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The Importance of Psychotherapists’ Feminist Identification

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Wolf, J. (2017).The importance of psychotherapists’ feminist identification. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 52(2), 34-38.

Mr. Jake Wolf

I am a therapist-in-training and I am a feminist psychotherapist. Just as it is important to identify my trainee status when I meet a client for the first time, I find it is equally important to identify myself as a feminist psychotherapist. Feminism has been defined and redefined a number of times over the years as the waves of feminism have evolved. Hartstock (1981) defined feminism in a way that has particularly clear applications to therapy. She says, “At bottom feminism is a mode of analysis, a method of approaching life and politics, rather than a set of political conclusions about the oppression of women” (p. 35). Over the past 50 years, feminist psychotherapists have developed models of psychotherapy that are in line with Hartstock’s definition. My charge to psychotherapists who believe in understanding clients holistically and who believe in social equity is to outwardly identify themselves as feminists. It is important to have an understanding of why the term feminism is so important for making social equity a realistic goal, and part of this is understanding the history of feminist therapy in the field of psychology.

Roots of Feminist Psychotherapy

Feminist therapy evolved with the rise of the second wave of the feminist movement in the 1960s as psychologists started to understand women’s issues from a psychological perspective (Enns, Williams, & Fassinger, 2013). Early feminists engaged in “consciousness raising” sessions where they talked about issues that they experienced as women (Brown, 2010; Enns et al., 2013). Consciousness raising sessions were a way for women to validate their experiences as women and were the earliest forms of feminist group counseling. Ideas like sexual harassment and sexual discrimination were simply not terms until women had the opportunity to get together and come to realize that the problems they were facing were not unique to them, but rather systematic (Brown, 2010). Feminist psychologists have recognized the ways that psychology as a discipline has been biased towards seeing White, heterosexual, cisgender, males as the psychological norm and those who do not fall within those categories are viewed as abnormal (Broverman, Vogel, Broverman, Clarkson, & Rosenkrantz, 1972). Recognizing these biases within the field of psychology has been a major part of the push for further analysis of ways that bias plays a role in the work that psychotherapists do.

Feminist Psychotherapy and Intersectionality

Feminist psychotherapists are constantly working to be aware of their own biases and how they might be inserting them into their work with their clients. A feminist psychotherapist is one who recognizes and values the role that intersecting social identities have in psychological distress. Feminist theory asserts that psychological distress is a reaction to a loss of social power and is therefore an adaptive response to maladaptive circumstances. Integrating these types of understandings into therapy work can allow psychotherapists to free up their own biases about the limits of human potential. Brown (2010) and other feminist theorists have asserted that feminist therapy can be helpful for folks of varying social locations as it allows clinicians to view clients as more complex and resilient beings and also allows clients to feel empowered to understand their own places in the system of power, privilege, and oppression.

This broader understanding of the differing ways that folks may experience things based on their differing social identities is what Crenshaw (1996) called intersectionality. This is the idea that our social identities are not simple laundry lists that can be checked off to determine the kinds of experiences that we might have as one type of person or another. Rather, social identities interact in a more dynamic and complex way. That is, the varying degrees of power and privilege that come with multiple personal identities interact to shape the types of experiences a person has. Crenshaw uses the case of a Black woman’s experience of both racism and sexism. Her social identities as a woman and a person of color find her at the intersection of two marginalized identities in terms of her race and her sex. In Crenshaw’s case, the woman is a cisgender, able bodied individual, which allows her certain privileges though there are other aspects of her identity that are marginalized or oppressed. This model should not be understood as saying that folks ought to be grateful for the privileged areas of their lives; rather, an intersectional approach can help us to understand that people’s varying identities will shape their experiences in unique ways. The understanding ought to be about how individuals’ unique social locations might shape their experiences, meaning all individuals in any particular group will not have the same needs. This intersectional approach allows a more dynamic understanding of the various ways that people experience power and privilege. This is the type of feminism that will be the catalyst for social change.

Implications for Psychotherapists

I want to challenge psychotherapists to outwardly identify themselves as feminists to their clients and their colleagues. Psychotherapists’ feminist identification will help shed light on the egregious inequities inherent in the patriarchy, break down stigma surrounding the term feminism, and open the door for more therapeutic work surrounding issues that arise from the intersections of an individual’s social identities. My goal is not to make everyone a feminist psychotherapist; rather, I hope to encourage more psychotherapists who embrace the values of gender and social equity to embrace a feminist identity for the benefits that it will have for them and their clients. Feminist identification is needed particularly in light of the sociopolitical climate surrounding issues of equality around the world.

