Feminist views on the Oedipus complex  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

In the classical Freudian paradigm of psychosexual development the idea is that women lack the male genitals and therefore are ‘missing’ something in comparison to men. This missing is part of what the feminist psychoanalysts called gender inequality. Gender inequality and penis envy, which are described in the Oedipus complex, are crucial in the development of a girl.

Feminist psychoanalysts have occupied themselves with Freuds’ Oedipus complex. Some of them generally agreed with his interpretation of the Oedipus complex and interpreted only some aspects of his concepts differently. Other feminist psychoanalysts reformulated the Oedipus complex more rigorously, which lead to total new insights into this complex.

Some views of feminist psychoanalysts on the Oedipus complex are described below.


Hélène Deutsch’s view

Hélène Deutsch (1884-1982) is one of the first female pupils of Freud and the first analyst who made an integral, chronological study of the psychological development of the woman. Deutsch challenged Freud on the fate of the Oedipus complex, but in a milder form than for example Karen Horney. With some other early psychoanalysts Deutsch sees the female development as exceedingly difficult and tortuous, because at some point she must transfer her primary sexual object choice from her mother and females to her father and males, if she is to attain her expected heterosexual adulthood. According to the interpretation of the Oedipus complex by Deutsch the girl doesn’t blame her mother for her lack of a penis but the father. Therefore she stops to identify with the father and the masculine personality. The relation with the father gets a libidinous meaning which results in fantasies about being raped. Striking is this idea of Deutsch that the rape fantasy is universal and non-pathological, being a veritable organizer of female sexuality. At the same time the girl identifies herself with the mother through the wish for an ‘anal child’. When she recognizes her failure, a decline to the pre-genital stage takes place: a wish for the earlier active (phallic) clitoris. Then masochistic tensions in the girl prevail, she longs to be castrated by her father. Also the wish for a child gets a masochistic character through the connection with fantasies about castration. In short: women have a passive-masochistic sexuality, they are born for reproduction and their development must be seen as different from the development of men.

Nancy Chodorow’s view

Nancy Chodorow (born in 1944) noted that Freud’s assumption is that males possess physical superiority and that a woman’s personality is inevitably determined by her lack of a penis. This American psychoanalyst emphasizes that the female Oedipal crisis, in contrast to males is not resolved in the same absolute way. She states that a girl cannot and does not completely reject her mother in favour of men, but continues her relationship of dependence upon and attachment to her. In addition, the strength and quality of her relationship to her father are completely dependent upon the strength and quality of her relationship to her mother. Men’s heterosexuality grows directly out of their early primary attachment to their mother. Most women are also genitally heterosexual, but they have at the same time other sorts of equally deep en primary relationships with their children and other women. In sum, a girl represses neither her pre-Oedipal and Oedipal attachment to her mother nor her Oedipal attachment to her father. This means that she grows up with more ongoing preoccupation with internalized object relationships and with external relationships as well. Because a girl does not have to repress her pre-Oedipal and Oedipal attachment to father and mother, she reaches a more relational sensibility than boys. Chodorow illustrated this with studies showing that men love and fall in love romantically, where women love and fall in love sensibly and rationally .

Luce Irigaray’s view

In Freud's model there is no place for femininity unless it is related to masculinity. There is one true sexual organ and that is the penis. Luce Irigaray, a student of Jacques Lacan, disagrees with this thought and says that there is more to woman than a lack of a penis. She hypothesizes that the reason the penis is privileged in Freud’s model, is because it is visible. According to Irigaray, this is also the reason that male sexuality is based on having a penis and female sexuality is based on having nothing. In Freud’s paradigm, female desire is the desire for a penis to fill the lack of a penis as is described in the Oedipus complex. Freud says that female pleasure can be found in reproduction. The only way for a woman to have sexual pleasure is through having a child, because a child is a substitute for a penis. Irigaray disagrees on this point; she says: ”How can we accept that the entire female sexuality is being controlled by the lack and envy of the penis?” She believes that female sexual desire should be differentiated from reproduction because it is not related. Freuds’ hypothesis that the penis derives its value on the fact that it is the sexual organ, is rejected by Iragay. She believes that the feminine sexual organ is just as important in reproduction as the penis. Furthermore, she says that Freud is forgetting the mother-daughter relationship. To enter the Oedipus-complex, a girl must hate her mother. Irigaray says this view makes it impossible for a girl to give meaning to the relationship with her mother.

See also


  • Chorodow, N.J. (2001). Family structure and feminine personality In Juschka, D.M., Feminism in the study of religion. London and New York: Continuum.
  • Chorodow, N.J. (1989). Feminism and psychoanalytic theory. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Fischer, A., Van Hoorn, W., Jansz, J. (1983). Psychoanalyse en vrouwelijke seksualiteit. Uitgeverij Boom, Meppel en Amsterdam.
  • Irigaray, L., (1984). Dit geslacht dat niet (één) is. translation of: Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un. Parijs: Minuit.
  • Paris, B.J., (1994). Karen Horney. A psychoanalyst’s search for self-understanding. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

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