Many people agree that women have come a long way in regard to equal rights. Some even argue that women are completely equal to men and deny that sexism still exists. Others are appalled at the current state of attack on women’s rights. Whatever your opinion is on the current situation with equality among men and women and the concept of feminism, there is a specific type of therapy that still exists today called feminist therapy. With advances in equal rights, experts weigh in on the need for feminist therapy today.
Depending on who you ask, feminist therapy can be defined in slightly different ways. The website PsychologyCampus.com provides an extended definition of feminist therapy, including that it’s a type of therapy where “problems are viewed in a socio-political and cultural context.” Social change is encouraged as well in order to enhance the well-being of clients.
“The goals of feminist therapy is that the client will become aware of one’s gender role socialization process, to identify internalized gender role messages and replace them with functional beliefs, to acquire skills to bring about change in the environment, to develop a wide range of behaviours that are freely chosen and to become personally powered,” according to the website.
Laurel Clark, a psi counselor, said in an email that she received a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies and wrote her honor’s thesis on feminist therapy in 1978. She is the president of the School of Metaphysics. “I define feminist therapy as therapy which takes into account the paradigms that society accepts as ‘normal’ so that people who are seeking therapy can understand their inner needs,” Clark said. “The word ‘feminist’ has different connotations than it did in the 1970s. It applied today, as it did then, to the truth that people are defined by who they are, not by their gender. Equality and respect for the individual is the essence of feminist therapy.”
She believes that feminist therapy is still relevant and necessary today. “I grew up in New York with liberal parents and it never occurred to me that young women really believed all they needed was a husband and kids to be happy,” Clark said. “When I moved to the Midwest, I found out otherwise. Even today, in 2012, I meet women of all ages who think that their destiny is to be a mother and that they ‘have to’ have kids to be fulfilled. For some women this may be true; for many [others], it is not. People, male and female, need to understand that [there] are options. They need to visualize rather than just following the pattern they’ve seen in their own families or on TV or movies.”
The whole idea of feminist therapy is that there are options not limited to gender, which is still a concept that is not always understood today. “Feminist therapy explores options, respects the right of people to choose, aids clients to define happiness on their own terms rather than using a model of ‘normalcy’ that is no longer needed for the survival of the human race (such as, you have to have kids and a family to be happy),” Clark said.
Although she believes feminist therapy is still needed today, it’s not necessarily practiced widely, in her opinion. “The Midwest is very conservative; young women become mothers at a young age,” Clark said. “Certain populations, such as Spanish populations, in cities like Chicago, do not even consider the alternatives to becoming pregnant and having children at a young age, married or unmarried. Feminism is not very strong in the Midwest.”
If clients decide to seek out a feminist therapist, they might be able to explore options they hadn’t considered before. However, it’s also important that the therapist isn’t rigid in her beliefs. “It can negatively impact clients if the therapist is militant and who does not respect a client’s conservative viewpoint (although such a client wouldn’t seek out a feminist therapist),” Clark said.
She realizes that feminist therapy and society have come a long way since the 1970s, when she first heard of feminist therapy. Her first experience with counseling was when she became depressed and tried going to different therapists. “One of them told me that my problem was that I had moved halfway across the country and was missing my boyfriend who was in the place I moved from,” Clark said. “Although I missed him, that was not the cause for my depression. It was a deep soul angst … needing to discover my calling before plunging into graduate school and ending up with a career I didn’t want. It took me searching and researching for months to find a therapist who understood that my ‘identity crisis’ issues were real.”
Society has shifted somewhat in realizing that women do have more options they can pursue, but there are still rigid social norms in many cases. “Nowadays, there are more role models for women of other women who are successful in the business world; yet, there is still a strong belief system in this country that ‘normal’ means married with children,” Clark said. “Women (and men) who do not want that choice are often labeled in some way. Other people consider them to be lonely, or avoiding relationships, or having some kind of problem.” “I think that feminist therapy is needed to aid in changing the assumptions about what is normal,” she concluded.
Jessica LeRoy, the founder and executive director of the Center for the Psychology of Women, a feminist therapy center in Los Angeles, said in an email that feminist therapy focuses on equality and looking at issues from a societal and cultural viewpoint. “Feminist therapy is the practice of therapy in an egalitarian fashion, where we try to break down the power dynamics in play within therapy, and allow the client to be the expert in their lives opposed to the therapist being the expert,” LeRoy said. “There is also a focus on societal and cultural factors which may cause or exacerbate negative feelings or issues. Instead of the client being the problem we look at multiple factors contributing to the issue.”
