ExhibitionREVIEW: So This Is The Strong Sex: Women In Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud Museum
16 October to 12 June 2016

Reviewer Lynda Woodroffe

marie_bonaparte_1937_lo_rezThe Sigmund Freud Museum, founded in 1971, is located at Bergasse 19, Vienna which, between 1886 and 1938, was the home of Sigmund Freud and his family. This exhibition, which opened in October 2015, describes work with six women, five of whom – Emma Eckstein, Sabina Spielrein, Lou Andreas-Salomé, Helene Deutsch and Marie Bonaparte – were patients who later became colleagues of Freud; the sixth was his daughter Anna Freud. All assisted and researched with him or questioned his theories, each being influential in some way.

Emma Eckstein (1865-1924)

Eckstein sought Freud’s help in 1892 for stomach ailments and menstrual problems, and was first diagnosed as an hysteric and a compulsive masturbator. After her own analysis she became the first-ever female analyst. It was said that Eckstein was behind Freud’s dream, Irma’s Dream, and that through her review of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (1900), she brought his theories to a wider audience. It is believed that after Eckstein’s contribution Freud abandoned his beliefs that all neuroses were a result of traumatic sexual encounters and introduced a new theory, Infantile Sexuality.

Eckstein also authored articles, reviews and wrote two books, one for children – Of Spiders and Ants – and the other for parents – The Sexual Question in the Upbringing for Children. She championed the cause of sexual education for children, challenging the widespread view that this kind of teaching was unhealthy and could lead to undesirable sexual practices later in life. These publications and her activities made a deep impression on further psychoanalytic theory in the then women’s movement.

Sabina Spielrein (1885-1942)

Information about Spielrein emerged when, in 1977, her letters and diaries were found in a cellar in Geneva. In them she described her relationship with Carl Jung, although whether or not the relationship was sexual is not clear. These papers provided material for plays and films about the patient-analyst relationship as a relationship of seduction and abuse. One recent film, A Dangerous Method, (2011) described Spielrein’s relationship with Jung. In it, the transference-countertransference dynamic is clearly shown through the minds of the two characters involved.

Spielrein underwent analysis with Jung during the last years of the nineteenth century and was said to be his first patient. Afterwards she started working in the field and became Jung’s colleague. She wrote about topics as interesting and as up-to-date as the female body, the car as a symbol of male power, the meanings of dreams about shooting stars, of stamps and of the destructive tendencies within us. She questioned Freud’s theories of Eros and Thanatos and put forward the idea of the reproductive instinct as both life-giving and life-taking.

Correspondence and discussions about her relationship with Jung led Freud to think about the role of an analyst – not as a person who numbs themselves to the arousing contents of patients’ disclosures, but as someone whose feelings were not to be excluded from the process of therapy but called instead a ‘countertransference’.

Other interests of Spielrein included the development of language in children and the connection between thought and language, stating that this was not just about words, but also rhythm and melody. She highlighted the importance of relationship in the learning of language and believed that language was acquired through three developmental stages – the autistic, magical and social stages. Later in her life Spielrein worked with Jean Piaget (1896-1980), the eminent psychologist who was instrumental in educational studies.

Lou Andreas-Salomé (1861-1937)

Andreas-Salomé started out as a scholar of philosophy, psychology and poetry and, having met Freud at a conference in 1911, she soon took up psychoanalysis. For many years after this conference, she and Freud were in constant contact by letter and worked together on theories of sexuality. This comprised her major interest and she focused on the differences between the sexes.

In 1900 it was widely believed that the female sex was inferior due to biology (no penis) and passive in nature. Andreas-Salomé contradicted this with biological arguments positing that not only did the man’s sperm show dissatisfaction and restlessness, the ovum also needed completion to reproduce and was, therefore, also an active organism.

During her own psychoanalysis, Andreas-Salomé responded to Freud’s essays on sexuality in which, rather than stating sexuality was purely instinctive he also made links to physical and psychological sexual components. One of her essays on the anal-erotic (1916) was said to have drawn admiration from Freud.

In Narcissism as Double Directionality (1921) Andreas-Salomé wrote about the ability of persona during narcissistic phases to inhabit contradictory positions in relationships. She illustrated this work with passages from literature and poetry and, despite the associated difficulties, regarded narcissism as a positive characteristic woven into the unconscious.

Andreas-Salomé was a prolific writer and her work included several novels, essays and plays. She had a long relationship with Friedrich Nietzsche who greatly admired her Hymn to Life, a poem that so moved him he wrote music to it.

When Andreas-Salomé died in 1937, the Gestapo, in their attack on anything created by Jews, destroyed her whole library of work.

Helene Deutsch (1884-1982)

Between 1923 and 1924, Helene Deutsch underwent analysis with Karl Abraham who was a colleague and collaborator of Freud. Deutsch, who also collaborated with Freud, specialised in psychoanalysis for women and worked specifically on female sexuality. Much of her work was popularised in the USA, where she lived during the post-war 1950s; the predominant thought then was that women should stay at home with the children. Her English language version of The Psychology of Women (1944) was referenced by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1949).

