woman (femme) Freud's account of SEXUAL DIFFERENCE is based on the
view that there are certain psychical characteristics that can be called 'mascu-
line' and others that can be called 'feminine', and that these differ from each
other significantly. However, Freud constantly refuses to give any definition of
the terms 'masculine' and 'feminine', arguing that they are foundational
concepts which can be used but not elucidated by psychoanalytic theory
(Freud, 1920a: SE XVIII, 171).
One feature of this opposition is that the two terms do not function in an
exactly symmetrical way. Masculinity is taken by Freud as the paradigm; he
asserts that there is only one libido, which is masculine, and that the psychical
development of the girl is at first identical to that of the boy, only diverging at
a later moment. Femininity is thus that which diverges from the masculine
paradigm, and Freud regards it as a mysterious, unexplored region, a 'dark
continent' (Freud, 1926e: SE XX, 212). The 'riddle of the nature of femininity'
(Freud, 1933a: SE XXII, l 13) comes to preoccupy Freud in his later writings,
and drives him to ask the famous question, 'What does woman want?' (see
Jones, 1953-7: vol. 2, 468). Masculinity is a self-evident given, femininity is a
zone of mystery:
Psychoanalysis does not try to describe what a woman is - that would be a
task it could scarcely perform - but sets about enquiring how she comes into
being, how a woman develops out of a child with a bisexual disposition.
(Freud, 1933a: SE XXII, 116).
Apart from a few remarks on the function of the MOTHER in the family
complexes (Lacan, 1938), Lacan's pre-war writings do not engage with the
debate on femininity. The occasional statements on the subject which occur in
Lacan's work in the early 1950s are couched in terms derived from Claude
LÈvi-Strauss; women are seen as objects of exchange which circulate like signs
between kinship groups (see LÈvi-Strauss, 1949b). 'Women in the real order
serve . . . as objects for the exchanges required by the elementary structures of
kinship' (E, 207). Lacan argues that it is precisely the fact that woman is
pushed into the position of an exchange object that constitutes the difficulty of
the feminine position:
For her, there's something insurmountable, let us say unacceptable, in the
fact of being placed in the position of an object in the symbolic order, to
which, on the other hand, she is entirely subjected no less than the man.
Lacan's analysis of the Dora case makes the same point: what is unacceptable
for Dora is her position as object of exchange between her father and Herr K
(see Lacan, 1951a). Being in this position of exchange object means that
woman 'has a relation of the second degree to this symbolic order' (S2,
262; see S4, 95-6).
In 1956, Lacan takes up the traditional association of HYSTERIA with femi-
ninity, arguing that hysteria is in fact nothing other than the question of
femininity itself, the question which may be phrased 'What is a woman?'.
This is true for both male and female hysterics (S3, 178). The term 'woman'
here refers not to some biological essence but to a position in the symbolic
order; it is synonymous with the term 'feminine position'. Lacan also argues
that 'there is no symbolisation of woman's sex as such', since there is no
feminine equivalent to the 'highly prevalent symbol' provided by the phallus
(S3, 176). This symbolic dissymmetry forces the woman to take the same route
through the Oedipus complex as the boy, i.e. to identify with the father.
However, this is more complex for the woman, since she is required to take
the image of a member of the other sex as the basis for her identification (S3,
Lacan returns to the question of femininity in 1958, in a paper entitled
'Guiding remarks for a congress on feminine sexuality' (Lacan, 1958d). In
this paper he notes the impasses which have beset psychoanalytic discussions
of feminine sexuality, and argues that woman is the Other for both men and
women; 'Man here acts as the relay whereby the woman becomes this Other
for herself as she is this Other for him' (Ec, 732).
Lacan's most important contributions to the debate on femininity come, like
Freud's, late in his work. In the seminar of 1972-3, Lacan advances the
concept of a specifically feminine JOUISSANCE Which goes 'beyond the phal-
lus' (S20, 69); this jouissance is 'of the order of the infinite', like mystical
ecstasy (S20, 44). Women may experience this jouissance, but they knoW
nothing about it (S20, 71). It is also in this seminar that Lacan takes up his
controversial formula, first advanced in the seminar of 1970-1, 'Woman does
not exist' (la femme n'existe pas - Lacan, 1973a: 60), which he here rephrases
as 'there is no such thing as Woman' (il n'y a pas La femme - S20, 68). As is
clear in the original French, what Lacan puts into question is not the noun
'woman', but the definite article which precedes it. In French the definite
article indicates universality, and this is precisely the characteristic that
women lack; women 'do not lend themselves to generalisation, even to
phallocentric generalisation' (Lacan, 1975b). Hence Lacan strikes through
the definite article whenever it precedes the term femme in much the same
way as he strikes through the A to produce the symbol for the barred Other, for
like woman, the Other does not exist (see BAR). To press home the point, Lacan
speaks of woman as 'not-all' (pas-toute; S20, 13); unlike masculinity, which is
a universal function founded upon the phallic exception (castration), woman is
a non-universal which admits of no exception. Woman is compared to truth,
since both partake of the logic of the not-all (there is no such thing as all
women; it is impossible to say 'the whole truth') (Lacan, 1973a: 64).
Lacan goes on in 1975 to state that 'a woman is a symptom' (Lacan, 1974-5:
seminar of 21 January 1975). More precisely, a woman is a symptom of a man,
in the sense that a woman can only ever enter the psychic economy of men as a
fantasy object (a), the cause of their desire.
Lacan's remarks on woman and on feminine sexuality have become the
focus of controversy and debate in feminist theory. Feminists have divided
over whether to see Lacan as an ally or an enemy of the feminist cause. Some
have seen his theories as providing an incisive description of patriarchy and as
a way of challenging fixed concepts of sexual identity (e.g. Mitchell and Rose,
1982). Others have argued that his concept of the symbolic order reinstates
patriarchy as a transhistorical given, and that his privileging of the phallus
simply repeats the alleged misogynies of Freud himself (e.g. Gallop, 1982;
Grosz, 1990). For representative samples of the debate, see Adams and Cowie
(1990) and Brennan (1989). For a Lacanian account of feminine sexuality, see
Kid A In Alphabet Land Wallops Another Wayward Wench - The Wanton Woman!
Wouldn't I Like To Whack You - But Isn't That What You Want! You Fill Out The Lack In Man! You Are The Ideal Partner With Whom The Sexual Relationship Is Finally Realized - Not! Hmph! The Woman Doesn't Exist!