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date: 22 October 2019

Horney, Karen Theodora Clementina Danielsenfree

(15 September 1885–04 December 1952)
  • Susan Quinn

Karen Theodora Clementina Danielsen Horney.

Oil on canvas, c. 1940-1950, by Suzanne Carvallo Schulein.

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Horney, Karen Theodora Clementina Danielsen (15 September 1885–04 December 1952), psychoanalyst, was born near Hamburg, Germany, the daughter of Berndt Wackels Danielsen, a sea captain, and Clothilde Marie van Ronzelen. Among the first to benefit from the gradual opening of German education to women, Karen Danielsen entered a girls’ Gymnasium in Hamburg in the first year of its existence and embarked on medical studies at the University of Freiburg just six years after its doors opened to women. In 1909 she married Oskar Horney, a doctoral student she had met in Freiburg who was embarking on a career as an executive in the Stinnes Corporation in Berlin. In Berlin, Horney continued her medical studies in the field of psychiatry and obtained her medical degree in 1915. By that time she had become deeply engrossed in a new and little-known discipline called psychoanalysis, imported to Berlin by Karl Abraham, a follower of Sigmund Freud.

In 1910 Horney’s own unhappiness as well as her curiosity led her to undertake personal analysis with Abraham, Freud’s only disciple in Berlin at the time. Within two years she had become a participant in Abraham’s seminars on psychoanalysis, and within seven years she was lecturing on the techniques used in psychoanalytic treatment. While overseeing the rearing of her three daughters and running a bourgeois household in the Berlin suburbs, Horney developed a psychoanalytic practice of her own and became a prominent member of the growing Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute with particular responsibility for psychoanalytic education. In 1926 her marriage, which was troubled by infidelities on both sides and the collapse of the German economy, ended in separation. Around the same time, Horney began to write and publish a series of papers of enduring significance.

In a 1922 paper, “On the Genesis of the Castration Complex in Women,” Horney first took issue with Freud’s psychology of women. According to Freud, women are powerfully affected by the early realization that they do not possess a penis. Because the vagina is not seen or known in childhood, the girl concludes that the male organ is the norm, that she once had a penis but lost it through castration. Envy of the male takes hold and is likely to last a lifetime. If a woman bears children, they will be experienced as a compensation for this profound deprivation.

Horney suggested a very different interpretation of male and female experience. In “Genesis” she wrote that “we have assumed as an axiomatic fact that females feel at a disadvantage because of their genital organs… . Nevertheless, the conclusion so far drawn from the investigations—amounting as it does to an assertion that one half of the human race is discontented with the sex assigned to it . . . is decidedly unsatisfying, not only to feminine narcissism but also to biological science.”

In “The Flight from Womanhood” (1926), Horney suggested that “penis envy” is in fact a male invention, based not on what little girls truly experience, but on what males suppose they must experience. Boys, for instance, are troubled when they discover that girls do not have a penis. Girls, as Freud concluded, must be similarly disconcerted. Horney suggested, however, that the concept of penis envy may be a male construct, a product of “a one-sidedness in our observations, due to their being made from the man’s point of view.” Horney further asserted that women’s bodies bring with them certain advantages, such as the “bliss” of bearing a new life and the “deep pleasurable feeling” of nursing and caring for a new baby, and she suggested that motherhood gives women “a quite indisputable … physiological superiority.” There is reason, in fact, for men to envy women.

Horney did not coin the phrase “womb envy,” but she was the first within psychoanalysis to argue for its existence. She also argued, in this and subsequent essays, that women’s feelings of inferiority, which often are real enough, have more to do with society than with inherent, biological constraints. “Our culture,” she wrote in “Inhibited Femininity” (1926), “is a male culture, and therefore by and large not favorable to the unfolding of woman and her individuality.” The fourteen papers Horney wrote between 1922 and 1935 constitute an impressively full and persuasive challenge to Freud. Although he acknowledged Horney’s essays, Freud did not substantially change his own views of what he called the “riddle of femininity.” Had she written nothing else these papers would have earned Horney a place of importance in the history of psychoanalysis.

In 1932, lured by the promise of a position at the newly formed Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute and troubled by early signs of fascism in Germany, Horney left Berlin for the United States. She settled with her youngest daughter in Chicago, where she served as second in command to the somewhat younger Franz Alexander, a Hungarian who had trained at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute. She stayed at the Chicago Institute for two years, during which time she won the admiration of many students but, for unclear reasons, came into conflict with Alexander.

In 1934 she moved to New York City, where she was to live and practice for the rest of her life. She soon became part of a lively circle of intellectuals, including Paul Tillich and Erich Fromm. Like many of the most brilliant refugees from Hitler’s Germany, Horney began lecturing at the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village. Because of her clarity and dramatic flair, the lectures became enormously popular events, remembered for years afterward by many who attended. She had the ability to make listeners feel she was addressing them personally, and speaking of their own personal problems. That same ability contributed to the popularity of her five books, which were written in English. The first, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (1937), went through thirteen printings in a decade. Paperback editions of her books began appearing in the 1960s and have sold over a million copies.

