Spartacus Blog

Karen Horney: The Founder of Modern Feminism?

Thursday, 1st March, 2018

John Simkin

On 7th June, 1899, Karen Danielsen, a young girl living in Blankenese, Germany, decided to keep a secret diary: "How I came to be writing a diary is easy to explain: it’s because I am enthusiastic about everything new, and I have decided now to carry this through so that in later years I can better remember the days of my youth… I feel very dignified today, since I had my hair pinned up for the first time even though I am only 13 years old." (1)

Over the next eleven years she kept a detailed account of her thoughts and feelings: "Her diary was her confidante, with whom she carried on a personal dialogue, even though, as with an old friend whom we see only occasionally but with whom we feel in close contact... Her own words provide an insight into her personality and emotional development. The style of writing is innocent, intimate, revealing... she confided her hopes, her ideals, her plans and especially her problems and doubts." (2)

Karen only stopped writing when she gave birth to her first child. This diary is one of the most important documents that we have in explaining the development of feminism. In 1871 Germany was the first country in the world to introduce adult male suffrage. However, the country was a male dominated society and its rulers were totally opposed to equal rights, especially in the field of education.

Girl's Education in 19th Century Germany

Kaiser Wilhelm II made a speech explaining why he thought it was wrong for women to go to university: "Our women... should learn that the principal task of the German woman lies not in the field of assemblies and associations, not in the achievement of supposed rights, with which they can do the same things as men, but in quiet work in the house and in the family. They should bring up the younger generation above all else to obedience and respect for their elders. They should make it clear to their children and their children's children that what matters today is not living one's life at the expense of others, achieving one's own aim at the expense of the Fatherland, but solely and exclusively committing all one's mind and strength to the good of the Fatherland." (3)

Karen Danielson was living in a society where any woman with aspirations for herself was selfish and unpatriotic. This was a view shared by her father, Berndt Danielsen a ship's captain in the merchant marine. Her mother, Clotilde (Sonni) Danielsen, was twenty years younger and tended to have more progressive views, but in this time in German history, it was the man who was in control. Karen was constantly in conflict with her father over his traditional values. She wrote a message to her father in her diary: "We are so unspeakably happy when you are not here. Mother is our greatest happiness." (4)

Drawing of Karen Danielsen aged 15 (1900)
Photograph of Karen Danielsen aged 12 (1897)

Karen also had a difficult relationship with her older brother: "I know that as a child I wanted for a long time to be a boy, that I envied Berndt because he could stand near a tree and pee, that in charades I played a prince, that I loved to wear pants and was happy in my gym suit; perhaps hence also that at the age of 12 I cut my hair off to my neckline, thus being the curly haired prince again. I didn't like small children at all: rejection of specifically feminine motherliness.... It was always my pride that in school I was better than Berndt... But the neurotic's every attempt at compensation leads to overcompensation; with the ever-present sense of inferiority goes the desire to stand out, and a hypersensitivity toward reprimand and reproach." (5)

Karen was an intelligent child and from the age of fourteen she expressed a wish to go to university to study to become a doctor. However, at this time this was not possible. There were no schools in Hamburg that offered the six year course that enabled girls to prepare for the difficult Abitur examination. The other problem was that it was not a university in Germany that admitted women. "Yet in her imagination she was already Dr. Karen Danielsen, out there in the world curing diseases and saving lives." (6)

Despite the conservatism in Germany there was a growing progressive movement. In 1895, August Bebel, the leader of the Social Democrat Party had introduced a motion in the Reichstag to grant suffrage to women. Although this measure was rejected, attempts were being made change the type of education provided to girls. After finishing elementary school, most girls in Germany entered a Klosterschule. Heavy emphasis was placed on religious studies - history of religion, Bible study, theology - along with philosophy, literature, history, mathematics, German, French and English. No subjects were taught that were not tolerated by the church. This included human biology, a subject that Karen needed to study if she wanted to go to medical school. She therefore wanted to go to the Gymnasium where all the sciences were taught. This was a problem as she would need her father's financial help and would need to have his permission to go. (7)

On 12th January, 1901, Karen described her father's attitude towards her education. "My chances for the Gymnasium are getting better. I already know more about it. It's 5 years and begins with Oberteria (9th grade). We don't need to know any Latin or mathematics. Once Father has digested the monstrous idea of sending his daughter to the Gymnasium, Mother will talk with him further. He is approachable now. I wanted to tell you my experiences only on Sundays, dear diary, but I experience so much every day that I just can't save it up till Sunday." (8)

