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(For reasons of readability, the male form is used with personal names, however the female form is also always intended.)

Aggression of women in psychoanalytic discourse

Author: Petra Roscheck


“If society is in danger, it is not because of man’s aggressiveness but because of the repression of personal aggressiveness in individuals” (Winnicott, 1991)

The word aggression is derived from the Latin word "aggredi" (deponent), which can be either translated as "charge, attack" or"advancing/charging forward (something)". The first translation indicates  the hostility (destructiveness) associated with this term, while the other emphasizes its constructive potential. Both versions are legitimate interpretations of the term aggression. It is precisely this ambiguity that makes the discussion about aggression so delicate. Most people associate aggression solely with destruction and anti-social behavior. The perception of one´s own aggressive impulses causes feelings of fear or guilt that must be repressed, split off or compensated as of counteractions.

However, aggression is particularly necessary in the process of individuation: for setting boundaries, self-assertion and the representation of one´s own interests. If an individual has a strong internal conflict with his aggressive emotions, he will be inhibited in his expansive development or self-development, and develop neurotic symptoms. Especially women seem to have problems with processing their aggressive feelings.         

In this text, I will explore the question of "female" aggression in psychoanalytic discourse and examine the interactions of this discourse via social processes.

If you take a look at our country’s  professional landscape, it is striking that the highest senior positions are still held by men.

Women are often said to lack single-mindedness, assertiveness, too much guided by their feelings, and therefore unfit for rational decisions andhigh-ranking office jobs. Or, the woman would get into a conflict between child and career through a (potential) motherhood, which would affect both her job performance and her children´s attachment to the mother. They must therefore decide between pursuing power and professional self-realization, and the existence as a mother who is good enough. The trainer Siegried Meuselbach says in an interview in Der Zeit (2015) that women have "from within (von innen heraus) " often less interest to play at the top, because they endure social coldness less well. They have difficulty giving up the desire to be loved by everyone [https://www.zeit.de/karriere/beruf/2015-03/frauen-fuehrungspositionen-erfolg]. She believes the reason to be an internalized role model, which describes women as naturally prosocial, empathic and interested in the community.

In fact, more women are employed in social professions than men [https://derstandard.at/1319182484359/Boys-Day-in-Oesterreich-Soziale-Berufe-zu-76-Prozent-in-Frauenhand]. Here, stereotypes seem to be confirmed.

Biological perspectives justify an increased willingness to behave aggressively in men with a higher testosterone level. However, this causality falls short. The psychologist Dr. Jeannette Schmid (2002)[https://www.wissenschaft-und-frieden.de/seite.php?artikelID=0161 am 20.02.2019] says that, although there is a relationship between testosterone and aggression (when a person gets angry, testosterone levels increase for a short time), testosterone is not the cause of aggression (Schmid, 2002).

The psychoanalyst Tamara Musfeld (1997), in her research about the intrapsychic reasons for the "aggression" of women, encounters a mixture of two different forms of aggression in the imagination: demarcation, strength and demonstration of power seem - due to specific conflict constellations and social images of femininity - to be confused with destructive hatred and destructive forms of aggression.

Several studies (Seiffge-Krenke, 2005 after Frey 1992, 1998) show a gender difference in different cultures in dealing with feelings of aggression. Girls and women would choose indirect or relational forms of aggression (in the form of nagging, gossiping about others, exclusion from the social reference group, etc.) more often than boys and men who are more openly aggressive. However, these individual study findings don’t answer the quesion whether an expression of aggression actually has a gender-specific form. In fact, other studies show that indirect forms of expression of aggression are found especially in boys, and others represent a balanced gender relationship (ibid., P. 74). It seems that the results of the studies are based on the respective research interests, according to Buchta (2004). A good overview of various studies and their results was provided by Rhode-Dachser / Menge-Hermann (1995), (ibid., P. 45).

