From Freud’s Woman to Lacan’s Women: Implications in Clinical Practice


The theme of the feminine has undergone considerable transformations in the field of psychoanalytic formalisation: the author illustrates these in a path that goes from Freud to Lacan.  From the Freudian universal woman, all ascribable to structure, Lacan moves on to The women, inhabited by an additional pleasure with respect to the phallic, an Other pleasure, not ascribable to structure.  He consigns it to the non-universal register of the one-by-one.  In addition to its theoretical significance, this perspective has significant implications for psychoanalytic practice too.  On the one hand, it revives the importance of work on castration, Freud’s insurmountable “bedrock,” which Lacan instead turned into a strong point; and on the other, it commits analysts to the feminine singularity of each and every one, obliging them to invent new unique solutions for every subject.

In what sense can we talk about female clinical practice or of a specificity of female clinical practice, or of a feminine specificity in clinical practice?

To begin with, for psychoanalysts we cannot talk about these things except by starting from the Freudian conceptualization of the feminine, of being a woman and of the being a woman is.

After surprising us several times with transformations in his formalizations—with his theory of narcissism, with the passage from the first to the second topic and that from the first to the second drives division—in the early 1930s Freud surprises us again.  Not only does he confess he ultimately understands nothing about women and their desire and that this initially seems to make the job of analyst senseless to him (as he confessed to Ernest Jones) but this observation also radically undermines the conception of the Oedipus complex.

Behind the “classical” Oedipus complex, Freud discovers what he had so far neglected, something far more radical, and which he was to call, borrowing the term from the explorer Clarke, “the dark continent” (Freud 1931).

This is the original investment of the girl child on her mother.  In the case of a heterosexual object choice in adult life, this investment has to undergo a laborious contortion in order for it to shift towards a male object.

At this point in his path, Freud realizes that there is no symmetry in the two sexes with respect to the Oedipus complex. In the woman it is marked by the girl‘s first love, her passionate obstinate love for her mother.  A love that is destined to burn out, at least in theory, because it is impossible to fulfil.  And a love accompanied by the hatred caused by the shocking discovery that the mother lacks the fundamental attribute—the phallus—made even before the discovery that she lacks it too.  The girl’s love for her mother is boundless and by definition marked by furious recrimination: you didn’t give me enough milk, you seduced and abandoned me and, above all, you failed to give me the most precious of attributes.  Even though Freud, rather than phallus, with all the implications we will find connected to the term in Lacan, talks about the penis, the actual organ men possess and women do not.

The subsequent tenacious attachment of the girl to her father is only the inheritance of an equally strong and lasting attachment to the mother.  Its intensity is for Freud (1931b) an indicator: the stronger the bond with the mother was, the stronger the bond with the father will be; an element that obviously has significant implications in clinical practice.  How often have we seen a shift from the mother to the man of the features of love investment?

The Freudian solution (disappointing and unsatisfying for Freud himself) is that what makes a woman a woman is becoming a mother.  She can only replace the missing phallus with a child bestowed by a father.  The love for this child should thus replace and appease the burning passion for the mother and compensate for the demand addressed to the latter.  Providing that what can tie a woman to a man has survived the catastrophe of the bond with the mother (Freud 1931c).

For Freud anatomy represents a destiny; woman lacks something, so Penisneid exists.  I’ve seen it, I want it too! The fundamental operation is replacing the phallus with something else, as a rule with a child.  What a good woman! You’ve got a kid! The solution of the feminine question is for Freud at the level of having something.  Woman exists insofar as she possesses something: a child—or another substitute for the phallus—knowledge a man, and so on.  La bourgeoise too, as Lacan would call the woman par excellence, possesses things: money, property, classiness.  There are also ways by which certain women act as if they were not lacking anything, women who demand no possession.  Some women fit into this position perfectly: women partners who ask not, who do not question man’s desire, insofar as they are lackers.

Other women do not want to fit into such a role.  Are they hysterics? Or are they Women? A thorny question…

Freud’s solution does not contravene the fact that, despite the oedipal codification, women become women through very tortuous and unpredictable paths.  In short, they are less tied down to structure.

For Freud, however, the well-accomplished woman is the mother.  He comes up with a solution that entirely restores the well-known oedipal coordinates that had previously wavered.  His bold interrogative—what does a woman want?—is destined to remain pending, but it has been posed nonetheless.

