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Freud Is Not A Sexist Essay, Research Paper

Many feminist critics have perceived Freud to be an active force in Victorian gender politics that claim women’s inferiority. His attitudes towards women, as reflected in his psychoanalyses, consciously reflect the patriarchal assumptions of Victorian society, but unconsciously reject gender roles and stereotypes about women. Freud is therefore complicit in accepting sexist perceptions of women, but is not a perpetrator who attempts to entrench patriarchy by portraying women as inferior. Because Freud is a victim of the prevalent stereotypes of society, feminist critics are unwarranted in characterizing him as an instigator of female degradation. Rather, his skewed perceptions reflect the male-chauvinist beliefs of his surroundings and influences. Freud’s relationships with his female patients indicate that he simultaneously identifies with and fails to understand women. In identifying with women patients, Freud demonstrates concern for the underlying causes of psychological affliction, namely the constricting nature of gender roles. This fixation with the feminine complaint is exemplified in particular by Freud’s dream of Irma and his case study of Dora, two recalcitrant female patients who refuse to accept his theories. Freud’s failure to completely understand his female patients, however, indicates that he has begun to question patriarchal assumptions by realizing that fulfillment of stereotypically female roles leaves women unfulfilled. Unfortunately, he has not acted upon this realization because he consciously sees women through the clouded lens of Victorian bias. Because Freud fails to bring his unconscious desire to reject gender roles to the conscious surface, he never completely frees himself from the sexist influences of Victorian society and therefore relinquishes the ability to fully cure his female patients.

The gender roles that prevailed in Victorian society were reflections of science and nationality. The nuclear unit was a microcosm of “factual” thoughts at that time. Darwin’s theory of evolution and superiority of the species, not only led to European Imperialism and subordination of “inferior” races but male subordination of the “inferior” sex. Whereas the Victorian man was dominant, strong, rational and intellectually superior, the Victorian woman was characterized as submissive, weak, indecisive and emotionally expressive. Like Darwin’s belief that each species’ particular qualities provide it with a unique niche to fulfill, men and women, because of their contrasting characteristics, encompass distinct and separate functions. A man’s strength and intellect allow him to provide for his family. Conversely, a woman’s sphere of influence belonged in the household where her nurturing character appropriates her to raise children while being protected by the harsh elements of the outside world. A man’s reserved nature would result in destructive child rearing and a feeble woman could not survive in the ruthless competition of the job force. Because Darwin’s theory of evolution was scientifically confirmed as “fact,” the encompassed gender roles were therefore unquestionable.

Freud’s “unquestionable” role in society is fulfilled by psychoanalysis because his masculine intellect allows him to cure and consequently protect his emotional female patients. But surprisingly, the concept of the fulfilled woman, as prescribed by Darwinian theory, does not assist Freud in curing his patients. His patients’ psychosomatic problems fulfill some unknown, unconscious desire that incredulously disrupts her ability to perform female duties. As a man, it was bewildering to Freud why his women patients had illnesses that forced them to refuse their gender roles. Interestingly, Freud made more progress with his female patients when he delineated from his ideas of women and tried to identify with them as analogues. Misunderstanding was replaced by assimilation, which led to progress. To Freud’s surprise, the characteristics that he had in common with his female patients were those of stubbornness, arrogance, and insight—qualities that are characteristically male.

Freud’s desire to cure his patients reflects that his preconceived notions of women are bereft of an ability to predict their actions. By asking, “What does a woman want?” (Felman, 73), Freud indicates that merely adopting societal assumptions about women’s goals may be insufficient. Women are baffling to Freud because, unlike men, there is a large disparity between women’s desires and the roles forced upon them by society. Shoshana Felman supports this claim by investigating the dream of Irma’s injection, in which Irma is examined by men: “The riddle of the woman–Irma’s body, or Irma’s riddle–is thus submitted to an exclusively male examination… Here again the question of femininity becomes a question of male knowledge… The riddle, it would seem ‘does not apply’ to Irma because she is herself the riddle” (82). The all male examination denotes that men, not women, determine how women should behave and appear, implying that Freud is unconsciously comprehending the patriarchal nature of society. Freud further surmises that if women were content with their place in society, there would not be so many female hysterics. The fact that women, and not men, were forced into undesirable societal roles is the reason why the majority of Freud’s hysterical patients were female. Hysteria is a means of escaping one’s societal constraints. Therefore, when Freud asks, “what does a woman want?” he does not think that the answer is to be a wife and mother who is protected by her dominant husband.

Irma, a patient of Freud’s in 1893 showed only partial improvement in response to treatment. Freud believed that successful cures would emerge once the unconscious instigating factors of a patient’s illness were brought to light. However, despite Freud’s ability to analyze the psychological causes of her disorder, Irma did not fully recover. The perplexity of Irma’s case was the background force behind “The Dream of Irma’s Injection”.