The concept of aggression in psychoanalysis

Initially, Freud did not adopt an aggression drive. In 1909, he confronted the so-called ego or self-preservation drives with sexual drives, whereby each drives could express itself (in the sense of urgently) aggressively (= first concept of aggression). In 1915, he favored the interpretation that this aggression and its emotional equivalent, hatred, served the ego’s conservation (= second concept of aggression). In 1920, his introduction of the death drive brought about a change in the meta-psychological discourse. Freud had come to the conclusion that evil is part of man’s nature and cannot be excluded. The cruelty of the First World War and the loss of his daughter probably contributed to this change of heart (Musfeld, 1997 to Gray, 1987). The upheaval led to irritation in the psychoanalytic society and the formulation of different theories of aggression, in the course of which psychoanalysis developed from an ´endogenous drive theory´ to a theory of object relations (2004) (Buchta, 2004). Finally, Kernberg re-conceptualized the concept of drive: drives are not present per se, but arise within the psychic structures with and through their structure. In the words of psychoanalyst Hans Otto Thomashoff (2009), our psychic structure emerges through interactions with our environmental perceptions, which are internalized. Particular importance is laid on early relationship experiences and the accompanying effects. Destructive aggression and hatred would always arise where aggression in its early development, due to early traumatization, could not be integrated into the relationship and had to be split off. Integrated aggression can be used as  self-assertion and demarcation in the service of the ego. Depending on the culture, certain forms of aggressiveness are allowed while others are taboo, including the gendered expression of aggressive aspirations.

Constructions of femininity and aggression in psychoanalysis

Freud had difficulties with women who lived out their aggressive and self-assertive impulses, according to Buchta (2004). In "The taboo of virginity" (1918), he had addressed the fear of both sexes of such a woman.

He responded to the patriarchal atmosphere at the turn of the century, which was based on the fear of the feminization of culture and represented in e.g.the image of the Vagina Dentata in Otto Weininger´s work "Sex and Character".

Regarding the psychosexual development, Freud wrote that the girl is experiencing a deep narcissistic injury after  discovering the gender difference due to  the absence of a penis, for which she holds the mother responsible (see Freud, 1931). Disappointed, she turns away from her and towards the father, hoping to get a penis from him, or later - as a substitute - a child . Because the girl had already experienced being castrated, she couldnot develop castration anxiety. A weak superego, a lower receptivity to norms and laws, and lack of self-expectations are the ubiquitous consequences of the girl´s psychosexual development. Freud thus describes the history of women as a history of lack, envy and inadequacy, thus referring to the patriarchal construction of femininity since Aristotle.

In his concept, female aggression is directed inward and expressed in the adult woman’s masochism.

In the twenties and thirties, a controversy broke out about the theories of femininity, which later fell silent again during  National Socialism.

It was carried on by psychoanalysts and Freud critics the likes of Ernest Jones and Karen Horney (1924). The latter, with her concept of identification, openly opposed Freud´s concept of women’s biological inferiority. According to Buchta (2004), Freud subsequently punished her and recommended that she treats her own penis envy. Less critical psychoanalysts such as Helene Deutsch and Marie Bonaparte whose theories Freud adopted were inspired by Freud´s phallocratic designs.. Helene Deutsch, however, was the first to point out an extended pre-oedipal relationship between the girl and her mother.

It was only in the 1970s that the debate about psychoanalytic theories of femininity rekindled with the women´s movement. Feminist approaches gained great importance in the attempt to deconstruct Freud´s phallocratic construction of femininity.

Chasseguet-Smirgel named and criticized the "phallic monism" of Freud. The relationship between mother and daughter and its impact on women.

Rohde-Dachser (1990, after Buchta, 2004) summarizes these theories under the term "psychoanalytical socialization theories". The representatives (e.g., Chodorow, Olivier, Gilligan) would refer to the asymmetry of gender relations in the child care of the bourgeois nuclear family: Since the primary caregivers of the children were female, because it was mainly the mothers nurturing the children , the children were socialized in an asymmetrically gendered order. The relationship between mother and daughter is characterized by equality, while the relationship between mother and son is based on difference. The boy would thus be better reflected in his aspirations for autonomy, while the girl is unconsciously asked to empathize with her because of this "equality". These differences in the early socialization of children leads to different identifications and personality traits. The female personality develops along the lines of connection and equality, the male character on difference and autonomy.

In these psychoanalytic theories of socialization, Buchta (2004) criticizes the fact that female attachment and an intimate lifelong relationship between mother and daughter was idealized. In her concept, she looks for the meaning of aggression in the mother-daughter relationship:

"The little daughter, of course, senses that the mother feels to be "one with her" and that to set boundaries and become an independent individual threatens the mother´s balance. She will comply. In this way, missing an experience of separation that is passed on from generation to generation." The daughter is thus committed to the ideal of motherhood thanks to the interaction with her mother, including the taboo of aggression between women (Buchta, 2004, p. 89).

