Feminist Therapy – 
A Contradiction in Terms?

Maeve Halpin

The following article is a summary of a project submitted in part fulfilment of the
 M.Phil. degree in Women’s Studies, Trinity College, 1990/91.

Feminist therapy can be viewed as a direct outgrowth of 
the theory and philosophy of consciousness-raising, 
which emerged at the beginning of the women’s 
movement (Lerman, 1976). While no single theory
 underlies the practice of feminist therapy, its basic tenets 
are informed by an understanding of the psychological 
effects on women of patriarchal oppression. It also
 recognises the possible detrimental effects of traditional
 therapy for women, in that the latter can encourage
 adjustment to oppressive situations.

The central principles of feminist therapy, that the personal is political, and that the
 client-therapist relationship is an egalitarian one (Gilbert, 1980) represent therefore a 
radical departure from the norms of traditional therapy. The goal of feminist therapy is
 seen as the facilitation of the client’s awareness of external oppression, and her self-def
inition within it (Lerman, 1976). Ideally, “psychic energies can then be addressed 
outward onto structural enemies rather than self-destructively inward onto herself 
(Holland, 1991:59)

Criticisms of Feminist Therapy

The fundamental contradictions inherent in bringing an explicit political stance into 
the therapeutic situation have been identified by various writers. Lipschitz (1978) sees
 feminist therapy as a conflation of the social and psychical levels of work, resulting in 
the denial of the subjectivity of the client. She also suggests that the existence of an egal
itarian client-therapist relationship may occlude the transference issues that arise in the 

Rohrbaugh (1980) feels that the feminist therapy model of a non-power structured
 relationship with the client can mask the actual power dynamics that are present. Also,
 she says, there is a danger that the political goals of the therapist may obscure the per
sonal needs and goals of the female client.

Major (1980) raised the question of whether a heightened feminist awareness is necessarily therapeutic for the client “elevating women’s sense of their own entitlement may 
be bought at the price of their discontent” (Major, 1988). Again, is the politicisation of
 clients a legitimate aim of therapy?

Feminist therapy has, on the other hand, been criticised from within feminism, on 
the grounds that it can contribute to the defusing of political action. In therapy, Squire
 (1989) sees the feminist goal of political action being transmuted into the goal of personal change; defined by male-identified parameters of individualism and self-esteem.

The notion of personal empowerment, so central to feminist therapy, “attempts to 
create in women a certain state of mind (feeling powerful, competent, worthy of esteem,
 able to make free choices and influence their world) while leaving structural conditions
 unchanged” (Kitzinger, 1991: 122).

Psychological theories of femininity and personal change can overshadow gender re
lations themselves (Squire, 1989) and stifle more complex theories of gendered 
subjectivity (Holloway, 1991). Further, psychology’s exclusive construction of gender as
 difference can obscure the way in which gender is a vehicle for power difference (Fine
 and Gordon, 1991).

Resolving the Contradictions

In order to investigate how these questions are resolved in practice, I conducted in
terviews with ten feminist therapists presently working in Dublin. My aim was to
 examine how the therapists brought a political agenda into their work with women, and 
also how feminist therapy engaged with the larger world of feminist theory and debate.

My findings from these interviews indicated that the distinct separation of feminist 
therapy from other therapeutic approaches is no longer as clear-cut as it once was. The
 therapists had incorporated some of the techniques and goals of feminist therapy into
 their work, without taking on board a rigid ideological philosophy. On the one hand,
 the insights and developments of feminist therapy constituted a body of knowledge that 
was available to them, and open to individual interpretation. At the same time, the ther
apists felt that their own feminist values were such an intrinsic part of themselves that it
 was inevitable that their work would be informed by them.

The interface between feminism and psychotherapy would therefore appear to be a 
complex and constantly shifting one. There is no clearly defined translation of feminist 
insight, values and politics into the work of therapy. The therapist’s sensitivity to the
 needs, feelings and experience of different clients precludes the imposition of a partic
ular ideology or agenda within the therapy sessions.

Several interviewees spoke of how their own relationship to feminism, and to thera
py, had developed in the course of their careers. Many had started out with ideas which
 would be closer to the concept of feminist therapy as described in the literature. One 
therapist, for instance, had intended to work exclusively with women, but now felt that
 such an approach would be too narrow. It appeared that as their experience grew, the
 therapists’ understanding of what it meant to do feminist work broadened.