At first her father said he said he was unsure if he could afford to send her to the Gymnasium: "This uncertainty makes me sick. Why can't Father make up his mind a little faster? He, who has flung out thousands for my stepbrother Enoch, who is both stupid and bad, first turns every additional penny he is to spend for me 10 times in his fingers. And we did make it clear to him that he has to feed me only as long as I attend school. Once I have my diploma I most certainly don't want another penny from him. He would like me to stay at home now, so we could dismiss our maid and I could do her work. He brings me almost to the point of cursing my good gifts." (9)

Berndt Danielsen eventually agreed to allow Karen to go to the Gymnasium. "How can I describe the impression the first 3 days at the Gymnasium made on me?? General impression: overwhelming, bewildering. It is something totally different. So I should probably describe the separate impressions. All the teachers gave inaugural speeches, which struck me as awfully funny. Our mathematics teacher, Dr. Bohnert, is very nice, clear and comprehensible, amiable in explaining. The Latin one, Dr. Christensen, is so far just loathsome. He never asks me questions, since I sit way in the back. The German one, Dr. Ahlgrim, is very good looking and, last but not least, the history teacher, Dr. Ziebarth, seems to be nice and interesting. A lady, with whom we also have English and French, sits in on the lessons: Frau Grube. One thing I've already noticed, I'm only now beginning to learn what 'learning' means." (10)

Drawing of Karen Danielsen aged 15 (1900)
Drawing of Karen Danielsen aged 15 (1900)

Karen's diary shows that she was willing to question her strict moralistic religious environment she had been raised in. This was very unusual thing to do for a teenager growing up in Germany at the time. At the age of seventeen she began reading books by Émile Zola and Guy de Maupassant. "One question occupied my mind for weeks, even months: is it wrong to give oneself to a man outside of marriage or not? I answered now in the affirmative, now in the negative. Only very gradually did I become certain that it is never immoral to give oneself to a man one really loves, if one is prepared to also bear all the consequences. How did I arrive at this joyously triumphant certainty? I don't know. I think a lot of things worked together."

Karen went on to discuss her ideas on marriage: "A girl who gives herself to a man in free love stands morally way above the woman who, for pecuniary reasons or out of a desire for a home, marries a man she does not love. Marriage is something only external. It is bad-not theoretically-but when one comes to know how few marriages are really good ones. I know two families from our large circle of acquaintances of whom I guess this is the case. But the one couple are pretty limited people, the other very superficial." (11)

During this period she developed strong views on morality: "The question of ethics in free love as opposed to marriage is really nonsense. Real, deep love is always of moral greatness because it elevates us inwardly.... Altogether too absurd, judging a person's character exclusively from his attitude toward sex. Much more important is, for example, his attitude toward the truth. Nobody will declare that I am immoral - and yet I could drown in the ocean of my lies. The first moral law: thou shalt not lie! And the second: thou shalt free thy self from convention, from everyday morality, and shalt think through the highest commands for thy self and act accordingly. Too much custom, too little morality!" (12)

In 1904, when Karen Danielsen was 19, her mother left her father (without divorcing him), taking the children with her. They moved to Bahrenfeld, a small town at the periphery of Hamburg. From this point on, he seems virtually to have disappeared from his daughter's life. (13) Sonni Danielsen no longer wanted her daughter to go to university and Karen found her increasingly "domineering". (14)

Freiburg University

In 1906 Karen was offered a place to become a student at Freiburg University. It was one of the first medical schools to admit women. Jacob Nahum later recalled: "You didn't go for studying. The lectures were there, but it was not only for learning or exams. It was to be acquainted with medicine. The students had a good time. There was a feeling of freedom... Like a bird in a cage who gets free. There was little competition. The students wanted nature, freedom, studying and at the same time a good time." (15)

There were very few women on Karen's course. Germany was one of the last in Europe to admit women to university to study medicine. Until 1900 no women were admitted as matriculating students. At first most of the women at German universities were foreigners, especially Russians and Americans. According to Peter Gay: "Female outsiders sitting in the same lecture hall with men, seemed more tolerable to the all-male university establishment than having one's sister, or one's friend's sister, sitting there." (16)

Most of the professors insisted that medicine was no place for a woman. A professor of anatomy, Karl von Bardeleben, wrote: "In my opinion women don't have the physical strength for really serious study, maybe for philosophy, theology, history, teaching or mathematics - but not for the natural sciences and least of all for medicine... Already through study in the girls' schools they are sitting too much, often in slanted and crooked positions, which results commonly in harm to the spine, the chest and the pelvis, as well as the circulatory system and abdominal region." Dr. Georg Richard Lewin, a professor of internal medicine, argued that "true womanhood" would be sullied by medical studies: "A woman who is informed about the sexual parts not only of the woman but of the man and who can speak without blushing about the mystery of sexual acts will, if she doesn't repel men altogether, always leave them cold." (17)

