Friedan does not question the “genius of [Sigmund] Freud’s discoveries” or his contributions to American culture, but she does question the application of his theories to contemporary women and argues that those theories have contributed to the problem that has no name.
Freud’s importance in intellectual and cultural history has turned him into a figure of unquestionable authority. Friedan thinks that Freud’s discoveries were important and brilliant, but as subject to bias as anyone else’s ideas.
Freud’s concept of the superego freed men from their sense of social obligation, but he helped to “create a new superego” which insisted that women conform to “an old image” that denied them an “individual identity.”
Freud, like most of society, believed that men needed freedom if they were to develop as self-aware individuals. Conversely, he thought that women should only be aware of their narrow social function.
Freud’s concept of penis envy became very popular, not only among psychoanalysts, but also among sociologists, educators, magazine writers, and advertisers, who applied the theory (which Freud had invented to describe “a phenomenon” that he had observed among middle-class Victorian women in Vienna) “as the literal explanation of all that was wrong with American women.”
Because Victorian society believed that women should only function in the domestic sphere while men dominated the public sphere, Freud was convinced that an active woman wanted to be a man. Friedan’s contemporaries had applied the same notion to justify constraining women as homemakers and obedient consumers.
Despite his brilliance, Freud was a product of his own culture and could not escape from the standards of that culture. He also lacked an understanding of other cultures. Standards of behavior which he believed were natural have been shown “by modern research” to be the result of “specific cultural causes.” He and his patients lived in a time of sexual repression, which also partly explains Freud’s preoccupation with sex as the underlying cause of all “psychological phenomena.”
Freud did not know much, if anything, about life outside of Europe or the West. He had assumed that the standards of his culture, which were prudish about sex and strict about gender roles, were universal, and natural instead of taught. He was unaware, too, about how sexual repression had informed his own obsessions as a thinker.
Freud also had the habit of defining psychological problems in physical terms. This made the problem seem more “real” and “scientific.” Though he saw the psychological problems clearly, he made them more concrete by borrowing terms from literature and physiology, such as “penis envy” or the “Oedipus complex.” This caused confusion among “lesser thinkers.”
Later thinkers who co-opted Freud’s views not only failed to make his ideas applicable to their time, they also tended to read his work literally. Contrary to Freud’s intent, his language did not help others see the problems as “clearly” as he did, but only created more misunderstanding about women’s psyches and motivations.
By the 1940s, social scientists and psychoanalysts had begun to reinterpret Freud’s ideas, but not his views on femininity. His views were the results of the culture of Victorian women, which saw women as “childlike dolls,” and his Jewish family, in which his father had established authoritarian rule and his mother was “docile.” His mother gave excessive attention to his needs, at the expense of his sisters.
Freud’s biography gives clues that might help people better understand the origin of his biases, which informed his theories. His own mother had exhibited dependency and sought a feeling of accomplishment through the successes of her son. In pointing this out, Friedan is turning Freud’s own theories against him.
Freud believed that women were to be ruled by men and thought that their “sickness” led them to envy men. His letters to his future wife, Martha, mirror the attitude of Torvald to his wife, Nora, in A Doll’s House. He insisted that he would let her rule the house, but he scolded her for visiting women who were “less than demure” around men. His mixture of “chivalry and condescension” was evident, too, in a letter in which he condemned John Stuart Mill’s views on female emancipation.
Freud insisted that his future wife view her purpose within domesticity. He wanted her to avoid the company of women who had more independence or intellectual interests, for this would make her more likely to challenge her role as nurturer, which Freud had come to expect from women due to his own upbringing. Feminists threatened to take away those comforts.
Freud, in his private life, was rather disinterested in sex. Some biographers have described him as “puritanical,” which explains his tendency to “[see] sex everywhere.”
Freud’s own sexual repression led him to think a lot about sex. He also imagined that everyone else thought about it as much as he did and that all their actions were motivated by sex.
