Feminism versus Freud by Katherine Birkett

“Her self-love is mortified by the comparison with the boy’s far superior equipment…” – Sigmund Freud, ‘Femininity’, 1933.

In ‘The Ego and the Id’, Freud admits the difficulty of convincing philosophers that there exists mental processes which we are unaware of (1923, p.13). Freud opposes the idea that the illogical is an exclusive characteristic of women, children, the insane or the uneducated. He seeks to illuminate the unconscious drives propelling us all. Freud does not split the mind simply between consciousness and the unconscious. He proposes further division between the id, ego and super-ego. The super-ego develops through the resolution of the Oedipus complex. Why this stage is especially difficult for girls is outlined in Freud’s ‘Femininity’ (1933). For those who are interested in undermining authority, understanding this process is vital. We might recognise how our unconscious conflicts mirror the social rivalry between the sexes. Elizabeth Grosz, in Sexual Subversions, outlines the importance of Jacques Lacan for French feminists in the 1960s and beyond (1989). In Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis, Teresa Brennan convinces her readers that a feminine symbolic order should be constructed (1989, p.5). These women show us how psychoanalysis might be used to challenge patriarchal reason.

Freud begins his description of ‘The Ego and the Id’, by first distinguishing from consciousness an unconscious. This division is the core premise of psychoanalysis (1923, p.13). The unconscious is not composed of ideas which are latent – capable of being recalled at any time with ease. In Freud’s system, latent ideas, usually stored as word-presentations, remain in the preconscious (pp.14, 20).Unconscious thoughts are repressed and cannot resurface without resistance (p.22). However, their effect may be indirectly observable – for example, in dreams, neurosis, parapraxis, or art. Usually it is the unpleasant which is repressed, that which is too exhausting to endure again psychologically (p.22). Freud often observed in his patients the powerful effects of unconscious guilt for instance (p.26). Freud argues that only through psychoanalysis can we begin to understand, dismantle and alleviate the ill-effects of repressed impulses (p.14).

Freud proposes further divisions within the mind which he believes are essential to understanding human behaviour. The id is composed of passions. It is motivated by the pleasure principle: seeking to avoid pain and satisfy desire unrestrictedly (p.25). Only the id has access to the repressed (p.24). Freud describes the ego as that part of the id which has adapted to the external world. The ego is therefore our capacity to reason (p.25). It attempts to moderate the id’s impulses and guide our behaviour through the reality principle (p.25). However, Freud warns that this description is idealised (p.25). The ego frequently deludes itself that it is in command. We may recognize our behaviour in Freud’s analogy that, “Often a rider, if he is not to be parted from his horse, is obliged to guide it where it wants to go; so in the same way the ego is in the habit of transforming the id’s will into action as if it were its own” (p.25).

Freud examines further the concept of self-discipline through the introduction of the super-ego. Object-cathexis occurs when the id erotically invests in people or things (p.29). This process begins at birth, the oral stage, so the mother’s breast most often becomes the first object-choice (p.29). The ego represses inappropriate object-choices, or reaches a compromise with the id, by incorporating within itself what must be given up (p.29). This parallels Freud’s description of melancholia, in which one begins to identify with a person who was loved, but lost. In this way, abandonment is denied by preserving the absent person within the ego itself (p.28). Freud proposes that the super-ego is a result of the most significant identification with the father and his prohibitions (p.31). This difficult process occurs through the resolution of the Oedipus complex.

For the boy, the Oedipus complex begins when his relationship with his mother, his first object-cathexis, intensifies (p.32). The boy may have originally identified with his father. However, he begins to perceive his father’s lingering presence as the obstacle preventing fulfilment with his mother (p.32). The father’s prohibition is interpreted by the boy as a threat of castration. If his father cannot be defeated, it is his mother which must be given up (p.32). In this way, the boy begins to assume his father’s law and establish his super-ego (p.36). He may then obtain his place within a patriarchy and receive, as a consolation prize, the promise of a mother-substitute. It is distressing when we begin to understand the potency of a patriarchal law which provokes obedience through fear. This law is socially valorised above what may have come closest to satisfying our demand for love: maternal nurturing.

In ‘Femininity’, the parallel process for the girl is described. Freud acknowledges that her development is more arduous (1933, p.150). Unlike the boy, she must lose her original object-cathexis and leading erotogenic zone (p.151). Freud argues that when the girl first becomes aware of male anatomy, she becomes severely envious (pp.159-160). Her jealousy and shame must be so powerful that she renounces clitoral satisfaction and her mother (p.160). Freud suggests that it was only the phallic mother who was loved. The mother is “debased in value” when the girl becomes aware that she too is castrated. Intuitively this seems incorrect. It was the breasts and the nourishment they provided which provoked the girl’s initial cathexis – not her mother’s illusory phallus. Yet Freud maintains that this must be what incites the girl to seek out a father figure. Only he may provide the penis she desires, or its substitute in the form of a male baby (p.162). In this way, she comes to discover her “truly feminine vagina” (p.151).

Freud’s argument is based on the misogynistic presumption that a girl recognises her sex not as different, but as an absence of what the boy possesses. It is absurd to claim that all girls believe their anatomy is non-existent, or inferior, considering the pleasure their sex usually provokes. However, we may understand if she resents the privileged position males’ claim in a patriarchy which she is excluded from. It is less the biological and more the social advantages of men which she envies. This unconscious resentment may become a powerful motivation to rebel against male authority.