Simplicissimus Magazine also took part in the attack on the idea of female medical students. One cartoon, titled "Fräulein Doktor" shows a dark-haired young woman (the lady doctor) sitting impassively on a sofa, head on hand, with eyes staring straight ahead. A young man kneels on the floor with his head thrown passionately onto her lap. He says: "You're mine at last!". I can hear your heart beating at my words!" She replies: "You're wrong dear, it's the abdominal artery." (18)

Another cartoon shows a spinsterish female medical student examining a young woman who in her underclothing. A white-bearded professor, standing beside the young patient, asks the student: "Candidate, what strikes you about this patient?" The woman replies: "That she is wearing silk underwear." (19) It has been argued: "The cartoon is intriguing on two levels. There is the the obvious implication that women just aren't serious enough to see beyond satin and lace. But there is a subtler, more vicious, implication as well: the female medical student is a particularly old-maidish and unattractive specimen, and she ogles the nubile young girl's naked breasts through her spectacles in a way that suggests a secret sexual attraction." (20)

Karen also had doubts about women becoming doctors. In her diary she quotes the Austrian philosopher, Otto Weininger: "All women who really strive for emancipation are sexual intermediate forms... all the so-called important women are either strongly masculine or imprinted by man or overestimated." Women can only become liberated when she frees herself from "her greatest enemy: her femininity." Karen takes Weininger's arguments very seriously: "The man impresses me frightfully in part and I am looking for points of attack. He confuses me at the moment because he brings forward so many really plausible observations in support of his thesis. But it cannot, must not, may not be like that." (21)

Karen was also having trouble with her mother who had insisted in living with her while studying in Freiburg. Karen fell in love with Oskar Horney who had returned to the city to complete his Ph.D. thesis in October, 1907. Her mother complained about the time Karen spent with Oskar: "It was a little easier during the first two semesters, because the four of us held more together and they stayed home four or five nights out of seven... Now Karen is not there at all, since Horney is here. In the morning an hour or two, in the afternoon and evening she is with him. So if she wants and loves she has time for everything. I asked once for a half hour - she snapped at me!... Myself I really think highly of him, and I know of no one who could have such a good influence on Karen; but... does she have to run over to his place so often and every evening." (22)

Karen married Oskar on 30th October, 1909. Her biographer, Susan Quinn, pointed out: "While it is impossible to know fully why Karen chose to marry at this stage of her life or why she chose Oskar as a marriage partner, it is true that marriage solved many practical problems at once. There was, first of all, the ever-present money problem. Oskar was an ambitious man with good prospects: at the time of their marriage he was beginning a promising career with a prewar industrial giant, the Stinnes Corporation in Berlin." (23)

Her brother Berndt believed that not many men would have married Karen. Oskar was tolerant of Karen's progressive views and unlike most German men did not mind her having a career. He also thought Oskar would help steady her down. It is possible that she also thought this. However, thirty years later, in her book, Self-Analysis, she would write about "the futility of placing the centre of gravity entirely in the partner, who is to fulfill all expectations of life." (24)

A few months after their marriage, Karen Horney began complaining about her husband. Although he was kind and intelligent he had difficulty showing his emotions: "Oskar is always self-controlled. Even when he forces me to submit to him it is never savagery or animal brutality - he is at all times controlled, he is never elemental. For living together, certainly ideal - but something remains in me that hungers." (25) During this period she thought a lot about the possibility of having extra-marital relationships "but there is no direct evidence that she acted on her fantasies". (26)

The couple moved to Berlin where Oskar's job was based. Karen studied at the Berlin medical school and its neuropsychiatric clinic, where she met Karl Abraham, a member of the Wednesday Psychological Society founded in Vienna. In 1907 Abraham established himself as Berlin's first psychoanalyst. Soon after arriving in the city she went into analysis with him for depression and sexual difficulties. Karen later calculated that she had spent some five hundred hours in analysis. (27)

