STEM Women Hall of Fame: Helene Deutsch

In the early 1940s, the psychiatric community had just started piecing together what they thought Borderline Personality Disorder might be. It wouldn't be an officially recognized, diagnosable condition until 1980, but that doesn't mean psychiatrists hadn't already researched the patterns their patients presented.

One of those BPD researchers (whom we mentioned in our episode on the condition) was the highly respected, Freud-trained Polish psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch - who, despite having been an outspoken advocate for women workers and abortion access, eventually became a controversial figure among second-wave feminists in the 1970s.

Helene didn't spring into life as a fully formed psychoanalyst, but she might as well have. Despite the personal, professional and academic hurdles placed in women's way in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from an early age she had what seems like a single-minded focus on pursuing an education, a career - and a meaningful life.

Politics, Determination and an Older Man

Although formal schooling wasn't an option for 19th-century Polish women beyond the age of 14, young Helene read on her own and was lucky enough to receive private tutoring. She also had plenty of encouragement from an older man.

At the tender age of 14 (or 16, depending on the source), Helene fell head over heels for the dashing, mustachioed and very married Hermann Lieberman, a leader of the local Social Democratic Party. Lieberman inspired Helene and served as a sort of mentor; just a few years into their passionate affair, she was leading women workers on strikes and demonstrating for the cause by hurling herself in front of police horses.

The bright activist was in no way ready to settle for the life her mother had planned: A bit of education to prepare her for life as a proper young wife and mother. Instead, she followed Lieberman's example, picking up leadership and oratory skills from watching his speeches. Her beau also encouraged her to earn the Abitur, a certificate that would allow her to study at nearly any university in Europe.

Her education and inner conviction catapulted her in 1907 to the University of Vienna, where she studied medicine and became interested in psychiatry. Lieberman remained a constant in her life until the fall of 1910, when Helene started a year of medical training in Munich. But it wasn't the just the distance that strained their connection. Around this time, Helene discovered she was pregnant; rather than risk her shot at a career, she underwent a "planned miscarriage." Describing Helene's decision, biographer Paul Roazen writes:

"In full agreement with the advanced feminist thinking of the time, Helene thought women had a right to their own bodies, and in terms of her ideology she had not hesitated about getting an abortion."

An illegitimate child would put her education and career in jeopardy. Lieberman could never marry her. Her focus was on the future.

Pursuing a Life in Psychoanalysis

Unfortunately, the University of Vienna prohibited women from holding clinical psychiatric posts; they could earn appointments only in theoretical subjects. Did that stop Helene? Hardly. With the help of neurologist (and Sigmund Freud rival/psychoanalysis skeptic) Julius Wagner-Jauregg, she studied at his Munich clinic, where she ended up taking on greater and greater responsibilities as World War I called away the male physicians.

Though her career was going swimmingly (she'd risen to a position, as the assistant in charge of the women's division, that she technically wasn't supposed to have thanks to her being a woman and all), uncertainties about her role as a wife and mother lingered. You read that right: Helene had married mellow fellow med student Felix Deutsch in 1912, shortly after breaking things off with the moodier and more demanding Lieberman. Their son, Martin (who would eventually discover positronium), was born in 1917.

She was also troubled by the state of the women's movement and women's place in the world. Indoctrinated through her earlier political activism and inspired by women like Rosa Luxemburg to believe in sexual equality - or, as Roazen writes, to view "the emancipation of women as part of a general human awakening" - she sighed heavily at the idea of her female colleagues asking her to be their representative in speaking out against workplace injustices. She preferred a more revolutionary approach -- more doing (or, as she told her husband, "the power to command and forbid") and less talking. Writing to Felix, she lamented:

"Oh, Fel! How low down we still are! Into what sad caricature are things still distorted! How do I see the trail-blazer of freedom, whom I once wished to esteem over my personal happiness, dragged into the mud! Liberation of women! Bursting the fetters! And poor, dead [German socialist August] Bebel, how have his words been obliterated: 'Woman and worker, in your hands lies our future.' What should the women's movement have become, and what has it become!"

With an eye on furthering her own work, in 1919, Helene left Munich for the chance to be analyzed by Freud in Vienna - the first woman to do so. After being analyzed and training under him, she saw her creative abilities - and her career - blossom: Naturally, she secured a reputation as an invaluable instructor and became the first woman to lead a psychoanalysis clinic in Vienna, the Psychoanalytic Training Institute.

