What Feminist Therapy Is Not
No stereotypes welcome.
Posted February 20, 2020
I will try to clarify certain aspects of feminist therapy and address certain misconceptions that many readers may have. The first is that feminist therapy is political rather than personal. The second is that it is only for women. The third is that anyone who is a feminist is automatically a feminist therapist.
A popular misconception is that any form of therapy practiced by a feminist can be called feminist therapy. Certainly, any reasonably informed person practicing therapy today would be feminist. However, that would be a feminist practicing therapy and not feminist therapy, which is a unique approach to treatment.
You may already know that feminist therapy grew out of the second wave of feminism in the 1970s. Neither research nor practice, before that time, had an accurate functioning model of the psychology of women. Instead, women were treated by extrapolation from models and research on men and, as a result of this epistemological error, were treated as if they were lacking in some masculine characteristics.
Feminist psychology was introduced to change all that. Women’s real lives were suddenly the subject of interest and were rapidly incorporated into a new model of treatment.
A therapy that began to treat women and girls in a way that is neither oppressive nor pathologizing was criticized vociferously in its beginning years (the 1970s) for being too radical and today, some 50 years later, is often considered too old fashioned and unnecessary. These are simply ways to marginalize the importance of culture’s pervasive influence on the deepest parts of our psyches. This approach and analysis remain relevant and have, in the ensuing years, been expanded to apply to all people, not just women.
Feminist therapy is relational, contextual, and consciousness-raising. It is a complex and holistic approach that includes all levels of experience, from culture to biology, as playing a role in psychological well-being. It is sometimes said that the analysis of cultural influences is the work of sociologists or anthropologists, but most feminists maintain that the boundary between these disciplines is an artificial one. Feminist therapists, in particular, believe that maintaining this division in therapy is not good therapy and even unethical in its negligence of the real causes of pain and suffering.
In keeping with psychodynamic approaches, feminist therapy strives to make the unconscious accessible to consciousness. The making conscious of unconscious material derives from the more cultural approach of consciousness-raising groups that the pioneers in feminist therapy borrowed from the Speaking Bitterness groups of the Chinese revolution. As a result, this approach deals with unconscious cultural, interpersonal, and intra-psychic issues, and is less limited than many of the psychodynamic approaches.
Feminist therapy involves a deep integration of the principles of feminism and intersectionality with particular approaches to therapy. Major issues that are at the center of feminist therapy are concerns about the effects of our gender system on the individual. Intersectionality, sometimes assessed with the use of the Mattering Map, requires a broad and serious look at the many other dimensions of existence that constantly morph and intersect with gender, including ethnicity, race and racialization, sexual orientation, class, illness, or disability.
Feminist therapists, as well, are concerned with the analysis of power inside and outside of the therapy situation. A core belief is that much of what traditional psychotherapy labels mental illness, pathology, or disorders are really very orderly outcomes of living in a world where women and other disadvantaged groups are marginalized, invisibilized, or colonized. That is, our minds, just like our very bodies, can be objectified and colonized.
These effects reach deep into the psyche so that feminist therapy is as intimate and personal as any other form. We are all a complex and morphing amalgam of all our many contextual influences including culture, relationship, physical health, diet, and many others. What begins as context ends as self. What begins as oppressive can end as liberating.
Norsworthy, K. and Kaschak. E. (Eds.). Crossing Boundaries: International Collaborations, London. Routledge, 2012.
Kaschak, E. The mattering map: morphing and multiplicity. In Bruns, C. and Kaschak, E.(Eds.) Feminist Therapy in the 21st Century, Taylor and Francis, 2010