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A Few Remarks on Freud and Women

Linda Roland Danil explores Freud's ambiguous position on women's emancipation in light of the #metoo movement.

Linda Roland Danil12 September 2018

A Few Remarks on Freud and Women

My thanks to David Livingstone Smith and Levi Paul Bryant for their helpful comments in developing this work.

Does Freud still hold relevance for the 21st century? In contemplating this question, one aspect to contend with is Freud’s views and arguments in relation to women, which were not always positive. Consider, for example, the Dora case, which has understandably angered a number of feminists [1] – although one is also left impressed by Freud’s open-minded, tolerant views towards homosexuality in the same case history. The case of Dora, amongst other things, bears witness to every narrative that discredits or disbelieves women’s claims of sexual harassment and/or rape – a prevalent phenomenon even today, as exemplified, for example, in detractors or those skeptical of the #metoo movement.

The ‘Dora’ case, or Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, the first of Freud’s five major case histories, famously involved Ida Bauer, who entered analysis with Freud as an eighteen-year old in October 1900, but abruptly ended her treatment eleven weeks later. Dora had been caught up – or more aptly, trapped – in a family drama that centred around her father having become lovers with a woman called Frau K. Her husband, Herr K., had been grooming Dora since she was a child through the purchase of gifts, or ‘small presents’. Herr K. eventually raped Dora – an event that Freud referred to as ‘making love to her.’ When confronted, Herr. K. emphatically denied that such a thing had occurred, and threw suspicion on Dora by accusing her of being obsessed with sexual matters, and of having fantasized the whole thing after having read about love and other books of the sort. Dora’s father refused to take Dora’s side – seemingly due to his attachment to Frau K. and the implicit understanding that in exchange for Frau K., Herr K. could have Dora. As David Livingstone Smith suggested in correspondence with me: ‘The name "Dora" which Freud gave her is from the Greek "Doron" = "gift." Singularly appropriate’. Dora, as the case history comes to show – did indeed become the embodiment of a ‘gift’, or more appositely, an object of barter or exchange, between her father and Herr. K. Dora was justifiably upset and distressed – not only because of the violation perpetrated by Herr K. and his general abuse – but because those around her, not least of which her father, refused to believe her or take her side, and this gave rise to her so-called ‘hysterical’ symptoms.

Freud, likewise, disbelieved her. Freud, astoundingly, wonders why a child of fourteen would feel disgust at a grown man kissing her – when in fact, Freud argues that what she should be feeling is ‘sexual excitement’. In fact, Dora’s disgust when she should have been feeling sexual excitement is the prime symptom that marked her as unequivocally hysterical. How else, Freud wonders, can one explain Dora’s reactions, when clearly, in Freud’s mind, a girl of fourteen should be turned on when sexually assaulted by a grown man? The case of Dora, in my view, represents a major disaster in Freud’s legacy, and of course, not just because Dora ceased analysis.

I recently read an interview of Freud’s last living patient, Margarethe Walter, in which I feel Freud goes some way towards redeeming himself. In this case, Freud demonstrates what it truly means to be an excellent psychoanalyst. He also, amazingly for someone who also wrote at times disparagingly about women, demonstrates himself – within the confines of the Margarethe Walter session in any case – to be some kind of potential or budding feminist insofar as he emphasized that Margarethe should follow her own desires, to the exclusion of what her father dictated. Margarethe recounted how, in her 45 minute session with Freud when she was eighteen years old, Freud dismissed, in a friendly manner, her domineering father – who answered every question that Freud had directed at Margarethe. Once her father was gone, Freud focused his attention fully on Margarethe, letting her know that she was being fully listened to and fully seen. As Arlene Kramer Richards has argued, ‘Sigmund Freud invented psychoanalysis as the art and science of listening. He was a listener who tried to hear and worked hard at making sense of what he heard [.]’ [2]

As Margarethe further put it:

‘Sigmund Freud was first person in my life who really listened to me emphatically, who wanted to find out and learn something about me, the one who truly listened. He looked at me without interruption, he looked at me, and his active empathy surrounded and contained me. [3]