The individual negotiation of the therapist’s own relationship to feminism means that 
she can contain the ambiguities and contradictions relating to feminism experienced by
 the client. The therapists realised that feminism has not always been a benign influence 
for women. On a personal level, it can be experienced as an oppressive dogma, a denial 
of femininity, or an impossible ideal to be striven for.

Recognition of this can facilitate the self-determination of the client in a way that
 would seem more compatible with the stated ideals of therapy, than would the more rigid
 framework of feminist theory.

In the context of therapy, any label, “feminist” included, can serve to diminish the 
complexity of both the therapist and client as human beings, and of the interaction be
tween them. While such labels may be useful in identifying public groups or issues 
specifically related to women, the work of therapy often involves looking beyond these
 words, which can stereotype and simplify, to their meaning for the client.

The ambivalence of the therapists towards describing themselves purely as “feminist
 therapists” was related to this. It would appear that what could be described as the pri
vate values of feminism – essentially a woman’s relationship with herself – were such an
 integral part of the therapy work that they would not in any way be labelled as something separate. The word “feminism” also has connotations of public and
 statement-making activity. It is these connotations, it seems, which makes the use of the 
word “feminist” problematic in the therapeutic situation.

On the question posed by feminists regarding psychotherapy’s relationship to feminist struggle (e.g. Kitzinger, 1991), the therapists recognised that, as one of them put it,
 “your awareness is your politicisation”. A movement towards feminist activity and action
 however, if this occurred, was very much determined by the client rather than the ther

But they felt it important to recognise that what might be considered a small step
 from a political perspective might constitute a major change for the woman herself. The
 dismissal of therapy as anti-thetical to feminist progress (e.g. Daly, 1979) would appear 
to stem from a failure to acknowledge the extent of the woman’s personal oppression,
 conditioning and powerlessness. Sometimes the process of therapy is essential for the
 healing and support a woman needs before her energies can be freed to be directed towards external sources of oppression.

To politicise women in a more public sense was not an aim of the therapy process for 
any of the therapists I interviewed. Nevertheless, some had seen clients go on to become
 active in their communities, or even in party politics on behalf of women. Again, this 
was not something the therapist would encourage because it was good for feminism, but 
because it was the direction of the client’s own life experience and growth.

But even if this latter step does not follow, it does not mean that the therapy has failed
 from a feminist point of view. What a woman gains in therapy will affect, at the very 
least, what she passes on to her children, and in this way sex stereotypes and patriarchal
 norms will be challenged and hopefully undermined.

Responses to the questions raised by psychotherapists around bringing a political 
standpoint into therapy (e.g. Lipschitz, 1978) illustrated how therapists are constantly
 defining and redefining this for themselves. While a therapist’s feminist values will
 inform the therapy, how this operated in practice will vary from client to client. Rather 
than working from a rigid and pre-ordained standpoint, therapists are sensitive to the 
idiosyncratic needs and perceptions of their individual clients.

The question of having an egalitarian relationship with the client, for instance, is
 more complicated than would he understood from the feminist therapy literature. It is
 interpreted in different ways by different therapists, and their opinion of its validity 
varied. For those who saw it as important, however, it was not seen to inevitably conflict 
with the transference, as traditional therapy would claim.

The fact that a client’s feminism would not he automatically accepted as something
 positive by the therapists, indicated that they were not simply seeking to gain political 
converts through their work. They recognised that it was important to look at how a
 client comes to her feminism, what it means for her, how it can be used as defence, and
 why she has chosen that particular label. How a client defined herself and her feminism 
would be “grist to the mill” of therapy, as one therapist put it.

Rather than viewing the individual as “reflecting cultural experience in general”
 (Lipschitz, 1978:25), the therapists are clearly attuned to the subjective history and ex
perience of each client. While the therapist will have an awareness of how cultural 
stereotypes and social constructions influence women’s psychology, this is an under
standing which the client may herself develop through therapy, but is not imposed by 
the therapist.

The tenets of feminist therapy represent therefore a resource and a possible set of 
tools available to the therapist, rather than an exclusive and clearly defined way of work
ing with women in therapy.


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