What Does a Woman Want? by Esther Nelson

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), well-known Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, “…said once to Marie Bonaparte: ‘The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul is, ‘What does a woman want?’” (“Was will das Weib?”) ― Sigmund Freud: Life and Work (Hogarth Press, 1953) by Ernest Jones.

I don’t believe Freud ever answered the question posed here satisfactorily.  Women’s desire—even today—hovers in the taboo category.  After all, in our hierarchal, patriarchal society women’s wants/desires are mediated through social structures and institutions that favor men.  It’s easy to overlook since we all are spawned and then swim in those patriarchal waters.

In her excellent 2021 memoir, Blow Your House Down, Gina Frangello tells us: “…the fabric of the patriarchal world seems not only still woven tightly, but, one might even postulate, reinforced with duct tape….The squelching of women’s desire has always been one of the main tentacles of patriarchy….”

I’m including Kim Addonizio’s poem, “What Do Women Want?” here because it’s raw, outrageous, and fun as the poet addresses Freud’s famous question.

“What Do Women Want?”

I want a red dress.
I want it flimsy and cheap,
I want it too tight, I want to wear it
until someone tears it off me.
I want it sleeveless and backless,
this dress, so no one has to guess
what’s underneath. I want to walk down
the street past Thrifty’s and the hardware store
with all those keys glittering in the window,
past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old
donuts in their café, past the Guerra brothers
slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly,
hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders.
I want to walk like I’m the only
woman on earth and I can have my pick.
I want that red dress bad.
I want it to confirm
your worst fears about me,
to show you how little I care about you
or anything except what
I want. When I find it, I’ll pull that garment
from its hanger like I’m choosing a body
to carry me into this world, through
the birth-cries and the love-cries too,
and I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,
it’ll be the goddamned
dress they bury me in.

I cringed reading the sentence, “I want it to confirm your worst fears about me, to show you how little I care about you or anything except what I want.”  (Of course I cringed, women are expected to always make nice and so often that requires they negate themselves.)  Some people, no doubt, will read that sentence and think “What a bitch!”  I see the text as pushing back against the patriarchal structure that informs women that their own desire(s) need to be kept under wraps—they don’t belong in the public sphere—or anywhere, for that matter. 

I’ve written the following poem attempting to put a marker on my whereabouts at this point in my life:

I want, I need, I would like….
None of that’s important, you must realize
Is what they’ve said to me all along.
What’s important is you being a helpmeet
(Such a weird word—helpmeet)
You came from man’s rib, after all
You’re here to meet man’s needs
See to his desires and comfort him
At least that’s how the story got spun.

Gina Frangello writes regarding her own experience: “You want to be a good wife.  You want your husband who seems stressed and withdrawn, to be happy.  You still believe implicitly that by making him happy, you will be happy too.”

“…I dared to believe my desires would be interesting to him, some kind of gift…he had wanted no such thing.  He only wanted me to act as he wished.  Or no, that’s too simple…he wanted his desires to be the gift I was hungry for….”

Back to my poem:

Do we really think woman emerged from man?
Yes, some of us really do—“the bible tells me so”
Man birthing woman is not
In just one of the biblical accounts of creation
Other creation stories tell the same story
Woman derives her essence from man
(Athena was birthed from her father Zeus’ brow)
Therefore, woman is not autonomous.
She can never even know her own desire
Nor should she.

Woman is wrapped snugly in man’s flesh
Except she has no penis (usually, that is)
Freud thinks she’s pissed and envious.
She’ll never be a full human being without one.
Guess a penis gives man a monopoly
On ability and knowledge.

Gina Frangello says, “…this is what it’s like to know you’re going to blow. …to know you  are going to hurt some of the people you love most—to know you will hurt yourself, even if you no longer make that list of those deserving of your love.  This is what it’s like to know that the only way to have avoided what is now inevitable wreckage would have been to …have chosen to remain the woman you once were….This is what it is to have bitten the apple, and to understand for the first time why female desire and knowledge are the most feared and demonized forces in history.  This is what it’s like to be a destroyer of worlds: that woman, that apple, that serpent, all at once.”

Back to my poem:

I want, I need, I would like….
It’s called expressing one’s humanity
After all these many years
Am digging deep into my buried self
Sifting through the strata
Layered and entwined with male desire.
Dusting me off, hoping against hope
That my desiccated self hasn’t completely disintegrated
Although am thinking it has.

“What happens,” Gina Frangello asks, “when self-erasure has been the norm for so long that the You cannot find its way back to I?”


Right up until Gina and her husband divorced, she says, “We were still mirroring each other like twins, checking out who we were.  It was only once this mirroring was withdrawn that I began to understand that freedom is only ever a fall without a net.”

Janis Joplin, American vocalist (1943-1970), put it another way—“Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.”