Felman conjectures that Irma is a riddle to Freud; however, his identification with the female patient can be illustrated by an aspect of his dream: “a portion of the skin on the left shoulder was infiltrated” (107). At the time, Freud was suffering from rheumatism in his shoulder. His ability to relate to Irma is symbolized by pain in both of their shoulders. Felman further supports Freud’s identification with his patients when she states, “he noticed he could not avoid participating in what the hysteric was telling him, and that he felt affected by it” (101). For Freud, the line separating doctor and patient was blurred; he could not help empathizing with the patient. When Freud partakes in a self-analysis, he actually admits to relating to his patients in a letter to his confidante, Wilhelm Fliess, which states, “I had the feeling of being tied up inside (which patients complain of so much” (Masson, 270). Freud’s personal involvement and identification with his patients’ problems therefore demonstrates his desire to cure the root causes of his patients’ disorders. This illustrates that Freud is also a victim of patriarchy, the root source of his female patients’ dissatisfaction. But because Freud does not reject gender roles on a conscious level, he cannot cure his patients or himself.

Freud’s inability to heal was such an influential conflict that he unconsciously sought to assuage his inadequacy by placing blame on other characters in his dreams. In the dream of Irma’s injection, “Irma, a young widow, is characterized in her dream by her complaint (her pains), and her resistance, her unwillingness to accept Freud’s solution” (Felman, 77). Freud is fixated on a disobedient patient. The dream is a condensation of several different defenses that absolve Freud’s responsibility for her pains. In one section of the dream analysis, Freud actually blames his patient for her pains: “I reproached Irma for not having accepted my solution; I said: ‘If you still get pains it’s your own fault.’” (Freud,107). However, since the dream allows Freud to escape all responsibility, it demonstrates his anxiety of being at fault.

In his Introductory Lectures, Freud explains how his innocence in the dream reflects the opposite, his belief that he is responsible, when he discusses an aspect of dream condensation: “Opposites are especially close to one another in associations and that in the unconscious they coalesce” (272). By means of condensation, an aspect of a dream can symbolize several different and even opposing meanings. In the dream, the dirty syringe that infects Irma reflects this idea . It represents both opposing sides of Freud’s conflict over his inability to cure because it refers to two opposing episodes in his professional life. On the one hand, it refers to a patient that Freud gave several injections to with no ill effect. Conversely, it also refers to a patient, Mathilde, that he inadvertently killed when he gave her an injection that was seen as harmless at the time. Whereas an injection into a woman can represent sexual prowess, because of the dream work’s condensation processes, the needle symbolizes Freud’s medical impotence. The “thoughtless injection” symbolizes his diagnosis of Irma; it was not thoughtful enough or else she would be cured. Felman summarizes the dream analysis exceptionally well when she states, “the Irma dream is not simply a description of Freud’s attempt at mastery; it is a description of the necessary failure of such an attempt” (90). The dream of the headstrong Irma, a woman who refuses his solutions, reflects Freud’s internal conflict. Despite Freud’s intelligent and “correct” analyses, he is impotent; when it comes to actually curing his patients, Freud’s injections “shoot blanks”.

Freud’s preoccupation with his female patients’ resistance is reflected in the dream of Irma’s injection. However, beyond frustration with their recalcitrance, he is extremely concerned with their complaints. Upon this point, Shoshana Felman states:

It would not be inappropriate to see the entire Irma dream as a dream, specifically, about female resistance, and about female complaint. Freud is indeed obsessed not just with Irma’s nonacceptance of his solution but, even more importantly, with her pain (99).

The dream, as Freud sees it, is a way of displacing the blame of her pain onto someone else. The dream thus fulfils the wish that absolves his guilt over being at fault for her complaints. If the dream however, is about the female complaint and female pains, and Freud’s anxiety surrounds not only his impotence at curing these pains but also actively causing them, the dream reflects Fred’s anxiety that he is at fault, as a man, for the psychical problems women acquire. Freud’s dream therefore reflects his guilt surrounding the belief that man forces women into unjust gender roles.

By means of condensation, the character of Irma also represents Freud’s pregnant wife. Both are resistant and disagreeable. As Freud states in a footnote, his wife, “was not one of my (Freud’s) patients, nor should I have liked her as a patient, since I had noticed that she was bashful in my presence, and I could not think that she would make an amenable patient” (110). Freud’s condensation of his wife with a patient that cannot be healed shows that she too is dissatisfied with her role as wife and mother. As her husband, he has confined her to this role, thus he is responsible for her complaints. Shoshana Felman points out that, “According to the patriarchal criteria, Freud’s wife, beloved by her husband and pregnant with his child, is the social epitome of the fulfilled woman. Irma, on the other hand, as the widowed hysteric, deprived of child and husband, is the social epitome of the unfulfilled woman. And yet the dream is saying that both women are unhappy, lacking something” (106). The patriarchal system’s portrayal of the ingredients for a woman’s happiness not only causes her dissatisfaction, but in fact leads to her unhappiness.

