Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society

Students, as part of an advanced seminar, examined and wrote about the lives of these women, their intellectual contributions, and the unique impact and special problems that being female had on their careers.

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Karen Horney

Karen Horney was a pioneering theorist in personality, psychoanalysis, and "feminine psychology".


Horney was born near Hamburg, Germany on September 16, 1885, the second child of Clotilde and Berndt Wackels Danielson. Although her father often bought her gifts and took her on exciting trips, she felt ignored by him. She thought that he was too strict and that he favored her older brother, Berndt.

Growing up was not an easy process for Karen. She battled depression from the time she was nine, stemming from the crush that she had on her brother followed by the rejection she felt when he rejected her love. At around the same time, she became very ambitious and rebellious. As she did not see herself as an attractive girl, she was certain that doing good in school was the best alternative. She once said, "School is the only true thing after all".

As a young woman, important milestones and great pressure plagued Karen. Three years after her acceptance into college, Karen was married to Oskar Horney, a law student that she had met in school. In 1910, Karen gave birth to their first of three daughters, Brigitte. Just one year later, her mother died. Next, Horney gave birth to her second and third daughters, Marianne and Renate, in 1913 and 1916, respectively. Karen turned to Freudian analysis to help her through these difficult, tiring times.

Karen's education was a major contributor to her fatigue. She had to justify her actions for going to medical school to her family in 1906, a time when society did not find importance in rewarding girls for their hard work in the classroom. Education and university admittance became available to women in Germany only a few years earlier, in 1900. She entered the University of Freiburg in 1906, one of the first universities in Germany to admit women as matriculated students. Of the 2,350 students at the university in 1906, only 58 were women. In 1908, she transferred to the University of Gottingen along with her husband. She graduated from the University of Berlin in 1913, earning her medical degree.

In the same way her father was, Oskar proved to be a harsh father. His business soon shut down and he became quite ill, adding to his temperament. Her brother's death, along with her husband's behavior, contributed to Karen's depression and suicidal thoughts in 1923. In 1926, Karen and her daughters moved out of Oskar's home, waiting until 1930 to set up a life in the United States.

Horney's career began at the Institute for Psychoanalysis in Berlin, where she taught from 1920 to 1932. Karl Abraham worked with her and regarded her as one of his most gifted analysts. Karen's first American job was as the Associate Director of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, a position she held for two years. The family eventually settled in what was then thought of as the intellectual capital of the world, Brooklyn. There, Karen became colleagues with such distinguished men as Erich Fromm and Harry Stack Sullivan. She also had the opportunity to develop her own theories on neurosis, based on her experiences as a psychotherapist. In addition, she taught at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. By 1941, Horney established and became Dean of the American Institute for Psychoanalysis, a training institute for those interested in her own Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis, a program that resulted from her dissatisfaction with the orthodox approach to psychoanalysis; the negativity surrounding her for deviating from Freud had forced her to resign. She also founded the American Journal of Psychoanalysis. Shortly after, she began teaching at the New York Medical College.

Karen practiced, taught, and wrote up until her death in 1952.

Theory of Neurotic Needs

While debatable, many agree that Horney's theory of neurosis is the best that exists today. She looked at neurosis in a different light, saying that it was much more continuous with normal life than other theorists believed. Furthermore, she saw neurosis as an attempt to make life bearable, as an interpersonal controlling and coping technique.

Horney thought it a mistake to think that neuroses in adults is caused by abuse or neglect in one's childhood. She, instead, named parental indifference the true culprit behind neurosis. The key to understanding this phenomenon is the child's perception, rather than the parent's intentions, she said. A child may feel a lack of warmth and affection if a parent, who is otherwise occupied or neurotic themselves, makes fun of their child's thinking or neglects to fulfill promises, for example.

Using her clinical experience, Horney named ten particular patterns of neurotic needs. They are based on things that all humans need, but that are distorted in some because of difficulties within their lives. As she investigated them further, she found that she could clump the ten into three broad coping strategies.

The first strategy is compliance, also known as the moving-toward strategy or the self- effacing solution. Most children facing parental indifference use this strategy. They often have a fear of helplessness and abandonment, or what Horney referred to as basic anxiety. This strategy includes the first three needs: the need for affection and approval, which is the indiscriminate need to both please others and be liked by them; the neurotic need for a partner, for someone else to take over one's life, encompassing the idea that love will solve all of one's problems; and the neurotic need to restrict one's life into narrow boarders, including being undemanding, satisfied with little, inconspicuous.