Some forty years later Lacan picks up and launches again the Freudian interrogative leading him to state the provoking and misunderstood aphorism that “the woman does not exist”.  She does not exist because only the mother exists in the unconscious; the maternal position that falls within the oedipal field.  To the oedipal triad, Lacan, in a radical attempt to de-psychologize psychoanalysis, adds a fourth element; the phallus.  What counts for Lacan is the relationship of the subject, whether man or woman, with the phallus.  For Lacan the so-called primacy of the phallus (not denoting the biological organ) means that we are all subject to the laws of language, that we are all speaking beings.  Language is not something to learn, as it is for so much evolutionary psychoanalysis, but waits for the subject at birth; it pervades it throughout its history and it constitutes it.  Precisely because according to Lacan the unconscious is structured in the same way as a language, it is capable of producing effects of sense, it always says more than conscience, it transcends us and divides us.  The Oedipus thus rectified by Lacan is the structure that determines us, that introduces the incest prohibition (i.e. castration) and makes man human.

For Freud sexual difference is given by what a human being has or does not have, which for him has largely to do with anatomy, with a real lack.  Lacan confers to the phallus an imaginary status; it becomes an imaginary object the mother does not have and that is the object of her desire.  The discovery that the woman lacks it makes the child want to be the very thing which she lacks.  The child wants to fill the mother’s lack, to be the phallus she is missing.  On the mother’s side, her desire to have a child is to become complete with the missing phallus.  But the phallus has value even when it is not present, when we relinquish it at the imaginary level.  Thanks to its symbolic status and to the subject’s relationship to it, the phallus operationally functions as a signifier.  For Lacan the primacy of the phallus simply means that all of us, men and women, are subject to the symbolic order.  The point is not that someone has something more or something less, which is the classic misunderstanding Freud has unwillingly fed.

The first submission to the limit that castration represents, one that Lacan—in contrast to Freud—turns into an asset, is the fact that we are symbolic beings, speaking beings.  For men the stakes, in the cure and in life, are giving up identification with the imaginary phallus and identifying with the symbolic phallus, that is with the paternal function that breaks the imaginary mother-child dyad.  This other necessary aspect of symbolic castration makes it possible to find a place in the world.

For women the Lacanian solution is more complicated.  They too are expected to give up identification with the imaginary phallus, but also to give up wanting to possess it, otherwise the result is hysteria.  Accepting the lack, which is due to all of us, along with the possibility of enjoying the man’s phallus and becoming the object of his pleasure is the path open to women, as Lacan conceptualized  it, at least up to a certain point in his thinking.  As we can see, this solution, which is on the side of being, consists in, as Miller (2009) points out, metabolizing the lack, in putting it into play.  We could say that woman is par excellence she who must carry out such an operation, and she who is in a condition to do so.  After these respective passages, the subject, man or woman, will be able to enjoy an object of investment—which Lacan will call object a—that has a phallic value, and that is subject to the law of castration and to structure.  Enjoyment thus achieved is the so-called phallic enjoyment, an enjoyment that has been subjected to the ban on incest and on the maternal body: this is the woman’s position so far, subjected to the laws of the structure.

Later, Lacan proposes a different female position, while, at the same time, distinguishing hysterics from women (Lacan 2007; Cavasola 2013), going as far as to say that an hysteric is not a woman.  Lacan is thinking out another way of being for the woman, a radically different one that culminates in the statement that “the woman does not exist” (Lacan 1975).  What does this so frequently misunderstood assertion mean?

The woman does not exist because Lacan believes it is impossible to conceptualize her.  The woman does not exist as a concept, as a rule that applies to all women, according to the law, according to what falls within scope of the oedipal, or, in Lacan’s words, within the scope of the phallic.

The woman does not exist because only Women can exist, each one in her own way—all to discover, all to invent.  Woman is no longer a concept, but a contingence that, in contrast to men, makes them Women.  She is firmly tied to the experience and subjective enjoyment of every woman, to Freud’s “what does a woman want?” Hence another enjoyment arises alongside phallic enjoyment, feminine enjoyment, the plus that makes the woman and can turn her into something uncanny for the man and for herself (Cimino 2012).  Uncanny is what escapes us, because not entirely reabsorbed by the law and structure that apply to all and the effects of which we see every day.  Sometimes the solution for grasping what escapes us, for deceiving oneself into thinking we have power over it, is to hush it up forever.

Therefore, the Lacanian answer, which remains open, to the Freudian interrogative is that something in being woman, in women or in whomever takes on a feminine position, escapes the so-called primacy of the phallus.  His indication is to renounce the illusion of phallic mastery and power, which in female enjoyment becomes radical, of course with all the risks involved.

