How much of womanhood is a matter of biology, and how much one of culture?  Prior to 1929, Freudian psychoanalysis had closed rank determinedly around a biological position: the lack of male genitalia locked girls into a series of unavoidable psychological states that fundamentally plotted their course as women.  Penis envy and the Oedipal Complex were foundational dicta of early 20th century psychoanalysis which only the most heretical of apostates would even begin to doubt.

One woman, however, trained as a doctor and immersed in psychoanalytic theory during its formative years, looked at the field’s reigning assumptions about women and dared to ask big questions: is this a description of women as they fundamentally are, or merely as a particular bracket of post-Victorian European males have chosen to interpret them?  Is it enough for a group of men to produce brilliant analyses of the psychology of boys, and then just assume that everything is the opposite for young girls?  And most fundamentally, are European women the way they are because that is how women must be, or have they been made that way over the course of centuries and millennia of social conditioning – conditioning that, once uncovered and explained, might be halted and even reversed?

Karen Danielsen (1885-1952) was, since youth, a poser of fundamental questions.  Her father was a ship’s captain who spent most of his life at sea but who, during his short spans at home, oppressed the household with his religiosity and his stifling moral strictures to such a degree that her mother, to escape the gloom of her domestic lot, took the unprecedented step (for a woman in the Kaiser’s Germany) of leaving her husband and applying for divorce.  In the midst of this homelife, Karen was pushed to confront several massive topics: What good was religion, if it bred tyrants like her father?  What good love, if it only led to misery?

Karen Horney

Karen found her satisfaction in studies, and especially in the freedom that being a student allowed her.  Attending a school in a neighboring town allowed her to slip the watchful eyes of her community, to experiment with the forbidden thrills of walking with boys without a chaperone, of observing the bustling life of the prostitution sector, and of bravely walking into a man’s apartment alone to listen to him sing excerpts from Wagner.  Her diaries from the period are filled with accounts of her romantic and fantasy life, micro-analyzing her motivations and those of the people around her.

By the time she decided to, in defiance of all German tradition, set her sights upon becoming a doctor, two parallel threads of her life had been set: the drive towards challenging intellectual work that would make her one of the world’s most famous psychoanalytic researchers by the time of her death, and a need for love coupled with a drive for independence that dominated her emotional, and sometimes professional, life.

After passing her Abitur exams, she enrolled in the University of Freiburg in 1906, one of the few institutions in Germany that had opened its doors to women.  There she made progress in her studies while obsessing over a complicated romantic triangle involving two friends: a movie-handsome medical student called Losch and a down to earth but emotionally complex PhD student by the name of Oskar Horney.  She could go on adventures with Losch, but Horney was the one she would always write to afterwards to work through what those adventures meant.  She noted in herself the tendency to push away love objects as soon as they had demonstrated their devotion to her, but knowledge of one’s faults is not always enough to overcome them, and Karen in due course rejected Losch and embraced Horney, marrying him in 1909 only to embark on a series of affairs that opened up new triangles and complications.

Those trials were in the future, however, when Karen and Oscar moved to Berlin in 1909 and thereby placed themselves squarely in the center of a radical new intellectual atmosphere.  Communism, transvestitism, drugs, free love – everything was on the menu during these, the closing years of the Kaiser’s Reich in this city which permitted itself everything.  And here was gathered a group of intellectuals devoted to a new school of psychiatry born in Vienna from the mind of one of the Twentieth Century’s most towering figures: Sigmund Freud.

If Vienna was the birthplace of psychoanalysis, Berlin was where it experienced its heady adolescence.  Karen Horney, who had never been satisfied by the traditional answers to humanity’s neuroses, found herself drawn into the orbit of Berlin Freudianism, enticed by the potentials for curative self-discovery that the new discipline seemed to offer.  Though she would come to differ with Freud on many points, on many basic assumptions she would never cease to extol his insight: the power of the unconscious, the significance of dreams and accidental utterances, the importance of childhood, the utility of analysis for revealing deep psychological truths, and the need to recognize women’s sexual desires.  For a person of such keen powers of self-observation as Horney, psychoanalysis seemed uniquely suited as the primary vehicle of her medical practice.

