Karen Horney: Beyond Feminine Psychology

511CHysaKxLOn the 16th of September 1885, German, U.S. based Neo-Freudian psychoanalyst Karen Horney was born in Blankenese, near Hamburg, Germany. Her theories famously questioned some traditional Freudian views, especially on sexuality and the instinct orientation in psychoanalysis. She is credited with founding feminist psychology in response to Freud’s theory of penis envy, disagreeing with Freud about inherent biological differences in the psychology of men and women. She chose to explain these through society and culture rather than biology, which makes her one of the first significant socialist-feminist thinkers. “In the 1920s and early 1930s she produced a series of essays arguing against his basic premise, the primacy of the phallus. “One may find the psychoanalytic perspective interesting,” she wrote, “but still have difficulty believing that so many psychic and physical symptoms all have their origin in penis envy”. She countered Freud by insisting on the psychic importance of woman’s readily observable role in reproduction. In her perspective, womb envy in men undoubtedly outdistances penis envy in women as a defining factor of personality development.” (Mari Jo Buhle, review of The Unknown Karen Horney: Essays on Gender, Culture, and Psychoanalysis by Bernard J.Paris, in Isis, Vol. 92, No. 1, Mar., 2001).

Horney was also a pioneer in the discipline of feminine psychiatry, the first woman ever to present a scientific paper on the subject. Closely in tune with problems related to her own gender, she found that the trends in female behaviour were a neglected research topic. In her essay entitled ‘The Problem of Feminine Masochism’, the psychologist proved that cultures and societies worldwide encouraged women to be dependent on men for their love, prestige, wealth, care and protection. She pointed out that in society, a will to overestimate the value of men had emerged. Women were seen superficially as objects of charm and beauty; they also traditionally gained value only through their children and the wider family. “Women are sexualized inside and outside the family, and their contradictory positions as objects of purity and of desire put them in particular danger inside the family. Sexualizing becomes connected to the devaluing of women and to the contradictory investment in women as devalued but necessary nurturer.” (Adrienne Harris, review of The Feminist Legacy of 5e09810ae7a098cfba751210.LKaren Horney by Marcia Westkott, in American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 94, No. 4, Jan., 1989). Horney touched further on this subject in her essay ‘The Distrust Between the Sexes’ in which she compared the husband-wife relationship to a parent-child relationship, based on misunderstanding and often giving birth to unnecessary neuroses. Horney believed that both men and women have a drive to be resourceful and productive. Women were able to get this fulfilment by being pregnant and giving birth, whilst men had to look outside themselves to external sources such as work to satisfy their desire to thrive, hence the higher numbers of successful male professional careers in history. 

Horney therefore encouraged personal exploration of the individual and the refusal to act according to pre-established male/female standards of behaviour in society. What Horney focuses on is the compulsive need to behave in one way, and the loss of spontaneity that results when a person can no longer act from the needs of the real self. This alienation from self cripples the ability to live life fully, and leads finally to alienation from one another-whether we be men or women.” (Susan Rudnick Jacobson, ‘An Ambiguous Legacy. Review of The Feminist Legacy of Karen Horney by Marcia Westkott, in The Women’s Review of Books, Vol. 5, No. 4, Jan., 1988).   She developed these ideas in one of the first ever “self-help” books, which she wrote in 1946, entitled Are You Considering Psychoanalysis? The book asserted that those, both male and female, with relatively minor neurotic problems could, in fact, be their own psychiatrists and better themselves from within: Reflecting female devaluation in society, early experiences within the family create an excessive need for affection and approval through the suppression of one’s individual needs and the obsessive attention to the needs of others. On the other hand, this self-devaluation is countered by suppressed rage, expressed as excessive ambition, the need for vindictive triumph, and tragic striving for perfection. Women can work through this conflict, either in therapy or the “active engagement in life”, but find transformation only in the “triumph of the ordinary. (…) Women must struggle to deconstruct the conflict between dependent self-hatred and vindictive, perfectionist fantasies, to recover what, for Homey, is the “real self”: the sense of oneself as imperfect, yet worthy. “Having it all,” as many women are discovering in their daily lives, is not feminism, but “a caricature of feminism in vindictive triumph.” (Linda M. Blum, Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 17, No. 2, Mar., 1988).

In her essay ‘Woman’s Fear of Action’, the text of a talk Horney gave to the National Federation of Professional and 41lsY6yPHpLWomen’s Clubs in 1935, she explained her motivations behind abandoning the field of feminine psychology. “For a long time she had recognized that standards of masculinity and femininity are artificial in that they are culturally rather than biologically determined. Now, after many years of study, she concluded that too much attention to the differences between the sexes actually hampers women’s advancement. The real question is not about differences, she decided, but why we have such a “keen interest in feminine nature.” She answered by explaining that such incessant questions about female “nature” do not reflect genuine interest but disguise a desire to restrict women’s activity to the domestic sphere. We should forget about the differences, she advised, and “promote the full development of human personalities for all for the sake of the general welfare”. (Adrienne Harris). The problem with differential theories, whether in psychology, sociology or general feminist studies is that they cause segregation between the way male/female gender issues are discussed or treated. By refusing to focus on those differences, Horney was probably one of the most forward-thinking post-Freudian psychologists.

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