Psychoanalysis became very popular after World War II, particularly among Americans who became fixated on Freud’s notion of penis envy (the idea that a woman learns in girlhood that she lacks a penis and, to make up for her inability to get one, forms “masculine” ambitions, such as pursuing a career). Friedan argues that the problems regarding interpretations of Freud in the United States were two-fold. First, Americans had accepted Freud’s sexist, Victorian view of women, which characterized the most desirable women as child-like, nurturing, and solely dedicated to their roles as wives and mothers. Second, newer theories supposedly based on Freud’s ideas had turned popular notions about gender into supposedly scientifically-proven facts. Friedan illustrates how Freudian psychoanalysis, a supposedly objective field of study about human behavior that formed the basis of modern psychology, was largely influenced by sexist bias.
Using Freud’s letters to his future wife, Martha, as evidence, Friedan creates a portrait of Freud as a man who saw women as “childlike dolls.” These women existed only in relation to men’s love and to serve men’s needs. The women whom Freud viewed as nurturing and sexually appealing were infantile. On the other hand, he took only a platonic interest in women who had serious intellectual lives of their own. Freud’s view of women validated the feminine mystique by positing that career women were “unnatural” and envious of men.
Freud was particularly averse to philosopher John Stuart Mill’s views on “the woman question” because he believed that women’s increased activity outside of the home would turn them into men’s “competitors.” Equality between the sexes, he thought, would reduce a woman’s “tender attributes,” which sought to gratify a man’s every wish, just as his mother had gratified his as a boy, at the expense of his musically-gifted and ambitious sisters. Freud liked intellectual and ambitious women, “but they had no erotic attraction for him.” These were, for him, women of a “masculine cast” for whom “normal femininity” could only be achieved through the renunciation of “active goals of her own” in favor of those which pertained to her husband or her son.
Freud posited that it was through the birth of a son that a woman could satisfy her supposed desire for a penis—an envy which Freud believed tended to be projected onto her husband until she gave birth to the desired son. Of course, Freud’s view of women was impacted by the era in which he lived. His position, therefore, was that women were “biologically inferior to men.”
For Freud, his understanding of middle-class femininity was based on penis envy—his idea that when a little girl learns of the existence and significance of the penis and finds that she does not herself have one, she believes that she is at a great disadvantage, for which she must compensate. Thus, if a woman in analysis expressed a desire to pursue “an intellectual career,” it was merely a sublimation of her true desire for a penis.
Freudian theory thus helped to validate the feminine mystique by convincing women that their active pursuits and ambitions were merely manifestations of penis envy. Thus, “the most advanced thinkers of [Friedan’s] time” elevated Victorian standards over the needs of the postwar era and encouraged women to embrace domesticity fully. Conversely, men were inclined to support women’s retreat into the home, since having female “competitors” triggered what Freud classified as “the castration complex,” or the fear of losing the penis to a woman with “penis envy.”
Like anthropology, psychoanalysis supported the notion that biology determined a woman’s social role, but Freud went further when he theorized that it was not merely what women’s bodies possessed which determined their roles, but also what they lacked. A woman who understood and accepted her deficiency devoted herself to her family. A woman who could not accept what was “missing” tried to make herself “masculine” through the pursuit of active, non-domestic goals. These pseudo-scientific ideas only served to reinforce the feminine mystique, portraying women who did not conform to prescribed notions of femininity as somehow perverse.
Psychoanalysis and Sexism ThemeTracker
Psychoanalysis and Sexism Quotes in The Feminine Mystique
The feminine mystique says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity. It says that the great mistake of Western culture, through most of its history, has been the undervaluation of femininity. It says that this femininity is so mysterious and intuitive and close to the creation and origin of life that man-made science may never be able to understand it. But however special and different, it is in no way inferior to the nature of man; it may even in certain respects be superior. The mistake, says the mystique, the root of women’s troubles in the past is that women envied men, women tried to be like men, instead of accepting their own nature, which can find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love.
“Normal” femininity is achieved, however, only insofar as the woman finally renounces all active goals of her own, all her own “originality,” to identify and fulfill herself through the activities and goals of her husband, or son.
Girls who grew up playing baseball, baby-sitting, mastering geometry—almost independent enough, almost resourceful enough, to meet the problems of the fission-fusion era—were told by the most advanced thinkers of our time to go back and live their lives as if they were Noras, restricted to the doll’s house by Victorian prejudice. And their own respect and awe for the authority of science—anthropology, sociology, psychology share that authority now—kept them from questioning the feminine mystique.