The Penis Envy Blues: Karen Horney and the Birth of Feminine Psychology – Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land

If you’ve heard of Dr. Karen Horney, I’m guessing that you have taken an introductory psychology course. (At least that’s where I heard of her, and now that I teach psychology courses my students tell me they have never heard of her before.) Like me (and my students), you might have learned that she was one of the first female psychiatrists and a “neo-Freudian”—a term that refers to the psychiatrists and psychologists who came after Sigmund Freud and extended his theory of psychoanalysis. You may even have giggled at her last name if you only saw it in print (it’s pronounced (HOR-nigh—thank you to Professor Angela LaSala for teaching me that!). But if this is all you know about her, then you are missing the most interesting parts of her story.

Karen Horney was born Karen Danielson in Germany in 1885. [1] Her childhood home was full of conflict—her father, a sea captain, was known for his authoritarian demeanor. [2] Some sources indicate that due to his distinctive parenting practices, he was nicknamed the “bible thrower”. [3] Horney rebelled against her father in multiple ways, most notably by enrolling in medical school. Keep in mind that this was in 1906—a time when women were expected to cultivate husbands and children rather than careers. She married a lawyer named Oskar Horney, who turned out to be just as domineering as her father. After a particularly stressful year that included the birth of her first daughter and the deaths of both of her parents, Horney started psychoanalysis. [2] This would prove pivotal, as it shaped her career and provided her the insight to leave Oskar.

Although she was a founding member of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute, the further Horney immersed herself into the study of psychoanalysis, the more she disagreed with many of its tenets. [2] At that time, Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis dominated the study of human behavior. He proposed that all of us develop our adult personalities through stages of “psychosexual” development that begin at birth and conclude around puberty. Each stage is associated with a different erogenous zone (oral, anal, etc.), and if something goes wrong at that stage we will have specific types of dysfunctional behaviors. If you have ever called someone “anal retentive” because they were overly concerned with things being orderly, you were using a term that came from Freud’s theory. Horney criticized many of Freud’s ideas, particularly his views about female development and sexuality. In particular, Horney took issue with Freud’s idea of “penis envy.” Freud believed that at some point in a young girl’s development, she realizes that she does not have a penis and this causes her anxiety (“hey mom, where did my penis go?!?”). This also causes the girl to have resentment towards her mother (“hey mom, why didn’t you give me a penis?!?”), which as you can imagine does not bode well for familial relationships. We might scoff at the notion of penis envy today, but Freud’s ideas were largely a product of his time (early 20th century) and audience (primarily men). Horney provided an alternate viewpoint: She observed that penis envy, like the other components of psychoanalysis that focused on women, tended to pathologize women simply for not being men. She proposed a counterpoint to penis envy, “womb envy,” positing that men’s drive for power and achievement done as a way to compensate for their limited involvement in procreation. [4]

Horney eventually left to Berlin to join the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis to get away from both Freud and the rise of Nazism in Germany. Over the course of her career, she published numerous books and articles, proposing ideas that may seem like common knowledge today but were groundbreaking for the time. For example, Horney proposed that although childhood experiences within the home are important, our personality is influenced a great deal by culture and interactions with others. [2, 5] She also suggested that although adversity in childhood shapes who we are as adults, we are not destined to have a life of misery due to a troubled childhood. Instead, she believed that we are capable of growth and change. [5] A glance at the titles of some of her writings suggest that had some interesting ideas on romance: “Sadistic Love,” “Overemphasis on Love,” and “Enslavement in Marriage.” Horney’s work was instrumental in the creation of feminine psychology, [6] a field that seeks to understand the unique challenges faced by women. Although Horney’s theories (including womb envy) and views on homosexuality [6] are outdated, her willingness to rebel against psychology’s status quo has had lasting impact on the field.

Written by Jennifer Eno Louden (she/her) from El Paso, Texas, USA. Follow her on Twitter! This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.


  1. Paris, B. J. (1996). Karen Horney: A psychoanalyst’s search for self-understanding. New Haven, CT: Yale.
  2. Green, S. (2006). Karen Horney: A psychobiographical study. (Unpublished thesis). Rhodes University, Cambridge, United Kingdom.
  3. Boeree, C. G. (1997). Karen Horney. Retrieved from
  4. Paris, B. J. (2002). Brief account of Karen Horney. Retrieved from
  5. Clemmons, E. R. (1984). The work of Karen Horney. American Journal of
    , 44, 242-253.
  6. Horney, K. (2000). The unknown Karen Horney: Essays on gender, culture, and psychoanalysis. B. J. Paris (Ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale.

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