A critical examination of women and psychoanalysis.
Simon Fraser University
In Freud’s time, and since his death, his views of women and femininity have stirred much controversy. Psychoanalysis has been categorized as "…patriarchal and phallocentric…" (Sayers, 1991, p. 3) and Freud, himself, has been charged with viewing "…woman as a ‘mutilated creature’…" and rejecting "…women as full human beings." (Gelb, 1973, p. 370). However, it seems somewhat strange, if Freud and his theories were so absolutely misogynistic, that so many women have been main proponents of psychoanalysis. Why, if his theories were so obviously created to deny women any power, were so many women attracted to psychoanalysis, women who chose to utilize Freud’s ideas? This leads one to question the history that has been written of Freud and his dynamic, convoluted relationship with theories about the female sex; perhaps another interpretation can be put forward – a revision of sorts.
This essay, then, will first give a brief history of some of the early female psychoanalysts in order to provide some evidence of the involvement of women in the field. Following this illustration, an exploration into feminist critiques of Freud will be given by first explicating the most common objection raised by feminists and then reviewing and analyzing two articles written by Canadian feminists. Once an idea of the relations between Freud and his critics has been gained, some of his texts will be subject to investigation and analysis. Further, the culture in which Freud was living will be briefly discussed. What will be forwarded is that Freud was a human being, fraught with contradictions, changing views and influenced by his culture, as are all human beings. Although at times reflecting patriarchal notions of the Victorian era, he also rejected some of them and did not claim that his theories were ‘the final word’. In fact, he often stated that his knowledge about the subject was vague and limited. In light of these findings, one can no longer easily dismiss his work as misogynistic and, therefore, unworthy of review. Rather one should critically approach the works of Freud as a compilation of the thoughts of a human being, a cultural product and a possible source for ideas and insight.
As stated above, the involvement of women in the development of psychoanalysis as a theory and a therapy can be seen as a sort-of paradox in light of the various charges of misogyny against Freud. A brief historical look at four of the early female psychoanalytic scholars, and their areas of interest, will demonstrate the extent of their involvement in the field. *1 The following information leads us to the conclusion that women were not simply "added" into the history of the discipline but were of the utmost importance in the development and extension of the theory. *2
The first individual is Helene Deutsch who, in 1918, became the first woman to join Freud’s Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Her focus was to give a psychoanalytic account of women’s psychology and explore issues of mothering, menstruation and menopause, the on-set of female adolescence as well as narcissism in both males and females. Deutsch was an active member of the psychoanalytic community, giving presentations and writing the first psychoanalytic book devoted to women’s sexuality (Sayers, 1991).
Karen Horney, born in 1885, was the first individual to initiate a psychoanalytically-based critique of Freudian patriarchlism. She developed the concept of womb envy, as a sort of counter to Freud’s penis envy, and investigated the effects of sexual inequality and abuse on gender development. Horney is known for stressing the importance of social over instinctual determinants, especially in the area of a person’s character development (Horney, 1926, Horney, 1935, & Sayers, 1991).
The third individual is Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud’s daughter. Anna did not have formal medical training and, therefore, was in some ways not able to enter the core psychoanalytic community. However, her work focusing on child analysis, ego psychology and the application of psychoanalysis to developmental psychology, paediatrics, law and social welfare, had a great impact on the extension of psychoanalysis into previously unexamined areas. She also became the editor and forerunner of journals that dealt with psychoanalysis, education and children (Sayers, 1991).
Finally, Melanie Klein, who was a leader and prominent member of the British Psychoanalytic Society for many years, focused on early childhood experiences as well as psychoanalytically treating schizoid splitting and depression. Perhaps what Klein is most famous for is the development of the object-relations school, which gathered a large following and continues to have a great impact on current psychoanalytic theory *3 (Osborne, 1993 & Sayers, 1991).
