt in the biographies of women eminent in history and literature… we shall find ourselves forced to admit that humanity owes a large proportion of its great achievements to the efforts of ‘degenerates’” (Freud, 1909, p. 103). The fact that Freud even ventured into treatment with hysterical women and then pronounced many of them as gifted allows us to understand him as being, quite radically, an advocate for women.

The patients in Studies on Hysteria often shared qualities that deviated from the social and political ideals for women at the time. Having been afflicted with hysterical neurosis, one is led to question whether the patient’s illnesses resulted from their lifelong struggles against oppressive morality and prescribed norms. In Freud’s writing, the reader can discover elements that provide evidence that Freud appreciated women that did not fit into socially imposed standards. It can be observed that each of the women were outspoken in her own way, as well as ambitious and intelligent. In the Studies on Hysteria, Freud allows his patients to speak for themselves, treating them as equals deserving of respect.

Despite having dedicating much of her life to the interest of others, Freud found Frau Emmy to be “unusually educated and intelligent. The woman we came to know was an admirable one. The moral seriousness with which she viewed her duties, her intelligence and energy, which were no less than a man’s, and her high degree of education and love of truth impressed us both greatly… (Freud, 1909, pp. 103-104). Freud certainly would have respected the exceptional qualities of Frau Emmy, in perhaps the same degree and with the same sincerity, were she a man. While Freud’s comment regarding Frau Emmy’s qualities could be taken as depreciating to women, I do not believe that he was saying women do not possess these qualities. Most likely, Freud was using this comment for the benefit of an audience who already tended to view women as inferior.

Miss Lucy gives indications of having challenged societal norms, as well. She (like Dora) did not hesitate to contradict Freud when he presented her with disagreeable interpretations, yet he respected her assertions as being valid. As was the case with Frau Emmy, Freud took Miss Lucy seriously and did not allow her illness to eradicate her humanity or her credibility. Miss Lucy, too, was strong-minded in the sense that she repressed her love for a man whom she believed threatened her independence. It might be said that Miss Lucy’s hysteria arose in part because of her independent nature, as well as her anxiety at lack of control. These were not qualities that Freud attempted to change in any way; thus, the fact that Freud did not use his therapeutic skills to manipulate his patients into fitting oppressive standards speaks volumes of his feminist sensibilities.

Though she was not a patient examined in Studies on Hysteria, the case of the homosexual girl is especially telling of Freud’s unusual acceptance. Like many of the patients he saw, the homosexual girl was intelligent and described by Freud as “ambitious”. Freud elaborated, “Some of her intellectual attributes could be connected with masculinity; for instance, her acuteness of comprehension and lucid objectivity, in so far as she was not dominated by her passion. But these distinctions are conventional rather than scientific” (Freud, 1920, p.154). In this case, Freud made special efforts to emphasize that masculine and feminine traits are culturally dependent, separate from one’s sexual preference. What is most significant, whether or not Freud was “successful” in this therapy or not, is the idea that Freud did not attempt to reform the girl to designated cultural norms; he merely attempted to shed understanding on how she came to be who she was.

I believe Fraulein Elisabeth’s case, more than any other case discussed so far, reveals Freud’s admiration for women who did not meet societal ideals. He remarked: “She was greatly discontented with being a girl. She was full of ambitious plans. She wanted to study or have musical training, and she was indignant at having to sacrifice her inclinations and freedom of judgment by marriage” (Freud, 1909, p. 140). While Freud does not overtly say that he appreciates Fraulein Elisabeth’s rejection of culturally imposed feminine standards, his approval is evident in the way he treats her. He boldly states his interpretations, and he does not fear he will injure her. Nor is Freud judgmental towards Fraulein Elisabeth; for if he were, he would have tried to discourage her aspirations. Clearly, Freud wished her the greatest success as herself, which is evident in his honoring of her feisty temperament.

Freud can also be understood as feminist in his attempted liberation of female sexuality. Partly due to the sexually oppressive nature of the Victorian era, women were not included in any major theory of sexuality. Following his case study research, starting with Anna O., Freud began to formulate a complicated (and controversial) explanation of women’s sexuality. In doing so, Freud was taking a giant step forward, being a voice on behalf of women sexually repressed by the culture. His case histories illustrate his desire for women to begin to appropriate their own sexual desires; in being able to do so, the women were freed from rigid constraints that participated in the development of their hysterical neurosis.

