What is Psychoanalytic feminism? Explained

In the previous post we learned about Socialist Feminism. The oppression of women is explained in this post on psychoanalytic feminism as being rooted in psychic structures and strengthened by the persistent repetition or reiteration of relationship dynamics created in adolescence and childhood. Due to these deeply ingrained patterns, psychoanalytic feminists sought to change linguistic patterns, early childhood experiences, and family relationships that develop and reinforce masculine and femininity. At the end of this post the reader will be able to:
  • Describe the differences between traditional psychoanalytic thought and psychoanalytic feminism.
  • Describe many theories on gender development.
  • Describe how psychoanalysis is relevant to social work.


  1. Introduction
  2. Psychoanalytic Feminism
    1. Early Theories
    2. Later Theories
  3. Implications for social work
  4. Summary 


In psychoanalytic thinking, the Oedipus complex has been regarded as a pillar of gender development. The Oedipus complex theory by Freud is a well-known illustration of a child's transition to adulthood. Everyone is born with a fundamental sex drive or instinctual energy known as the libido, according to Freud. Oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital development are the five psychosexual stages that Freud identified. The phallic stage was when infantile sexuality reached its core. Between the ages of three and six, the phallic stage takes place. A child seeks pleasure and libidinal fulfilment from his or her genitalia during this stage. An Oedipus complex has a role in the development of sexual orientation and affiliation with the same sex parent. Sexuality, gender identity, and sex-role identification were the developmental difficulties at this period.

According to traditional psychoanalytic thinking, feminine development could only be explained in terms of a deficiency. The absence of a penis was the first cause, and the Oedipus complex's issues dealing with this led to early disappointment that was followed by a deficiency in other areas, such as superego development, the ability to sublimate, and moral judgement. According to the Oedipus complex, girls can achieve "normal" sexuality if they give up their active tendencies in favour of a passive femininity by accepting that they lack a penis and yearning to make up for the lack by having a penis-baby. There are two ways to get over penis envy: the first is the masculinity complex, in which the girl struggles against "the anatomical reality of castration" and the passivity associated with it, refuses to give up the clitoris, and attempts to snatch up "man desire" and related traits. In the second path, sexuality is completely rejected, women are devalued, and womanhood as a whole is devalued, which leads to frigidity, inhibition, and neurosis (Haw, 2000:72).

Psychoanalytic Feminism 

Based on Freud and his psychoanalytic theories, psychoanalytic feminism. However, it contends that gender is not based on biology but rather on an individual's psycho-sexual development (Ramsey, 2000). The oedipal complex was reformulated at the core of many ideas.

Women's oppression is explained by psychoanalytic feminists as being anchored in psychological structures and perpetuated by the ongoing repetition or reiteration of relationship dynamics created in adolescence and childhood. Psychoanalytic feminists sought to change language patterns, early childhood experiences, and family relationships that develop and maintain gender roles because of these deeply ingrained patterns. Psychoanalytic feminists discussed the political and social forces influencing the development of male and female subjects in their critique of Freudian and neo-Freudian ideas of women as being morally, psychically, and biologically inferior to men. They shared the radical feminists' view that sexual difference and women's "otherness" in regard to males were crucial issues.

Freudian and Lacanian are the two main schools of psychoanalytic feminism. The creation of gendered subjects and the production of masculine supremacy were the main concerns of Freudian feminists. French-speaking Lacanian feminists examine connections between language and gendered identity. The notion of subjectivity and the gendering of the body piques the curiosity of French feminists (Sands and Nuccio, 1992). As one of the first to offer a feminist critique of Freud's work, Karen Horney's early feminist theory serves as the foundation for this session. Following that, a summary of some of the key psychoanalytic feminists is given.