Karen wrote in her diary that Abraham believed that her sexual problems could be traced back to her childhood experiences: "Dr. Abraham thinks this comes from my first childhood impressions, from the time when I loved my father with all the strength of my passion. I got my erotic ideal from that time. I think of the overly strong attraction Ernst exercised on me, again and again, that clumsy, brutally egotistic, coarsely sensual fellow. I have always wanted to kill my passion for him through analysis. Now I understand that all his inferior characteristics, which I kept before my eyes, did not in the least quench my passion; no, on the contrary: the instincts in me wanted such a man - and my conscious I, seeking a man of fine intelligence and discerning kindness, resisted against this in vain. In Oskar I found everything I consciously wished for - and behold: my instinctual life rebels." (28)

In another entry she admitted that she loved spending time with Abraham: "I can talk about anything I ever felt and thought and know that it is being heard by another person. Also, I know that this spiritual disrobing, just as the physical undressing, gives the sensual pleasure of shy embarrassment and submission, and also that self-exhibition satisfies a strong sexual drive carried over from childhood. From way back the urge to make myself interesting unquestionably dominated my relationship to people. This desire that others should pay attention to me, my singularity, is really the old exhibitionist tendency, but there is further an urge to martyrdom contained in it since one puts oneself forward just as much through one's bad as through one's good characteristics and must suffer for it."

Karen Horney realised that she had a strong desire to make a mark on the world: "There is nothing more unbearable than the thought of disappearing quietly in the great mass of the average, nothing more fatal than the reproach of being told one is a nice, friendly, average person. In order to stand out through achievement, however, one would have to work. Intellectual work is nevertheless thoroughly repugnant to the unconscious because it distracts it from its activity in sexual life. So one dabbles in "moods," one appears now gay, self-aware, competent, up-and-doing, and now burdened by a heavy passivity and fatigue, even playing with death wishes. Along this line the subconscious just incidentally profits in all sorts of ways." (29)

Karen's discovery of psychoanalysis changed her life. It has been claimed that "it became the intellectual and emotional pursuit in her life". After a two-and-a-half hiatus, Karen began writing down her thoughts in her diary. "Her childhood, her dreams, her sexual life and longings - all were examined now through the lens of psychoanalysis." She also comments in her diary on the articles and books she reads on the subject. This includes the work of Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, Carl Jung and Otto Rank. (30) Abraham wrote a letter to Freud about his new patient, who he described as "a very intelligent young woman". (31)

Karen Horney's father died in May 1910. Karen now became increasingly depressed, but gave up her analysis that summer. Karen also became irritated not least because of Sonni's husband-hunting and endless demands: "All her arguments take on a kind of rigid monotony: that she is always putting herself aside, sacrificing herself, and yet people owed her some consideration... She is now morbidly seeking for expressions of affection from those nearest to her... thus becoming an almost intolerable burden to everybody." (32)

In January 1911 Karen became aware she was pregnant. She had mixed feelings about the idea of having a child: "Isn't the baby a tyrannical authority of this sort that would rob me of my golden freedom? Something else occurs to me: with my present deep aversion to Sonni I may have a resistance against finding myself in a situation that makes me resemble her: becoming a mother, as she is my mother.... Then new duties loom in the raising of the child. With my uncertainty and lack of self-confidence I am afraid I may not be able to fulfill them. And reflect with death wishes on the being that is piling these duties upon me. It just occurs to me that at lunch I read a story in which a man, worried about being able to support his child, wished it dead and then, when it was rescued from an actual mortal danger, could not contain himself for joy." (33)

Karen's mother died suddenly of a stroke on 2nd February 1911. "Sonni's death in many respects means a release for me; I must have wished for it in many ways and greeted it with relief.... Given Sonni's inability to handle money, the pecuniary side eventually became critical too, though it was not our chief concern. The main thing was that Sonni presented a constant danger to my health, and recurrences of poor health were often due - or in any case thought to be due to her account. When she had her stroke a further consideration entered in: she would remain paralyzed and probably retain mental defects. Then it would have been our unavoidable duty to take her into our house and look after her. Our whole life would have been altered, a black shadow would have darkened our sunny, harmonious home. The thought was so dreadful to me that in those days I couldn't even think it through, but evaded it, either with the idea that Sonni could live alone with a nurse, or the thought that we would wait and see how things went, i.e., the wish that she might die before this question came up."