Freud’s interest in female sexuality became more of a focal point with his later patients, but can be seen particularly in the case of Katharina, with whom Freud only had one session while he was on vacation. Freud emphathically began by talking with Katharina very gently, as if not to introduce ideas she would not be prepared to deal with. However, Katharina proved to be quite forthright in discussing the rather traumatic instances of her father’s attempts to seduce her. Freud did not react with shock or distaste, which would have been the reaction of most physicians at the time. Instead, he specifically commented on the fact that adolescent girls possessed more sexual awareness and knowledge than what was previously thought (Glenn, 1980). At the end of the case, Freud stated, “I owed her a debt of gratitude for having made it so much easier for me to talk to her than the prudish ladies of my city practice, who regard what is natural as shameful” (Freud, 1909, p. 132). The very idea that sex is a natural thing is a rather liberated notion and must have been quite freeing for the women that Freud worked with.

One might argue that Freud’s acceptance of sexuality did not serve as freeing for Dora, with whom Freud rightly believed had undergone a significant transference in their therapy together. Dora had been brought to therapy by her father, who wished to have Freud dispel Dora’s belief that he was having an affair. What came to light, however, was Dora’s awareness of her own sexuality and her fear of it. After she terminated with Freud, Dora told Frau K. that she knew of her affair with her father and persuaded Herr K. to admit to his attempt to seduce her at the lake. In the sense that she was able to directly confront both issues suggests that Dora, with Freud’s help, was eventually able to resolve some of her conflicted sexual feelings. Freud is consistently criticized for his approach to treatment with Dora, but one must recall that she was still an adolescent, resistant to anyone who represented her father (Glenn, 1980). The fact that Dora returned to Freud to report her confrontations with Frau and Herr K. indicates her confidence that Freud would be open to discussing sexuality with her.

In “The Case of Homosexuality in a Woman”, Freud is again seen as demonstrating a radical acceptance of female sexuality. The girl’s father had brought her to Freud in the hopes that Freud could “cure” her homosexual inclinations. Freud, however, seemed uncomfortable with the request of the girl’s father to change her so fundamentally, and, since the girl herself was not ill at ease with her homosexuality, Freud did not believe that therapy would be indicated or effective (Freud, 1920) . His aim in the analysis, rather than converting her sexual preference, was to discover how the girl came to choose her love-object. Given that, even now, there are some psychologists who believe it is necessary and appropriate to attempt to convert homosexuals, Freud was clinically and socially radical in his conviction that, if a woman was comfortable with her choice of sexual object, her human possibilities were not limited.

Despite the fact that Freud did make obvious mistakes that injured his credibility with feminists, his work should not be discounted. While we can see that Freud often took the side of his patients, he had to struggle with cultural agendas that kept women in a subordinate position. My study illuminates Freud’s vacillation between the desire to affirm the women he treated and to have his work recognized as being momentous. There is enough evidence in Freud’s case histories to assert that he was, indeed, a feminist. His opposition has given too little attention to the kind of physician he was, one that strove for women’s freedom and their right to be heard. After investigating his cases in Studies on Hysteria, it is evident that Freud went beyond attempting to establish theory as a social-scientist; his comportment towards his patients furthered the cause of  feminism in a multitude of ways.


Breuer, J & Freud, S. Studies on Hysteria. (1909). Basic Books.
DeBeauvoir, S. (1952). The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books.
Freud, S. (1905). Dora: Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. New York: WW Norton & Company.
Freud, S. (1920). “A Case of Homosexuality in a Woman”. The Complete Psychological Works of
Sigmund Freud. New York: Hogarth Press.
Lauzen, G. (1965). Sigmund Freud: The Man and his Theories. New York: Paul S. Eriksson, Inc.
Lerman, H. (1986). A Mote in Freud’s Eye. New York: Springer Publishing Company.
Mitchell, J. (1974). Psychoanalysis and Feminism. New York: Vintage Books.

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