Early Theories 

A collection of writings by Karen Horney, simply named Feminine Psychology, that were published during Freud's lifetime constituted one of the first feminist critiques of psychology (1922-1937). Horney focused on the social components of personality and made the case that when people's demands for love and affection aren't met during childhood, they grow to hate their parents and end up with a basic anxiety disorder. Horney disagreed with Freud's explanation of how a woman's personality develops as well. Horney proposed the concept of "womb envy" in response to Freud's "penis envy," which is the belief that men's jealousy of women's capacity for procreation leads them to overcompensate by pursuing riches and prestige. She simply stated that some children experience jealousy as a result of non-sexual problems in the parent-child relationship in order to disprove Freud's "Oedipus complex" (or a male child's separation from and emulation of their father due to his jealousy of the sexual relationship between the mother and father). Horney, however, continued to situate her criticisms within the western framework of objectivity, positivism, and dichotomist thinking by presuming that there are differences between men and women, believing that the psychology of women can be explained by means of objective, observable factors, and presuming that each category of "women" and "men" are uniform without regard to intersectionality or particular context (Horney 27).

Many of these features were highlighted by later feminist theorists in their writing on psychoanalysis and feminism. They criticised Freud's depiction of the "traditional" family unit. In this system, mothers—women—were in charge of providing the majority of the children's care. 

Later Theories

In the 1960s and 1970s, at the same time as the resurgence of the feminist movement, analysts emerged who positioned the mother as the most dominant, admirable, and influential parent. The key to comprehending both men's and women's development, according to feminist psychoanalysts, is to grasp concerns of identification and detachment from the mother. According to psychoanalytic feminism, men's unconscious dual need for women's emotionality and rejection of them as potential castrators are the root causes of their dominance over them. Because they are unconsciously seeking emotional connection, women submit to men.

Irigaray (1977) asserts that the concept of female sexuality has always been based on masculine standards.

Women's sexuality has historically been restricted and forbidden in masculine society as a forbidden territory. The Freudian theory of female sexuality holds that women have no subjectivity in their sexual interactions with men. Freud viewed the clitoris of females as a castrated penis, which is a small or nonexistent sex organ. A young female is a young guy without a penis, according to Freud. Women have so been identified as being lacking or faulty. Given that "the penis is the only sexual organ of recognised value," Irigaray describes female subjectivity and sexuality as "a sexuality denied" (ibid, 1985:49). Irigaray contends that masculine conceptions of sexuality are incompatible with the richness of female eroticism and sexuality. Irigray became aware of female autoeroticism. A woman is "selfembracing" in her autoeroticism rather than "pleasure-giving" to men (Irigaray, 1977: 24). Her thesis relied heavily on autoeotisicm because, in her view, Freud never discussed a woman's pleasure; only the lack of it.

Chodorow and Kristeva's research concentrated on the link between infants and children. By highlighting the maternal function as active, in contrast to the paternal framework, as expressed in Freud's Oedipal theory, Chodorow (1978) and Kristeva (1974) placed their thoughts on gender, subjectivity, and difference. The pre-Oedipal era's significance in the development of gender identity has been underlined. This change has had a profound impact on psychoanalysis since it has brought early developmental processes and the maternal function into sharper focus. Chodorow contends that the oedipus complex—the experience of being estranged from one's mother—leads to gendered personalities. Infants bond with women since they are typically the primary caregivers. To establish their masculinity, however, boys must distance themselves from their mothers and identify with their fathers. They acquire strong ego boundaries as well as the ability to behave independently and think logically—qualities highly regarded in Western culture. Their independence and manly sexuality are under attack from women. According to Chodorow (1978), "asymmetrical parenting" causes both girls and boys to identify themselves in reference to the mother. In contrast to boys, who build their identities based on differences, girls create their mental structures within a setting of identification with their mothers. In contrast to girls, who are thought to be more secure in their positive identification with their mothers, this denial is believed to provide issues for masculine identity, which is perceived as being threatened by situations that re-evoke early maternal identifications. Girls must "struggle to claim for herself what mother was denied: a voice her own, a mind of her own, a life of her own," according to Goldner et al. (1990:555, cf. Haw, 2000), who argue that this identification with a devalued figure creates problems for women's sense of power and agency rather than their gender identity. Chodorow promoted the idea of "shared parenting," in which both men and women take an active role in early child care. This would enable the male to hone his parenting skills, provide boys a genuine relationship to their father, and spark exclusively heterosexual love in the female. The female will more easily give up her daughter because she won't be bogged down by separation and primary identity concerns. Differentiation difficulties would no longer be linked to sexual issues. While both sexes would be free to do anything they wanted, gender identification would be more solid (Tong, 1989).