Freud’s feelings of inadequacy that germinated with Irma come to climax during his sessions with Dora in 1905 in which he constantly battles to be the controlling, masculine force. In Dora—An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, Freud’s analysis of his young female patient displays that the therapy was as big of an event to him as it was for her because he became so caught up in her life and the quest to help her that, “Freud and not Dora has become the central character in the action” (Marcus, 85). By framing Dora’s own story with his interpretation, Freud, the Victorian gentleman, strives to dominate and thrust her back into the feminine constraints from which she tries to escape. Freud is a product of his time by failing to realize the flaws of his social pressures. Freud’s use of a frame narrative illustrates his egoism; however, it does not prove that he is a sexist. As opposed to the other dominant male figures in Dora’s life, he neither judges her nor rejects her testimony, but attempts to help her. Since Freud’s use of the frame narrative in effect makes him the appropriator of Dora’s story, the barrier between Doctor and patient dissolves, thus making it quite difficult to see the female patient as inferior.

The barrier is also dissolved in the sense that throughout treatment, there is a constant battle over control. This battle and its resulting frustration, further exemplifies how misunderstanding his female patients allows Freud to question the validity of gender roles. Freud wanted to possess Dora intellectually, to have her accept all of his analyses of her illnesses. But she was recalcitrant and often rejected them, which led to Freud’s frustration: “Above all, he did not like her inability to surrender herself to him” (Marcus, 90). Freud’s constant preoccupation with Dora, the fact that he invested so much time and energy into the publication of her case, exhibits that he was not used to such an obstinate patient. However, Freud is drawn to Dora because of her refusal to be subordinated. She makes him rethink his postulations about women; it was during Dora’s treatment that he developed the Transference Theory.

As Freud attempted to exert control through his position as doctor, Dora was able to gain control by manipulating his personal weaknesses. Because she was not completely cured when halted treatment, Dora fed Freud’s fears of being an inadequate healer: “For how could the patient take a more effective revenge then by demonstrating upon her own person the helplessness and incapacity of the physician?” (110). Freud’s extensive commitment to Dora led him to unknowingly invest an incredible amount of emotion into their rapport. Freud’s personal involvement in Dora’s case allowed her to gain the upper hand and left Freud vulnerable: “Her breaking off so unexpectedly…this was an unmistakable act of vengeance on her part… No one who, like me, conjures up the most evil of those half-tamed demons that inhibit the human breast, and seeks to wrestle with them, can expect to come through unscathed” (100). Freud has taken Dora’s story and departure on a personal level because she was able to turn the tables and conjure up Freud’s own demons. The intellectual arrogance that he has presented to the world is simply a front. Freud’s constant fixation on Dora, the fact that, “he had still not done with Dora” (Marcus, 64), was because she was able to strike a chord with his greatest professional fear. Her abandonment without being fully cured reinforced Freud’s inner conflict over his inability to heal as well as demonstrating his failure of the male gender role of “protector”. By retaining the Victorian definition of a woman, Freud fails both at controlling and curing Dora.

Freud’s extended preoccupation with Dora’s psychoanalysis in addition to the personality of Irma reflects his unconscious guilt surrounding the sexist role-play of the Victorian Era. H?l?ne Cixous, on the subject of Dora’s disgust of men, write that

Dora…resists the system, the one who cannot stand that the family and society are founded on the body of women, on bodies despised, rejected, bodies that are humiliating once they have been used…it is by questioning them (men), by ceaselessly reflecting to them the image that truly castrates them, to the extent that the power they have wished to impose is an illegitimate power of rape and violence, the hysteric is… the typical woman in all her force (285).

Like Freud, Dora is ahead of her time, yet a product of it. She desires to get out of the oppressive role that a woman must take—to be desired until motherhood and then to be forgotten. However, like women of her time, she tries to ‘resist the system’ by the Victorian feminine means of hysteria; Dora uses it to turn the tables on the domineering men in her life. Equipped with hysteria as her weapon, she stops the conspirators dead in their tracks.

Freud’s incapacity to cure his female patients illustrates that, as a symbol of patriarchal society and thus the focus of a woman’s destruction, he cannot possibly fulfill his role as healer and protector. The tragic issue surrounding Freud and his female patients is not their psychological malaise but instead his helpless attempt to cure them; Freud is as unfulfilled as his patients. Freud must consciously realize that gender roles are detrimental to his profession and then reject them as falsehoods. By assigning women the same desires and functions as men, Freud will be one step closer to resolving his inner turmoil. Freud is a victim of female gender roles because they are responsible for his curing anxieties. Until Freud rejects female gender roles, he will never fulfill his phantasy to ameliorate the sick and, in effect, his Victorian male role in society.


Cixous, H?l?ne, and Catherine Cl?ment. The Untenable. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Felman, Shoshana. What Does a Woman Want?. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. London, The Hogarth Press, 1900.

Freud, Sigmund. Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. W.W. Norton and Company, Inc, 1966.

Marcus, Steven. Freud and Dora: Story, History, Case History. New York: Random House, 1975.

Masson, Jeffrey. The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess 1887-1904. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England, 1985.

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