Feminist therapy, rather than being a succinct theoretical model, is a philosophy of psychotherapeutic intervention that recognizes the impact of varied social practices on personal well-being. It has its roots in the feminist and equal rights movements of the 1960s, and it embraces the conviction that “the personal is political”—that is, that which affects the person is representative of and ensues from the macrocosm in which she or he lives. Feminist therapists practice from a variety of feminist and psychological theoretical perspectives and represent a diverse group of individuals striving for political and social changes that exemplify justice and equality for all peoples.
The tenets of feminist therapy include, broadly, recognition of diversity in identity and of multiple oppressions, acknowledgment of power differentials inherent in the therapeutic relationship and in society, and responsibility for personal involvement in engendering individual and social changes that equalize power.
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Multiple Diversities and Oppressions
Feminist therapy acknowledges multiple aspects of human diversity that are likely to affect clients’ personal well-being, including but not limited to, sex, heritage, race, class, age, physical ability, religion, and sexual orientation. While each of these aspects alone may create personal difficulties for an individual within society, most individuals suffer from multiple oppressions. In large part, providing didactic experiences that illuminate these inequities provides the framework for the therapeutic process. Additionally, feminist therapists remain aware of the complexity of human diversity and of how their own personal attributes and differences from the client may be affecting the process of healing.
The Therapeutic Relationship
Although feminist therapists strive to achieve equality in their therapeutic relationships and to empower their clients, they are continuously aware of the intrinsic power differential, especially early in therapy, that exists in the therapeutic relationship. Throughout the therapeutic process, there is a continuous focus on equalizing the client-therapist relationship and on avoiding taking responsibility for or coercing the client. The intent of this focus is to work collaboratively with clients, who are considered experts relative to their experiences, to achieve goals that are meaningful to them. A strong emphasis is placed on consciousness raising, which assists clients in under-standing the context of their psychological distress. Within this relationship, therapists are far more likely to be self-disclosing, especially in relation to their own experiences of oppression and empowerment, than in most formal schools of psychological thought.
Practitioners of feminist therapy are active in efforts to bring about change that equalizes social and personal power. Because feminism is multifaceted, the focus of such change efforts may vary greatly; however, personal investment in altering power differentials is considered of primary importance for the therapist and, eventually, for the client. Advocacy requires continuous awareness of both positive outcomes and unanticipated negative consequences of efforts to equalize power and promote justice.
While feminist therapy has no formal theory of development, it does view society’s construction of what is right and good as having considerable impact on individual identity development. For example, Chowdrow has suggested that girls develop through connection with their primary caregiver, usually a woman, while boys avoid this connection in favor of autonomy. Girls are expected to adhere to common gender role stereotypes, including nurturance (playing with dolls), sensitivity, and cooperativeness. Boys, conversely, are expected to be sturdy, power seeking, and self-determining. Society, in various forms, stresses similar messages in relation to a plethora of other personal attributes.
Feminist theorists’ views of psychopathology, or problems in daily living, are, in some ways, dependent on their theoretical stances. However, there is consistent recognition that psychological distress is engendered by environmental conditions, especially those of disproportionate power and limitations of choice. Thus, as Ballou and Brown note, it is difficult to label an individual with a “disorder” and to believe that this “disorder” is located exclusively within the person, while ignoring the context of distress.
Feminist practitioners maintain awareness that the mental health field has its own discourse that may undermine the well-being of individuals who do not meet narrow standards of psychological wellness. The historical underpinnings of psychology are based in a White, male-dominated society that emphasizes independence and competition and values instrumental (formerly known as masculine) characteristics. Thus, the profession often ignores the voices and knowledge of the very individuals that they are attempting to serve. Feminist therapists generally have a much broader view of acceptable emotions, cognitions, and behaviors than those that are deemed appropriate in a society that is replete with injustice.
The various theoretical perspectives of feminist therapists provide guidance in resolution of clients’ personal challenges; however, there are several techniques and philosophies that link feminist therapeutic practices.
Feminist therapists utilize consciousness raising to examine the role that social power differentials and bias play in personal distress and relationships. Helping clients appreciate the systematic nature of personal constructions and relationships following from cultural constructions and mandates provides a holistic perspective of mental distress and well-being that diminishes self-blame.
In large part, consciousness raising sets the groundwork for supporting clients’ worth and engendering personal empowerment. Feminist therapy is a practice of interdependence and support.
Feminist therapy strives to assist clients in finding their own voices to tell their own stories in ways that are self-validating and self-enhancing. It is a therapy of personal esteem and empowerment.
- Ballou, M., & Brown, L. S. (Eds.). (2002). Rethinking mental health & disorders. New York: Guilford Press.
- Chowdrow, N. J. (1989). Feminism and psychoanalytic theory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Worell, J., & Remer, P. (2003). Feminist perspectives in therapy (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.