This condensed version of the history of four of the early female psychoanalytic scholars demonstrates that the innovative thinking of these individuals was of the utmost significance in the expansion and development of psychoanalytic therapy and theories. They were active in the academic communities and often gained the utmost respect of fellow scholars, even, in some cases, of Freud himself (Sayers, 1991). So why is it that these women became so involved with such a phallocentric, patriarchal and misogynistic way of thought?
Before answering this question it is important to gain some more information about the actual critiques of Freud. As there are a great number and variety this discussion will be limited to a general overview and two specific Canadian examples, one authored by Roberta Hamilton, the other by Kaarina Kailo.
*1 Due to the constraints of this paper, the history will be somewhat superficial. However, there are numerous resources available for those interested in gaining a deeper understanding. Specifically, please see the reference list for Sayers (1991) and Baker Miller (ed.) (1973).
*2 These women are four main figures in early psychoanalytic tradition, however, many other women could also be spoken about with respect to their contribution to psychoanalytic theory.
*3 Briefly, object relations argues that there is no instinctual life that does not involve a relation with an object i.e., that mental life is always oriented towards something. This process begins at birth. The object, and the individual’s internalization of it, is of importance because conflicts, such as those between the life and death instincts, are played out internally amongst these inner objects. From these internal representations and conflicts we construct our understanding of the external world (Osborne, 1993).
In the introduction to her compilation of Freud’s writings entitled Freud on Women: a reader (1990), Elisabeth Young-Bruehl states that the general feminist critique launched against Freud is that he views femininity as failed masculinity: "Females start out like males and then – disappointed in their mother-love, humiliated over their lack of a penis, self-deprived of their masturbatory pleasure – take a fall into femininity." (Young-Bruehl, 1990, p. 41).
She asserts that this general criticism has been used for two very different purposes in feminist writings. The first is to make clear that psychoanalytic writings are not equal opportunity and, therefore, need to be "radically cleansed" of this bias against women. In this case, psychoanalysis is not outright rejected but rather altered in order to properly reflect women’s psychological reality. On the other hand, the second purpose views the Freudian characterization of females as failed males as "…the deepest analysis available of the effects of patriarchy…" (p. 41). In this case, it is not psychoanalysis itself which is the focus but the reality it is reflecting – Western patriarchal structure – and, therefore, it is not an issue that can be addressed through any alteration of the theory but rather radical social reform *4.
The following Canadian examples each provide an example of the above mentioned purposes. Hamilton’s argument utilizes an altered form of psychoanalytic theory to provide insight into the reproduction of patriarchy whereas Kailo’s analysis focuses on demonstrating how Freudian notions reflect patriarchal structure, in an effort to effect greater social change.
Hamilton’s article entitled The Collusion with Patriarchy: a psychoanalytic account (1986) utilizes Horowitz’s modification of the theory of the Oedipal complex to understand how both males and females collude with a system where men continue to dominate women, where collude means to conspire, or to act together with, through a secret understanding (Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 1993). However, she asserts that although psychoanalysis may give us some insight into this process it can not explain why patriarchy exists *5.
In Hamilton’s (1986) article she claims that Horowitz makes a distinction between basic and surplus repression. Basic repression refers to the necessary*6 repression of a child’s desire to possess their opposite sex parent (i.e. to have their parent as a love object), which is argued to not be, in and of itself, especially burdensome. However, surplus repression is the further repression and renunciation of all non-reproductive sex (i.e., homosexual desires) and of passive aims in the male and active aims in the female. It is argued that during this surplus process the child internalizes and accepts patriarchy as well as capitalism. He/she then "colludes" with these systems in order to repudiate femininity and direct any of their extra energy, such as homosexual desires, towards labour that will benefit the ruling class.
More specifically, during the male child’s Oedipal phase castration anxiety is felt more intensely than necessary because of the perception of the undoubted value of the penis in a phallocentric society. These intense feelings of anxiety cause not only basic but also surplus repression, which is the repression of homosexuality and passive aims. The male child also learns that passive aims are to be equated with femininity and, therefore, projects these types of desires onto females. The female, then, becomes the possessor of the desires that posed a threat to his penis and caused him such anxiety, which leads to the repudiation of femininity and the male child feeling a need to dominate women.