Oskar Horney suggested that some of Karen's guilty feelings had to do with repressed wishes: "Then when death actually came, the consciousness of guilt for all these wishes that had previously been discreetly repressed came to the surface. I wanted to atone through an exaggerated grief, through torturing myself by reliving all the dreadful days of her sickness and death, through keeping away all distracting elements and all joy of life. The self-reproach for the countless unkindnesses one did her, large and small, the torment that this can never again be made good, this is a different, entirely conscious consciousness of guilt and would never by itself lead to nervous symptoms. It is a feeling of guilt that will always remain and that should teach me to become kinder toward the living. That is something which can make one serious but cannot be inimical to life, rather it must at bottom have an encouraging and ennobling effect on it." (34)

Karen gave birth to a daughter, Brigitte Horney, on 29th March, 1911. She became a devoted mother: “It is just the expectation and the joy in it that are now so indescribably beautiful. And the feeling of carrying in me a small, becoming human being invests one with higher dignity and importance that makes me very happy and proud." (35) "In nursing, such an intimate union of mother and child as never occurs later. Mutual sensual satisfaction; hence perhaps strengthening of the longing for one's own mother ... what I value most just now in a woman is motherliness.” (36)

Karen and Oskar Horney with Brigitte and Marianne (1913)
Karen and Oskar Horney with Brigitte and Marianne (1913)

Marriage and motherhood placed restrictions on her studying and it was not until 1913, at the age of 28, that she graduated from university. The outbreak of the First World War increased the amount of people needing psychological help. She also gave birth to two more daughters, Marianne (1913) and Renate (1916). She also found time to became the secretary of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society. In February, 1917, she gave her first lecture about psychoanalytic therapy to fellow-doctors. (37)

Karen Horney and Sigmund Freud

Over the next few years Karen Horney emerged as the leading critic of Sigmund Freud. In 1922, she delivered her first paper to the International Psychoanalytic Congress in Berlin. Entitled, On the Genesis of the Castration Complex in Women. Horney acknowledged that women may envy men their penises, in the same way she did with her older brother. But, she maintained, this stems from envy of the advantages the penis affords boys' ability to urinate standing up. Horney claimed that femininity is innate, as is the daughter's sexual identity with her mother. She dismissed Freud's penis envy account of femininity as due to misplaced "masculine narcissism." (38)

In her paper The Flight from Womanhood Horney asks: "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?" Horney turns the usual arguments upside down, motherhood gives women "a quite indisputable and by no means negligible physiological superiority." There is reason, in fact, for men to envy women! "When one begins, as I did, to analyze men only after a fairly long experience of analyzing women, one receives a most surprising impression of the intensity of this envy of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood, as well as of breasts and of the act of suckling." Nor have women been able to sublimate their drives as easily as men, since "all the professions have been filled by men." (39)

Ernest Jones agreed with Horney: "There is a healthy suspicion growing that men analysts have been led to adopt an unduly phallo-centric view of the problems in question, the importance of the female organs being correspondingly underestimated." (40) However, Sigmund Freud attacked these views and in his paper, Female Sexuality (1931): "Karen Horney is of the opinion that we greatly over-estimate the girl's primary penis-envy... This does not tally with my impressions." (41) In a letter to Carl Müller-Braunschweig, Freud criticised Horney for missing the main point: "We deal only with one libido, which behaves in a male way." (42)

Robert Coles has argued that overwhelmingly psychoanalysts were hostile to Horney's views expressed in this paper. "For years I have heard various psychoanalysts dismiss her ideas out of hand, or scorn them as of little value or interest. As one goes through this article and others like it, one wonders why the rejection, why the contempt or derision, why the condescension... She merely wants her colleagues to stop and think for a while: as bourgeois men of the first half of the twentieth century, do they have blind spots about themselves as men and about women, and if so, what are they, and how do they affect their thinking?" (43)

In 1927 Horney published The Problem of the Monogamous Ideal. In the paper she explained the different ways in which marriage is bound to disappoint. She argues that women are driven into matrimony by "all the old desires arising out of the Oedipus situation in childhood - the desire to be a wife to the father, to have him as one's exclusive possession, and to bear him children". As a result, marriage is "fraught with a perilously heavy load of unconscious wishes." The incest prohibition, which had forced the child to renounce their passion for the parent, is likely to revive and replace sexual desire with mere affection. This may take various forms, for example, a woman may assume a wholly maternal role, resolving not to "play the part of wife and mistress, but only that of the mother." Whatever form the "limitation of love" takes, it is likely to lead husbands and wives to "seek for new love objects."

The reason that people still desire monogamy is "a revival of the infantile wish to monopolize the father or mother." Since the early wish met with "frustration and disappointment" and "wounded our self-regard in its tenderest spot," we are all left with a "narcissistic scar." As a result, "our pride... later demands a monogamous relation and demands it with an imperiousness proportionate to the sensitiveness of the scar left by the early disappointment." Horney goes on to argue that monogamy is maintained as "an insurance against the torments of jealousy." Whatever the reasons for choosing monogamy, it is a choice that "imposes a restriction of instincts."

