Feminism and Feminist Therapy: Lessons from the Past and Hopes for the Future

Article excerpt

Feminist therapy and counseling emerged nearly 40 years ago to better meet the needs of women experiencing psychological distress (Enns, 1997). Since its inception, feminist therapy has evolved in terms of theory, therapeutic techniques, and scope of application. Although initially feminist therapy and counseling focused exclusively on women and excluded men, both as therapists and clients, contemporary feminist therapy now includes male clients and therapists and seeks nongendered and culturally fair ways to approach and interpret traditional psychotherapeutic theories and techniques (Sharf, 2003).

Feminist philosophers, therapists, and clients have had a profound effect on the fields of counseling and psychology, especially regarding gender bias and gender role stereotyping (Worell & Johnson, 1997). As a result of raising the consciousness of the profession, there have been significant changes in conceptualization, diagnosis, and treatment. The basic premise of feminist therapy--that the political is the personal (Enns, 1992)--remains. In feminist therapy, there is no lasting individual change without social change. Clients are enmeshed in their sociopolitical and cultural contexts, and true and lasting psychological change must address the issues within these contexts as well as individual issues. This theme is primary throughout our discussion of feminist counseling and therapy.

History of Feminist Therapy

Feminist therapy is an outgrowth of feminism and, as such, is intertwined with gender, race, and other sociopolitical factors. Unlike most other theoretical orientations, feminist therapy grew out of political and social consciousness. To best understand the therapeutic and philosophical stance of feminist therapy, it is important to gain a grounding in the sociopolitical factors that spurred consciousness and action among oppressed groups.

Feminist-informed counseling practice emerged from the civil rights and social change movements of the 1960s and engendered awareness of women as an oppressed group in U.S. culture. It is important to note that during this time, when feminism was called "the women's movement," women of color were estranged from the movement (Brown, 1990). Awareness of women as an oppressed group grew out of the privileged class of women who were, for the most part, White and educated. Contemporary feminist therapies emerged from three aspects of the women's liberation movement of the 1960s: consciousness-raising groups, battered women's shelters, and the antirape movement (Worell & Johnson, 2001). The women's liberation movement, as just noted, sought to change social, political, and cultural beliefs about the role of women in the world. In lieu of the perceived patriarchal, racist society, an egalitarian society founded on mutual respect and collaboration, the equitable distribution of power and resources, and shared responsibility between women and men was conceptualized (Kravetz & Marecek, 2001).

Consciousness-raising (CR) groups were nonhierarchical, leaderless groups in which women met to discuss their experiences as women. CR resulted in the analysis of patriarchal and oppressive societal arrangements. The goal of CR groups was societal transformation rather than individual adjustment (Worell & Remer, 2003). Two basic assumptions of psychological thinking at that time were challenged: (a) women's distress is personal and (b) distress can only be alleviated by an expert (Greenspan, 1993). Perhaps most important, CR groups challenged the social mores of the times.

Both battered women's shelters and the antirape movement viewed male violence against women as a major social problem (Worell & Johnson, 2001). The etiology of this violence rested with the perpetrator and the societal structures that supported violence against women and was not due to an individual woman's masochism. This was a radical departure from how these issues had been treated by society, generally, and by those in the professions of counseling and psychology, specifically. …

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