Conceptualizing Gender (7)

Karen Horney and Masculinity Complex


Conceptualizing Gender (7)
by Azadeh Azad

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

Key words: Masculinity Complex, Over-evaluation of Love, Feminine Type

The Masculinity Complex

Despite rejecting the Freudian concept of ‘penis envy,’ Karen Horney agreed that women were often embarrassed by their feminine role and envied men. In fact, in several of her essays, Karen Horney developed and restructured the concept of ‘masculinity complex,’ akin to Adler's ‘masculine protest.’ She described this complex as ‘the entire complex of feelings and fantasies that have for their content the woman's feeling of being discriminated against, her envy of the male, her wish to be a man and to discard the female role’ (1). At first, she claimed that women were expected to have this complex since they wished to break out of the anxiety and guilt that is caused by their ‘oedipal’ circumstance. However, before long, she realized that the ‘masculinity complex’ is not bound to happen, but originates from a male dominated culture and from specific types of family dynamics. When a girl is subjected to subtle or gross allegations of inferiority all her life, her lived experience always adds to her masculinity complex.  Horney says:

“Our culture, as is well known, is a male culture, and therefore by and large not favorable to the unfolding of woman and her individuality... No matter how much the individual woman may be treasured as a mother or as a lover, it is always the male who will be considered more valuable on human and spiritual grounds.  The little girl grows up under this general impression.”(2)

In analyzing the inner experiences of girls within the family dynamics, when they are related to castration complex (feelings of inferiority, malice, antagonistic attitude towards men and the masculinity complex), Horney originally pondered on the girls’ relationship with their male family members. However, later she concentrated on the girls’ relationship with their female family members, especially the mother.  Horney combined the different aspects of childhood, which she had previously implicated in the masculinity complex, and stated:

"A girl may have reasons to acquire a dislike for her own female world very early, perhaps because her mother has intimidated her, or she has experienced a thoroughly disillusioning disappointment from the side of the father or brother; she may have had early sexual experiences that frightened her; or she may have found that her brother was greatly preferred to herself" (3).

The Overvaluation of Love by the Feminine Type

In one of her essays, ‘The Overvaluation of Love’ (1934), Horney effectively defines the dependency of the ‘feminine type’ as ‘the conversion of anger into admiring compliance as a means of warding off fear.’ The essay is based on the family relationships histories, symptoms of psychological disorders, and social backgrounds of seven women patients. It is an attempt to describe the reasons behind these women’s obsessive need for a man while they cannot establish enjoyable relationships. According to Horney, their obsession originates from childhood circumstances in which each "had come off second best in the competition for a man" (4). It is normal for a girl to be disappointed in her love for her father, but when there has been a sister or a mother who had controlled the situation using her sexuality (as in the case of these women), the outcome is abnormally grave.

The reaction of the woman to her feeling of defeat is either to abandon the rivalry for a man or to build up a compulsive envy or resentment of other women that makes her strive to exhibit her sensual charm. To win over men is not only a ‘vindictive triumph,’ as Horney puts it, but also a method of dealing with anxiety and self-hatred. As a result of her insecurity, the woman becomes anxious over her abnormality, which usually shows itself as an apprehension that her genitals are peculiar or that she has an unsightly appearance, making it very difficult for her to attract men. To compensate for this negative self-image, she might either spend plenty of time beautifying herself or yearn for being a man. The main defence mechanism for this woman is to demonstrate that she is able to attract a man regardless of her shortcomings, which validates her ‘normality’ in her own eyes, as she considers not being with a man a humiliation. ‘Hence the frantic pursuit’ (5).

These women lead a gloomy life for the expected reason that although having relationships with men is the central element of their lives, these relationships never make them happy. Once a man is taken over, they are likely to be put off by him since they have "a profound fear of the disappointments and humiliations that they expect to result from falling in love" (6). As a result of having been cast off by a male member of the family in childhood, they need to exhibit themselves as worthy by making sexual conquests while at the same time turn from emotional ties in order to keep themselves safe. They often change partners, because after the conquest of a man they must leave the relationship to avoid getting emotionally wounded. No matter how good-looking they are, they are convinced that no man will ever love them. Furthermore, they have a ‘deep-seated desire for revenge’ as a result of their childhood defeat: "the desire is to get the better of a man, to cast him aside, to reject him just as she herself once felt cast aside and rejected" (7).

Freedom from male-defined conception of femininity

Karen Horney brought the topic of ‘Feminine Psychology’ to an end in 1935 when she realized that since the culture determined the female psyche, it was not possible to decide what was typically feminine. In a lecture before the National Federation of Professional and Business Women’s Clubs in 1935 titled ‘Woman’s Fear of Action,’ she maintained that one could find out about the psychological differences between women and men only when women have liberated themselves from the models of femininity encouraged by patriarchal cultures. She suggested that the main purpose of psychoanalysts and psychologists should not be to look for ‘essential’ femininity but to promote the complete development of everyone’s human potentials:

“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.” (8)

Karen Horney’s Contributions

Karen Horney made extensive contributions to the psychology of women.  Her observations of the socio-cultural factors of women’s inferior position helped to successfully prove the patriarchal bias of Freud’s theories regarding women’s psychology. She criticized defining women in relation to men and contended that if there is such a thing as “penis envy,” it stems from desire for men’s privileges and social status, not a wish to have male genitalia.

Additionally, Horney maintained that men’s craving for achievements and making a lasting name for themselves as well as some of their hostility toward women were caused by “womb envy” – their jealousy of women's ability to carry and bear children as well as by their dread of women because of the power of motherhood. She vehemently rejected the notion of women’s “natural masochism” and claimed that women's reliance on men for protection, security, money, and love pushes women to be excessively preoccupied with attractiveness and beauty, and to strive for existential meaning through bonding with their family, husband and children.

To be continued.


* 1. Horney, Karen. 1926. “The Flight from Womanhood” in Feminine Psychology. 1967 (1922-35). W.W. Norton Co., New York. P. 74.

* 2. Ibid. P.82.

* 3. Horney, Karen. 1933. “Maternal Conflicts" in Feminine Psychology. 1967 (1922-35). W.W. Norton Co., New York.  P.179

* 4. Horney, Karen. 1934. "The Overvaluation of Love: A study of a common present-day feminine type" in Feminine Psychology. 1967 (1922-35). W.W. Norton Co., New York. P.193

* 5. Ibid. PP.197-98

* 6. Ibid. P.205

* 7. Ibid. P.206

* 8.  Horney, Karen. 1935. "Woman’s Fear of Action" a lecture by Horney and an appendix in Bernard J Paris. 1994. Karen Horney: A Psychoanalyst’s Search for Self-Understanding. Yale University Press: New Haven, Conn. P. 238


~ Dr. A. Azad is a sociologist and an independent scholar.


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by Raoul1955 on

Wonderful article by Azadeh.  I save all your articles and blogs.
Much to learn from your posts.

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