There is a myth in our culture that we are currently in a “post-feminist” or “post-racist” era where movements toward equality are comparable to complaining. We are in the era of mocking “snowflakes,” folks who celebrate their individuality and diversity, and people who need safe spaces literally and figuratively to talk about their issues or to simply exist. Opponents of social justice initiatives often argue that things are not as bad as they used to be and that we ought to just move on to focus on the “bigger issues” that we face. This “bigger issues” argument misses the point that feminism is one of the ways that we can have a more nuanced understanding of the historical (and ongoing) inequities that exist because of gender, sex, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, and the whole host of other cultural and social identities that we have as human beings. This is where feminist and humanistic theories sound similar: Feminists and humanists alike are interested in understanding the person as a whole and in the context of how they experience the world.

Feminist Psychotherapy and Humanism

Humanism is about recognizing the inherent good in people and helping an individual to self-actualize in a way that makes sense for them. The humanist movement in psychology was born out of a reaction to the behaviorist movement and its emphasis on what was posited as observable and quantifiable truth. In theory, this reaction is very much in line with what feminists are talking about; there needs to be more of a focus on people as whole beings who exist in complex social, emotional, and political climates. Some might argue that it is not the term feminism, but rather humanism, that would be more effective at moving towards social equity. The argument might be that feminism is about women only and that it would be a detriment to anyone who does not fit the definition of a traditionally defined woman. However, rather than operating on the implied humanistic assumption that everyone has an equal opportunity to self-actualize, feminism explicitly recognizes that sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression make the playing field far from level. The third wave of feminism, with all of its flaws, is being pushed in a direction to include people of all intersectional social locations. Feminism is about valuing the experiences of women and girls as well as those who do not identify within the gender binary, rather than placing more value on the experiences of men and boys. Using a term like feminism points out the historic inequality that has existed between those in the privileged and marginalized groups.

I often hear well intentioned folks say things like, “I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist” on the premise that no one group of people ought to be treated better than another, even if the intention is to right a historic wrongdoing. The basic claim they are making is that all people ought to be treated equally regardless of who they are. To draw a comparison, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement drew considerable criticism for focusing on Black lives when opponents claimed that “all lives” mattered. It is the case that all lives matter; however, historically, there has been a systematic devaluing of Black lives. In this case, so much so that Black folks are being killed for being Black. Therefore, it is important to specifically focus on Black lives so as to balance this historic systemic injustice. This social movement is arguing that historically we have valued, as a society, other lives over Black lives—therefore, we need to try to shift the balance and change the social value that is placed on certain lives. If we continue to say that all lives matter, we are submitting to the status quo and not working to challenge systemic injustice. By the same logic, calling one’s self a humanist rather than a feminist is much like claiming that all lives matter. The idea of being a humanist or a post feminist is operating on the false assumption that we have achieved gender equality. Much like the BLM movement, the claim was not that White lives, or in this case non-female lives, are to be valued any less; rather, that the historic systematic devaluing of non-White/non-female lives needs to be disrupted.

Sexist ideology has real implications for our society. The systematic devaluing of women and girls that is perpetuated by the media, policies, and culture is related to the increased rates of sexual violence, sex trafficking, domestic violence, and a variety of other harms that women and girls experience, and it contributes to a culture in which these things are permissible (Herman, 1984). The claim that all lives matter or that we should all be humanists are both idealistic and operate on patriarchal ideals that perpetuate myths of equality. The myth inherent in humanism devalues the real oppression of women and girls that leads to gender based violence. If we continue to minimize the value of identifying the issues inherent in the patriarchy, we are complicit in perpetuating the problems that it creates. I have to acknowledge, though, that there is an immense amount of hesitancy on the part of wonderful and caring people to outwardly adopt a feminist label because of the stigma attached.