In the mid-1930s, career opportunities and the rise of Nazism drew Helene and her family to the U.S. She again headed up a psychoanalytic training clinic, this time in Boston, in addition to serving as president of the city's Psychoanalytic Society.

Borderline Patients and the "As-if" Personality

According to modern psychiatrist Michael Stone, Helene "laid the foundation for contemporary psychoanalytic formulations of the borderline" with her observations about a group of women she called "as if" personalities.

Far from being a Clueless reference, the moniker came about as Helene investigated her patients' seeming lack of depth or sense of self, their apparent "plastic readiness" to mold themselves to anyone around them. In a 1942 article, she wrote:

"My only reason for using so unoriginal a label for the type of person I wish to present is that every attempt to understand the way of feeling and manner of life of this type forces on the observer the inescapable impression that the individual's whole relationship to life has something about it which is lacking in genuineness and yet outwardly runs along 'as if' it were complete. Even the layman sooner or later inquires, after meeting such an 'as if' patient: what is wrong with him, or her?"

Echoing her colleagues' ideas that this population, whether male or female, existed in a sort of in-between diagnostic gray area on the edge of more well-defined conditions (hence the term "borderline"), Helene wrote that her patients "do not belong among the commonly accepted forms of neurosis, and they are too well adjusted to reality to be called psychotic."

'The Psychology of Women'

And just as WWI had been a turning point in her early career, World War II saw her making waves again.

In 1944, the Freud devotee published the first of two volumes that made up one of her most famous works: The Psychology of Women. Drawing on her personal and clinical experiences, in addition to her training under Freud, Helene attempted to "illuminate the biological background from which the psychologic personality of women emerges," laying out her theories not only of women's psychological development, but also the differences between the sexes.

The work is best known for two particular ideas: that the three man traits of femininity are narcissism, passivity and masochism, and that women are trapped between motherliness and eroticism. She sought to understand the relationship between "feminine masochism" (which she felt could manifest through things like sexual inhibition or falling for men who treat them badly), narcissism (which she said could protect against those masochistic tendencies) and frigidity. And in addition to asserting women had a special relationship with domesticity, she also had some not-so-nice assumptions to make about some of the motivations behind adopting children.

Not surprisingly, the work's message led second-wave-feminist writer Susan Brownmiller to dub Helene "a pioneer, but a traitor to her sex." Even in the late '40s, she was criticized for not drawing a bolder division between sex and gender, a distinction her American contemporary Margaret Mead had made in the '30s.

However negative her theories on femininity sounded to second-wavers (or to us, today), Helene believed her message was a positive one. She was, after all, drawing on her own experience as a conflicted working mother of an only child, and she truly believed we should be able to discuss "inherent" differences between men and women, traits that might be more pronounced in one or the other, without necessarily implying one sex was superior.

One of those differences related to the concept of passivity. She rejected Freud's ideas of passivity signaling emptiness, inactivity and immobility and instead thought of it as "activity directed inward." She wrote that her interpretation "indicates a function, expresses something positive, and can satisfy the feminists among us who often feel the term 'feminine passivity' has derogatory implications."

Helene asserted that women's inner lives were richer and more intense; that they possessed greater intuition and capacity for self-reflection; and that they were better equipped to identify with others while remaining true to themselves at the core (unless you were one of those as-if personalities). This whole "feminine intuition" thing was great preparation for raising children, she thought, because "no human being has as great a sense of reality as a mother." Further distancing herself from Freud (who wasn't exactly known for being down with women, and who didn't believe true altruism existed), Helene wrote that she considered motherhood to be "the highest degree ... of altruistic emotion."

Personally, she worried she'd failed in her role as a mother. Her career, to which she was absolutely devoted, often meant long separations from both her husband and son, but it gave us a groundbreaking voice in psychoanalysis, a unique look into women's lives (which her male contemporaries weren't as deeply concerned with) and a foundation for future mental health research.


"Helene Deutsch: A Psychoanalyst's Life." Paul Roazen. Transaction Publishers. 1985.

"Helene Deutsch publishes first volume of 'The Psychology of Women'"

"Helene Deutsch"

"Dr. Helene Deutsch Is Dead at 97; Psychologist Analyzed by Freud"

"Women and Borderline Personality Disorder: Symptoms and Stories." Janet Worth-Cauchon. Rutgers University Press. 2001.

"Profile: Helene Deutsch"

"Helene Deutsch: 'Adoptive Mothers,' 1945"