Horney ends her paper by asking why marriage has not been studied in any detail by psychologists. She speculated that analysts may have personal reasons for not submitting marriage to psychoanalytic scrutiny: "For some time I have asked myself with growing astonishment why there has as yet been no thorough analytical exposition of the problems of marriage". Perhaps, she continues, "the conflicts... touch us too closely, lie too near to some of the deepest roots of our most intimate personal experience." (44)

In July, 1932, the Nazi Party won 230 seats in the Reichstag. It seemed only a matter of time before Adolf Hitler gained power. Jewish and socialist friends such as Erich Fromm, Max Eitingon and Ernst Simmel, decided to leave Germany. Karen Horney decided to follow their example and in September, and along with her daughter, Renate, boarded a ship bound for the United States. Marianne followed in 1933 but Brigitte Horney decided to stay in Germany to pursue her film career. (45)

Karen Horney in the United States

Karen Horney established herself as a psychoanalyst in Chicago. Horney also found work with the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis at 43 East Ohio Street. Horney's views on Sigmund Freud caused her problems with Franz Alexander, the head of the Chicago Institute, who later recalled: "The only major strife developed in relationship to Dr. Karen Horney, whom I had invited from Berlin to become my associate in the direction of the Institute. I knew her abilities from Berlin and admired her independent thinking. I did not know, however, the deeply rooted resentment she harbored against Freud.... Horney's resentment against Freud expressed itself in her attempts to discredit some of his most fundamental contributions, with the ambitious goal of revising the whole psychoanalytic doctrine, a task for which she was not fully prepared. She had excellent critical faculties but did not succeed in supplying anything substantially new and valid for what she tried to destroy." (46)

Horney now moved to New York City and applied for membership of the New York Psychoanalytic Society. Over the next few years she published several successful books on psychology from a feminist perspective. This included The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (1937) and New Ways in Psychoanalysis (1939). This created considerable hostility from male psychologists. The situation was not helped by the fact that Freud was seriously ill at the time the book was published and he died soon afterwards. Otto Fenichel, led the attack in an article that appeared in the Psychoanalytic Quarterly. He began by claiming that Dr. Horney seems simply to have misunderstood Freud". Fenichel goes on to explain that "anyone who knows psychoanalysis realizes that what Dr. Horney wants to abolish is the essence of psychoanalysis." (47)

Horney's old friend, Karl Menninger, was especially hostile and refused to acknowledge her academic status and has been accused of writing a sexist review of her book: "Miss Horney's book deliberately makes its appeal to an audience unprepared to recognize its many inaccuracies, distortions and misstatements... If she had been content to advance her point of view in a modest and well documented way without setting herself up as a champion of "New Ways," her book might have been a major and timely contribution. But Miss Horney starts out by saying that she has been dissatisfied with the therapeutic results of psychoanalysis, that she found in every patient problems which psychoanalysis couldn't solve. She used to attribute this to her lack of experience or some other fault of her own, but finally came to realize that something was essentially wrong with Freud's concepts. These she proposes to correct... Any attempt to refute or criticize Miss Horney gives rise to the cry that she is being made a martyr to the bigoted orthodoxy of the majority. I am fully aware that this review may be construed as further evidence of such inhospitable and ungallant behavior." (48)

Susan Quinn has argued that Horney was not only been attacked because she was a woman but as a non-Jew German. Some people complained about her daughter's success as an actress in Nazi Germany. Horney was involved in anti-fascist activities and was a member of the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign-Born. This later caused her to be criticised by Joseph McCarthy for being under the control of the Communist Party of the United States. She was also on the volunteer panel of the Jewish Family Service and National Refugee Service and provided free psychiatric help to refugees. (49)

There were now calls to have Horney expelled from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. The leading figure in this was Fritz Wittels, Freud's friend and biographer. In an open letter sent to all members of the Institute he pointed out: "In the spring of 1939 Dr. Karen Horney has published a book written for the general public, in which with one sweeping gesture she refuted most of the fundamentals of psychoanalysis.... While she pretended to have retained the unconscious and some of its dynamics, all experts expressed their opinion that Dr. Horney's unconscious has nothing in common with Freud's concept of this psychic system and the laws ruling it. Lay readers are full of praise for any book which... kills the contention that our sex life is of fundamental importance in the structure of human psychology. As a result forty years of patient scientific work was thrown to the dogs."

