A feminist reading of Freud

Training for Vietnamese Translators in Social Sciences and Humanities,
a project funded by EUNIC Global.


A review of Sarah Kofman, The Enigma of Woman: Woman in Freud’s Writings,  Cornell University Press, 1995.

By Etienne Rolland-Piègue, Director of Institut français du Vietnam

Originally published in French as: Sarah Kofman, L’énigme de la femme La femme dans les textes de Freud, Editions Galilée, 1980.

Freud had a complex relationship with women. He thought they lacked something, a je-ne-sais-quoi that was the obscure object of their desire. He called this lack: the phallus, and the drive that it generated: penis envy. It didn’t dawn on him that women could be perfectly happy with their body, and that they did not envy something that could be found elsewhere. He had trouble accepting the obvious: a girl’s genitalia is different from a boy’s; her sexual organs are differently configurated. He made up complex stories and referred to ancient myths to come to terms with this simple fact of life.

The story starts with boys and it is quite simple. Boy wants to sleep with mother but father stands in the way. He dreams of killing father, but is afraid that father will cut off his tiny weenie. He therefore develops a superego that will take on the role of father and will order what he can or cannot do. Fine so far, but what about girls? Does girl want to sleep with father and kill mother, as Jung proposed with his Electra complex? For Freud, things couldn’t be so simple. For one thing, women could not be afraid to lose what they didn’t have, and the fear of castration couldn’t work with them: if anything, it is women who menaced men with the threat of castration. Second, Freud also thought women lacked moral character and he linked this deficit to the formation of their superego, which originates in the oedipal phase. The superego cannot take the place of father, because girl doesn’t want to kill father: she wants to sleep with him.

Boys and girls, fathers and mothers

This is where the tiny weenie comes into play. For Freud, men were superior to women because they had one, whereas women’s inferiority came from their lack of it–actually, they had something that looked vaguely similar, called the clitoris, but it was so tiny that it was barely worth mentioning. Consequently, women envied men and their penis and cast a castrating threat over them. In the original story, girl wants to sleep with father, but she also wants to receive from him what she doesn’t have. So here, in a kind of magical trick, the baby takes the place of the phallus, and girl receives it from father. Voila! Some additional remarks by the founder of psychoanalysis posit that shame is a typically feminine sentiment because women are ashamed of their genital deficiency, and that plaiting and weaving, the only inventions in the history of mankind that originated with women, was an imitation of nature that causes the growth of pubic hair to conceal the genitals.

If phallocracy refers to a system dominated by the phallus, and in which the male sex is thought superior, then Freud fully deserved the name of phallocrat. Prejudices against women were quite common in his time and social environment. But Freud’s relationship with women was not simply the reflect of his time: they were tainted by personal proclivities and obsessions, which he projected upon his system. Indeed, psychoanalysis–the discipline that he created, and which he compared to Galileo’s heliocentrism or to Darwin’s origins of species–can be thought of as a projection of Freud’s personal fantasies and phantasms, as an autobiographical novel that he tried to impose on his contemporaries and successors, indeed to the whole of mankind. Freud was delusional, and we are left to deal with the remains of his dreams and prejudices.

Addressing women

Sarah Kofman’s The Enigma of Woman does not start with such premises, but reaches them in her conclusions. Her enquiry on the place of woman in Freud’s writing concentrates on one particular text: Sigmund Freud’s lecture On Womanhood (Die Weiblichkeit), pronounced in 1932 before an audience of male and female psychoanalysts. The first address of the lecture, « Ladies and gentlemen, » underscores the fact that this lecture on women is also addressed to women, to which the lecturer would deliver the truth of their own nature. In order to assuage the shock he was about to deliver, and to prevent criticism, he stressed that he based his conclusions on observations collected mostly by female analysts: for him, as for most men, women’s sexuality was a dark continent. He expected some resistance, of course, but he had an answer for that as well. People resist being told an uncomfortable truth, and this denial is itself the proof that the truth hits the nail. Women or feminists who oppose Freud’s conception of the superego are themselves the thralls of their superego, which dictates their own denial. This is how a system achieves closure and transforms even rebuttals and refutations into supportive arguments.

Freud begins with the observation that examination of the effects of sexual development in early childhood « leads us into dark regions where there are as yet no sign-posts. » He then asks himself rhetorically why he doesn’t wait until he has proof, and observes that « formerly, I was never one of those who are unable to hold back what seems to be a new discovery until it has been either confirmed or corrected. » Referring to the Latin lyric poet Horace, who enjoined to let literary compositions be kept from the public eye for nine years at least, Freud mentions that two of his most famous works, his Interpretation of Dreams and Dora’s Case, were delayed from publication for four or five years. This remark is not missed on Sarah Kofman, who notes that Freud had a tendency to delay important decisions. He differed his wedding for five years, he waited five years before taking his medical exams, and he set the five year period as the length of the talking cure with the patients he felt the most attached with. What Kofman doesn’t point out is that Horace’s remark applied to literary works, whereas Freud saw himself as a man of science, basing his theories on observations and not on speculations.

The war of the sexes

Sarah Kofman is not the first scholar to offer a feminist reading of Freud’s texts on women. Another French author, Luce Iragaray, saw in Freud’s lecture the reflection of male chauvinism and oppression over women. Sarah Kofman’s perspective differs from what she introduces as « the war of the sexes. » For her, Freud’s views are not only skewed by his own biases as a man, but are a reflection of his personal fantasies, of his paranoia. Freud had a phobia as regard women’s genital parts: he compared the vagina to a gaping hole, a sore abscess full of liquids and suppuration. Like the head of Medusa in the Greek mythology, it would petrify any man who gazed at it. Freud also had an Oedipus complex–it may not be the case of every man, but it certainly applied to him. His incestuous drive wasn’t limited to his mother. As a patriarch, he ruled over all the women in his household, and kept his wife, his sister-in-law, and his daughters, in a kind of sexual bondage. He forced his last born daughter, Anna, to confess on her most intimate fantasies, and had her deliver on his behalf the lecture On Womanhood that was so offensive to women.

In addition to its close reading of the 1932 lecture, The Enigma of Woman refers to several texts in which Freud raises the issue of woman’s psychology and anatomy. The book is not an easy read. It is dedicated to Kofman’s students at La Sorbonne, Geneva and Berkeley, and it may first have been delivered in lecture mode. Like a lesson in a classroom, it requires prior reading of the class assignment, and should be studied in parallel with the original texts. Indeed, the reader will need to refer to Freud’s lecture On Womanhood not only in its translation, but also in the original German. For Kofman, many mistakes or misperceptions of Freud’s conception of women originate from mistranslations and textual errors. In particular, Luce Iragaray got many points wrong because she relied on a poor translation of Freud’s work. In restoring the original text, Kofman claims to uncover the real and uncensored Freud–with all his contradictions, biases, and dirty little secrets.

Catégories : Book reviews