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On Freud's "Femininity"

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In this book a group of contemporary psychoanalytic authors dedicated to studies on women and the feminine have been assembled with the objective of displaying points of concordance and discordance in relation to Freudian proposals.Discourse on women has changed greatly since Freud's time. It coincides with deep changes experienced by women and the feminine position, at least in most of the Western world. It is common knowledge that contraceptives, assisted fertilization, advances in women's rights, growingly evident sublimational capacities and demonstrations of professional success have definitely changed ideas regarding an eternal and immutable feminine nature. The authors are interested in illuminating ways in which these changes have or have not influenced psychoanalytic debate in relation to the feminine. This implies renewing the question of what is authentically feminine and whether there is any essential truth concerning the feminine.They select as a starting point: "Femininity", the thirty-third lecture of the New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1933 [1932]), a paper in which Freud reflects, and at the same time expands, ideas developed in previous texts which state his concepts on femininity.

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Chapter One: Femininity and the Oedipus complex

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1

Nancy Kulish & Deanna Holtzman

The question before us is, “Is a woman’s sexual life based on the Oedipus complex?” Our answer is both “Yes and No”. Yes, we believe that conflicts and issues from the triangular phase or “Oedipus stage,” which spans the ages of around 3–6 years, are central to a little girl’s future development. These conflicts and issues are important organizing influences on female development in general and on sexual development specifically. And No, while providing powerful explanations of human experience in general, the dynamics of the Oedipus complex, as laid down originally by Freud, are not, in our opinion, strictly accurate or appropriate when applied to females. In his essay on “Femininity” (1933), Freud set forth his “last word” on female development, including the “female Oedipus complex”. In the years that followed, these propositions have been revised, reformulated and rejected. We will focus only on the conceptualizations pertaining more narrowly to the “Oedipus” or triangular period. Among the ideas found in this paper that are problematic are:

 

Chapter Two: Contemporary views on femininity, gender, and generative identity

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Joan Raphael-Leff

When you meet a human being, the first distinction you make is “male or female?”

Freud, “Femininity” (1933, p. 113)

Much has changed since Freud’s day. Although our primary curiosity still prevails, in the West today this male/female distinction is no longer made with the “unhesitating certainty” Freud ascribed to it (1933, p. 113). Physical distinctions between the sexes are blurred by unisex clothes, hairstyles, and mannerisms. Difference may be deliberately annulled by self-ascriptive intersexuality, presentations of transvestism, or gender-queer “poser or passer” performance. Female/male identity may be physiologically reversed by sex-change surgery, sometimes with unforeseen consequences, such as the Canadian case of a bearded transsexual man who recently gave birth.

This chapter addresses some dramatic modifications in the seemingly eternal and universal facts of life, dwelling on how our relation to “femininity”—including body schemata and identificatory introjects—has altered since Freud’s time, partly through his own influence. A fundamental shift has occurred in the psychoso-cial order, not least due to efficient female-based contraception and safe legalized abortions. Consciously assumed awareness of rights to body ownership, reproductive control, and sexual self-determination, coupled with educational parity and greater access to public power and economic resources, has altered the close connection between “femininity” and motherhood, with almost a fifth of European women of childbearing age now choosing to remain childless. Conversely, men have gained admission to the birth-chamber, nursery, and kitchen.

 

Chapter Three: The analyst’s meta-theories concerning sexual difference and the feminine

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Leticia Glocer Fiorini

This chapter aims to examine the analyst’s meta-theories in relation to the various theories in circulation concerning the feminine and sexual difference—a logic and models of thought that have a great impact on interpretations and constructions, as well as on transference–countertransference and, consequently, on the entire process of the cure.

This inquiry implies taking up concepts that are usually affixed acritically to discourses regarding sexual difference and the feminine. It involves focusing on their epistemic sources as well as ideologies, prejudices, and fantasms, both personal and collective, that support theories and sustain clinical work and from which no analyst is exempt. It is also indispensable to consider how these categories acquire their status as beliefs and myths that infiltrate and become part of the language.

For this purpose, we need to focus on the meta-theories that support the theories—implicit or explicit, conscious, preconscious, or unconscious, private or shared—regarding sexual difference and the feminine. It is a question of bypassing unconditional acceptance of basic suppositions that have been considered immutable and advancing towards their necessary deconstruction.

 

Chapter Four: Vicissitudes of the feminine dimension in men and bisexuality in the analytic situation

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4

Thierry Bokanowski

At no other point in one’s analytic work does one suffer more from an oppressive feeling that all one’s repeated efforts have been in vain, and from a suspicion that one has been “preaching to the winds,” than when one is trying to persuade a woman to abandon her wish for a penis on the ground of its being unrealizable or when one is seeking to convince a man that a passive attitude to men does not always signify castration and that it is indispensable in many relationships in life.

Freud, “Analysis terminable and interminable” (1937c, p. 252)

In the closing paragraphs of “Analysis Terminable and Interminable”—a paper that can be regarded as part of his last will and testament with respect to his long experience as a practitioner of psychoanalysis—Freud (1937c) suggests that the “repudiation of femininity,” in both men and women, is one of the main obstacles to the ending of psychoanalytic treatment and bringing about recovery by means of psychoanalysis.