*4 It should be noted that these descriptions are the extremes in a continuum of responses to Freudian thought.
The female child, on the other hand, experiences intense penis envy, rather than castration anxiety, because of the value of the penis in a phallocentric society. The girl realizes that because of her lack of penis she can not possess her mother and this leads to the surplus repression of her active aims and homosexual desires. Even though she also experiences a repudiation of femininity, she is put in the position where she has to take up her father as a love object, accepting her castration and it’s implications of passivity. Hamilton characterizes the female child’s problem as such: "…in her case, it is a repudiation of precisely what patriarchal civilization insists that she be – feminine – that is passive and submissive" (p. 394).
Although Hamilton’s article provides an interesting account of collusion there seem to be a few problematic issues. The first is Hamilton’s lack of critical examination of the concept of basic repression. She argues that it is necessary to ensure a civilized society but never explains why this is or what the definition of "civilized" is. Further, she claims that this type of repression is not burdensome to the child but provides no evidence for such a claim. Such a grandiose statement as claiming that a process is necessary for a civilized society and is not burdensome to the individual should not be declared without some type of supporting evidence.
The second difficulty arises when she attempts to connect Marxist issues with her psychoanalytic account. At the beginning of the article she states "…in the attempt to understand why and how individuals collude with social and personal structures which exploit and oppress them…" (p. 385)*7 and at the end asserts that both psychoanalysis and Marxism deal with the process of objectification and alienation. However, this is simply not enough information for the reader to grasp such a complex relation. Hamilton should limit this paper to a psychoanalytic account, as stated in the title, and make reference to the connection to Marxist thought as another possible area of investigation.
Thirdly, Hamilton did not explicitly explain how it is that the child learns the value of the penis and the equation of passivity with femininity. Is it through observation of others behaviour? Is it taught by the parents? How is it that these ideas, so essential to Hamilton’s theory, are learned by the child?
Finally, as is often a criticism of Freud, Hamilton’s account of the female child is not as clear as that of the male child. Hamilton tries to make their experience equal i.e., since they both experience surplus repression they both come to repudiate femininity and collude with patriarchy. But she does not provide an explanation of how this same result occurs in both children when they experience vastly different things. The male child has to repress his passive aims out of fear of losing his penis, and, therefore, sees passivity as negative and connected to his anxiety. However, the female child has to repress her active, not passive, aims because of the realization that she does not have a penis. Although perhaps envious, how is it that she comes to view passivity with such negativity thereby repudiating femininity and colluding with a patriarchal society?
*5The author would like to caution the reader that the following is a very brief summary of a complex article and would encourage those interested to read the article for themselves.
The second article is Kailo’s Furry Tales of the North: a feminist interpretation (1993). In this essay Kailo explores Freud’s ideas and practices regarding hysteria and argues that these notions are a reflection of a patriarchal structure.
Hysteria…is one extreme but highly symbolic manifestation of what happens when the silencing of a woman, especially their sexuality and connection to their bodies, leads to its opposite: the mad performances, the blatant ‘loud’ exhibitionism that Freud’s clinician colleagues enjoyed watching and analyzing…we can read into it the desperation of a woman silenced to the point where her body begins to speak… (p. 105).
What Kailo asserts is that Freud’s conception of hysteria is one example of many in a patriarchal society where women are prevented from expressing matristic, female values. She then explores Native stories in which women mate with, or become, furry animals and asserts that these are symbolic of women’s power and connection to nature. They also provide a space in which people, specifically women, can safely transgress taboos set up by patriarchal notions. These include strict dichotomies between human and animal, human and nature, civilized and primitive, natural and supernatural*8 . She argues for a change in the understanding of female experience. Rather than viewing it as Freudian hysteria (i.e., an illness), she uses the term mysteria, meaning that at the heart of the female experience is spirituality and the idea of mystery, secrecy and a collective yet private experience. A feeling and existence which cannot be described in words or theory and, therefore, is not comprehensible through patriarchal ways of knowing.
