Feminist therapy is an integrative approach to psychotherapy that focuses on the challenges that women face as a result of bias, stereotyping, oppression, discrimination, and other factors, and how those stressors can negatively affect their mental health. It is based on the belief that wellness is inextricably linked to an individual’s social and cultural identities and the political environment in which they live.
The therapeutic relationship, based on equality between therapist and client, and their ability to forge an authentic connection, helps clients understand some of the social factors that may contribute to their mental-health concerns, discover and claim their unique identity, and uncover and build on their personal strengths to advance their own lives and those of others.
Since feminist therapy does not tend to follow a specific protocol, there has been little clinical research on its effectiveness.
When It's Used
Feminist therapy was initially devised in the late 1960s as a way for women to help other women in the therapeutic realm, at a time when the field was considered to be male-dominated and perhaps intrinsically misogynist. Traditional psychotherapy also tended not to consider the social and cultural context of the client’s experience.
Feminist therapy has evolved to include couples, families, and people of all ages—and any gender—who seek help exploring the role gender plays in their emotional lives and relationships or those of their loved ones. Anyone who has been marginalized, including people of color; individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or gender variant; people in poverty, immigrants, refugees, and people with disabilities can benefit from feminist therapy.
Some of the problems typically addressed in feminist therapy include sexual abuse, incest, eating disorders, body image, concerns related to disability, anxiety, relationship challenges, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and other personality disorders. Feminist therapy can be practiced in one-on-one private sessions, as well as in group or community settings such as women’s health clinics, LGBTQ community organizations, and domestic violence centers.
Does feminist therapy address challenges posed by race?
Some feminist therapists may specialize in the challenges faced by a particular racial group. For example, practitioners of Black feminist therapy specifically focus on the particular experiences of Black women, while mujerista counseling focuses on the experiences of Hispanic or Latinx women. Feminist therapists generally aspire to incorporate intersectionality into their practices, jointly considering gender, race, sexual orientation, and other diverse aspects of identity, and addressing the effects of implicit bias in each of these areas. To this end, some may label their practices as multicultural-feminist counseling or intersectional feminist therapy. These practitioners follow the same techniques as other feminist therapists, with special attention to the challenges posed by racism or classism.
What to Expect
In feminist therapy, clients can expect to explore their individual identity, consider their strengths, and learn to use them to feel greater power in society at large. In addition to traditional talk therapy and analysis, a feminist therapist may rely on tools and techniques such as role-playing and assertiveness training to help clients build up their identity and self-esteem to the extent that they can behave freely, rather than conforming to cultural expectations or gender roles that others have deemed appropriate. The therapist may also employ bibliotherapy, or offering suggested readings on gender identity or societal power discrepancies; and reframing mental-health concerns by looking at them through a broader societal lens and then zeroing in on how they may be affecting the individual, ideally helping them to move away from pathologizing their own thoughts and feelings. Somatic therapy approaches, involving an emphasis on body awareness, as well as self-compassion and mindfulness practice may also be part of a feminist therapist’s practice.
Feminist therapy for families addresses the additional challenges parents and other family members face when a loved one struggles with cultural or gender differences.
In contrast to professionals who use other forms of psychotherapy, feminist therapists often share their own personal stories and challenges to help clients feel more comfortable sharing their own.
Is feminist therapy tied to social or political activism?
It can be. A core aspect of feminist therapy is power analysis, or the consideration of how differences in power and privilege between genders or various social or demographic groups can affect feelings of self-worth, mental health symptoms, routine behaviors, and life choices. Sometimes, it may emerge from sessions that involvement in social action or activism may benefit the client, helping them gain a greater sense of personal power and agency, and meeting others who share their core values.
How It Works
Feminist therapy is based on an understanding that individuals are affected by and struggle with societal norms and must learn to look beyond those norms and inward to themselves as the experts in their own unique identity. Feminist therapy sessions, then, are not only personal but often political in nature. Sessions may focus on diversity, gender issues, and sexism, with a commitment to both individual and social change. Feminist therapists aim to empower those who feel silenced or oppressed by honoring and elevating their voices.
In practice, this means identifying skills and strengths that will help clients recognize and embrace their own power. This is accomplished by reframing the client’s problems in the context of societal views, rather than as a result their own personal behaviors. A core belief of feminist therapy is that therapist and client should have an egalitarian relationship. A feminist therapist does not set out to instruct or dictate change in clients, but to consider them to be the experts on their own experience and to work with them to explore their challenges and their roots. The therapist is less likely to make a diagnosis than to work with a client to consider what social factors may be behind their symptoms.
What to Look for in a Feminist Therapist
A feminist therapist is a licensed psychotherapist or other mental-health professional who embraces principles of feminist theory and social justice and is sensitive to cultural expectations, discrimination, and other social variables that all individuals, but particularly women, face in a culture in which others seem to set the standards by which they are judged. No separate accreditation is required. A conversation or other exchange before starting therapy will be important to choose a professional who shares your values and with whom you feel comfortable and respected.