Freud and Feminism: The Concept of Penis Envy

When the girl begins to notice differences in the genitals of males and females, she feels that she is missing something. As this feeling intensifies, it develops into penis envy.


If anyone has ever been in an introductory psychology course or have a little knowledge in the field of psychology, often times, the name that is mentioned the most is Sigmund Freud. Freud is best known for his work on studying the unconscious state of mind and how that relates to human behaviors. For many individuals, Freud was the psychologist who studied and focused on sexual drives and aggressive drives and how that affects behaviors. Although many psychologists would argue that Freud is the father of psychology, many controversies exist on his theories of child development.

Perhaps, the most controversial and most common theories that Freud developed were the Oedipus and Electra complexes. The Oedipus complex is the idea that young boys develop sexual attraction on their mother and want to posses her, while displacing the father. The Electra complex contains a similar concept for young girls and that they develop sexual attraction on their father, while displacing their mother. Freud explains that because boys feel that their father is a very powerful figure that they feel threaten by them. As a result, boys will try to become more like their father in order to remove that threat.

While Freud continues to develop the idea of Oedipus complex and explains it in depth about the feelings that boys develop and the stages that boys have to go through in order to successfully overcome this complex, his explanation of the Electra complex seems more incomplete. In fact, Freud explains that the Electra complex period ends for girls, when they come into the realization that they lack a penis and feel that they are missing something. As this feeling intensifies, girls being to develop penis envy. This concept of penis envy will result in normal femininity and in attempt to fill their missing hole, females will desire a child boy of her own in order to substitute for a penis. Due to these concepts, many individuals have viewed Freud as sexist.

This specific body of text that describes the Oedipus and Electra complex can be found in the text Three Psychologies: Perspectives from Freud, Skinner, and Rogers written by Nye with the intended audience of psychology students. The purpose of this text is to unravel different perspectives of psychology in terms of human behaviors and to explain the concepts of personality and how certain behaviors develop through different schools of thoughts.

While the text itself is meant to be a tool for education, these theories from Freud have been argued from a feminist’s viewpoint. According to Risman, she explains in her text Gender as Structure, gender merely exists as a result of a social structure. In contrast to Freud, Risman argues that in order to analyze human behaviors, it is important to understand how social structure acts as a constraint for individuals as well as how and why these individuals chose a specific structure over the other.

Risman continues to explain that gender as a structure exists at three different levels: the individual level, the interaction level, and the institution level. In terms of the interaction level, men and women face different expectations when they are filling their identities. This is apparent in Freud’s theory of the Oedipus and Electra complex because even at a young age, gender exists as a structure and different expectations already exist for them.

In Freud’s Oedipus theory, the norms of gender are represented when he explains that boys view their fathers as powerful figures, therefore, in order to overcome the Oedipus complex, they feel the need to identify with their fathers and become more like them. Additionally, in the Electra complex, the gender norm that exists is that females feel inferior when compared to males. As a result, females begin to develop penis envy. Freud explains that the only way for females to overcome penis envy is by having a child boy of their own. Thus, implying that men are superior to women. These norms are simply being represented in the text and are not reinforced though further exploration of the Oedipus and Electra complex.

In an attempt to respond to Freud’s penis envy, feminist psychoanalyst, Karen Horney developed the concept of womb and/or vagina envy. This concept explains that men may feel envious of the biological functions of the female sex, which includes pregnancy and breast-feeding. Horney proposed that men experience womb envy more powerfully than woman experience penis envy because men feel the need to criticize women more than woman feel the need to criticize men.

Nye’s text about the perspectives of Freud and of the different psychologist are very effective in achieving its intended purpose of educating students in psychology about the different schools of thought that exists in this field. As a psychology major reading this text, I couldn’t help but relate Freud’s theories this class. With some knowledge about feminism and gender, I felt defensive as I was reading this section of the text. Although the intended effect of this text was not to offend female students, I felt offended due to Freud’s explanation of the concept penis envy. As for myself, I don’t feel that I am missing something and I am not dependent on other men. I appreciate the female body that I have and do not feel the need to have a boy child in order to feel satisfied with myself.


Barbara Risman, “Gender as Structure” (1998)

Horney, Karen (1942). The collected works of Karen Horney (volume II). W.W. Norton Company, New York.

Nye, R. D. (2000). Three psychologies: Perspectives from Freud, Skinner, and Rogers. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.