Chodorow has come under fire for disregarding the overlaps between psychological and social notions and concentrating primarily on psychological ideas. In regard to the growth of the self, Julia Kristeva suggests a mother discourse based on "pre-symbolic" mental experience. Building on this idea, Chodorow describes an individual as stable, substantial, and fixed, whereas Kristeva defines subjectivity as changing and multifarious (Craib, 2001).

Kristeva concentrated on the role of language and maternal body rhythms in the development of gender identity. Theoretical and linguistic interpretations of sexual difference, in the view of Kristeva, play a significant role in the development of feminine identity. Her emphasis is on how language contributes to the creation of femininity. According to Kristeva, gender is formed early on in the pre-Oedipal stage of development. According to her, an unconscious part of the psyche is informed by the maternal semiotic chora (nourishing maternal space), which causes an interaction and disturbance with the established meaning structures of the symbolic order. The process is dynamic and fluid, and signifier patterns that are close together and replace one another change their meaning (Evans, 1997).

By emphasising the development of language during the pre-oedipal stage of development, Kristeva's thesis undermines the cultural construction of sexual difference and the symbolic order (Tong, 1989). Kristeva thinks that language develops from the semiotic and symbolic chora, according to Humm (1992). The "patriarchal voice," which is developed to meet the requirements of men and is delivered in public settings, is referred to as the symbolic and is what creates public life (Leng, 2000). In contrast, "the semiotic chora"—which is pre-language in terms of development—occurs before the learning of symbolic language. Communication from this world exists at the intersection of symbolic structures, meaning, and potential experience. Without using symbolic concepts, language can communicate subjectivity. For infants, semiotic language expresses a pre-symbolic language of rhythm, pulses, and tactile communication that is articulated in relation to the mother's body and mind in a physiological and affective manner (Hamburg, 1993). It indicates that, to some extent, the individual's unconscious contains semiotic language. According to Kristeva, language in this context is created from the mother and child's symbiotic experience. In contrast to the current language pattern, the semiotic offers subjects an alternative linguistic process. As the masculine voice is present in the person at the pre-language stage, it may conflict with the masculine voice used in public speech in this area.

The work of Kristeva has drawn criticism because it assumes that maternal instinct exists independently of culture. Butler and other feminists have contested the idea that a mother body and maternal instinct are actually created by particular "power relations" inside the culture itself. She makes the case that it is crucial to comprehend how the maternal body is produced.

The idea that gender differences and the corresponding assumptions of heterosexuality are the result of biological or natural differences is rejected by Judith Butler (1990, 1993, 2004). Instead, she investigates how this "naturalising trick" is accomplished, examining how a unity of biological sex, gendered identity, and heterosexuality might appear natural. "Gender ought not to be viewed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is an identity tenuously created in time, introduced in an external space through a stylized repetition of acts," she asserts (Butler, 1990:179). When a baby is delivered and the midwife announces, "It's a girl," she is not reporting an already established fact but rather engaging in the activity that creates that fact. Repeated acts of this sort have the effect of giving the impression that there are two distinct natures, one male and one female.