Freud acknowledges how tricky it is to compare the sexes – for they are actually non-binary. He warns of the error of superimposition (p.148). Traditional gender virtues often do not correspond to biological sex, and Freud argues that constructing these clichés is not useful nor enlightening (p.148). They may also have harmful effects. When a woman is incessantly pressured to play passive roles, her repressed aggressiveness can turn-inwards resulting in intense masochistic impulses (p.149).

Freud does outline the route to “normal” femininity and argues that a failure to develop along these lines may result in either extremes: sexual inhibition or a masculinity complex (p.160). Yet Freud also observes that regressions to pre-Oedipal phases occur frequently in women – as unlike boys they are not inhibited by the fear of castration. He proposes that their vacillating bisexuality may be the key to “the enigma of women” (p.165). It is confronting when Freud suggests that women’s super-egos fail to develop sufficiently due an inability to resolve their Oedipus complexes (p.163). This is a vital claim, which feminists must examine further. Women may interpret it as a challenge to their status as responsible social citizens. Alternatively they could consider a less dominant super-ego to be a radical potential which allows them to critique patriarchal laws.

In Sexual Subversions, Elizabeth Grosz discusses the importance of Lacan’s unsettling reading of Freud for second wave feminists (1989, p.17).   Lacan defiantly opposes ego psychology which had become dominant in the US and Britain (p.18). He reproaches these psychologists for their attempts to produce conforming, obedient civilians by strengthening the ego and repressing further their unconscious (p.19). Lacan considers psychoanalysis to be an undermining of the Cartesian rational and self-conscious “I”. The subject is unable to know itself, irrevocably split between its conscious and unconscious agency (p.19). The unified self is a product of language. It does not produce a satisfying sense of coherence in the subject. It alienates the subject from itself.

Grosz argues that Lacan seized Freudian analysis from the medical realm and reconfigured it as a system of linguistics, semiotics or literature (p.19). As he famously claimed, “the unconscious is structured like a language”(p.20). Lacan organises the Oedipus complex linguistically. The imaginary refers to the pre-Oedipal stage when the child is still poly-morphously perverse and has a close bond with his mother. The attachment is broken by the symbolic phallus (p.22). The boy’s sacrifices his relationship with his mother in exchange for the “nom-du-père” [name-of-the-father]. Lacan plays with the identical pronunciation of “nom”: the surname which signifies entrance into a patriarchy, and “non”: the father’s no which prohibits incest (p.22).

The unconscious itself is constructed out of what is repressed when the imaginary is symbolically encoded[1] (p.22). Thus, the unconscious may only be expressed in the silences and errors in the conscious rules of grammar (p.23). For example, desire may be described as metonymy: an attempt to replace the lost mother through an endless series of insufficient stand-ins (p.24). A number of feminist psychoanalysts, such as Luce Irigaray, are very interested in how the female imaginary could be signified. However, they remain critical of Lacan’s phallocentricism and his symbolic repression of female anatomy (p.25). Grosz does acknowledge that by refusing to reduce the phallus to the penis, Lacan importantly moves the gender debate into the political realm (p.25).

By interpreting Freud linguistically, we should still be bound by the restraints of ethics. In her introduction to Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis, Teresa Brennan argues that sanity is at stake in the interpretation of the unconscious post-Lacan (1989). Brennan highlights the important warning of Juliet Mitchell to those who seek to undercut the symbolic: “Outside the symbolic law, there is psychosis” (p.2). The symbolic is necessary even for relations between women; Irigaray recognises that the mother-daughter relationship must be symbolised to prevent their identities becoming psychologically blurred (p.16). Thus, we must consider how a non-patriarchal symbolic could be constructed (p.5). Brennan suggests that it may occur through the super-ego’s identification with other feminists – those who permit difference and disobedience (p.10). However, we cannot forget Freud’s descriptions of the extreme severity of the super-ego (1923, p.53). If feminists such as Brennan are seeking authority, how could they achieve this without exploiting the illusory or actual sadism that the position of mastery requires?

Freud’s unconscious remains a confronting construction. Understanding the development of the super-ego is especially important if we are to defy the patriarchy which we submit to. The authority figures we unconsciously identify with, or are disturbed by, fundamentally determine who we become. However, we also possess an autonomy through which we should critique them. As Freud argued, only then may we begin to show a “scrap of independence and originality” (Brennan 1989, p.11).


Katherine Birkett completed a Bachelor Arts with honours in Art History/Literature in 2013 and is currently studying a Bachelor of Psychological Science at UQ.


[1] I do not attempt to define Lacan’s Imaginary, Symbolic, or Real. Alain Sheridan provides a useful glossary in his English translation of Lacan’s Écrits, but with the warning that: “The short glossary below is not intended to provide adequate definitions of concepts. To do so would be quite alien to the nature of Lacan’s work, which is peculiarly resistant to interpretation of a static, defining kind.” (1977, p.ix).


Brennan, T 1989, ‘Introduction’, in Brennan, T (ed.), Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis, Routledge, London and New York, pp. 1-23.

Freud, S 1923, ‘The Ego and the Id’, in Strachey, J (ed. and trans.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XIX, 1961, The Hogarth Press, London, pp. 13-39.

Freud, S 1933, ‘Femininity’, in Strachey, J (ed. and trans.), New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 1981, Penguin, Harmonsworth, pp. 145-169.

Grosz, E 1989, ‘Modern French Philosophy’, in Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, pp. 16-25.

Sheridan, A 1977, ‘Translator’s Note’, in Écrits: A selection, Routledge, London and New York, pp. ix-xiv.

Photo by Roberto Tumini.

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