Feminist Therapy

The feminist movement brought to light the inequalities inherent in all aspects of women’s lives, including the heteronormative patriarchal hegemonic influences on psychotherapy. Since men had been largely responsible for the popular theoretical orientations of psychotherapy, they were unknowingly conducting their therapies in a framework of oppression; moreover, “[s]ince its inception, the institution of Western psychiatric medicine has policed gender in women by diagnosing physical and psychic responses to oppression, associating mental illness with femininity for over a century” (Sennott, 2010, p. 96). Ever heard of hysteria? It means “wandering uterus” in Greek and was known as a women-only illness for quite some time; interestingly enough, hysteria functioned to unconsciously give voice to suppressed women (M. Knudson, personal communication, August 31, 2011). Since therapy is inherently based on power differentials between the therapist and the client, feminists became wary of utilizing or practicing any existing theory of psychotherapy that would intentionally or unintentionally propagate these power inequalities onto a population that was already suffering from societal oppression in one form or another.

At this point, you may be thinking to yourself: “Hey, that Rogers guy had unconditional positive regard for everyone. Why didn’t feminists flock to Rogerian therapy?” It is true that Carl Rogers’ person-centered therapy is in many regards the most humanistic, empathic, and warm counseling theory out there, and feminist therapy owes a lot to Rogers by adopting his methods of truly prizing and valuing the client, as well as being seen not simply as an authority figure, but as an equal human being parallel to the client in the therapeutic relationship. However, feminist therapists still point out how Rogers’ status as an upper-class educated white male gave him societally dictated privilege and power that he never fully acknowledged as an underpinning of the interpersonal relationship; he did not explicitly come to terms with how these power differentials came into play in regards to his relationships with clients of disempowered backgrounds during his work as a therapist (Brown, 2007, p. 258). After all, traditional theoretical counseling perspectives such as Rogerian therapy viewed issues “through a masculinist lens that was either not acknowledged as a lens or argued to be ‘neutral’. This masculinist lens evaluates human behavior through the norms, expectations, values and desires of the masculinist paradigm” (Kahn, 2010, p. 61). Feminist therapists, while drawing from Rogers’ highly empathic theory of person-centered therapy, eventually sought to create an original therapy model that embraced empowerment of any and all people suffering under the oppressive hegemonic standards of society.

Feminist therapy does not lend itself credit to one author; it was not birthed by a single individual. Rather, it is only fitting that the framework exists as a collection of ideas from a collection of people who observed the dominant societal system as flawed and wanted to begin the process to change it. That being said, feminist therapy is difficult to define per se, though it possesses some key aspects, one of which entails the importance of gender: “[o]ne common theme feminist therapies share is a presumption that gender is a primary construct that guides identity and impacts negotiating relationships with others. Gender is also seen as something that is flexible, rather than determined by biology” (Kahn, 2010, p. 60). Another aspect addresses and legitimizes the omnipresence of cultural issues surrounding women, and the power differentials inherent within them, including but not limited to domestic violence, rape, incest, discrimination, and heterosexism (Kahn, 2010, p. 60). Feminist therapy was designed to give women a safe space to explore and deconstruct these issues so prevalent in their lives; but feminist therapy also takes one important step away from the the traditional theories of the past: “[t]herapy has often been regarded as a way to cope with one’s own problems or the environmental aspects of one’s life that make life difficult. The over-reliance on the medical model and medication as a therapeutic method is an example of the discipline-sanctioned enacting of that philosophy” (Kahn, 2010, p. 61). Instead of just telling clients to deal with their oppressive cultural situations, feminist therapy takes the perspective of initiating social change through the empowerment of not only clients but also therapists (which may include the use of protests and demonstrations), leading to an eventual and gradual upheaval of our flawed societal paradigm (Walker, 2010, p. 40).

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