Monthly Archives: December 2014

When Freud got Schooled by a Woman


Sigmund Freud, venerated master who laid the foundation for psychoanalytical theory, got a couple of things spectacularly wrong. He placed far too much emphasis on libido and unconscious drives as determinants of personality, while underestimating the influence of environmental factors like birth order and interpersonal relationships. Where he really screwed up was in his androcentric view that women were driven by libido just like men, except that they tended to become hysterical for want of a penis.

Karen Horney (I know what you’re thinking , but it’s pronounced horn-eye) never considered herself a feminist, but refused to be held back by traditional gender role expectations. She tore Freud’s penis envy to pieces and explained why a woman really doesn’t have any use for a phallus of her own. Horney pointed out that what women can do physiologically in carrying a pregnancy to term, birthing and suckling infants, is far more enviable than the male ability to pee standing up.  The following essay was written for a psychology class but it fits into the blog posts I’ve written lately on feminist topics.


The Feminine Psychology of Karen Horney

Karen Horney was a woman both of her time and ahead of her time. The circumstances of her life allowed her to develop theories of the personality that were far more sophisticated than she was given credit for. Although she achieved significant professional accomplishments, the pervasive androcentrism of that still marks western civilization prevented her work from having the impact it could have otherwise. This essay, after a brief biography, will trace the early development of Horney’s feminine psychology by exploring the series of papers published in 1967 which looked at the feminine personality in its own right, rather than assuming that a woman was just an inferior man. A consideration of Horney’s later life and work shows how she moved beyond the rigid structures of the male/female binary to develop a more holistic, optimistic and universal theory of personality development. Also, it is worth exploring the reasons that Horney’s name rarely appears in academic psychology textbooks today and also to consider how a better appreciation of Horney’s thinking might be beneficial, not just to psychology, but applied to larger issues as well, through consilience.


Early Biography

Born Karen Horney was born in Germany to an upper-middle class family 1885. Her father, a stern Norwegian sea captain, was 17 years older than her more social mother, who was Dutch. Karen’s mother supported her educational ambitions against her father’s resistance (Kerr, 1987). A few years after the university in Freiburg accepted female students, Karen began training to become a doctor (Eckardt, 2005). She continued her studies in Berlin and married Oscar Horney in 1909 (Kelman, 1967). In 1913 Horney demonstrated her remarkable fortitude by nursing her daughter while writing her medical exams. She then began a training analysis with Karl Abraham which she completed in 1915, although she was reportedly disappointed with the results (Kerr, 1987). By the time she had completed her training as a psychoanalyst Horney was also mother to three daughters, which contributed to her insight into the psychology of the female (O’Connell, 1980). By 1920 Horney was on the teaching staff of the new Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute (Kelman, 1967). Berlin between the wars was a vibrant society, alive with new ideas and a thriving arts community (Eckardt, 2005). Although Sigmund Freud was the acknowledged “master” of the discipline, the psychoanalysts in Berlin were less directly influenced by Freud, who trained a loyal following in Vienna, and thus had more freedom to develop their own ideas about psychoanalytical theory (Kelman, 1967).

Horney’s marriage suffered as a result of her husband’s expectations that her family life should take priority over her career and the couple separated in 1926 (O’Connell, 1980), although they didn’t divorce until 1937. Karen Horney left Berlin for the United States in 1932 to become Associate Director of new Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute (Kelman, 1967). Two years later Horney moved to New York where she continued to practice, write and teach until her death in 1952 (Eckhart, 1984).


Early Development of Theory

Although Karen Horney began her career as an orthodox Freudian psychoanalyst, she soon began to deviate from Freud’s understanding of the psyche (Kelman, 1967). Over the course of her career, Horney’s theories of personality moved further from the orthodox, leading to conflict with mainstream psychoanalytical thought (Kelman, 1967). She was so far ahead of her time that her ideas languished, unappreciated by psychoanalysts who nonetheless incorporated her ideas in subsequent development of the discipline (Smith, 2006).

