When Freud disciple Karl Abraham in 1920 posited that women, because of penis envy, actually wanted to be men, he went on to state that he believed that this desire to be men led to lesbianism, women with masculine ambition, and feminists. Horney, who was from all reports not a lesbian, and did not consider herself a feminist (but may have possessed what Abraham called masculine ambition), was offended. Horney, who had already witnessed decades of male sexism, was put off by this theory not because of feminism but because of its illogical nature. Horney was feminist in her beliefs, but too much of an individual to join any organized feminist movement for any period of time. One of Horney's responses to Karl Abraham's idea was, "that one half of the human race is discontented with the sex assigned to it. . .is decidedly unsatisfying, not only to feminine narcissism but to biological science."
Perhaps because of her own childhood experiences, Horney was fascinated by how men view women and the reasons for their perceptions. What she concluded seems based, as is typical of Horney, in her own experience. Her feminist theories seem to have developed during her childbearing years, a time when she described being pregnant as, "It is just the expectation and joy in it that are now so indescribably beautiful. And the feeling of carrying in me a small, becoming human being invests one with higher dignity and importance that makes me very happy and proud." In her disagreements with Freud over penis envy, Horney came to believe that there was an even more common phenomenon—womb envy. Men unconsciously devalued women out of long-suppressed jealousy of the female reproduction capacity, the male lack of a uterus for childbearing and breasts for nurturing. She further noted that apparently womb envy was evidently more prominent a problem than penis envy, as men appear to have a far stronger urge to degrade women than women have to denigrate men.
Examples From infancy onward, Horney believed, men perceive their mothers as "nurturing, selfless, and self-sacrificing.. .the ideal embodiment of the woman who could fulfill all of his expectations and longings." This leads to envy of not being able to become this nurturing person themselves. As compensation for this, men have created a society where women are considered inferior to men, motherhood is cheapened, and male sexuality is over-esteemed.
A lecture given by Horney in 1930 in Dresden noted that the (then) male-dominated specialty of obstetrics was the theft of a power that women had traditionally held (as midwives)—the ability to facilitate childbirth. She saw it as an unconscious wish on the part of men to divest women of the capacity to be mothers.
In "The Dread of Women," one of her early papers written in 1920 rebutting Karl Abraham's statements regarding all females desiring to be males, Horney expressed the belief that male children had an innate dread of females, fearing that their reproductive organ was inadequate when compared with the reproductive organs of women. This dismissed Freud's supposition that men fear castration by women, replacing it with what Horney saw as the real fear: humiliation and devaluation of the boy's masculine self-image.
The symbolic manifestation of this fear, Horney states, is expressed in dreams of "a motorcar is rushing along and suddenly falls into a pit and is dashed to pieces," or "a boat is sailing in a narrow channel and is suddenly sucked into a whirlpool." In Horney's experience, dread of being rejected or humiliated was a component of analysis with every male patient, no matter what his mental status was or the structure of his neurosis.
In place of Freud's Oedipus complex, wherein sons identified with fathers in wanting sexual relationship with mothers and daughters equally desired their fathers, Horney believed that female babies from birth identify with their mothers. The reason for Oedipal feelings in girls is not based upon desire to have sex with their fathers, but rather in their perception that this is what their mothers do. In Freud's patriarchal theoretical realm, this was not possible. Horney was joined in her promotion of mothers and mothering as essential in the development of the psyche by Melanie Klein, a contemporary female psychoanalyst. (Klein was also the person who analyzed Horney's children.)
Horney often superimposed the tremendous power of mothering over the fear of the father that Freud posited so much. This feminine power could be used in varying ways, some leading to neurosis: the demanding mother who requires total devotion, constant attention, and sacrifices from her children simply "because she is the mother and she has borne them in pain," "making her offspring feel guilty if they do not constantly meet her needs" is one example.
The obvious irony in this discussion of Horney's early years in the psychoanalytic field is that Horney did not see herself as a feminist. For her, the issues expressed were simply matters of attitudinal and intellectual difference that she perceived as creating psychiatric difficulties. She found it entirely possible that little girls wished for penises like their little brothers, but felt that it was irrelevant to the larger discussion. What women really wanted, Horney believed, was not penises, but rather the opportunity to develop their own unlimited potential in a fair and unbiased society. Initially she focused strongly on a feminine persona, motherhood, and young girls' identification with their mothers. But as time went on, she developed equal difficulty with the concept of a feminine mystique. Though convinced that there were male and female personality traits, she believed that male-dominated society had so obscured and modified whatever personality qualities were distinctly feminine that it was no longer possible to determine what these traits are. Therefore Horney came to favor gender neutrality. In a 1935 lecture in Paris, France entitled "Women's Fear of Action," she summed it up in this way:
We should stop bothering about what is feminine. Standards of masculinity and femininity are artificial standards. . . . Differences between the two sexes certainly exist, but we shall never be able to discover what they are until we have first developed our potentialities as human beings. Paradoxical as it may sound, we shall find out about these differences only if we forget about them.
Perhaps the greatest reason Horney did not consider herself a feminist springs forth, as so many other things in her theories, from her own life experience. From her teens on, as her ex-therapist Karl Abraham had noted, Horney seems to have wandered from one heterosexual relationship to another. Her one marriage to Oskar Horney could not be termed a success, and in the long run, neither were most of her affairs. Her essay, "The Overvaluation of Love," published in 1934, looks at this behavior as one of her neurotic symptoms. It is actually the case studies of seven women possessing a compulsive need for having a man in their lives yet never being able to form a fulfilling and loving relationship. It is widely believed that one of these case studies is indeed a self-description by Horney. Her examination of these self-described neurotic needs is an early span in the bridge between her feminist years and those in which she more closely looked at society's role in creating neurosis.
One classic example of how valid feminine personality traits can be altered by a male-dominated society's expectations that Horney cites is the Victorian woman. Because it was expected of her by the society she lived in, women of Victorian times were so delicate that they frequently fainted, and could do very little. There is no scientific reason why these women would faint or be so weak and unable to do any sort of physical work. Therefore, the only possible explanation for their delicacy and weakness is the programming of the society in which they lived.
Horney also speaks of a woman clearly "more gifted than her husband," and of this woman's total inability to do anything for herself. This problem can be overlooked, Horney states, in a society where females are expected to be passive and not be achievers. This would then, in such a society, be considered "a normal feminine attitude."
Main points Horney's feminist theories as opposed to classic Freudian thought of her time:
• More focus on the pride and fulfillment of being a mother and mothering, rather than wishing to be male and have a penis as Freudians believed.
• Replacement of Freud's castration theory with the belief that the fear in young boys is of male inadequacy and the loss of self esteem.
• Society's perception of women: Horney's belief was that feminine psychological traits were impossible to determine because the male-dominated society she lived in had so completely obscured them. Freud's view was that women were both definable and treatable as a group because of these personality traits. Horney believed that it was preferable to look at the person's experience with and interaction with his or her environment rather than at sexuality.
• Freud's Oedipus and penis envy theories: Horney's basic tenet is that women do not experience penis envy as much as they experience the desire for equal status living in a just and fair society instead of a patriarchal one.
• However she also felt that if indeed penis envy did exist, it was equally possible for men to experience womb envy. She reasoned that womb envy was the precursor, in male-dominated societies, of men trying to subjugate women.
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