On a larger scale, listening to others and acknowledging their voices allows for recognition by the wider socio-symbolic framework in which we are all embedded, or what Jacques Lacan termed the big Other. This recognition is crucial for the ontological constitution and security of the subject. As Linda Belau succinctly argues, ‘[…] there is no ontological existence prior to recognition in the Other.’ [4] A subject cannot come into existence proper without an interlocutor, and vice-versa. Slavoj Žižek has made this point in relation to Primo Levi’s nightmare, as described in the book The Drowned and the Saved [5], in which Levi attempts to recount to his family the horrors of Auschwitz and his life in the camp. In the nightmare, his family members eventually yawn and one-by-one, get up and leave, leaving him alone. Here, as Žižek argues:

‘[…] there is no proper public, no listener adequate to receive the witnessing […] In Lacan’s terms, what is missing here is not only another human being, the attentive listener, but the “big Other” itself, the space of the symbolic inscription or registration of my words.’ [6]

To continue, Margarethe told Freud that when she was at the cinema with her father, he would insist on leaving when kissing scenes came on, since, as he would tell her, such a thing was not for her – but Margarethe wanted to watch such scenes to the end. Freud told her the following:

‘Being an adult entails overcoming the difficulties and implementations of that which forms a personality. Fostering your desires. Putting up resistance. Asking why and not silently accepting everything. It is about standing up for that which is really important, with quiet determination. When the next kiss scene comes up in the cinema, stay seated, stay seated. I'm telling you explicitly, stay seated. Think of me.’ [7]

Freud’s words immediately had a profound effect on Margarethe, an effect that would last the rest of her life. Shortly thereafter, Margarethe and her father went to the cinema. As soon as a kissing scene occurred, her father predictably protested that it was inappropriate for the eighteen-year old Margarethe, and that they should leave. Margarethe gripped the armrests with all ten fingers and pushed down into her seat. ‘No!’ She proclaimed. ‘I am staying in my seat!’ Her father waited for her in the lobby, ‘and never again said a single word!’ [8] Here, Freud prescribed a course of action, which Margarethe followed, that Jacques Lacan would have described as not ceding on one’s desire [9] – to remain true, insofar as it is possible and reasonable, to what one truly, idiosyncratically desires, rather than compromising it for the sake of larger social norms that one may not necessarily agree with, for example. [10]

Admittedly, we do not know what Freud privately thought of Margarethe Walter, and it is further difficult to entirely forget and dismiss what occurred with Dora. However, there are crucial lessons that Freud imparted, such as through the Margarethe Walter case: the importance of listening, and the importance of not ceding on one’s desire, within reason of course, that is to say, so long as it strives to be respectful of others.

[1] See, for example: Moi, T. (1981) Representation of Patriarchy: Sexuality and Epistemology in Freud's "Dora", Feminist Review 9: 60 – 74.

[2] Kramer Richards, A. (1999) Freud and Feminism: A Critical Reappraisal. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 47(4): 1213-1238, p.1213.

[3]  Loewenberg, P. (2017) Freud as an Existential Humanistic Psychotherapist: The Case of Margarethe. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 65(4): 665 – 672, p. 666 (emphasis in the original).

[4]  Belau, L. (2001). Trauma and the material signifier. Postmodern Culture 11(2), paragraph 5.

[5] Levi, P. (1989) The Drowned and the Saved. London: Abacus.

[6] Žižek, S. (2012) Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. London: Verso, p. 29.

[7] Cleaver, H. (2006). Freud’s last patient recalls meeting ‘that saved my life’, The Telegraph [Online] 2 May. Available at:

[8] Loewenberg, Freud as an Existential Humanistic Psychotherapist: The Case of Margarethe, p. 668.

[9] Lacan, J. (1997). The Ethics of Psychoanalysis: 1959 – 1960, Book VII. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

[10] Ruti, M. (2012) Reading Lacan as a Social Critic. Angelaki 17(1): 69 – 81.

Linda Roland Danil  completed her PhD at the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds in 2015. Since then, she has published sole-authored articles in journals such as Law and Critique, Law, Culture and the Humanities, and Critical Studies on Security. She has also acted as guest editor for a Critical Studies on Security special issue.