Second-Wave Feminism And Psychology

In 1963, Betty Friedan (1921-2006) published The Feminine Mystique, ushering in a period of second-wave feminism in the United States. For the next decade, feminist psychologists waged their own battle with their chosen discipline, demanding that sexist practices and androcentric theories be acknowledged and reformed. One of these psychologists was Naomi Weisstein, a Harvard-trained cognitive scientist and founder of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. In the fall of 1968, she delivered a paper that was destined to become one of the founding documents of feminist psychology. Originally published by the New England Free Press in 1968 as “Kinder, Kirche, Kuche as Scientific Law: Psychology Constructs the Female,” a revised and expanded version was published in 1971 and has since been reprinted dozens of times in a wide range of publications (Weisstein, 1971).

In this article, Weisstein argued that psychology had nothing to say about what women were really like because, essentially, psychology did not know. This failure was due to psychologists’ focus on inner traits and consequent ignorance of social context, as well as their failure to consider evidence. In this section, we explore the institutional changes that occurred in psychology as a result of second-wave feminism and the activism of feminist psychologists. We then briefly describe feminist psychology’s internal struggle to embrace diversity and be relevant to the lives of all women.

Feminists Challenge the APA

In 1969, emboldened by the cresting of the women’s movement and the pioneering efforts of psychologists such as Weisstein, feminist psychologists met at the annual convention of the APA where “regular symposia became angry discussions focused on sexist practices at the convention” (Tiefer, 1991, p. 636). These sexist practices included job advertisements indicating “men only,” lack of child care at the convention, and overt sexual harassment. The result of these angry discussions was the formation of the Association for Women in Psychology (AWP) in 1969.

Members of the newly established AWP rallied again at the 1970 convention, presenting their concerns to APA president Kenneth B. Clark at an explosive Town Hall Meeting. Two pioneer feminist psychologists, Phyllis Chesler and Nancy Henley, prepared a statement on APA’s obligations to women and demanded one million dollars in reparation for the damage psychology had perpetrated against women’s minds and bodies. Dorothy Riddle, a spokesperson for the AWP, accused the APA of using stalling tactics with the AWP’s demands rather than addressing its own sexism.

In response to these challenges, APA established a Task Force on the Status of Women, chaired by Helen Astin. The task force undertook a two-year study and published a detailed report of its findings and recommendations in 1973. One of these findings was that psychological research on and knowledge about women was deficient. Accordingly, the task force recommended that a division devoted to the psychology of women be established to promote research in this area. An Ad Hoc Committee on the Status of Women was formed to follow through on the recommendations of the task force, and in 1973, Division 35, Psychology of Women, was formed. Elizabeth Douvan was the first president of the division (see Mednick & Ubanski, 1991; Russo & Dumont, 1997). In 1976, the first issue of the new journal, Psychology of Women Quarterly, appeared. By 1995, Division 35 had grown to become the fourth largest in the APA.

Feminism, Diversity, and Inclusiveness

The formation of AWP and Division 35 was largely driven by a fairly homogeneous group of white, middle-class feminists who resonated with liberal feminism and had already established an institutional presence in psychology. Women of color have not had a strong institutional base in psychology and have not had a ready ear for their concerns. Early on, however, feminist psychologists recognized the need to attract the interests and energies of feminists of color and to make the psychology of women a field that would reflect the richness of this diversity (see Comas-Diaz, 1991). Moreover, it was recognized that parallels between racism and sexism could not be overlooked.

In 1976, the president of Division 35, Martha Mednick, asked Saundra Rice Murray to organize a task force on black women’s concerns. The task force compiled a bibliography of research on black women, organized convention programs on the concerns of women of color, and worked to increase the representation of black women in APA governance. In 1978, the task force became the Committee on Black Women’s Concerns, with Pamela Trotman Reid as its first chair. In 1985, a bylaw change converted the Committee to a permanent Section on the Psychology of Black Women, and Reid became the division’s first black woman president in 1991. Since then, sections on the Concerns of Hispanic/Latina Women and Lesbian and Bisexual Women’s Concerns have been formed. Women of color are slowly reaching the highest levels of APA governance, but despite this, as of 2006, no woman of color had been elected APA president.

Obviously, the history of women in psychology and the development of feminist psychology is a history-in-progress. Feminists have encountered both failures and successes in their attempts to mesh feminism and psychology. Ongoing challenges include responding to and incorporating more radical forms of feminist critique such as third-world and racialized feminism, and incorporating a range of feminist methodologies. As who psychologists are changes, so too must the methods and theories of the field.