Wittels was especially upset by the fact that Horney had a lot of support amongst younger members: "Dr. Horney has surrounded herself with a group of younger and youngest members of our psychoanalytic society whom she has either analyzed herself or supervised. Some of these adolescents in the field show clearly that their transference to their master is still in full bloom, openly confessing in our meetings their deep gratitude for help which they got from Dr. Horney. I have never heard that mine or anybody else's former training analysands have done anything of this kind and if it occurred we would consider it not only in bad taste hut evidence of an incomplete analysis... Our students come to us because of Freud's invulnerable name expecting to be taught the result of forty years of patient psychoanalytic work. Instead, we are urgently asked to teach them a doctrine diametrically opposed to Freud's findings and rejected by probably ninety-nine percent of the experienced members of the International Psychoanalytic Association." (50)

Drawing of Karen Horney by Arthur Libov (c. 1940)
Drawing of Karen Horney by Arthur Libov (c. 1940)

On 29th April, 1941, the Educational Committee of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute decided to demote Horney. As a result, Horney and her supporters decided to resign from the New York Psychoanalytic Society: "When an instructor and training analyst is disqualified solely because of scientific convictions, any hopes we may have harboured for improvement in the policies of the society have been dispelled. We are interested only in the scientific advancement of psychoanalysis in keeping with the courageous spirit of its founder, Sigmund Freud. This obviously cannot be achieved within the framework of the New York Psychoanalytic Society as it is now constituted. Under the circumstances, we have no alternative but to resign." (51)

Karen Horney continued to write and over the next few years published three important books: Self-Analysis (1942), Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis (1945) and Neurosis and Human Growth (1950). When she attempted to visit Japan after the war, the State Department denied her a passport. It was later discovered that the FBI had been monitoring Horney since November, 1940 and was concerned about her involvement with the New School for Social Research. According to the FBI "this institution is known to have communistic sympathies" and "Dr. Horney... is a communist or communist sympathizer". In March 1941, another informant reported that Horney was "probably a Nazi" who had "spoke well" of Rudolf Hess. He added "a work of hers attacking Freud is the only book on psychiatry that the Communist Party allows sold in book shops" and "Madame Horney's books sell fine" in the Soviet Union. A month later, J. Edgar Hoover wrote a letter passing along this information to E. J. Connelly, the assistant director of the FBI. (52)

The FBI recorded the reasons why the passport application was being rejected: "After carefully reviewing this file it is my opinion that Dr. Karen Horney's record follows the familiar pro-Communist or fellow traveller pattern. Her membership and active participation in at least five pro-Communist organizations, it seems is sufficient evidence to prove that she was well aware of the objectives of these organizations and was not just innocently taken in... Dr. Horney is an author and psychologist and with her background will follow the usual pattern of specialists in such subjects, and discuss in a favourable light socialist and communist theories... It is well known that the shock of Japan's defeat has left Japanese educators bewildered and confused, resulting in many becoming receptive to communism... It is, therefore, recommended that she be denied a passport to visit Japan at this time." (53)

In the summer of 1952 Karen Horney was taken ill. She was taken to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and she was discovered to have cancer of the gall bladder, which had spread to the lungs. While in hospital she was visited by a young medical student, Robert Coles. He later wrote: "She knew she was dying, and made no effort to conceal her knowledge from me, a stranger." Horney asked him how many women were in his class at medical school. She was dismayed when he told her "there were three, out of a hundred or so." Horney replied "that a profession so dedicated to caring for people, naturing them... should be so overwhelmingly made up of men". She added that this was not true of the Soviet Union. Her last remark, as he got ready to leave, was "You are young, and maybe when you reach my age the world will be quite different." (54)

Karen Horney died on 4th December 1952. At her funeral service Paul Tillich told the large crowd gathered for the ceremony: "One of the most powerful lives we have known came to an end, unexpectedly except in the last few weeks, unimaginably to most of us, even now after it has happened... She wrote books, but she loved human beings. She helped them to throw light into the dark places of their souls." (55)

In his funeral oration Tillich had failed to point out her major contribution to the feminist movement. It is normally believed that modern feminism began with Simone de Beauvoir and the publication of her book, The Second Sex, in France in 1949 (translated into English for the first time in 1953). However, as she points out, it was the work of Karen Horney that enabled her to mount her attack on people such as Sigmund Freud. Horney is indeed the mother of the modern feminist movement. (56)


(1) Karen Danielsen, diary entry (7th June, 1899)