Feminist Psychotherapy and Stigma

It seems as though one of the things that needs to happen in the process of making feminism more accessible and helpful for people is working to destigmatize the word. Liss Hoffner, and Crawford (2000) found that even folks who agree with the ideas of gender equality struggle to identify as feminists because of the stigma or misunderstanding around what the word really means. Psychotherapists are in a position to nonjudgmentally open conversations with clients. Feminism as a term has been through the metaphorical ringer since the 1960s, and has even been referred to broadly as “the other F word.” Terms like “man haters” and “Feminazis” are used to delegitimize and misinterpret the central ideology of feminism. The pushback against feminism has been a largely reactive response from folks whose reductionistic understanding of the goals of feminism is perhaps misguided. Specifically, there are folks who view feminism as a threat to their social, economic, and political power because it values other voices as much as their own. Additionally, we must admit that, as with any major theoretical approach to social justice, there have been issues with feminism in its evolution. Feminism was not always inclusive of women of color, non-heterosexual, and non cis-gender women. The women’s movement has been criticized as a cause fundamentally focused on White, straight, middle class, and cis-gender women. Further, there are many feminists who still argue about the involvement of men in the feminist movement. In recent years, many feminist scholars have argued that a more inclusive feminist movement or an integration of feminism and multiculturalism would better promote equality and work toward destroying patriarchal structures (Williams & Barber, 2004). A more robust and inclusive understanding of feminism will help to provide a common language for folks to talk about and further the cause of equality. It seems to be the case that a combination of patriarchal pressure to conform, the growing pains of an ever-changing movement, and experiences of feeling ostracized have all served to stigmatize any associations with feminism. This has resulted in people being hesitant to embrace a label that could be detrimental to them socially, economically, and otherwise. Destigmatizing the term is an important step in the process toward social equity, and psychotherapists are in a unique position to take up that cause. One of the ways psychotherapists can do this is by identifying as feminists and by taking a feminist approach to their therapy work.  

Next Steps

So why is it important for psychotherapists to outwardly identify as feminists? The work of de-stigmatizing the F-word begins with opening the dialogue about what the term means. One might not think twice about identifying as a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist because that term seems to carry less political weight in our perceptions of how clients might judge the psychotherapist. We might even have a discussion about what therapy will look like, such as identifying cognitive distortions and completing homework assignments. As psychotherapists, we see this as a largely benign conversation, unlikely to put many clients off unless they have had negative experiences with a CBT psychotherapist in the past. However, identifying as a feminist or even as a feminist psychotherapist comes with more strings attached. Some folks may be more receptive initially based on their positive experiences with feminism and may seem the perfect fit. It is not for these clients that we need to dispel the myths and destigmatize the word. Openly identifying oneself as a feminist and showing what feminism means can start the process of showing that this is a movement with a focus on legitimizing the experience of people who have not been in positions of power. This is a central goal of feminist therapy: empowering clients and validating their experiences in the world rather than pathologizing them because they do not fit within the dominant scripts. This understanding of feminism should not be taken as one that leads back to the argument that we ought to all be “humanist” rather than feminists. It is imperative that we flip the script and recognize that for too long a humanist understanding has been a veiled way of continuing to privilege the experience of those in power and oppress those without. Identifying and practicing in a way consistent with feminist values is imperative for empowering people to feel whole.

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References

Broverman, I. K., Vogel, S. R., Broverman, D. M., Clarkson, F. E., & Rosenkrantz, P. S. (1972). Sex-role stereotypes: A current appraisal. Journal of Social Issues, 28(2), 59-78. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.1972.tb00018.

Brown, L. S. (2010). Feminist therapy. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

Crenshaw, K. (1996). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. In D. Weisberg (Ed.), Applications of feminist legal theory (pp. 363-377). Philadelphia, PA, US: Temple University Press.

Enns, C. Z., Williams, E. N., & Fassinger, R. E. (2013). Feminist multicultural psychology: Evolution, change, and challenge. In C. Z. Enns & E. N. Williams (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of feminist multicultural counseling psychology (pp. 3-26). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.

Hartsock, N. (1981). Fundamental feminism: Prospect and perspective. In Bunch, C. (Ed.),  Building Feminist Theory (pp. 32-43). New York: Longman.

Herman, D. F. (1984). The rape culture. In Freeman, J. (Ed.), Women: A feminist perspective (3rd ed.) (pp. 45-53). Mountain View, CA, US: Mayfield.

Liss, M., Hoffner, C., & Crawford, M. (2000). What do feminists believe? Psychology of Women Quarterly, 24(4), 279-284.

Williams, E. N., & Barber, J. S. (2004). Power and responsibility in therapy: Integrating feminism and multiculturalism. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 32, 390-401.

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