The main factors of resistance that are met with at that point have, in female patients, to do with their “envy for the penis” and, in men, with their “struggle against [their] passive or feminine attitude” (1937c, p. 250)—in other words, for Freud, the common denominator of these psychological difficulties in both sexes is the capacity for psychic internalization of the feminine position or feminine dimension. The refusal of that dimension—what Freud calls the “repudiation of femininity”—constitutes a “bedrock” and is “part of the great riddle of sex” (1937c).

 

Chapter Five: The limitations of Freud’s 1933 bisexual hypothesis to explain impediments to creativity in a woman

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Barbara S. Rocah

I have only been describing women in so far as their nature is determined by their sexual function. It is true that that influence extends very far but we do not overlook the fact that an individual woman may be human in other respects as well.

Freud, “Femininity” (1933, p. 135)

In his paper on femininity, Freud approached the topic of the “enigma of women” by conceptualizing how “a woman develops out of a child with a bisexual disposition” (1933, p. 116). His purpose was to elaborate universal bisexual conflicts that followed from a girl understanding the duality of the sexes. Although he appreciated the ambiguity of this great antithesis in the mental life of adult men and women, his bisexual hypothesis obscured the significance of a woman’s individually created psychological bisexual ambitions derived from identification and fantasy.

In this chapter I critically reconsider Freud’s 1933 application of his bisexual hypothesis to explain impediments to creativity in a woman. Freud theorized that women were creatively bereft secondary to infantile fixations on bisexual ambitions to overcome the centrality of castration in their psychology. To that goal her “libido has take up final positions” (p. 135), maintaining repressed phallic preoedipal ambitions directed towards her mother, and/or oedipal eroticism fixed on her father that exhausted the possibilities of sublimation, a process he theorized was necessary for exchanging sexual aims for others of cultural value. In his view, a woman’s development was dominated by shame that “has as its purpose … concealment of genital deficiency” (p. 132). Freud asserted that the necessity to maintain this concealment limited women to a single cultural achievement: “that of plaiting and weaving… . Nature herself would seem to have given the model which this achievement imitates by causing the growth at maturity of the pubic hair that conceals the genitals” (p. 132).

 

Chapter Six: The riddle of the repudiation of femininity: the scandal of the feminine dimension

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Jacqueline Schaeffer

According to Freud, “the repudiation of femininity [is] part of the great riddle of sex” (1937c, p. 252). It is a “bedrock,” the ultimate stumbling-block that brings all therapeutic activity to an end.

I would like first of all to define what I mean by “feminine”. My definition—and the same is true of the way in which I use the word “masculine”—has nothing to do with gender. Gender is not a psychoanalytic concept, since the purpose of any analysis is not to accept it as such but to call it into question in terms either of narcissistic or object-related cathexes or of identifications. I therefore define the feminine dimension in its conceptual sense as one of the elements of a specific difference that has to be constructed, a difference that is paradigmatic of all differences: that between the sexes.

I shall therefore not explore the feminine dimension as dissociated from its masculine counterpart.

I do not use the word in the sense of a “primal feminine dimension” of sexuality (André, 1995), of a “primary feminine dimension” (Guignard, 1997), or of a “pure female element” (Winnicott, 1971b, p. 76). These all refer to a “primal” factor that as such has nothing to do with the advent, in the individual, of the difference between the sexes, male–female: it refers to the identificatory phase with the mother’s maternal or sexual female aspect. My use of the word “feminine” here has to do with the test of otherness that is part of the difference between the sexes. I draw a distinction between the feminine sphere—which is internal and invisible—and femininity—which is visible, goes hand-in-hand with the phallic dimension, involves illusion and masquerade, and is a reassurance against castration anxiety for both men and women.

 

Chapter Seven: Are women still in danger of being misunderstood?

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7

Graciela Abelin-Sas Rose

At the end of his lecture on “Femininity,” Freud writes:

If you want to know more about femininity, enquire from your own experiences of life, or turn to the poets, or wait until science can give you deeper and more coherent information. [1933, p. 135]

This chapter will try to honour that final paragraph. Our thoughts have been enriched by the many years that have elapsed since Freud presented his ideas, the unexpected cultural changes that have taken place, and the careful work of numerous authors. Thus facilitated, my own experience with a variety of clinical encounters guides me to consider possible ways of re-thinking femininity.

Although Freud offered a fascinating view of the development of the girl and its differences from that of the boy, some of his inferences are questionable, as are his conclusions. I am referring, specifically, to the idea of the girl developing first as a little boy (a theory questioned, among many, by Greenacre, 1950; Jones, 1935; Kleeman, 1976; and Klein, 1928) which led Freud to propose that the girl turns angrily against her mother, who has not granted her a penis or a baby and betrays her with the birth of a sibling (see Dio Bleichmar, chapter 9, this volume). Others have contended that the girl’s sense of femaleness is present early on, including early experiences of vaginal sensations (Richards, 1996). In my view each patient’s babyhood experiences, the quality of her sensuous relationship with her own mother, father and others, her parents’ emotional investment in her gender through their own personal histories as unconsciously conveyed to their offspring, early life traumas, early losses and disappointments, family life, the birth and characteristics of siblings—all these contribute to the unique way in which a girl will experience her body and gender (see Galenson & Roiphe, 1974; Mahler, 1963; Stoller, 1968b).