Horney’s books address a constellation of themes now grouped under the rubric “narcissistic.” They reflect her own difficulties in the area of self-love and love for others, including her lifelong inability to find a lasting, satisfying love relationship. The Neurotic Personality describes a particular kind of neurotic: a person who is guided in most situations by a need for love or, more precisely, a need to be loved, “an indiscriminate hunger for appreciation or affection.” The need is grounded in a profound insecurity that forces the afflicted person to seek constant reassurance. Underlying this need is a deep feeling of anxiety—what Horney called “basic anxiety”—originating in childhood. As in her earlier essays on female sexuality, Horney emphasized the social factors that contribute to neurosis, and she suggested that such neurotic configurations were especially widespread in twentieth-century America, where competition and cravings for outward success left individuals feeling “emotionally isolated.”

Because of her popular appeal, Horney was viewed with suspicion at the hierarchical and exclusive New York Psychoanalytic Institute. When she published a second book, which directly challenged some of Freud’s basic ideas, her position at the New York Institute became even more problematic. In New Ways in Psychoanalysis (1939), Horney credited Freud with genius and vision but suggested that he placed too much emphasis on the scientific values of the nineteenth century. His biological orientation, she argued, led him to place instinct at the center of his theory and to give very little autonomy to the ego. Although Freud had ascribed a far more complex role to the ego and added the superego as his ideas developed over his lifetime, the grounding of psychoanalysis in instinct theory made the id the source of energy and the ego a borrower of it. “As long as the ‘ego’ is considered to be by its very nature merely a servant and supervisor of the ‘id,’ it cannot be itself an object of therapy,” Horney wrote. She argued that the “ ‘ego,’ in its weakness,” should be “regarded as an essential part of the neurosis.” The analyst should work toward changing the ego, toward the “ultimate goal of having the patient retrieve … his ‘spiritual self.’ ”

Horney’s focus on the ego, even before New Ways, had made her a pioneer in what is now generally referred to as “ego psychology.” But the book was greeted by Horney’s psychoanalytic colleagues with nearly unrelieved hostility. She was viewed as an upstart who wanted to do away with the essence of psychoanalysis. And her timing gave the appearance of insensitivity: the same year that New Ways appeared, Freud died, painfully and in exile, in England. Meanwhile, a controversy was growing at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute about the increasingly popular teachings of Horney and her followers. In the fall of 1939, Horney’s presentation of her ideas to the membership caused an uproar, with indignation on both the traditional and the Horney side. Over the next two years the institute grew increasingly hostile to Horney and to students who were drawn to her and other analysts, such as Clara Thompson and Abram Kardiner, who shared some of her views. Students who were sympathetic to Horney complained that they were being harassed and denied advancement in the institute. The institute leaders insisted that this was untrue. Finally, fearing that Horney’s popularity and influence was growing beyond its control, the Education Committee of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute voted in the early spring of 1941 to demote Horney. She walked out of the meeting at which the vote was upheld by the membership, followed by Thompson and three younger analysts, and never returned.

During the last nine years of her life, Horney founded her own institute, which continues today as the Horney Institute in New York City. In 1942 she wrote Self-Analysis, in which she dealt at length with unhealthy dependency, or “morbid dependency.” Her last two books, Our Inner Conflicts (1945) and Neurosis and Human Growth (1950), systematize her theory of the way in which individuals deal with conflict and suggest a common neurotic defense she calls the “pride system,” which interferes with finding a true self. In her final years, Horney developed an interest in Zen. Shortly before her death she traveled to Zen monasteries in Japan with the Zen master D. T. Suzuki. She died in New York City.

Horney’s early writings on female sexuality, which were rediscovered by feminists after they were translated into English and compiled under the title Feminine Psychology (1967), were ignored for many years because of her later “heresies” against Freudian orthodoxy. But, as Zenia Odes Fliegel noted in the Psychoanalytic Quarterly (42, no. 3 [1973], Horney “originated many ideas and observations which reappear in later writings on the subject.” The psychologist Robert Coles called Horney “a prophet” who “dared look with some distance and detachment at her own profession, and … anticipated … a future historical moment” (in Jean Strouse, ed., Dialogues on Psychoanalytic Views of Femininity: Women and Analysis [1974]). In her five books Horney not only touched the lives of many people; she also sounded themes that have since been taken up and orchestrated by the ego psychologists and the self psychologists. Without using the term, Horney focused on “narcissistic personality,” and her ideas have been echoed in more recent writings by Christopher Lasch and Heinz Kohut. Many of her criticisms of Freud have come to be widely accepted by a majority in her field.


Horney’s papers have been contributed to the Yale University Library. In addition to the books referred to above, Horney edited a series of essays, Are You Considering Psychoanalysis? (1946), which continues to be a worthwhile guide to the possibilities and pitfalls of psychoanalysis. The Adolescent Diaries of Karen Horney (1980) are a lively reflection of Horney’s girlhood intelligence and vigor. Final Lectures (edited by Douglas H. Ingram), a transcription of Horney’s last talks, address analytic technique. Marcia Westkott, The Feminist Legacy of Karen Horney (1986), places Horney’s last work in a feminist framework. Janet Sayers, Mothers of Psychoanalysis (1991), examines Horney’s contributions along with those of other important women in the field of psychoanalysis. There have been three biographies: Jack L. Rubins, Karen Horney: Gentle Rebel of Psychoanalysis (1978); Susan Quinn, A Mind of Her Own: The Life of Karen Horney (1987); and Bernard J. Paris, Karen Horney: A Psychoanalyst’s Search for Self-Understanding (1994). An obituary is in the New York Times, 5 Dec. 1952.