To become a psychoanalyst, one had (and has) to go through analysis one’s self, and Horney’s analysis began in 1910 under Karl Abraham.  The experience was alternately illuminating and frustrating as Horney came hard against early Freudianism’s tendency to paper over individual trauma and neuroses with blanket statements referencing childhood genital embarrassment or inadequacy.  She began to question the universality of certain Freudian structures: did shame and frustration at lacking a penis always play a formative role in a girl’s psychological development, and was resentment of the mother always at the core of a woman’s adult behavior, or were these merely things that male researchers guessed ought to be true lacking firm evidence to the contrary, and subsequently made canonical?

Horney’s great revolution lay two decades in the future when she first began her analysis, however, and in the interim there was enough triumph and suffering to fill her time.  Her psychoanalysis practice bloomed while Oskar was making gobs of money from his position in one of Germany’s most important wartime industries.  They had servants and wealth, and soon three children entered the picture, but Karen and Oskar’s work kept them from home, and Karen’s tendency to throw the children into a series of mutually contradictory experimental education programs made them resentful and miserable.  Professionally satisfied, her guilt over her missteps as a parent and her seeking after alternate outlets for affection through affairs made of these years a decidedly mixed bag.

Until 1923, however, there was at least enough money about to keep the family afloat.  While other families struggled to find food, Oskar’s work kept him insulated from the gnawing depression of post war Germany until his employer’s various speculations led the firm to ruin and Oskar found himself suddenly bankrupt and, in a doubling knife twist of fate, ill from meningitis as well.  These final blows were too much for the family to withstand, and Karen and Oskar separated three years later.  Karen kept the children and entered bravely into a world of emotional and economic hardship, but also one of intellectual recreation as she finally put to print the doubts that she had been feeling about the conservative orthodoxy of Berlin psychoanalytic circles.

In 1926, the year of her separation, she wrote The Flight from Womanhood, in which she argued that the very terms in which the analysis of womanhood had been couched were tied to the assumptions of masculine culture: “How far has the evolution of women, as depicted to us today by analysis, been measured by masculine standards and how far therefore does this picture fail to present quite accurately the real nature of women?”  Men place an overbearing emphasis upon the nature of their phallus, and therefore when they write theories about women, this phallus is located at the center of their psychology.  Men take themselves as the model for success, and therefore label anything that doesn’t correspond to their core imperatives as inadequate or substandard.  And so it has come to pass that women, who possess the ability to create life itself, have been told that they are psychologically crippled for life because they don’t possess male genitals.  Might it not, Horney suggests, be possible that men, lacking a womb, are far more psychologically crippled by that realization of biological extraneousness than are women confronted with their lack of a penis.

Beyond these considerations, there is the matter of culture and society.  If women are seeking to abandon their femininity and become “masculine” in modern society, might that not be because of the socioeconomic realities of modern Europe, and the necessity of labor in industrial society?  Has not perhaps millennia of social and economic subordination pushed women into a sense of inferiority, a skewed sense of self-worth, that has much to do with power structures and less with childhood sexual drives?

To be clear, Horney is not saying that childhood sexual exploration and fantasy do not exist and play important roles in psychological development.  In fact, she wants in this and other papers to push the vaginal stage of development significantly earlier than traditional Freudianism would have allowed.  But the idea that biology and culture had to be considered together when evaluating the neuroses and psychological struggles of the modern woman was, as reasonable as it seems today, rank heresy to the psychoanalysts of the 1920s.

The papers that followed shone, if anything, a more intense light upon the shortcomings of Freudianism’s concept of women.  She pointed out that psychoanalysis had not yet attempted a thorough-going cross sectional sample of womanhood, but had rested content with its sampling of well-off intellectual European women who displayed extreme neurotic symptoms.  Why, Horney asks, if so much of our theory is based on the traumas and acts of self-redirection of little girls, do we not do studies of them?  Why don’t we study middle and lower class women who lead “normal” lives so that we can evaluate more clearly the universality of our statements about women?  Maybe then we’ll discover how much of woman’s psychology is due to the basic facts of being biologically a woman, and how much to the specifics of a child’s upbringing.