Early on Lacan draws on the question of the biological bedrock against which, according to Freud, any cure was fated to run aground, making it the stakes at play in any analysis and its ending and/or aim.  I am referring of course to castration and more specifically to the Freudian text “Analysis Terminable and Interminable” (Freud 1937), his anguished reply to Ferenczi who accused him of not curing him enough.  What is Ferenczi actually blaming Freud for? For not restoring him to an original state of bliss and completeness? Basically, for not healing his lack?  Freud’s answer, which represents one of his fundamental legacies, is that you cannot go beyond the biological bedrock.  That ultimately castration can only remain castration anxiety.  No man withstands passive submission to the father, he seeks it – because he seeks his love, and this is another aspect of the Oedipus, the other face of rivalry – but he cannot withstand it.  In other words, castration is a negative for Freud while it is a positive for Lacan: the acquisition and subjectivization of a limit.  Paradoxically, the Freudian position consists in finding oneself to be impotent because not castrated (the Freudian model is always male).

The Freudian myth of the father corresponds to what Lacan defines Freud’s dream (meant precisely as the fulfillment of a desire): the murder of the father and the desire for the mother, which are equivalent (Lacan 2001).  According to Lacan this is the enjoyment that holds Freud back, preventing him from moving beyond “his” biological bedrock.  Instead, the need to submit oneself to the limit of castration is, in Lacan is thought what allows us to find a position in the world: partner, father, and so on.

Therefore, Lacan strongly resumes Freud’s interrogation of the feminine, in itself left suspended, from another viewpoint: that of the relationship to the phallus and to castration.  If the woman is not-all, not all there in the structure, then the father must try to handle this feminine not-all, not (only) with the universal of the Woman, but with her singularity too.  Submission to castration is necessary, but not sufficient to deal with the feminine singularity of each and every woman.  Lacan’s path beyond the Oedipus implies a resizing of the father, ever less universal and ever more employed in handling the singularity of a woman—and hence of his own woman.

From my point of view, what has been said so far importantly revives clinical work on castration, with all its ethical implications.  The work that imposes itself in the field of the cure, with regard to castration and lacking, represents a conception that is quite the opposite of what constitutes common current practice.  According to the latter, it is possible—and actually represents an aim of treatment—to heal any damage caused by cures that are themselves lacking, by offering alternative ones, including empathy, mirroring, and on.  Of course, the ethical implications of these different perspectives on the cure are enormous.  Not that during an analysis we never find ourselves facing an impasse due to the Freudian biological bedrock, it actually happens most of the time. Refusal is ubiquitous; there is no difference between men and women on this point.  However, beyond Freud’s dream of the universal that aims at the mother, there exists a father who is called upon to answer the Freudian interrogative what does a woman want?—and to handle the enjoyment of the individual woman – who is not The mother—he has chosen and by whom he has been chosen.


Cavasola, R. (2013) L’isteria, la depressione e Lacan (Macerata: Quodlibet).


Cimino, C. (2012) “Davanti all’Altro animale. A proposito di Derrida”, in La Psicoanalisi, 52, pp. 83-91.


Freud, S.:

— (1931b) “Female Sexuality”, SE, 21, pp. 213-243.

— (1937c) “Analysis Terminable and Interminable”, SE, 23, pp. 211-253.


Lacan, J.:

— (1975) Le Séminaire. Livre XX. Encore (1972-1973) (Paris: Seuil).

— (1991) Le Séminaire. Livre XVII. L’envers de la psychanalyse (Paris: Seuil).

— (2007) Le Séminaire. Livre XVIII. D’un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant (1971) (Paris : Seuil).


Miller, J.A. (2009) “Dei sembianti nella relazione tra I sessi”, in La Psicoanalisi, 45.


Cristiana Cimino, MD, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, with a Freudian and Lacanian training. She practices in Rome. She is Associate Member of the Italian Psychoanalytic Society, SPI (IPA). She is a member of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Psychoanalysis (ISAP). She has been editor of the European Journal of Psychoanalysis. She has long worked on the thought of the psychoanalyst Elvio Fachinelli.  She has published several texts in specialized journals, in various languages, including English.  She is the author of Il discorso amorosoDall’amore della madre al godimento femminile (Roma:  Manifestolibri, 2015) [].

Publication Date:

August 25, 2015

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