Esther Nelson is a registered nurse who worked for several years in Obstetrics and Psychiatry, but not simultaneously. She returned to school (Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia) when her children were in college and liked it well enough to stay on as an adjunct professor. For twenty-two years, she taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, Women in the Abrahamic Faiths, and Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of An Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry. She recently stepped away from teaching and now splits her time between New Mexico and Virginia.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

26 thoughts on “What Does a Woman Want? by Esther Nelson”

  1. Esther I wish I could have checked “Love” on this post. YES Yes Yes … woman’s desire, for a woman to FIND her desire! I remember that was my quest – though it was a multivalent lust, never just one dimensional, and the sexual part of it is fraught with such danger for a woman in the patriarchal context. It may indeed split the world open – it certainly split mine apart, and it bled. As you quote: “…This is what it’s like to know that the only way to have avoided what is now inevitable wreckage would have been to …have chosen to remain the woman you once were….This is what it is to have bitten the apple, and to understand for the first time why female desire and knowledge are the most feared and demonized forces in history. This is what it’s like to be a destroyer of worlds: that woman, that apple, that serpent, all at once.”
    There is much to be shared about woman’s holy desire, and how each may find her way, has found her way.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Tia E!!! Loved reading this. This is one of the BIGGEST lessons I’ve learned as I’ve rounded the corner of 50. To give myself permission and reckless abandon to pursue the breadcrumbs (they weren’t obvious loaves of bread sitting out there) of my desires to build a life I love. Being single and childless has helped the ‘reckless abandon’ piece because I don’t have to consider other seemingly competing needs. But this process required a major life shattering at 40 (and some collateral damage). To answer ‘what do I want, need, love’ is to honor the unique Life-given desires given only to you. We are all so different! Tend those and they tend you in return. In my experience. ❤️

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Sobrina P! Thanks so much for your comment and testimonial. Seems you’ve learned (and probably are still learning) how to navigate your wants, needs, and desires in our misogynistic society that insists we (women) have none–at least, none of our own. My “life shattering” began at 40, but I seemed to have gotten stuck along the way after that. Maybe I can use an effective solvent this time ’round!

        Liked by 2 people

    2. Thank you, Glenys, for your lovely, encouraging comment. Women’s desire IS holy. Men (especially men in traditional, religious settings) speak their desire with the authority of a male God. Once one sees that, it cannot be unseen!

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Annelinde–Most people have more tech/computer skills than I. Is it possible to copy and paste the cartoon from the article? (I rather liked the cartoon, myself.)


  2. oh sistah esther as always you touch my heart through the funnybone. as a man who strugles with some of the same questions(how can i get what i need without shorting others or taking it for granted that i deserve to be served by someone? it’s a strange dance we do and looking into the partner’s eyes to see their heart before i take the next step helps. even on planet Q where i perch. namaste,brooks lewis(aka croney)


    1. Mr. Comey, it’s good to get a man’s voice in this conversation. However, given all the Qanon nonsense online, you might want to change the name of your planet/perch so homophobic people don’t think you’re one of those conspiracy theorists who hate everybody, especially anyone who writes or reads posts on this site. Planet G for “good”?


  3. Right on! Write on! Yes, let’s get ourselves unerased. Wear red dresses if we want to (great poem). More important, let’s express our complete humanity and stop paying attention to those biblical myths that were all (of course!) invented out of nothing by pretentious men in ancient times. Which, if you’ve been in a business office or a government office, you can see haven’t changed today. The guys are still making everything up. Well, since the days (the 1990s) when I was doing office temp work, the guys have at least learned to use keyboards and sitting at a desk with a keyboard is no longer a sign of “lesser than.”

    Oh, gee–I’m getting carried away. Any mention of Freud does that to me. Freud was clueless. Women suffered from “hysteria”?? Sure thing. The old man was clueless.

    Thanks for writing such a splendid post. Write some more like this! Bright blessings.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanks for your comment “croney!” What I’m attempting to address in my essay is the structural erasure our patriarchal society gives those who are not like those who have the power to say how things are. We are just beginning to see that imbalance with racism as well as with gay and trans people–how that erasure gets woven into laws and policies–and taking people’s hearts and minds along for the ride. Patriarchy poisons female desire through and through–so much so that we (women) are born, live, and die believing what men want is what we want. Most of society doesn’t “get” that. But, I am sensitive to what you are saying regarding getting your needs met, not feeling worthy of being served, etc. Many people do struggle in the same way. What I’m focusing on is the big picture, not the individual. Thanks for reading and writing a response. PS. How are things on planet Q? Where is planet Q?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. that’s what me and my faerie friends call that place where the queers are….and even in Las Cruces NM!


  5. What a wonderful, insightful post! It reminds me of when I used to regularly sit in an “open circle” where anyone who wanted to could just come and participate. The facilitator, a wonderful woman named Jane LeCompte, always told us that we were to just listen deeply — not offer advice, just listen — and I am still amazed at how transformational that was to all the women in the circle. So many had never had their dreams, desires, and despairs deeply listened to. I think deep listening is one powerful way for us all back to “I.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Carolyn, for reading and commenting. I think you’re right about listening. So many of us are reticent and ashamed (yes, ashamed) to voice our thoughts and especially our feelings. Appreciate your posts here on FAR.


  6. I came to my Power during the 2nd Wave, ( and have never looked back since :) ) and understand completely, the grief and rage you experience.

    We can do no less than walk our Path and find our Power, almost always among like-minded women, (either in person or on-line) and continue to Name the oppressor until our last breath.

    Which doesn’t mean, of course, that we can’t laugh and dance as well. :)


    1. Wonderful! Thanks for your comment. May we continue to “Name the oppressor until our last breath” as you so eloquently put it. And, hopefully, have some fun (laughing and dancing) along the way!

      Liked by 1 person

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