Kailo goes on to give an interesting analysis regarding connections to Christian religion and the "Virgin dogma" and information about women’s history of being powerful shamans and wise women. She concludes with stating that a cross-cultural approach to women sharing experiences of their exclusion from power, and their personal forms of connection to their bodies and selves, can help them "unlearn" patriarchal myths and knock down the hierarchies and dichotomies those are built upon.
Kailo’s article looks at some very interesting issues and does attack strong taboos and dichotomies, especially those of human versus animal, that are deep within Western culture. However, I would like to make a few critical comments. Kailo states that her concept of mysteria is not something that can be understood through theories or explained in words. If she denies us one of our most basic tools of communication, language, then she must clearly provide other viable ways of knowing and sharing, especially if her conclusion is that women need to be involved in exactly this.
*6 Hamilton states that basic repression is necessary in order to ensure a "civilized" society.
*7 Assuming that she is referring to both patriarchy and capitalism with respect to the verbs exploit and oppress .
*8 These dichotomies also seem to be a reflection of positivism, a theory often argued by feminists to be "male thought". For example, the assumptions of human control over nature, earlier societies / ideas as more primitive and the necessity of knowledge being gained through rational, rather than supernatural / irrational means.
Secondly, I question whether her criticisms of the concept of hysteria should be levelled directly at Freud. Freud’s involvement with hysteria, as Kailo is describing it, was relatively short lived compared to the tradition of the famous Salpetriere clinics and individuals such as Charcot (Tonks, 2000). As well, although Freud was involved at the clinics his further work on hysteria, mainly the case of Anna O., actually led him to non-traditional views about dealing with the illness, such as the talking cure. This is even an idea that Kailo adopts at the end of her essay, claiming that the sharing of information cross-culturally between women is a collective "talking cure".
This second issue leads into a third in that it appears, throughout her article, that much of her criticism against Freud comes from viewing Freud as the ultimate misogynist rather than having a thorough understanding of his writings on the issue. This is clearly seen in the following quote: "Their cure is not Freud’s infamous prescription of multiple doses of penis or a White Phallus." (p. 107). I believe this demonstrates a simplistic understanding of Freudian ideas, especially in light of his advancement of free association and the talking cure as a form of therapy for hysterics.
With this knowledge of some of the specific critiques of Freudian thought, this essay will proceed with an analysis of his primary texts and a brief discussion of the cultural context Freud was working within. Although Freud did not extensively, in comparison to his other texts, write on the topic of women there are a number of sources that could be drawn from. Therefore, this analysis will be limited to the two topics brought up in the above critiques – the Oedipus complex and hysteria – as well as his lecture about femininity.
In Freud’s The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex one can find some seemingly very sexist remarks by Freud*9: "The two wishes – to possess a penis and a child – remain strongly cathected in the unconscious and help to prepare the female creature for her later sexual role." (p. 300). He continues on to speak of the female’s "aim-inhibited trends of the affectionate kind" thereby leading the reader to view the female as having her rightful sexual role of passive mothering in society. In such cases it is hard to argue that patriarchal notions of the female are not being expressed. As an interesting detail, however, soon after stating this he does admit to a certain amount of ignorance: "…in general our insight into these developmental processes in girls is unsatisfactory, incomplete and vague." (p. 300).
Turning now to Fragment of an analysis of a Case of Hysteria one of the first interesting elements about Freud’s understanding of hysteria is that it can be caused by social factors and is a means by which women can gain power in an otherwise powerless situation.
