Photo of Karen Horney

Karen Horney





Training Location(s):

MD, University of Berlin (1913)

Primary Affiliation(s):

Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute (1918-1932)

New York Psychoanalytic Institute (1934-1941)

New York Medical College (1941-1952)

Career Focus:

Psychoanalysis; feminism; female psychosexual development; penis envy; Oedipus Complex.


Karen Horney (nee Danielson) was born near Hamburg, Germany on September 16, 1885. Her father was a religious, authoritarian ship's captain, while her mother was a well-educated, more liberal intellectual who encouraged Danielson in her studies. Her father was a widower with four teenaged children. Danielson was the second child from his new marriage, the first being a favoured older brother. Unflattering comments by her father relating to both her looks and her intelligence led Danielson to decide, at the age of nine, that if she couldn't be pretty, then she would be smart. At age nine she also battled depression for the first time and would continue the battle throughout her life. At 13, Danielson decided she wanted to become a doctor - a lofty, and perhaps not very realistic goal for a young woman in the late 19th century.

Without her parents' support, Danielson nonetheless entered medical school in 1906 as one of the first women to enter a German university. While there, she met economics major and aspiring law student, Oskar Horney, and the two married in 1909. It was not a particularly happy marriage although it did result in three daughters born between 1910 and 1916. Within the space of one year, Horney gave birth to her first daughter and lost both of her parents. She sought psychoanalysis to help her cope. Her analyst was Freud disciple Karl Abraham, who became her mentor at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society where she became an analyst in private practice in addition to her hospital work. She helped design and eventually directed the Society's training program, taught students, and conducted psychoanalytic research. Her roles as woman doctor, wife, and mother inspired her research on female sexual development, writing about the castration complex in women in 1924 and asserting - contrary to Freud - that the true source of penis envy was in the way female children were treated by their parents.

Horney's differences with Freud had actually begun even earlier, with her belief in the capacity for lifelong growth. Despite her increasing deviation from orthodox Freudian doctrine, she practiced and taught at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society until 1932. However, Freud's increasing coolness toward her and her concern over the rise of Nazism in Germany motivated her to accept an invitation by Franz Alexander to become his assistant at the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis and, in 1932, she and her daughters came to the United States. Her marriage to Oskar had begun to unravel well before this time; they had separated in 1926 and divorced some years later. The move to the United States served to reinforce her emerging belief in the importance of sociocultural factors in psychological development. Her interest in culture was fostered by her close relationship with Margaret Mead, Paul Tillich, Ruth Benedict, Erich Fromm, Harry Stack Sullivan, and other prominent names in sociology and anthropology.

Two years after moving to Chicago, Horney relocated to New York City to write, teach, and train analysts, working both at the New School for Social Research and the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. There were a number of common threads tying together her work in Germany with her work in the U.S. - her theories on the psychology of women, her work on understanding and treating neuroses, and her ideas on the possibility of human growth and self-actualization, ideas that influenced humanist psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers.

Her critiques of Freud that began in Germany continued unabated in the United States, so much so that the uproar she caused forced her to resign from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in 1941. That same year she co-founded the Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis, which focused on the importance of culture in shaping personality. She also co-founded and co-edited the American Journal of Psychoanalysis. A dispute in 1943 over accepting non-medically trained analysts - which Horney was against - led to the resignation of some members who went on to establish the William Alanson White Society and Institute. In 1952, friends and colleagues suggested opening a clinic in her name, which flattered Horney immensely. She died of cancer that same year (December 4, 1952) and, three years later, The Karen Horney Clinic opened as a research, training, and low-cost treatment center.

Karen Horney's contributions to psychology and, in particular, the psychology of women, are considerable. She remains one of the only women to be included in personality theory texts and was the first woman to present a paper on feminine psychology at an international conference. Her critique of Freud and the entire discipline of Psychology as androcentric unfolded in light of her observations relating to the sociocultural determinants of women's inferior position. She found it problematic that women were defined in relation to men and argued that penis envy, if it existed at all, was rooted, not in a wish to possess a penis but, rather, in a desire for the status and recognition afforded to men by the culture. She further argued that men's need to succeed and leave a name for themselves sprung from womb envy - their inability to carry and bear children. Horney was particularly moved to defend women against the charge that they were naturally masochistic. Women's dependence on men for love, money, security, and protection led women to overemphasize qualities like beauty and charm, Horney argued, but also to seek meaning through their relationships with husbands, children, and family. The 14 papers she wrote between 1922 and 1937 on feminine psychology were published posthumously in an edited volume entitled Feminine Psychology in 1967. Karen Horney's legacy includes not only her influence on humanistic and Gestalt psychology, but also on self-psychology, psychoanalysis, Albert Ellis' rational emotive therapy, feminism, existentialism, and the clinic that bears her name in honour of the achievements of women.

by Lisa Held (2010)

To cite this article, see Credits

Selected Works

By Karen Horney

Horney, K. (1917/1968). The technique of psychoanalytic therapy. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 28, 3-12.

Horney, K. (1924). On the genesis of the castration complex in women. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 5, 50-65.

Horney, K. (1926). The flight from womanhood. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 7, 324-329.

Horney, K. (1933). Maternal conflicts. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 3, 455-463.

Horney, K. (1935). The problem of feminine masochism. Psychoanalytic Review, 22, 241.

Horney, K. (1937). The neurotic personality of our time. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.

Horney, K. (1942). Self-analysis. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.

Horney, K. (1945). Our inner conflicts: A constructive theory of neurosis. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.

Horney, K. (1950). Neurosis and human growth: The struggle toward self-realization. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.

Horney, K. (1967). Feminine psychology. H. Kelman (Ed.). New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.

About Karen Horney

Hitchcock, S. T. (2004). Karen Horney: Pioneer of feminist psychology. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.

O'Connell, A. N. (1980). Karen Horney: Theorist in psychoanalysis and feminine psychology. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 5(1), 81-93.

O'Connell, A. N. (1990). Karen Horney (1885-1952). Women in psychology: A bio-bibliographic sourcebook, (pp. 184-190). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Paris, B. (1994). Karen Horney: A psychoanalyst's search for self-understanding. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Quinn, S. (1987). A mind of her own: the life of Karen Horney. New York: Summit Books.

Rubins, J. L. (1978). Karen Horney: Gentle rebel of psychoanalysis. New York: The Dial Press.

Sayers, J. (1991). Mothers of psychoanalysis: Helene Deutsch, Karen Horney, Anna Freud, Melanie Klein. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Photo Gallery