Fearless Foursome: After 20 Tears, the Women's Project Prepares to Pass the Torch

By Simon, Richard | Family Therapy Networker, November/December 1997 | Go to article overview

Fearless Foursome: After 20 Tears, the Women's Project Prepares to Pass the Torch


Simon, Richard, Family Therapy Networker


Despite its monumental-sounding name, the Women's Project in Family Therapy owns no real estate and doesn't even have a listing in the phone book. In the 20 years that it has been in existence, the Women's Project has never offered a regular training program, has produced only a handful of monographs, has presented a few dozen public workshops and has published one book that has sold all of 24,000 copies. Why, then, do so many people in the field believe that without the Women's Project the development of family therapy over the past 20 years is practically unthinkable?

The Women's Project may owe its resilience and paradoxical success to the fact that it is the product of a high-voltage  group friendship that defies easy definition. Rather than having an institutional agenda, it has been shaped by the chemistry between four of family therapy's most commanding and savvy practitioners--the Women's Project is what takes place when Betty Carter, Peggy Papp, Olga Silverstein and Marianne Walters  take time off from their individual careers as clinicians and teachers to moonlight together as the field's longest running think tank cum road show cum social protest rally.

 Among the lessons they have passed along to their colleagues is how to make a collaboration endure. While they take their feminism seriously, there has been one guiding principle in their work with one another: in Betty Carter's words, "If you find yourself stuck, it's usually because you've allowed yourself to become terminally sincere."

It all started in 1977 with Marianne Walters inviting her friend Peggy Papp to colead a one-shot workshop on "women's issues" at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic, where Walters was then assistant director of the training center. Papp's first reaction to the invitation was "What women's issues?" Recalls Papp,  "I really had no idea what she was talking about." Nevertheless, Papp agreed to take part, and invited two ex-students of hers, Carter and Silverstein, both of whom had recently begun practice having made a midlife decision to become therapists. All were more intrigued by the idea that feminism might have something to do with therapy than confident that they knew how to lead the way. "I was a feminist outside the therapy room, but never inside," says Carter. "But nobody back then knew what to do with it in the room."

Their first workshop drew an audience of about 100 and wound up focusing less on therapy than on the women attendees' complaints about their male bosses and the sexism in their mental health work settings.  "The women talked about how they felt intimidated and not allowed to achieve," says Walters. "I remember one woman saying,  'How am I supposed to be in charge in a therapy session? After all, in the rest of the world, I'm not in charge of anything.'" The four conveners felt they were barely ahead of the parade they were presumably leading. "It was a riot," says Papp. "All of us were saying different things, constantly contradicting each other."

One of the biggest issues in preparing for the meeting was an extended debate over the politics of coffee and flowers. "Some of us didn't want to serve food, because that was the old female role," says Silverstein. "After all, Bowen and Minuchin didn't worry about having a nice arrangement of flowers and Danish at their workshops. But come workshop time, there was so much food and so many flowers in the foyer that you could barely get in the door. Marianne just decided to go ahead with it."

Despite differences in theoretical outlook and clinical approach, Carter, Papp, Silverstein and Walters all found themselves enamored with their group chemistry, as were many other women family therapists eager for female leadership to emerge in a field still dominated by its founding fathers. …

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