A feminist response to Freud’s theory of femininity.

Explain the main features of Freud’s or Lacan’s theory of femininity, offering some feminist arguments either in defence of, or in opposition to, that theory.


      The issue of femininity is a ‘contested space’ within contemporary Irish society. With the traditional family unit undergoing a dynamic transformation, the issue of femininity brings to the forefront re-evaluated discussions on the institution of motherhood and what constitutes the ‘new woman’.  This essay will explain the main features of Sigmund Freud’s Theory of Femininity (1931), focusing on the Pre-Oedipus and Oedipus complex, Castration complex and penis envy as the events which are the ‘natural’ process, according to Freud in ‘becoming’ feminine. I will then take Jessica Benjamin’s A Desire of One’s Own (1986) and look at where she challenges his theory in light of contemporary feminist thought of the 1980’s.

In the Theory of Femininity lectures Sigmund Freud categorises femininity as ‘passive’, contrasting the ‘activity’ of masculinity. Freud draws the distinction between gender and femininity making it clear that femininity cannot be categorised purely as psychological or biological and indeed includes social/ cultural aspects. Within his 1931 lecture he explains the various stages in the sexual development of the little girl starting in infancy. Freud states the importance of the pre-oedipal stage in girls which cannot be underestimated in its influence in the sexual maturation and growth into femininity. The pre-Oedipus stage which Freud argues determines a woman’s characteristics in which “..she will later fulfil her role in the sexual function and perform her invaluable social tasks.”(Freud, S. 134: 1973). In the pre-oedipal stage the main source of affection is the mother; the primary caregiver for the infant’s basic survival needs. Through the physical caregiving activities (breastfeeding, changing of nappies, etc.) the mother is the first to stimulate the erotic bodily senses. How the mother reacts when she discovers her child has (inevitably) found her clitoris and started to masturbate (be it reprimanded, accepted, shamed etc.) will be a crucial point in the girl’s sexual development. According to Freud in order for healthy, ‘normal’ femininity to occur two changes need to take place. 1) The focus of erotic stimulation needs to change place from the clitoris to the vagina. 2) The focus of affection needs to change from the mother to the father.

The reasons Freud offers for the girl’s motivation for shifting her affection from the mother to the father are one of three. A) Too little milk being given by the mother, b) the wet nurse was sent away by the mother too soon and c) the arrival of a new baby and the breast needing to be shared. Each of these situations indicate emotions within the child of anger, frustration, sadness, grief and jealousy and are indicative of Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby’s 1950 psychoanalytic attachment theory to evolve from. In all of these situations, one thing is clear; that the withdrawal of the breast is traumatic for the infant.

According to Freud, the girl’s subsequent hostility towards her mother leads her shift in focus to the father whom she quickly sees has a phallus far superior to her own. The penis envy which arises leads to the castration complex in which is crucial in this shift of focus and turning towards her father. The castration complex is according to Freud, the turning point in a girl’s sexual development. She realises she does not have a phallus (that compares to a boy’s) and on realising this she holds the mother responsible for putting her at a disadvantage. This is the point where passivity comes ‘like a wave’ (Freud, S. 130:1973) and subordination needs to take place to clear the path for femininity to arise. Metaphorically speaking, the phallus is a symbol of male power and patriarchy of which takes place in both the boy and the girl on realisation of the girls ‘lack’ of a phallus. It is within this realisation that the debased value of the woman comes into awareness in both the boy and the girl’s perception of themselves and their social world. In ‘healthy’ femininity the girl subsequently establishes penis envy which brings about a losing of interest in the clitoris and a turn of attention to the vagina and towards her father. This abandonment of clitoral stimulation signifies her surrender to passivity, turning towards the father typically with “..passive instinctual impulses.” (Freud, S. 128: 1973)

The course of sexual development for the girl can go one of three ways from this crucial point. 1. Neurosis can develop in which a disgust towards the clitoris presents and  repression of sexual desire. 2. The development of a powerful masculinity complex presents as a refusal to accept the ‘wave of passivity’ and instead remain ‘with’ attention on the clitoris. (This is where homosexuality, according to Freud develops. It is important to note that female bisexuality is seen by Freud as a regression to the masculinity complex as a woman fluctuates between masculine and feminine expression. Freud, somewhat vaguely calls bisexuality; the ‘enigma of women’.) The third possible development from the castration complex is into ‘normal’ femininity in which ‘the highest feminine wish’, being the desire to have a baby presents itself. The envy for the penis needs to shift focus to the desire to reproduce and then true femininity, according to Freud is established. The girl has now entered the Oedipus complex, as ‘a refuge’ from the complicated process of the pre-Oedipal development with her mother. The mother is now her rival.