For these radical departures from established theory, Horney was fast earning a name as a heterodox practitioner.  Had she remained in Berlin, the consequences would have eventually been sure ejection from the heart of psychoanalysis.  With the rise of Hitler, however, the predominantly Jewish intellectual makeup of early psychoanalysts would increasingly work against the growth of the movement in continental Europe.  Horney herself was not Jewish, but between the antagonism of her colleagues and the darkening political scene, a move to new environs was welcome, and in 1932 she immigrated to America at the invitation of Franz Alexander to work at the new Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis.

For the next two decades, Horney’s life was a mixture of massive success amongst the lay public and diminishing status amongst the professional psychoanalytic community.  Her books, such as New Ways in Psychoanalysis (1939), Self-Analysis (1942), and Neurosis and Human Growth (1950), were wildly popular, selling over 500,000 copies and driving a steady stream of patients to Horney’s practice.  In them, she advocated for a new approach to psychoanalysis, one which focused on a warmer engagement with the patient, and on resisting the temptation to relate Everything the analysand says to a pre-formed childhood trauma theory.  Simultaneously, however, her professional position was steadily eroding as concerns about her heterodoxy and teaching style drove her from America’s most important psychological institutions.

The years 1932-1952 present a frustrating and complicated tale without clear villains or heroes.  In 1941 she was ejected from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute for a tangled web of reasons.  From the Institute’s point of view, she was an instructor who seemed totally unwilling to let students absorb the basic principles of psychoanalysis before attempting to convert them to her particular interpretation of it.  From Horney’s point of view, the Institute was just trying to squash any approaches to psychoanalysis that deviated from their strict Freudianism.

Incensed, she formed her own institute and no sooner had she founded it than she ejected one of its most important teachers (and Horney’s erstwhile lover), the philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm, for what seemed to many of the student body and faculty as insufficient reasons.  It appeared to them that Horney had left the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in the name of intellectual freedom only to erect an institution that enforced Horneyean Orthodoxy with the same narrow rigidity.  Her institute cracked in two, and then cracked again.  She began a romantic relationship with one of her younger students, at least the second in her career, and an embarrassing breach of professionalism.  She took longer and longer vacations and neglected her practice in favor of her writing, which was itself moving towards notions of authentic self-actualization that sounded to the psychoanalytic establishment more like Zen-infused self-help tracts than serious scientific research.

But Horney by the late 1940s was beyond such criticism.  After its fumbling start, her Institute was a runaway success heading into the 1950s, and she could point to a string of patients and readers whose lives had been changed utterly by her common sense, jargonless approach to the detailing of their mental lives and the struggles between actual self and ideal self that kept them chained to perverse cycles of self-loathing.  In the last year of her life, suffering from a lung cancer she didn’t yet know she had, she visited Japan to learn more about the Zen beliefs that had so captivated her, and there enjoyed the greatest intellectual and personal adventure of her life, visiting Buddhist shrines and coming face to face with the truth of her old belief that a psychology that neglects culture can never truly understand people.

Karen Horney returned from Japan in the Summer of 1952, was admitted to a hospital after an attack of what seemed to be pleurisy in October, and died on the 4th of December at the age of 67.

Lead image: Photograph of psychiatrist Karen Horney, taken in October 1938. Collection of Renate Horney Patterson, daughter of Karen Horney. Photograph taken by Fredy Crevanna, husband of Renate Horney Patterson; via Wikipedia, creative commons.


FURTHER READING:  Susan Quinn, who wrote my favorite Marie Curie biography, is also my favorite biographer for Karen Horney, her A Mind of Her Own: The Life of Karen Horney being an exhaustive account, backed by Horney’s diary entries and correspondence, of the complex inner world of one of early psychoanlysis’s most compelling if frustrating figures.  Horney’s books are still available through Norton publishing and your choice of which to read will be guided by whether you are more interested in her as a challenger to traditional Freudian conceptions (New Ways), as a popularizer bringing psychoanalysis within the grasp of everybody (Self-Analysis) or as a creator of new conceptions of the internal struggles that keep people chained to cycles of dissatisfaction and self-torment (Neurosis and Human Growth).

And for more awesome Women in Science comics, check out the archive and my books, Illustrated Women in Science – Volume 12 and 3.