Freud and his theories emerged from nineteenth century Vienna’s sexually repressed Victorian mores. This was in agreement with his Jewish heritage which positioned men at the head of the household, with women in a subordinate role (Kelman, 1967). Freud’s maleness coloured his perceptions of what it meant to be a person and his ideas tended to be mechanistic and deterministic in keeping with the scientific thinking of his time (Lopez, 1984). He viewed the human organism in a materialistic way, as a closed system with a fixed structure (Kelman, 1967). His point of view naturally informed his perspective, and reflected the attitudes toward women which were common in his culture (Kerr, 1987). In Freud’s theory, males were normative, the phallus was central in their psychosexual development and the libido was the primary drive behind human development even in infancy. In this biological determinism, women, lacking a phallus were like defective males, always seeking to replace that missing part. The primary motivation to have a child in Freud’s theory, was to create a substitute penis, hence a male child would be preferred (Kerr, 1987). This “penis envy” was the basis of female neurosis, in Freud’s opinion (Kerr, 1987).

Karen Horney was trained as a psychoanalyst by Karl Abraham, who himself was a devoted Freudian (O’Connell, 1980). Although the theories she developed in later work diverged from those of Freud and Abraham, she always acknowledged that Freud’s theories formed the foundation on which her own concepts were built (Kelman, 1967).


Feminine Psychology

Throughout the 1920’s and early 1930’s Horney published a series of papers that illustrate the development of her thinking about feminine psychology (Kerr, 1987). Many of these papers were collected and published in English in 1967. Kelman’s introduction to Feminine Psychology describes how the uniqueness of Horney’s ideas was evident even in the first paper she published in 1917 in which she asserted that “much that we have regarded as constitutional” could be remedied by removing “a blockage which can be lifted” (Kelman, 1967). This idea never left her, but was expanded and developed in future writings.

Karen Horney published her first paper on feminine psychology in 1922. This was the first of a number of papers on this topic that she published over the next decade (Kerr, 1987). In 1923 Freud published his theory about the importance of the “phallic phase” in psychosexual development. Horney challenged Freud’s thinking not just on a theoretical level, but backed this up with clinical observations from her practice (Smith, 2006). She noted the more practical aspects of penis envy in that a girl might envy the boy his ability to pee standing up, to hold and see his genital organ, but suggested that a girl’s feelings of inferiority stemmed more from cultural issues than from sensing that she is no more than an incomplete male (Lopez, 1984). The messages of inferiority a girl is subjected to come from the messages she receives from her environment and her family, including restrictions and cultural stereotypes (Symonds, 1991) Horney was able to identify the phallus-centred point of view as natural to the male theorist, but challenged the way they applied this viewpoint to theories of the psychosexual development of females (Symonds, 1991). The biological capacities of women should not be ignored, in Horney’s view, as in her therapeutic experience, males were as likely to envy women their capacity to give birth and suckle their infants, as women were to envy the male phallus (O’Connell, 1980). Horney asserted that what women envied was not the penis, but the superiority that males assumed in society, which limited women’s opportunities (O’Connell, 1980). In addition, Horney noted that envy was a pathological condition, regardless of one’s gender (Kerr, 1987; Symonds, 1991).

In “The Flight From Womanhood” published in 1926, Horney makes a number of keen observations about feminine psychology. Still greatly beholden to the ideas of Freud, she elaborates an alternative to his theory of the centrality of the male phallus by suggesting that we “free our minds from this masculine mode of thought” (Horney, 1926). In so doing, it becomes clear that the great biological difference is not the male’s fleshy organ, but the woman’s generative capacity. Horney points out that a baby is far more than a poor substitute for a woman’s missing penis, but represents great fulfillment, “ineffable happiness” and joy (Horney, 1926). She goes further to suggest that male envy of women’s physiological superiority is the cause of the forced subordination of women by men (Lopez, 2005). This obstruction of women’s development and full social and economic participation leads to the view that women are in some way inferior, but it is wrong to assume that inferiority is the cause of the subordination (Horney, 1926). Horney goes on to flesh out feminine perspectives on psychosexual development, genital awareness, castration fantasies, libidinal interest in the opposite sex and rejection of the feminine role, or the “masculinity complex” (Horney, 1926).