LeRoy believes feminist therapy to be relevant and necessary today and says it is alive and well. “While women and men have made huge [strides] in balancing out inequities, there is still a long way to go,” LeRoy said. “Take an example of the current debate over birth control. That debate affects women and men on multiple levels and one is psychological. I also believe that with shifting roles within our society, men benefit from feminist therapy as well. It can be helpful to redefine for yourself what is your role apart from what society or your culture is telling you should be your role. [If] that prescribed role may not fit you and may cause you to feel negatively about yourself, why not change that role?”
She suggests clients look into feminist therapy and not get turned off by the word “feminism”—any person can benefit from this therapy. “I believe that feminist therapy can benefit almost any client,” LeRoy said. “Clients are usually very receptive to the idea that they are not ‘crazy,’ ‘screwed up’ or ‘helpless’ by looking at the factors that caused them to feel this way. It makes it far less personal and allows them agency to make those changes.”
She recalls a specific situation with a client that demonstrates how feminist therapy can be useful. “I worked with a client who was fearful of going to the grocery store after dark by herself,” she said. “Other schools of thought may have labeled her as dependent, fearful, socially phobic, etc. The client believed those things about herself that she was weak, dependent, not competent because she could not go to the store by herself at night. When we explored the reasons why she did not want to go to the store by herself, we discovered that the store was not in a good neighborhood, had poor lighting in the parking lot, and she had been whistled at in the store. So from a feminist point of view it sounds like she was coping quite well with the situation and taking precautions to protect herself.”
Doris Jeanette, a licensed psychologist, is an active member of the feminist therapy movement and still believes this therapy is necessary and relevant as well. “We need to be aware of our sexist conditioning as much as we ever needed it,” Jeanette said in an email. “We definitely need to raise awareness in the present generation, they don’t seem to have any awareness that sexism even exists. Even though sexism is obvious everywhere in our world today, you have to be trained to see the inequality. From what writers are paid to the fact that we have yet to have a woman president in [the] U.S.A. The current facts are unbelievably sexist in terms of what an equal world would really look like.”
She also recognizes ongoing issues that still need to be resolved in this type of therapy. In fact, she believes that for the most part, feminist therapy isn’t practiced widely today, and the feminist movement itself has retreated as well. She suggests this is due to rigidity in the movement, a conservative change in the country, and the takeover of managed care. She added that she was a member and supervisor of the Feminist Therapy Collective in Philadelphia for 6 years, which was later renamed Women’s Therapy Center.
“I think all of us who were part of that movement are still feminist and we have grown up and changed,” Jeanette said. “Personal growth needs to expand and continue throughout one’s life. I am sure many of us are making contributions that are based on our past feminist therapy experience. Once you know sexism, you never cannot know sexism.”
She said feminist therapy can benefit clients as long as individual therapists are helpful. “It is the person, not the treatment, that one needs to be concerned about,” Jeanette said. “Check out your therapist and do not continue to see a therapist who is not helping you. Find a therapist who resonates with you. If you stay with someone who you resonate with, you will definitely grow and flourish. Just because someone calls herself a feminist therapist does not mean she will be good for you.”
She said currently there is too much of a focus from mental health professionals on medication and “controlling behaviors,” but there is hope in a new movement. “A new, holistic psychology is emerging and it will lead the way toward a more sane, expressive, and enjoyable experience of being alive,” Jeanette said. “Men and women being equal will be part of the new psychology movement, and so will mind and body be equal.”
Hattie, known recently for her appearance on the show “Strange Sex,” specifically the episode called “Cougars and Cubs” on TLC, is a holistic life coach who said she worked as a movement therapist for over 20 years.
“The single most important issue for women was lack of confidence and negative body image,” she said. “Though it wasn’t specifically called, ‘Feminist Therapy,’ we worked on breaking through the challenges that made them feel undervalued. Despite the fact that their belief system was as feminists, many had internalized a demeaning view of themselves. Realizing the political nature of their rage, I concentrated on their personal feelings about being women. As they achieved greater self-respect, it helped them tackle whatever negativity showed up … in society, and from their ‘inner critic.’ From this place of personal power, they were in a better position to fight for women’s rights as feminists.”
She thinks one of the major issues to be tackled in therapy today is body image. “Currently, aging is emerging as a potent challenge to women, particularly as very young and super skinny models appear in advertisements,” Hattie said. “Because of this, I believe that women still need help to find an identity in which they feel confident, strong, and treated fairly. As a 75 year old, fit and glamorous woman, my clients are encouraged to honor their beauty at every age, and not be brainwashed into believing they are ‘over the hill.’ ”
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