One of the most persistent current images of Sigmund Freud involves his sexist attitude toward women and presumes the unyielding adherence to that position by present-day psychoanalysts.
For example, the term "penis envy" is one of the first associations people have with Freud. Psychoanalysts, especially women psychoanalysts, have been responsible for major amendments in the analytic dogma over the years. But still, the popular perception of the views of Freud himself is clouded by misconception.
"After all," says Washington analyst Dr. Cecile Bassen, "nothing in analysis is written in stone, and even Freud didn't treat what he had written as if that were it. Throughout his career he was constantly proposing ideas and throwing them out and revising them. Freud wrote a lot of things about women that, when you read them, make you think, 'Omigod, did he really think that?' -- things that were really unacceptable to me as a woman." But by the latter part of his life, he was referring to women as "the dark continent," conceding that their sexual lives were actually unfathomable to him.
As for "penis envy," Bassen says, "I think a lot of analysts see that symbolically or metaphorically. Envy is a fact of life and children tend to envy anything anyone has they don't also have. Analysts have recently written about womb envy, for example, in men."
Psychoanalyst Stefan Pasternack notes that "Freud was living in a patriarchal society which, by itself, tended to downplay the role of women and as a result he tended to view and basically label women as passive, masochistic, less capable of achievement than men. We have updated our understanding."
Still, he said, "modern research supports an early sense of mortification and shame when a little girl feels she is unable to urinate the way boys do, but it is also shown that young girls are much less vulnerable to feelings of shame if they have had a satisfying relationship with their mother and the mother has a sense of self-esteem and can convey to the daughter that she values femininity."
Also, he said, "we can see from the massive contributions of his daughter Anna Freud to psychoanalysis, that he supported and produced a healthy, active, aggressive, intelligent young woman who carried on his work."