Conceptualizing Gender (6)

Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Key words: Feminine Psychology, Male View of Women, Womb Envy, Men’s
Dread of Women, Socio-cultural Factors

The Womb Envy

Freud’s description of women as genitally defective and morally inferior to men, his concept of “penis envy” and his Oedipus complex that gave the highest position to the father, have been criticized by countless feminist writers. They have maintained that theories and methodologies of the psychoanalytic systems are patriarchal, misogynistic and anti-feminist. In Freud’s time, these ideas were also meticulously criticized for the first time by German psychiatrist / psychoanalyst Karen Horney and Austrian-British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein.

Karen Horney (1885 – 1952) believed that the male bias in psychoanalysis actually reinforced and reproduced the devaluation of women. She changed her focus from the Freudian infantile origins of personality formation, distanced herself from Freud’s belief that “anatomy is destiny” to develop a psychoanalytic system in which society and conflicting human relationships replaced biology as the main causes of neurosis (emotional disorder), and wherein social and cultural factors were considered the bases of gender identity and women’s issues. (1) Horney rejected the concept of “penis envy” as both flawed and derogatory to women, and suggested a female view on girls’ sexual development and disturbances in the relations between women and men. She argued that lack of penis did not make women deficient, but in fact it was the other way around: men’s inability to bear children and women’s power of motherhood deeply troubled them, causing them dread, resentment and an anxiety that she called “womb envy.”

Karen Horney‘s theories of psychoanalytic feminism established the foundation of our current understandings of gender.  Contrary to Freud’s view that no major development occurs after the age of five, she believed in individuals’ ability to develop throughout their lives. She argued that penis envy and its concurrent envy of men in some women was a reaction to the manner in which girls were brought up by their parents.

Besides other works, Horney wrote 14 influential essays on “feminine psychology” between 1922 and 1935, where she revealed the non-scientific and flawed foundation of the dominant phallocentric understanding of feminine psychology, pioneered and developed a new account of women’s issues and the relations between women and men, and put emphasis on the social construction of gender.(2) These essays were quite progressive and ahead of their times.

According to Horney, psychoanalytical view of women as defective men has its roots in male-dominated culture and in Freud’s chauvinistic mind. This biased view has been presented as the scientific depiction of women’s essential nature. She contended that in any male-dominated society, woman is viewed as “a second-rate being” because “at any given time, the more powerful side will create an ideology suitable to help maintain its position. . . . In this ideology the differentness of the weaker one will be interpreted as inferiority, and it will be proven that these differences are unchangeable, basic, or God’s will” (3).

Horney criticized the psychoanalytical idea that masochism is part of the female nature as another stereotype in male-dominated culture (4). She pinpointed several women’s discriminatory social conditions that lead to their being more masochistic than men. Furthermore, comparative research attests to different women’s social conditions in different societies, some cultures discouraging women’s development more than others.

Karen Horney’s emphasis on culture and society prompted social studies from a psychoanalytic perspective. Furthermore, her later writings on self-realization as the basis of healthy values and the purpose of living made her, along with Eric Fromm, one of the founders of humanistic psychology.
Like many women, Horney asked herself why men are inclined to dominate women. Her response was that many men are envious of women’s capabilities for pregnancy, childbirth, feeding babies at the breast, and motherhood, which generates an unconscious drive in them to debase women. Men’s minor role in procreation is also the root of their desire for creativity as an over-compensation.

Horney proposed the existence of a pre-Oedipal femininity in boys and put forward her new theory based on the clinical study of boys’ identification with the mother complemented with envy towards her. (5) She argued that boys’ fear of the mother is more intense than the fear of castration by the father, and it is repressed more energetically.

In this stage of development, the vagina has a strong emotional impact on boys. Feelings of weakness and shortcoming make them abandon their emotional attachment to the mother and channel its energy towards their penis, which in return triggers in them fear of castration. As adults, these same emotions are the source of their negative reactions towards women. The “average man,” as Horney puts it, would prefer a woman of a lower status as his wife or love object and would aggressively belittle women and deride their self-respect with the intention to maintain his own vulnerable and indefensible self-respect. (6) Horney’s critique of adult masculinity reveals the fact that it is, to a considerable degree, constructed on 1) rejection of femininity, and 2) the subordination of women.

Putting forward the concept of “womb envy” to contest the concept of “penis envy,” she indicates that when the anxiety experienced by some men regarding women’s ability to give birth is repressed, these men are urged to either dominate women or to be successful with the aim of making their name survive (7). Horney asserts that men’s feeling of womb envy is stronger than women’s feeling of penis envy for the simple reason that “men need to disparage women more than women need to disparage men.”(8) As in “penis envy” in some women, she regards “womb envy” in some men to be a psychosocial inclination, not an inborn attribute (1967).

In fact, men’s “womb envy” is reflected in mythologies around the world. From Adam giving birth to Eve from a womb inside his left rib, to Zeus giving birth to Athena from a womb inside his head, to Vishnu giving birth to Brahma from a lotus womb inside his navel, all express this fundamental feeling of envy in men towards women’s ability to give birth.

Horney suggested that men’s dread of  women originates in the boy’s fear of the mother, that his penis is deficient compared to the mother’s vagina.(9) The menace of women is humiliation, not castration; it is a threat to their masculine self-esteem. As they grow up, the boys keep on having a deeply buried anxiety regarding the size of their penis or their sexual capability. There is no equivalent of such anxiety in women, who play their role without any effort and do not have to constantly demonstrate their womanhood. Consequently, the equivalent female dread of men does not exist. By creating a standard of capability, by pursuing sexual conquests, and by humiliating their love object, men try to cope with their anxiety. Horney says:

“One of the exigencies of the biological differences between the sexes is this: that the man is actually obliged to go on proving his manhood to the woman. There is no analogous necessity for her. Even if she is frigid, she can engage in sexual intercourse and conceive and hear a child. She performs her part by merely being, without any doing – a fact that has always filled men with admiration and resentment. (10)

Regarding the penis envy in little girls, Horney identified it as psychologically minor. She argues that the hypothetical wish of a girl or woman to have a penis is in fact a wish for male privilege. While the cultural influence of the patriarchal model of woman makes women conduct themselves in keeping with it, the model is often not in accordance with what women actually wish to have or to be. “Penis envy” simply represents women’s wish for unrestricted possibilities to develop their talents and achieve their personal goals like men.

To be continued.


1. Horney, Karen. 2000 (1939). New Ways in Psychoanalysis. W. W. Norton & Company: New York. Horney, Karen. 1994 (1937). The Neurotic Personality of Our Time. W. W. Norton  & Company: New York.

2. Horney, Karen .1942. The collected works of Karen Horney. W.W. Norton Company, New York.

3. Horney, Karen. 1931. “The Distrust between the Sexes” in Feminine Psychology (1922-35). W.W. Norton Company, New York. P. 116.

4. Horney, Karen. 1935. “The Problem of Feminine Masochism” in Feminine Psychology (1922-35). W.W. Norton Company, New York. P. 214.

5. Horney, Karen. 1932. “The Dread of Woman” in Feminine Psychology.1967 (1922-35). W.W. Norton Company, New York.

6. Ibid.

7. Horney, Karen. 1967 (1922-35). Feminine Psychology. W.W. Norton Company, New York.

8.  Horney, Karen .1942. Op.cit. Volume II.

9. Horney, Karen. 1932. “The Dread of Woman” in Feminine Psychology. 1967 (1922-35). W.W. Norton Company, New York. PP. 348-360.

10. Ibid. P.348.

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