Freud expected his wife, Martha, to identify with him completely. Later, he agreed that she should only be the “loved one,” meaning that she took on the role of an adored object who existed for his comfort. He did not expect her to have any opinions or ideas of her own. Their marriage was “conventional,” but not passionate. Martha was devoted to Freud’s needs, but did not expect to “[share] his life as an equal.”
Of his own wife, Freud expected the kind of “togetherness” that was encouraged during the 1950s as an aspect of the “symbiosis” concept. Women, he thought, should exist as supports to men or as beloved objects, similar to pets. This view discouraged women from having their own reasons to exist independent of men.
Freud was also interested in women of “a masculine cast,” women who were more obviously intelligent and independent than Martha, but he had no erotic interest in these women.
His sexism taught him to think that intellectual attraction, which he constructed as “masculine,” could no co-exist with physical attraction.
Freud developed the theory of penis envy from the notion that women observe their lack of a penis in childhood and do not accept the absence “lightly.” The girl wants, for a long time, to obtain something like the penis. Her desire for a penis could lead her to pursue “an intellectual career,” which is an attempt to fulfill the repressed wish. Conversely, boys who observe a girl’s absence of a penis develop “the castration complex,” or fear of losing their masculinity.
Intellectual women, like men, had individual pursuits and asserted themselves as individuals. This was unusual in Victorian society, so Freud assumed that women who behaved in this way must have secretly wanted to be men. Meanwhile, men retained their sense of masculinity by seeing themselves as separate and distinct from women.
When the girl’s self-love is undermined by her understanding that the boy is “better-equipped,” the value of all women, including her mother, reduces in relation to that of men. This can lead to sexual inhibition, or neurosis, or a desire to pursue activity that is more “characteristic of the male,” or an acceptance of “normal femininity,” which replaces the wish for a penis with the desire for a child.
The girl, when she realizes that the male is “superior,” either wishes to be like him or accepts that she can never be him and finds a more “feminine” way to prove her worth, such as having a child. Freud’s bias toward males led him to imagine that a girl would view her own body in terms of lack instead of difference.
Freud only saw women in relation to their sexual relationship with men. His theories pay little attention to the development of “the ego, or self.” He did not realize that society’s denial of education and independence prevented women from growing and attaining their full potential; he could only attribute their “yearning for equality” to “penis envy.”
Like many men of his time, Freud had only known women as wives and mothers. These were normal expressions of femininity, so if a woman digressed from this, there had to be something deviant about her, he reasoned.
Freud’s popularizers used pseudo-science to emphasize the notion that women could not attain happiness through male avenues of achievement. “Normal femininity” was achieved when a woman renounced all her own active goals to identify herself through the goals and activities of her husband or her son.
Popular science co-opted Freud’s theories to reinforce the feminine mystique. The mystique dissuaded women not only from seeking individual expression, but also from identifying with other women. A woman could only be interested in what interested her husband.
Many American women found it impossible to argue with the theories and accepted that their lack of fulfillment must have been due to penis envy. Freudian theory became a new American ideology which “cast suspicion on high aspirations of the mind and spirit,” particularly concerning women.
Women did not have the language to challenge what had been framed as scientific fact. Instead, many of them accepted the ideology and trusted it more than their own feelings about their lives, which had little to do with wanting to be men.
America became the new center of the psychoanalytic movement. “Freudian, Jungian, and Adlerian analysts” emigrated from Berlin and Vienna to practice. Other fields, including sociology, education, and anthropology, absorbed pseudo-Freudian ideas.
Other fields conveniently borrowed and applied Freud’s biased theories. The popular interest in Freud made it less likely that anyone would question gender bias based on his ideas.
Girls who grew up actively playing sports and studying geometry “were told by the most advanced thinkers” that they should revert to a Victorian model of femininity. The new message was justified by Freud’s theories, which “kept them from questioning the feminine mystique.”
Women who had been active and studious as children were made to feel that such behavior was unacceptable and unnatural in women. They did not question how the application of Freud’s theories reinforced the ways in which society viewed them in terms of their sexual function.