Freud, the First Feminist? A Critical Analysis of Freud’s Studies of Hysteria // Eliza Wierbinska
A frequent feminist critique of Freud is that he did not understand women and most of his theories were orientated towards men. There is a measure of truth to this criticism; even Freud himself acknowledged that he lacked a complete understanding of the female psyche. He would later be famously quoted for saying women were largely “a dark continent.” Women’s sexuality baffled him and he never found a satisfactory answer for “what does a woman want?” However it is important to note that Freud’s views on women were rooted in a culture in which there were enormous prejudices about the capacities of women. As such, his understanding of women was notoriously inadequate; nonetheless, he did make great strides in trying to understand women when he started writing his theories. It was very unusual in Freud’s time to even acknowledge that women had sexual desire, much less to say that the repression of their sexual desire could make them hysterical. Freud’s acknowledgment of female sexuality and his Studies on Hysteria may have been the first nod to the feminist movement.
It might appear on the onset that any alliance between Freud and feminism would be coordinated on treacherous ground. However, instead of tracing the history of hysteria as a female disorder produced by misogyny, we can begin to interpret the emergence of hysteria as Freud’s way to value women’s experiences even though he may have not fully understood them. Women’s symptoms may have been a response to the oppression present within society during that time. Nineteenth century upper and middle class women were dependent on their husbands and fathers, and their lives revolved around their role as respectable daughter, housewife, and mother. Women had little control, power, and independence in their lives, thus “hysteria” may have been a common disorder among Victorian women as they were struggling to cope with a static existence under strict gender ideals and an unyielding patriarchy.
Freud argued that all hysterical symptoms could stem from traumatic memories, or defenses against unbearable experiences, the events to cause this could have been a disturbing sexual experience that had been repressed into the unconscious. In Studies of Hysteria, Freud’s main statement was that neurosis is a defense against unbearable ideas, which later became the basis for psychoanalytic theories and treatment. Freud found that the unbearable idea came from the past. A “normal person” could forget the trauma, whereas the neurotic “remembers” the trauma subconsciously. A neurotic suffers from unconscious undischarged memories. Freud believed that a person has certain feelings, such as sexual desire, and that when they are blocked it could manifest as anxiety. Furthermore, hysteria could be cured by having the patient recall and relive, the originating unbearable experience, whether through hypnosis or through the process of dream analysis and free association. The symptoms of hysteria were created through symbolization and expressed emotional states.
Freud was one of the firsts to actually listen to “hysterical” women and heed to their complaints. In Studies on Hysteria, he and Breuer worked out the fundamental technique of psychoanalysis. Most of their patients were middle-class women who found themselves imprisoned in traditional roles as dutiful daughters. Frustrated in their intellectual ambitions, expected to stay home and care for their brothers and fathers until they married, these bright and imaginative young women developed a wide range of symptoms - limps, paralyses, crippling headaches, and most significantly, aphonia, or loss of voice. Freud, by encouraging them to talk, to recount their dreams, to recall repressed memories of sexual traumas and desires, found that he could cure the women’s symptoms. Freud’s Studies on Hysteria thus seemed to lay the groundwork for a culturally aware therapy that respected women’s words and lives.
Freud acknowledged that hysteria could affect both sexes. Even though there may have been a stigma associated with hysteria in men because male hysteria was assumed to be an “effeminate” disorder. Freud may have been a hysteric himself. By hysterical men displaying characteristics associated with the feminine, it may have been a way to form an unconscious wish to support women in their challenging the patriarchy. Freud being a hysteric and acknowledging women’s experiences as ones of notable study may have planted the seed for feminist thought.
In fact, theories about women’s hysteria seemed less important after the war and the passage of the women’s suffrage movement in England and the United States. It was believed that female hysteria declined and even disappeared. Social changes may have been determinants of the decline. Upon the gradual emancipation of women, the social conditions that produced hysteria were no longer operative. Also if hysteria was the result of the sexual repression of the past, it made sense it would vanish in our more liberated age. Female hysteria seemed to be on the wane, as feminism was on the rise. Freud may have contributed to the decline of hysteria by providing the feminist space for women to voice their grievances and speak out against their many injustices, allowing women to take back their voice, both literally and figuratively.