Repeated acts are gendered performances that we perform for ourselves and that others perform for us. Social scripts set the standards for these performances and give us a framework for behaviour. Women, for instance, are expected to dress in saris in specific settings as it is their preferred style. A man wearing a sari would be seen as out of the ordinary. The majority of the time, the framework that a social setting gives us for what to wear, how to speak, and how to think is what we are acting out. These prevailing ideologies strengthen the dominance of some groups, such as men and heterosexuals, over others. These other people—women, gays, transgender people, people with disabilities, or those whose bodies don't fit the prevailing ideal—are stigmatised in society as "the abject" and punished on a social level. These assigned roles and accompanying acts that determine how our bodies are gendered vary between settings and are subject to change. A devoted mother would behave differently from a successful woman at work. Butler highlights the presumed heterosexuality factor while also reflecting on age, class, "race," and cultural standing. A lady from India's middle class will express her femininity significantly differently from a woman from a Dalit family living in the village. Additionally, this would vary by states and regions. Therefore, Butler's explanation appears to answer the desire for a theory of embodiment that could account for "not just sexual difference but also racial difference, class difference, and distinctions owing to disability," as stated above (Price and Shildrick 1999, 5). Gendered performances are malleable and subject to change, according to Butler. There is no necessary connection between gender and any specific body shape if gender instead becomes a question of bodily style and performance, as this concept proposes. It is simply the usual for physical shape and gendered performance to coincide.

Furthermore, this norm is susceptible to disruption and change, much like other norms influencing gendered performance. Butler's account may initially appear to strengthen the distinction between sex and gender, with sex being determined by biology and determined by nature and gender being the result of discursive creation. However, her viewpoint is far more radical than this. Sex differences are not an automatic thing. For discourse formation is a part of biology itself. According to Butler, a set of heterosexual gendered standards are what motivates the partition of bodies into simply two sexes. It is not predetermined by a nature that is believed to be against such norms. Butler's approach has been criticised by transsexual theorists because it ignores those people who undergo bodily modification.

Implications for social work  

The categorization that is now done based on sex, gender, caste, and class is questioned by psychoanalytic feminist views. They challenge the ways of thinking and doing that are founded on the division of the world into two categories. According to Mitchell (1975), Lacan can aid us in better understanding how, for example, notions about patriarchy, which we inherit from our unconscious minds, are then lived as if they were true. She emphasises how patriarchal ideology is passed down via families and generations. Working with women requires us to see them as more than just individuals with whom we must interact. They are a person in their surroundings; social workers frequently work under the tenet of "person in environment." They must therefore learn to comprehend both the internal and exterior influences at play in the individual's life. Understanding the function of the unconscious is crucial while dealing on religious and health-related concerns because it may frequently be challenging to comprehend a person's motivations and behaviours. The importance of comprehending a person's social and individual psyche, as well as how language categories affect one's thought patterns and behaviour, is emphasised by psychoanalytic feminism. It highlights that there is no "norm" and that all categories are mutable, ephemeral, and unstable, which will aid social workers in preventing polarisation in their work.


This blog explores how feminist feminists from many schools of thought have modified Freud's traditional psychoanalytic theory. To comprehend how gender identities are established and maintained, they have concentrated on the concepts of mothering, the gendered body, and language.

Psychoanalysts contend that women are particularly affected by passivity, narcissism, and masochism on the one hand, and dependency and the incapacity to speak for oneself on the other. Additionally, they contend that these personality traits are linked to "feminine" (internalising) diseases like depression, somatic disorders, eating disorders, and violence toward oneself. However, modern analysts are making an effort to break the link between gender vulnerabilities and weaknesses by creating a more engaged female subject through the development of women's psychology. The new formulations enable the creation of a gender identity that is creative and can include identifications with both parents. They also do not call for a "adhesive identification" with the traits and characteristics of socially prescribed gender roles (Waddell, 1989).


  1. Butler, J. (1993). Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New YOrk : Routledge. 
  2. Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Idenity. New York: Routledge. 
  3. Chodorow, N. (1978). The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
  4. Evans, J. (1995). Feminist Theory Today:An Introduction to Second Wave Feminism. Newbury Park, CA: Sage. 
  5. Haw, C. (2000). Psychological Perspectives on women's vulnerability to mental illness. In D. 
  6. Kohen, Women and Mental Health (pp. 65-105). London : Routledge . 
  7. Horney, K. (1973). Feminine Psychology . New York: W.W Norton. 
  8. Humm, M. (. (1992). Feminisms: A reader. New York : Haverster Wheatsheaf. 
  9. Irigaray, L. (1985). Speculum of the Other Woman, trans Gillian, C. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.


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