Rohde-Dachser, who examined the contributions to gender difference in 1989, on the basis of their latent content by means of deep-hermeneutic methodology, formulates the thesis that within the theoretical gender discourse unconscious losses and insults resulting from the gender difference were repelled. Because the discovery of the gender difference implies the loss of a fantasized omnipotence on both sides, in which one could at the same time father and give birth (Teuber, p.39).

In the feminist object relationship theories, she recognizes  the unconscious wish for mother-daughter relationships never to break. The Freudian perspective refers to the unconscious fantasy of a boy to be his mother’s one and only, who would always stay with him, because she relies on his penis. While the "male theory" emphasizes the difference, the "female" theory focusses on the similarity that ties the mother to the child (see Teuber, p.38).


"The division of the world into respectable women and assertive men breaks the link between autonomy and attachment. When relational ability is delegated to a part of humanity and reduced to the realm of personal attachment, the domain of world appropriation and politics becomes complementary: as unbounded and impersonal (...) But there has to be a third way that does not confuse bonding with undifferentiation and autonomy with non-attachment. (...) In order to be accountable for their lives and the world in which they live, women must positively relate to this capacity for aggression: in the form of self-esteem, in the form of confrontation, through the demand of power and also by unmistakable and speaking up loudly. (...) The ability to draw boundaries, being able to offer resistance, and being able to resist is also part of recognizing someone else´s humanity."

I think that the status given to women´s aggression in the psychoanalytic discourse says a lot about how aggressive ("proactive") a woman is allowed to be in contemporary society, without her aggressive advances conflicting with the current construction of femininity. Young women’s lifestyles differ in many ways from those of the 1960s. Nevertheless, we are still a long way from real gender equality. Above all, this is reflected in the gender pay gap, and the resulting female poverty in old age, the small number of women in management positions and the division of "family work" (parenting, household, etc.), for which most women are still responsible.

This, in addition to safeguarding female identity, may serve another hidden purpose, namely the attempt to gain power and magnificence in a feminine way." (Buchta, S. 132 nach Hagemann-White, 1992)

"However, it is a fantasy that seeks to hide the real limitation that seems necessary to compensate for the lack of symbolic representation of active, confident femininity." (Buchta, S. 132 nach Musfeld, 1997)

There are two processes  of change that interact with each other:

On an individual level, it is the analysis of one´s own inner conflicts with aggression or the relationship with the mother in the context of a psychoanalysis. Thus, these conflicts are not unconsciously passed onto the daughter, and she can be supported in her individuation. The other measure lies in the social context and the stimulation of a public discourse, so that the groundwork for a symbolic representation of active femininity can be laid.

- Buchta, Anneliese: Aggression von Frauen. Entwicklungspsychologie, Psychodynamik und Psychotherapie, Stuttgart (Kohlhammer) 2004
- Freud, S.: Einige psychische Folgen des anatomischens Geschlechtsunterschieds in Sexuelleben. Studienausgabe Band 5, Frankfurt am Main (Fischer) 2009
- Seiffge-Krenke, Inge: Aggressionsentwicklung zwischen Normalität und Pathologie, Göttingen (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht) 2005
- Freud, S.: Über die weibliche Sexualität. 1931, Studienausgabe Band 5, Frankfurt am Main (Fischer) 2009
- Seiffge-Krenke, Inge: Aggressionsentwicklung zwischen Normalität und Pathologie, Göttingen (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht) 2005
- Freud, S.:. Tabu der Virginität, Studienausgabe Band 5, Frankfurt am Main (Fischer) 2009
- Seiffge-Krenke, Inge: AggressionsentwicklungÜbe zwischen Normalität und Pathologie, Göttingen (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht) 2005
- Musfeld, Tamara: Im Schatten der Weiblichkeit. Über die Fesselung weiblicher Kraft und Potenz durch das Tabu der Aggression, Tübingen (edition diskord) 1997
- Mitscherlich, M. & Rohde-Dachser, C. (Hg.): Psychoanalytische Diskurse über die Weiblichkeit von Freud bis Heute, (Verlag Internationale Psychoanalyse)
- Teuber, Nadine: Rätsel und Botschaft. Psychoanalytische Geschlechtertheorien zwischen Beziehung und Gesellschaft in Busch, Dobben, Rudel, Uhlig (Hg.): Der Riss durchs Geschlecht. Feministische Beiträge zur Psychoanalyse, Gießen (Psychosozial-Verlag) 2018
- Thomashoff, Hans-Otto: Versuchung des Bösen. So entkommen wir der Aggressionsspirale, München (Kösel) 2009