…owing to her marriage with an inconsiderate husband, who may subjugate her will, mercilessly exploit her capacity for work, and lavish neither his affection nor his money upon her. In that case ill-health will be her one weapon for maintaining her position. It will procure her the care she longs for; it will force her husband to make pecuniary sacrifices for her and to show her consideration, as he would never have done while she was well; and it will compel him to treat her with solicitude if she recovers, for otherwise a relapse will threaten. (p. 73)
Here one can see Freud’s consciousness of women’s social position and powerlessness in a marriage. As well, the following quote demonstrates Freud’s understanding of hysteria as a complex issue. He did not believe that ‘everything had to do with sex’ but rather identified the possibility of multiple meanings and was not willing to rush into forming general laws.
According to a rule which I had found confirmed over an over again by experience, though I had not yet ventured to erect it into a general principle, a symptom signifies the representation – the realization – of a phantasy with a sexual content, that is to say, it signifies a sexual situation. It would be better to say that at least one of the meanings of a symptom is the representation of a sexual phantasy, but that no such limitation is imposed upon the content of its other meanings. Any one who takes up psycho-analytic work will quickly discover that a symptom has more than one meaning and serves to represent several unconscious mental processes simultaneously. And I should like to add that in my estimation a single unconscious mental process or phantasy will scarcely ever suffice for the production of a symptom. (p. 75-76, emphasis added)
From these examples one can see that Freud’s understanding of hysteria was as a complex social and human phenomenon. His basis for his view does not only have to do with sexuality, or the need "for multiple doses of penis", but rather a complexity of issues entailing power relations, sexuality and unconscious mental processes. He even demonstrates a sort of sympathy for women caught in undesirable domestic situations rather than denying their struggle for power.
Finally, I wish to address two issues that arise from his lecture series entitled Femininity, an attempt to co-ordinate his ideas about women. The first aspect is actually an idea that many feminists have incorporated into their own theories.
Since, however, apart from the very rarest cases, only one kind of sexual product – ova or semen – is nevertheless present in one person, you are bound to have doubts as to the decisive significance of those elements and must conclude that what constitutes masculinity or femininity is an unknown characteristic which anatomy cannot lay hold of. (p. 343)
Here one can see Freud’s claim that anatomy is not destiny, with respect to the issue that to be born with female anatomy is not equal to being feminine and being born with male anatomy is not equal to being masculine. He recognizes that something else enters into the creation of these constructs; he recognizes the complexity. Taking this as a point of departure, feminists have embarked on the project of deconstructing feminine and masculine, what they consider to be socially constructed concepts and ways of understanding (Connell, 1997 & Hamilton, 1996).
*9 Certainly this is not the only example in which one can identify patriarchal and sexist notions in Freud’s texts.
The second issue is an example of what occurs when a portion of text is taken out of context, a problem that can occur if an individual is not dedicated to reading a text in it’s entirety. Freud states the following: "The distinction is not a psychological one; when you say ‘masculine’, you usually mean ‘active’, and when you say ‘feminine’, you usually mean ‘passive’. Now it is true that a relation of the kind exists." (p. 344). Taken out of context, it seems as though Freud is agreeing with the notion of equating masculinity with activity and femininity with passivity, however if one was to read further they would find the following.
Even in the sphere of human sexual life you soon see how inadequate it is to make masculine behaviour coincide with activity and feminine with passivity. A mother is active in every sense towards her child…Women can display great activity in various directions, men are not able to live in company with their own kind unless they develop a large amount of passive adaptability. (p. 344-345)
And further "…I shall conclude that you have decided in your own minds to make ‘active’ coincide with ‘masculine’ and ‘passive’ with ‘feminine’. But I advise you against it. It seems to me to serve no useful purpose and adds nothing to our knowledge." (p. 345). These quotes make two points clear. The first is that some statements taken out of context will certainly appear misogynistic, however, when the full text is read and understood in it’s entirety, it becomes obvious that Freud is not in support of the patriarchal notion. The second is that Freud is actually refuting a claim that is a fundamental assumption of patriarchy, that woman is passive and submissive. He not only argues against the distinction of female as passive and male as active but also clearly states that women can be active and men passive.