(2) Jack L. Rubins, Karen Horney: Gentle Rebel of Psychoanalysis (1978) page 18

(3) Richard J. Evans, The Feminist Movement in Germany: 1894-1933 (1976) page 23

(4) Karen Danielsen, diary entry (3rd April, 1901)

(5) Karen Horney, diary entry (5th January, 1911)

(6) Susan Quinn, A Mind of her Own: The Life of Karen Horney (1987) page 40

(7) Jack L. Rubins, Karen Horney: Gentle Rebel of Psychoanalysis (1978) pages 15-17

(8) Karen Danielsen, diary entry (12th January, 1901)

(9) Karen Danielsen, diary entry (18th January, 1901)

(10) Karen Danielsen, diary entry (3rd April, 1901)

(11) Karen Danielsen, diary entry (February, 1903)

(12) Karen Danielsen, diary entry (29th April, 1904)

(13) Bernard J. Paris, Karen Horney: A Psychoanalyst's Search for Self-Understanding (1994) page 6

(14) Marcia Westkott, The Feminist Legacy of Karen Horney (1986) page 7

(15) Jack L. Rubins, Karen Horney: Gentle Rebel of Psychoanalysis (1978) page 28

(16) Peter Gay, Education of the Senses (1984) page 183

(17) Susan Quinn, A Mind of her Own: The Life of Karen Horney (1987) page 101

(18) Simplicissimus Magazine (7th December, 1903)

(19) Simplicissimus Magazine (6th February, 1901)

(20) Susan Quinn, A Mind of her Own: The Life of Karen Horney (1987) page 102

(21) Karen Danielsen, letter to Oskar Horney (11th December, 1906)

(22) Sonni Danielsen, letter to Berndt Danielsen (17th November, 1907)

(23) Susan Quinn, A Mind of her Own: The Life of Karen Horney (1987) page 132

(24) Karen Horney, Self-Analysis (1945) page 55

(25) Karen Horney, diary entry (18th April, 1910)

(26) Bernard J. Paris, Karen Horney: A Psychoanalyst's Search for Self-Understanding (1994) page 47

(27) Jack L. Rubins, Karen Horney: Gentle Rebel of Psychoanalysis (1978) page 38

(28) Karen Horney, diary entry (18th April, 1910)

(29) Karen Horney, diary entry (15th July, 1910)

(30) Susan Quinn, A Mind of her Own: The Life of Karen Horney (1987) page 144

(31) Karl Abraham, letter to Sigmund Freud (28th April, 1910)

(32) Karen Horney, diary entry (20th January, 1911)

(33) Karen Horney, diary entry (5th January, 1911)

(34) Karen Horney, diary entry (20th February, 1911)

(35) Karen Horney, diary entry (11th April, 1911)

(36) Karen Horney, diary entry (14th May, 1911)

(37) Janet Sayers, Mothers of Psychoanalysis (1991) page 90

(38) Karen Horney, On the Genesis of the Castration Complex in Women (1922)

(39) Karen Horney, The Flight from Womanhood (1925)

(40) Ernest Jones, The Early Development of Female Sexuality (1927)

(41) Sigmund Freud, Female Sexuality (1931)

(42) Sigmund Freud, letter to Carl Müller-Braunschweig (21st July, 1935)

(43) Robert Coles, included in Jean Stroud (editor), Dialogues on Psychoanalytic Views of Feminity: Women and Analysis (1974) page 191

(44) Karen Horney, The Problem of the Monogamous Ideal (1927)

(45) Susan Quinn, A Mind of her Own: The Life of Karen Horney (1987) page 239

(46) Franz Alexander, The Western Mind in Transition (1960) page 109

(47) Otto Fenichel, Psychoanalytic Quarterly (September, 1940)

(48) Karl Menninger, The New Republic (8th January, 1940)

(49) Susan Quinn, A Mind of her Own: The Life of Karen Horney (1987) page 325

(50) Fritz Wittels, open letter sent to all members of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute (March, 1940)

(51) Karen Horney, Clara Thompson, Harmon S. Ephron, Bernard S. Robbins and Sarah Kelman, letter of resignation of the New York Psychoanalytic Society (1st May, 1941)

(52) J. Edgar Hoover, letter to E. J. Connelly (17th July, 1942)

(53) Mr. Lory, memorandum to Mr. Warner (19th June, 1952)

(54) Robert Coles, included in Jean Stroud (editor), Dialogues on Psychoanalytic Views of Feminity: Women and Analysis (1974) pages 188-189

(55) Paul Tillich, funeral oration (6th December, 1952)

(56) Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1953) page 299


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