 

Chapter Eight: Autonomy and womanhood

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8

Mary Kay O’Neil

Freud’s views on women’s psychosexual development were based on two premises: (1) Human beings are psychologically bisexual and develop predominantly feminine or masculine identity during two developmental stages: the oedipal and puberty. (2) All women as girls experience “penis envy” when they discover that males possess something they lack. Unable to revise his theory of female development in the light of metapsychological theory and to integrate his later insights into his early formulations, Freud held fast to these basic premises.

“Femininity” (1933) is a restatement of Freud’s earlier papers on women: “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Differences Between the Sexes” (1925j) and “Female Sexuality” (1931b). By 1933, Freud realized that “the development of a little girl into a normal woman is more difficult and more complicated” (1933, p. 117) than that of a boy. Despite doubts, he could not allow that women’s development followed a course separate from that of men, perhaps because of his awareness that psychoanalytic knowledge was not yet sufficient “to pursue the behaviour of femininity through puberty to the period of maturity” (p. 131). However, Freud’s new acknowledgment of the vicissitudes of the mother–daughter relationship opened the door for understanding the impact of mothers and motherhood on a girl’s development of her womanhood: “we knew, of course, that there had been a preliminary stage of attachment to the mother, but we did not know that it could be so rich in content and so long-lasting and could leave behind so many opportunities for fixations and dispositions” (p. 119, italics added). Recognizing that knowledge about femininity was incomplete, Freud challenged analysts “to enquire from your own experiences of life, or turn to the poets, or wait until science can give you deeper and more coherent information” (p. 135).

 

Chapter Nine: The psychoanalyst’s implicit theories of gender

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Emilce Dio Bleichmar

There is a great deal in the psychoanalytic literature about gender, spanning two decades. However, we find that, even today, neither its conceptual aspect nor its clinical application is clear. Whereas Freud wondered “What do women want?,” femininity and feminine sexuality continue to be a riddle even now, in the twenty-first century.

There are several problematic issues related to the concept of gender: primary femininity, the place of the castration complex or penis envy and the importance of maternity in the subjectivity of many women, which have been much discussed and debated (Benjamin, 2004; Elise, 1997,1998a; Fast, 1990; Fritsch et al., 2001; Kulish, 2000; Lasky, 2000; Mayer, 1995; Richards, 1996; Torok, 1979; Tyson, 1982). Meissner (2005) states that our thinking about these matters has undergone significant change and that we may be drawing closer to a more comprehensive and meaningful understanding. However, despite intellectual acceptance of contemporary views of female development, many authors have found it difficult to assimilate these ideas fully in the clinical situation (Fritsch et al., 2001; Lax, 1995).

 

Chapter Ten: Femininity and the human dimension

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Mariam Alizade

There is no doubt that we have left very many points over to be established and clarified by some future band of observers and enquirers. But we may console ourselves with the knowledge that we have worked honestly and in no narrow spirit, and that in so doing we have opened up paths along which later research will be able to travel.

Freud, “Contributions to a Discussion on Masturbation” (1912f, p. 246)

Over the last few decades, some significant scientific contributions in psychoanalysis have called into question certain Freudian premises concerning sexuality.

Gender studies, investigations into neo-sexuality, transsexual-ity, and same-sex parenting, interdisciplinary studies, and queer studies, among others, have opened up new areas of investigation. These constitute some of the paths mentioned by Freud in 1912 along which “later research will be able to travel” (1912f). Heterogeneity, relativism, deconstruction, subjectivity, and link interactions have been converted into conceptual models that have provided answers to many questions and have generated theoretical and clinical uncertainties.

 

Chapter Eleven: The persistence of tradition in the unconscious of modern Korean women

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Mikyum Kim

When I was invited to discuss the subject of feminism in Korea today, I accepted the invitation rather quickly, without much thought; but I soon realized that it is an almost impossible task because of the cultural complexity and lack of published clinical material on the subject. As a result, this chapter should be seen as preliminarythe beginning rather than the end of a longer discussion.

As a Korean–American, my experience is particular—being both inside and outside the culture into which I was born. Deeply influenced by the Korean War and the rapid modernization and industrialization that followed, I was more aware of the discontinuities with the past and less conscious of the persistence of the tradition. In the course of years of practice as a psychoanalyst, I have come to observe that, in spite of all that is new and modern in the conscious lives of my Korean women patients, there is much that is specifically Korean in their unconscious conflicts and psychological problems; material can be located from each of the major sources of Korean tradition. Moreover, I have discovered that these issues vary within each of the three generations of women’s experience that I have described.

 

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