An important concept in understanding Horney’s critique of Freud’s theories is androcentrism. She quotes George Simmel’s views on the assumptions of the normative nature of maleness which liken the dynamics to the master and slave relationship. According to Simmel, it is the privilege of the master to be unaware of his superior position, but the slave cannot ever forget his place in this hierarchical relationship (Horney, 1926). This understanding of privilege is still not widely understood or accepted by the dominant culture today as any online discussion of feminism will demonstrate.

Another analogy to the male/female relationship is the parent/child model, which Horney proposes in a later paper on “The Problem of Feminine Masochism.” Horney notes that like penis envy, masochism is a neurotic condition, rather than a universal condition of women, as postulated in Freudian thought (O’Connell, 1980). While masochism occurs more frequently in women, this is an adaptation or coping strategy to deal with the restrictions placed on them by society (Kerr, 1987). Horney refuted Helene Deutsch’s odious assertion that women desired rape and humiliation and countered that women sought safety and satisfaction through being inconspicuous and dependent (Kerr, 1987). It was this need for safety rather than Freud’s pleasure principle (the id) that motivated human activity (Smith, 2006). The basic anxiety that the world was potentially hostile resulted from conditions that made children feel unloved or unsafe and thus helpless (Smith, 2006).

The roles approved for women encouraged them to be dependent on men for care, protection, love and prestige and thus encouraged them to focus on the beauty and charm that will please men, and make men and children the center of their lives (O’Connell, 1980). Over time it became clearer in Horney’s writing that gender roles are so dependent on cultural influences that the biological determinism of Freud could be safely ignored (Smith, 2006). Freud resented her opposition to his theories and went so far as to suggest she failed to understand the ‘intensity of her own desire for a penis’ and failed to appreciate that desire in her patients as well (Kerr, 1987). This unwarranted ad hominem attack indicates the deep roots of the nerve Horney’s sharp observations skewered.


Horney’s Career in America

When Karen Horney was invited to become the Associate Director of a new psychoanalytic training center in Chicago in 1932, she had the approval of Freud himself (Clemmens, 1984). During this period Horney visited Berlin only to find that the Nazi’s had taken control of the institute there, ending any thoughts she may have had about returning to Europe (Kerr, 1987). However, her two-year contract in Chicago was not renewed because of serious differences of opinion between Horney and her superior, which led her to move to New York. The move to a new life on another continent heightened her sense of the importance of cultural influences on human development (O’Connell, 1980).

By 1941, Horney’s shift from a biological approach to an appreciation for cultural influences and psychosocial factors led to a schism from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute which was also in the process of splitting from the international body in Europe (Kerr, 1987). Her theories had moved so far from the foundation of Freudian thought that she was demoted as a training analyst at a dramatic meeting during which almost half of the membership present declined to participate in the vote, and after which Horney and four like-minded colleagues immediately resigned and marched out (Kerr, 1987). The small group soon established The Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis but within a few years there was another split and the American Institute for Psychoanalysis was formed (Kerr, 1987).

Beyond Feminine Psychology

Horney’s theories continued to develop, moving beyond the male/female binary to a more universal idea of human development. From 1937 onwards, Horney wrote several books which developed a more complete conception of human personality development. Rather than human behavior being driven by libido, Horney postulated that a basic anxiety was the foundation of neurosis and that while the coping mechanisms chosen tended to vary by gender, they were not exclusive to each sex (O’Connell, 1980). These mechanisms were grouped into general movement toward, against or away from others in order to reduce one’s level of anxiety (Symonds, 1991) She continued to develop and modify her theories throughout her life, but although Horney’s theories coalesced into a broad understanding of neurosis and the self, she never considered her model of the personality to be complete (Clemmens, 1984).

Another key difference between Horney and Freud was her optimistic view in the face of his belief in a destructive “death instinct.” Horney thought that people were only destructive when their naturally contstructive nature was blocked by negative forces from the environment (Smith, 2006), whereas Freud thought there was an instinctive counterpoint to the the life force, or Eros.  The film “A Dangerous Method” suggests that Freud’s theory of a death instinct may have been suggested to him by Sabina Spielrein, another under-appreciated woman psychoanalyst.