At this point I will a recap over the material to clearly identify the difference Freud is proposing in the sexual development of boys and girls. In boys, the Oedipus complex presents as desire for the mother and to ‘get rid’ of the father. This, according to Freud is a natural state of phallic sexuality and it is the threat of castration (on the realisation that he has the dominant phallus) which leads him to give up this attitude and from which ultimately destroys the Oedipus complex. On the destruction of the Oedipus complex the ‘super-ego’ (critical and moral aspect of the psyche) is birthed, of which Freud states, is needed for the productive and healthy involvement within society. As we have seen, the castration complex in girls is entirely the opposite. The castration complex invokes penis envy which prepares her for the Oedipus complex, accepting her own ‘lack’ and focusing towards the male phallus as a symbol of patriarchal power. Freud argues that girls can potentially stay here for a long time and the super-ego remains underdeveloped. The infantile stage may be revived when the girl becomes a mother herself. Her reaction to the gender of the infant can indicate old unresolved factors of penis envy and the biological process of bonding may be duly affected by a return to the pre-Oedipal and masculinity complex where by she re-lives her desire through her infant.

In contrast (yet taking into account that feminist theorist Jessica Benjamin is writing over 50 years after Freud) in A Desire of One’s Own (1986)  she challenges his fundamental concept that femininity equating to passivity, that “women’s desire actually runs parallel to the question of power” (Benjamin, J. 1:1986). Benjamin sees these as placing women as the object of desire and domination in both societal and family relations. Benjamin asserts that the Oedipus complex serves only to support and perpetuate a patriarchal hierarchy seeing penis-envy not to be because of the lack of a phallus but because of socio-cultural reasons and in no way a necessary and fundamental part of a girls evolvement to sexual maturation/ femininity. Benjamin argues that Freudian psychology, focused on the ego promotes individualisation and healthy development as separate from others. It is precisely within the idea of individualisation which she states is the nature of patriarchy, the male ideal of power. For Freud this represents the process of ‘disentanglement’, for Benjamin it represents balance and mutual interdependence.  Benjamin, through referencing scientific papers which look precisely at the interaction between mother and baby she clearly shows that babies are social beings. For infants to understand themselves they need to understand ‘the other’, through mimicking, mirroring and knowing themselves to be both separate yet intrinsically linked to their social surroundings. The attachment theory of the late 1950s shows that who and how you were raised has a fundamental effect on emotional, psychological and physical development. An infant after only a few weeks out of the womb can differentiate a face from a random pattern which proves the inbuilt imprinted blueprint each human being has for survival. The mother is not alone in this process of neurological development and the ‘reclaiming’ of nurturance one either did or did not receive in their own upbringing Benjamin argues, works for both parents.  Specifically in response to Freud’s concept of idealized motherhood, Benjamin argues that this psychoanalytic framework and “…idealization of Motherhood,…can be seen as an attempt to preserve the power of the apron strings…united by the tendency to naturalize woman’s desexualisation and lack of agency in the world.” (Benjamin, J.4:1986) keeping women confined to patriarchal ideology with no agency of their own.

Women, birth, motherhood and reproduction are all radically changing in contemporary society with femininity at the core of debate. What is interesting is how the essence of femininity seems to change within the context of the external world. If this is so, can femininity be defined or is it personal reflections with interdependence with the external world? Or from a Freudian perspective, does the ‘enigma of women’, the dance between masculine and feminine expression constitute labels of what’s not ‘quite’ feminine, or does it simply point towards the colourful array of the discussion?






Works Cited.

Benjamin, Jessica. “A Desire of One’s Own: Psychoanalytic Feminism and Intersubjective Space”. Feminist Studies/Critical Studies. Ed. Teresa de Lauretis. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “Femininity1931. Tr. James Strachey. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Ed. Angela Richards. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973. 145-169. Print.






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