Horney's second broad coping strategy is aggression, also called the moving-against and the expansive solution. Here, children's first reaction to parental indifference is anger, or basic hostility. Needs four through eight fall under this category. The fourth need is for power, for control over others, and for a facade of omnipotence. Fifth is the neurotic need to exploit others and to get the better of them. Another need is for social recognition and prestige, with the need for personal admiration falling along the same lines. The eighth neurotic need is for personal achievement.

The final coping strategy is withdrawal, often labeled the moving-away-from or resigning solution. When neither aggression nor compliance eliminate the parental indifference, Horney recognized that children attempt to solve the problem by becoming self- sufficient. This includes the neurotic needs for self sufficiency and independence and those for perfection and unassailability.

While it is human for everyone to have these needs to some extent, the neurotic's need is much more intense, Horney explained. He or she will experience great anxiety if the need is not met or if it appears that the need will not be met in the future. The neurotic, therefore, makes the need too central to their existence. Horney's ideas of neurotic needs mirrored those of Adler in many ways. Together, Adler and Horney make up an unofficial school of psychiatry and they are often referred to as neo-Freudians or Social Psychologists.


Horney often criticized the work of Sigmund Freud. For instance, she opposed Freud's notion of penis envy, claiming that what Freud was really detecting was women's justified envy of men's power in the world. While penis envy might occur occasionally in neurotic women, she said, womb envy occurs just as much in men. Horney felt that men were envious of a woman's ability to bear children. The degree to which men are driven to succeed and to have their names live on, she said, is mere compensation for their inability to more directly extend themselves into the future by means of carrying, nurturing, and bearing children. She did not understand why psychologists found the need to place much emphasis on men's sexual apparatus. Furthermore, Horney desexualized Freud's oedipal complex, claiming that the clinging to one parent and jealousy of the other was simply the result of anxiety caused by a disturbance in the parent-child relationship.

In her personality theory, Horney reformulated Freudian thought and presented a holistic, humanistic perspective that emphasized cultural and social influences, human growth, and the achievement of self-actualization. Though she was often considered to be too outspoken, Horney often has the distinction of being the only woman whose theory is included in personality textbooks.

Feminine Psychology

As the first woman to present a paper on feminine psychology at an international meeting, Karen Horney pioneered and developed a feminine psychology that provided a new way of thinking about women. It has been said that the fourteen papers that she wrote between 1922 and 1937, which she compiled to form a volume titled "Feminine Psychology", could, by themselves, have earned Horney an important place in the history of psychology. She had a feeling that, as a woman, it was her task to work out a fuller understanding for specifically female trends and attitudes in life. In her "The Problem of Feminine Masochism", Horney proved that culture and society encouraged women to be dependent on men for love, prestige, wealth, care, and protection. She pointed out the overemphasis on pleasing men and the overvaluation of men and love. Women, she found, were to be beautiful and charming, according to society. Also, women gained value only through their husbands children, and family. Her "The Distrust Between the Sexes" compared the husband-wife relationship to a parent-child relationship. In "The Problem of the Monogamous Ideal", Karen focused on marriage, and six of her other papers were based on marriage problems. Finally, her "Maternal Conflicts", shed new light on the problems associated with raising adolescents.

Horney further benefited women with her ideas of self-analysis. She referred to these notions to write one of the first "self-help" books. Those with relatively minor neurotic problems, she said, could be their own psychiatrists. She stressed that self-awareness was a part of becoming a better, stronger, richer human being.

Self Theory

Horney believed that the self is the core of one's being, their potential. If one has an accurate conception of themselves, they are free to realize their potential. The healthy person's real self is aimed at reaching their self-actualization throughout life.

The neurotic's self is split, however, into an ideal self and a despised self. One's ideal self is created when one feels they are lacking in some area of life and are not living up to the ideals that they should be. What they "should" be is their ideal. This ideal self is not a positive goal, nor is it realistic or possible. The despised self, on the other hand, is the feeling that one is hated by all around them; one assumes that this hated being is their true self. The neurotic, therefore, swings back and forth between pretending to be perfect and hating themselves. Horney called this inner battle the "tyranny of the shoulds" and the neurotic's "striving for glory". These two impossible selves prevent the neurotic from ever reaching their potential.


Karen Horney was undoubtedly a great influence to numerous self-psychologists, humanists, cognitive therapists, psychoanalysts, feminists, and existentialists. As a theorist, leader, teacher, and therapist, Horney made numerous contributions that have been highly significant in shaping and advancing psychological thought. The Karen Horney Clinic is a research, training, and low-cost treatment center. The institution was opened on May 6, 1955 in honor of the woman's important achievements.


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