You are suffering from womb envy

Illustration for article titled You are suffering from womb envy

Growing up in the modern world it's impossible not to have knowledge of the famous Freudian concept of penis envy. Less well-known is the concept of womb envy, and even less well-known than that is the woman who came up with it.


Karen Horney (pronounced horn-nigh) was born in Germany in 1885, a little less than thirty years after Sigmund Freud was born in nearby Austria. By the time she was twenty-one, Freud was a renowned psychologist, and role model for a whole generation of analysts. Horney was determined to be part of that generation. Although she agreed with Freud's belief in the importance of dreams, the unconscious, and the way a person's childhood shapes their adulthood, she diverged sharply from Freud on his analysis of women.

Illustration for article titled You are suffering from womb envy

Freud believed that the neuroses of women were caused by biology, coupled with family life. Women grew up with brothers and envied them their anatomy. A young girl, according to Freud, feels herself incomplete when she sees her brother's penis, and comes to develop penis envy. Karen Horney believed that Freud neglected men's and women's different places in society when he was analyzing female neuroses. Women weren't desperately pining for a penis they could never attain - other than by acquiring a husband or a son. They envied men their power in society, and Horney saw no reason why women could not or should not attain that power.

It is puzzling, then, that Horney came up with the idea of "womb envy." It seems to undercut her own position, and take psychology back to biology, instead of outwards towards society. Still, it provides a pleasing symmetry when it comes to antiquated psychological notions. "Womb envy" arises, Horney states, when men realize that they are not as in control of their lives as they thought they were. They want a son to carry on their name. They want a family. They're powerless to do that on their own. Achieving their goals depends mostly on the labor, and control, of someone else's body. They envy women's ability to produce the life, and they envy women's ability to be certain of lineage. No mother doubts the maternity of a child. Fathers aren't so lucky.

Of course women can't get babies without men. So for the moment it looks like we're all stuck envying each other.

[Via Karen Horney: Neurotic Needs and Trends, What is Womb Envy?]


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Women grew up with brother and envied them their anatomy.

So close, Freud. Women grew up with brothers and envied their autonomy.