In this analysis of Freud’s primary texts, evidence has been presented of Freud making remarks that support patriarchal notions as well as ones that refute them, even with respect to a similar issue – women’s passivity – and the problem of not reading texts in their entirety. This demonstrates, not only that Freud is human and therefore encompasses contradictions and/or experiences shifts in his own views, but also the importance of a careful and comprehensive reading of his texts. So what are we to make of this?
Perhaps we are seeing a man attempting to struggle and come to terms with his own views and the ideas of his patriarchal culture. Slipp (1993) argues that to understand Freud’s view on women one must understand both personal trauma’s that Freud experienced with important females in his life as well as the views of the Victorian era. Due to the space constraints of this paper, I will only touch briefly on the patriarchal context of the Victorian era.
Slipp (1993) provides a brief overview of the historical connection of women to nature, mystery and magic and asserts that the consequent of this is the consistent fear of women throughout time and, therefore, the need to control them*10. He argues that this connection was often made because of women’s menstrual cycles and reproductive capabilities: "Because of these fantasized ties to nature, women and their sexuality were feared and had to be controlled." (p. 20). He further argues that, "Vienna, like other nineteenth-century European societies, remained patriarchal and phallocentric and felt the need to control women and their sexuality." (p. 20). The culture in which Freud grew up, and created within, was no stranger to patriarchal structure and with it’s especially conservative views regarding sexuality, greatly oppressed women’s expression of their selves and their bodies. Perhaps the most paradoxical aspect of this time was that the female supreme ruler, Queen Victoria, "…herself promoted the notion of domesticity as women’s sphere…" (Hunt et al., p. 778).
*10 Please note that several theories have been put forth as to the origins of patriarchy. The presentation of Slipp’s argument is not meant to argue that it is the decisive version but rather to provide a reference that attempts to enlighten one about the dominant views of Freud’s culture.
One can conceptualize Freud’s struggle with the dominant cultural notions of his time in light of the two important quotes. The first is from Karen Horney, one of the prominent psychoanalytic scholars mentioned earlier. She states: "One sees that these cultural factors [patriarchy] exert a powerful influence on women; so much so, in fact, that in our culture it is hard to see how any woman can escape becoming masochistic to some degree, from the effects of culture alone…" (Horney, 1935, p. 30). In this respect, it is also difficult to see how Freud could escape his cultural influences and hold a view of women devoid of any patriarchal notions. The second quote is by Thompson et al. (1990): "Thus, the impact of the social world even on the most original creative thinkers, vastly exceeds the impact which any of us can make upon it" (as cited in Cousineau, 2000, p. 215).
This paper has attempted to explore Freudian thought about women in light of the history of the involvement of women in psychoanalysis and later feminist critiques of his work. A summary of two Canadian feminist writings, along with a critical analysis of their positions, provided a background for understanding misogynist charges against Freud. Through the demonstration of Freudian ideas that reflect notions of patriarchy and those that reject these views, one can come to see that Freud was a human being, like any one of us, and, therefore, was influenced and struggled with the dominant views of his culture. As well, as a human being he was involved in the dynamic, ongoing dialogue of attempting to clarify his ideas, which at times forced him to encompass a certain amount of contradiction and at other moments experience transformation.
In light of this, to understand and provide a comprehensive analysis (or critique) of Freud’s writings on women one must not assume Freud to be misogynist but rather read the entirety of his work and factor in outside influences. Instead of dismissing his theories, one should critically evaluate them and locate those aspects, such as the social construction of gender, that can contribute to our understanding of women and their psychology. And let us not forget that ending his lecture on Femininity, Freud recognized his own limitations and did not claim, as others have assumed, to have provided the decisive explanation.
That is all I have to say to you about femininity. It is certainly incomplete and fragmentary and does not always sound friendly… If you want to know more about femininity, enquire of your own experiences of life, or turn to poets, or wait until science can give you deeper and more coherent information. (p. 362, emphasis added)
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