The Influence of Horney

Karen Horney was a woman ahead of her time in the challenge she posed to male supremacy in the psychoanalytical establishment. Her thinking helped to reframe the understanding of personality by acknowledging the importance of cultural factors like sexual stereotypes and interpersonal relationships (Ingraham, 2005). This attention to non-biological determinants also provided the basis for a more optimistic evaluation of neurosis and the possibilities for positive change and personal growth (Ingram, 2005). Another of the great contributions of Horney’s work is the holistic nature of her practice, taking in the many causal factors that lead to neurosis (Smith, 2006).

Freud’s tremendous influence on the development of psychoanalytic theory and his rejection of Horney’s challenge to his androcentric views are part of reason that Horney is not better known in the field (Clemmens, 1984). Held in high esteem by her contemporaries, Horney’s ideas were later excluded from mainstream psychoanalytic thought (Kerr, 1987). Although Horney rarely appears in textbooks, her ideas were eventually incorporated in psychoanalytic practice (Smith, 2006). Concepts like compartmentalization, externalization, blind spots, and the “tyranny of the should” have been incorporated into other personality theories, as have the striving for self-realization and the unlimited potential for personal growth (O’Connell, 1980)

The posthumous publication of Horney’s papers on Feminine Psychology in 1967 contributed to the development of feminist thought which grew into “second-wave” feminism in the 1970’s (Buhle, 1998). The challenge to mainstream psychoanalytic thought that Horney represented was not without pushback. Generally speaking, when the soldiers came home from WWII, the women who had kept the munitions plants operating tended to get married and head home to raise families. However a disturbing trend of blaming mothers for everything wrong with their children arose in this period (Buhle, 1998). To this day, an androcentric perspective dominates in psychology, despite specific efforts to ameliorate this bias by, for example, forbidding the use of male pronouns in a generic context (Hegarty & Buechel, 2006).



The psychoanalytical theories have much to contribute, even today, to discourse in a number of fields. The rise of third-wave feminism is underway in reaction to a global spreading awareness of the persistence of casual sexism and “rape culture” (Mansfield, 2014). The mechanistic, reductionist scientific paradigm so deeply entrenched in Freud’s time is still the dominant viewpoint the scientific establishment (Hegarty & Buechel, 2006).

The destructive nature of humankind is more in evidence than ever with respect to the increasingly urgent issue of climate change. Horney would not agree with those who think it’s too late to make a meaningful change to save the biosphere from catastrophic habitat destruction and species loss. The male-dominated capitalist system would benefit from an injection of Horney’s understanding of the pathological nature of envy. Horney’s holistic approach may be able to inform other disciplines and help to move toward the kind of consilience that can bring about the meaningful and significant change that our species now requires.



Buhle, M. J. (1998). Feminism and its discontents: A century of struggle with psychoanalysis

Clemmens, E. R. (1984). The work of karen horney. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 44(3), 242-253. doi:

Eckardt, M. H. (1984). Karen horney: Her life and contribution. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 44(3), 236-241. doi:

Eckardt, M. H. (2005). Karen horney: A portrait: The 120th anniversary, karen horney, september 16, 1885. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 65(2), 95-101. doi:

Hegarty, P., & Buechel, C. (2006). Androcentric reporting of gender differences in APA journals: 1965-2004. Review of General Psychology, 10(4), 377-389. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.10.4.377

Horney, K. (1926). The flight from womanhood: The masculinity complex in women as viewed by men and by women. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 7, 324.

Ingram, D. H. (1985). Karen horney at 100: Beyond the frontier. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 45(4), 305-309. doi:

Kelman, H. (1967). Karen Horney of feminine psychology. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 27(2), 163-183. doi:

Kerr, N. J. (1987). “Wounded womanhood”: An analysis of karen horney’s theory of feminine psychology. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 24(3-4), 132-141. doi:

Lopez, A. G. (1984). Karen horney’s feminine psychology. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 44(3), 280-289. doi:

Mansfield, H. (2014). Feminism and its discontents; ‘rape culture’ at harvard News America Incorporated.

O’Connell, A. N. (1980). Karen Horney: Theorist in psychoanalysis and feminine psychology. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 5(1), 81-93. doi:

Smith, W. B. (2007). Karen Horney and psychotherapy in the 21st century. Clinical Social Work Journal, 35(1), 57-66. doi:

Symonds, A. (1991). Gender issues and Horney theory. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 51(3), 301-312. doi: