Power and Responsibility in Therapy: Integrating Feminism and Multiculturalism

By Williams, Elizabeth Nutt; Barber, Jill S. | Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Power and Responsibility in Therapy: Integrating Feminism and Multiculturalism


Williams, Elizabeth Nutt, Barber, Jill S., Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development


The integration of feminist and multicultural approaches to psychotherapy, called for many times, has not yet materialized. This article reviews possible reasons this integration has not taken place and offers an approach to integration based on the guiding principles of power and responsibility, which builds on previous theories and approaches.

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As theories of counseling and psychotherapy continue to expand and develop, there has been a growing emphasis on the contextual aspects of an individual's life. Although many theories and approaches to therapy focus on intrapsychic concerns, more and more attention is being paid to the environmental factors important in an individual's world, problems, and coping resources. Two primary examples of this focus on external context and on individual differences can be found in theories of feminism and multiculturalism. In the 1980s, feminist theorists gained momentum in their questioning the approach of psychotherapists with regard to gender, gender socialization, and gender discrimination (Brodsky & Hare-Mustin, 1980; Rosewater & Walker, 1985). More recently, multicultural counseling theories have generated an enormous amount of attention and research, focusing our attention on a diversity of issues (e.g., sexual orientation, age, abilities) with a primary focus on racial/ethnic experiences (Ponterotto, Casas, Suzuki, & Alexander, 1995; Sue, Ivey, & Pedersen, 1996). At the turn of a century and beginning of a new millennium, the question rising to the foreground of counseling and psychotherapy theory is "Can feminism and multiculturalism be integrated?"

When we first set out to explore this question, our initial reaction was that integration made a great deal of sense given that the two approaches have many similarities. Specifically, both feminism and multiculturalism have helped counselors become more aware of the external factors impacting their clients' lives (Enns, 1997; Sue et al., 1996). For example, both feminist and multicultural approaches focus on the greater context of a person's life (e.g., social, cultural, economic, familial, political contexts) rather than purely on a person's intrapsychic conflicts and concerns. Feminist and multicultural counseling approaches also emphasize collaboration between the counselor and the client. Because both approaches acknowledge the potential impact of oppression on the therapeutic relationship, they both call for a greater level of communication and understanding between therapist and client. Finally, both feminism and multiculturalism share a commitment to the need for social change (Brown, 1994; Greene, 1994). Because both theoretical approaches acknowledge that many of the symptoms manifested in clients in fact represent greater ills in society, they also acknowledge that individual change is not enough. One should not have to adjust to a maladjusted system, and thus broader social change is called for. This is at the heart of the feminist motto "The personal is political."

Because of the similarities between feminism and multiculturalism, there have been several calls for integration as well as concern that this integration has not materialized. One of the most vocal proponents for this integration has come from Brown (1994), who stated that a multicultural base should be a requirement of therapy, specifically feminist therapy. However, she also noted that "while any feminist theory should reflect all forms of human diversity, this standard has rarely been met" (Brown, 1994, p. 69), emphasizing that this ideal of integration has not truly been realized. Although her discussion of best practice feminist therapy relies heavily on the analysis of culture and group status, she also cautioned that multicultural knowledge "can too easily become an undigested lump that is never integrated into feminist therapy theory" (p. 63). She cautioned that a true integration of feminist and multicultural approaches to psychotherapy will require radical change, prompting us to continually question what is normative and to constantly promote greater awareness of self and society. …

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