Despite her observations about women’s behaviour – such as being feminine, being a mother, being passive and masochistic – Deutsch was not critical of women, but a strong feminist and an independent thinker committed to women’s rights. While popular thought was that she stereotyped women and was in agreement with Freud’s concept of femininity that women’s roles lay in daughterhood and motherhood, this was not the case. She did not uphold Freud’s belief that the mother was a changing object, from mother to father, but considered the mother to be a love-hate object. Deutsch also opposed Freud’s theory of penis envy with her own suggestions that the significance of the penis was a man’s problem and that the lack of a penis did not represent inferiority but patriarchal bias. Her research included studies about lying and ‘as if’ personalities.

In the 1920s, Deutsch became president of the Vienna Psychological Society training institute responsible for placing candidates in training; she introduced supervision for trainees, something that had earlier been labelled as ‘control analysis’.

Marie Bonaparte (1882-1962)

Marie Bonaparte was a French princess and great-great niece of Napoleon Bonaparte. She became a friend of Sigmund Freud and, with her wealth, was able to help him and his family escape from Vienna and the Nazis. Her analysis with Freud – started because she could not achieve orgasm through intercourse alone and felt she was frigid – lasted for over thirteen years. Freud believed her frigidity lay in an early sexual misdemeanour and it was later revealed that her nanny had been having sex with a family servant in front of Marie when she was between the ages of six months and four years.

Before starting analysis, Bonaparte researched material for a study about frigidity in women. She interviewed more than 200 women in Paris about their sex-life and, using them as her sample, measured the distance between the clitoris and vagina. These data became part of her thesis published under the nom-de-plume ‘A E Narjani’. Deutsch spent the rest of her life researching female sexuality from which emerged a book entitled Feminine Sexuality, first published in 1953 and later republished in 1979.

Bonaparte’s later work also focused on a female murderer, Madame LeFebvre, who had killed her son’s wife believing her to have stolen her son’s penis. Interviews took place in prison in Lille and she presented her work as a study of a biological drive as well as a psychological phenomenon (1927). This was not a popular opinion and in France she was viewed as out-dated.

In the last years of Bonaparte’s life, Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) grew in popularity. He connected psychoanalysis not with biology, as did Bonaparte and Andreas-Salomé, but with the humanities. Bonaparte’s last years were spent writing about psychoanalysis, translating into French and publishing much of Freud’s work while he lived in Hampstead. She also supported and founded the Société Psychoanalytique de Paris in 1926.

Anna Freud (1895-1982)

One can only imagine the difficulty of a daughter following in her father’s footsteps and her need to distinguish herself from him. This Anna did by working entirely with children and in child analysis. She accepted that children, like adults, have their own personalities and developed a method of child analysis starting no earlier than the latency stage, about six years of age. Working with children younger than this could be, she believed, traumatic for them. Anna recommended working with children in their own environments and developing trust before commencing with analysis. With this intention in mind, she would write or play or draw with a child, or roll around on the carpet, offering them the freedom to do the same. She would make home visits, use drawings to reach the unconscious and sometimes she would bathe them. Referring to the theories of the ego, id and superego, Anna examined conflict in the child’s mind and studied their defences such as ‘identification with the aggressor’ and ‘altruistic surrender’ (1946).

In 1938, Anna and the rest of the Freud family were driven out of Vienna by the Nazis and, with the help of Marie Bonaparte, found refuge in London where Anna set up the Hampstead War Nurseries and the Hampstead Clinic Therapy Training Centre, which later became the Anna Freud Centre.

Personal Thoughts

These were all pioneering women, separated by many decades, who worked against the prevalent misogyny of their times. They were regarded as feminists – a word that I think of for modern use only – and challenged the misconceptions held by eminent male researchers such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Karl Abraham. Although the work of these women is known about, with the exception of Anna Freud, it they do not share the same notoriety as their contemporary male colleagues.

Changes highlighted by this exhibition included the notion that once one is a patient, one can then become a friend or even a colleague of one’s analyst. This practice is now actively discouraged and thought of as crossing ethical boundaries. Another change of mind is the concept of penis envy, discredited in the 1970s by feminists of the time and replaced by a firmer and more conscious understanding of female sexuality. But ahead of her time, it was Helene Deutsch who stated that for men the penis was a symbol of patriarchy and the subjugation of women.

Reading about these women brought to mind images of women in long skirts that cover their legs, sleeves that cover their arms; they are women from another time and of a culture very different to mine in London. They spanned a century, living and working in other European countries, and although only six were on show in Berggasse, one of them, Anna Freud, lived and worked not only during my lifetime, but also in Hampstead, not far from where I live. Knowing this gives me the comforting sense that we were separated only by time and not distance, and that what they started all those years ago was listened to and discussed and has, over the years, gained respect and credibility. Their work was not in vain.

The exhibition is still in situ in the Freud Museum, Vienna and no closing date has yet been announced.


Lynda Woodroffe is an Integrative Psychotherapist living and working in N W London.



Andreas-Salomé, L. (1916) On the anal-erotic Imago
Andreas-Salomé, L. (1921) Narcissism as Double Directionality Imago
Bonaparte, Princess M., (1973) Female sexuality [Translated by John Rodker] New York International Universities Press
de Beauvoir, S., (1949) The Second Sex Translated and Edited by H M Parshley New York: Random House
Deutsch, H., (1944) The Psychology Of Women: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation TX USA: Taylor Press
Freud, S., (trans A. A Brill)(1997), The Interpretation of Dreams Hertfordshire UK: Wordsworth Editions Ltd


Exhibition Catalogue:
Sigmund Freud Museum, (2015), So This Is the Strong Sex. Women in Analysis. (Sigmund Freud GmbH: Vienna)



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