The Personal is

Berni Divilly

A discussion document written by a trainee therapist

Feminism as I personally know it is about adult women being women – not eternal
 girls living submissively under father-rule and unconsciously resenting mother for her 
apparent powerlessness. It is an international movement of women that dares to wander
 beyond the limitations imposed by patriarchal thinking and law. As an international
 movement, it reflects cultural differences in analysis and experience of feminist activism 
in different parts of the world and among a variety of communities and tribes. Feminism 
is a rich, colourful and imaginative movement with a heart and soul. It is a thoughtful 
movement capable of self-reflection and self-criticism. It is a complex movement with
 many different sources of experience, theory and thought. What gives it its changing 
consistency is its commitment to the right of women to self-determination over our own 
lives. Feminism opposes the systems of patriarchy, of domination and submission, denying the dependence of men on women and on each other and denying women a right to 
our own subjectivity (1). Feminism is a loud declaration of NO to institutionalised op
pressions that demean our minds, bodies, souls and psyches as women. It is a movement
 that recognises our right to own our own bodies, our choice of sexuality, that acknowl
edges our right to participate in deciding our own fate in public and private spheres.

Feminism as Healing

Feminism as I have experienced it has been healing. Working collectively with other
 women in self-help groups supported me in developing a strong, positive sense of myself
 as a woman. In these groups it was possible to create our own theories, evolving out of 
our own lived experiences as women. Finding other women who shared my feelings of
 profound despair, alienation and outrage at the experience of growing up female allowed
 me to take leaps into RESPONSE-ABLE womanhood. Through feminist writings, I 
was able to learn HERSTORY. Recovering knowledge about women – as midwives, 
herbalists, healers before the development of modern medicine – provided me with role
 models of women as active agents in the WHOLE-LISTIC wellbeing of their communities. Learning about the murders of healers and witches by the patriarchal churches
 gave me a clue as to how women came to submit to male domination. Getting a sense 
of my roots as a woman was essential to me in my personal development, it was an im
portant tool in tackling internalised oppression. To know myself to be in the company
 of generations of women who were unhappy in their roles is grounding. Healing is a 
process which involves knowing your wounds – how they came about, what function they
 have, who benefits and how, how your life might be different if you were healed – what
 is the pay-off in staying where you are, and how high is the cost?

Mad With Rage

Anger is a natural response to feeling restricted. It is a healthy reaction to oppres
sion. It follows that women who have been put down for many generations, silenced,
 forced to be objects of men’s desire and subjected to laws of church and state, might be 
mad with rage. Rage needs to be directed towards changing the conditions that are caus
ing restrictions, rather than turned inward as self-doubt, repression, depression,
 compulsive eating or spiritual death. Mary Daly speaks of women living in the state of
 Patriarchy as similar to Christmas trees cut from their organic source of life (2). After a
 long history of forced restriction of movement, thought and feeling, it makes perfect
 sense to me that many women might well rage. My hypothesis is that rage runs deeply 
in the collective unconsciousness or consciousness of women. Unfortunately woman’s
 anger is often equated with madness (6). Insane with pain is the condition of many
 women denied agency over our own lives. Insane is often the label applied to women 
who are not “sugar and spice and all things nice”, but are instead beside themselves with 

Psychotherapy and Women

Women have traditionally been the majority of clients seeking support from psychotherapy. Much has been said on the subject of the abuse of women clients by male 
professionals. The setting-up of Rape Crisis Centres by feminists brought to light how 
widespread child sexual abuse is. The stories of women using these centres brought uncomfortably to public attention the realities of women who experienced rape in their 
homes as well as on the streets, and challenged the silence on this subject. This has effected some changes within the profession but it certainly has not eliminated all male 
domination or authority in psychotherapy. At present there is a much higher percent
age of women training as therapists than men. Does this mean women are now taking
 our power to make an impact on the evolution of therapeutic theory and practice? Or
 are we just fitting into the existing system with a few cosmetic changes?

How come we have Father Freud and Jung the Wise Man with a wisdom about the 
feminine? Where are the wise women who knew all about the masculine? What they 
had to say was important. If it does not address these questions, psychotherapy runs the
 risk of being an agent of social control rather than a tool for liberation and transforma

I find myself angry about the dearth of theory regarded as significant and written by 
women. It is not that women have nothing to say about psychology – Alice Miller, 
Virginia Satir, Susie Orbach, for example, represent only a tiny bit of the wealth of
 women’s knowledge in this sphere. Phyllis Chester’s first book, Women and Madness
 (1972) addressed the subject of what it means to be mothered and not mothered. She
 described the psychological consequences of women’s enforced separation; and how disfigured mothers and daughters turn up in later life and in the women’s movement. In 
this book she also described the sexism in the mental care system, and the incestuous
 nature of all female and male relations including those of marriage, employment and 
psychotherapy. This is what she had to say in response to Dale Spender’s analysis of her 

“Reading Dale Spender’s essay on my work brought tears to my eyes, and joy. 
Spender’s perception of me as a theoretician is rare and I bless her it. Most often I 
am (merely) praised for critiquing the patriarchal and not perceived as a theory-maker at all.”

As a student on a therapy training course, I was presented with a theory book list 
without one woman theorist represented. During our training, a feminist perspective on
 Freud and Jung was discussed and we looked at what feminism has to say on several 
topics. I was listened to respectfully when I expressed my anger. But I want the theo
retical work of women, particularly feminists, to be acknowledged as central to the study 
of psychotherapy.

The Equal-But-Different Myth

Systems theory may be usefully employed to look at what is happening: the popular 
media start talking about “the post-feminist era” when in the experience of Irish women, 
the possibility of liberation is still being dreamt. Systems theory looks at the way change
 happens in systems. What interests me is how major systems can allow a certain amount
 of change without essentially having to deal with transforming themselves. When I hear 
remarks about men and women being equal but different, my heart feels chilled with fear. Double standards are still rampant. Denial is a useful defence mechanism against 
pain. Will my desire for equality fool me into betraying myself and my sisters? Will we 
be accommodated with a pittance and swallowed back into the system? NO!


In my early days active in the women’s movement, I would get upset when I found
 myself in conflict with other women. I still find this painful but I am learning that as 
long as we are willing to listen and learn, this is the growing edge. It means a willingness to be open to working through our own internalised oppressor and victim positions.
 It means a responsibility towards each other that includes challenge and support, rather
 than agreement for the sake of acceptance. Our relationships with each other as women
 are often fraught with feelings of betrayal, rejection, competition, envy, passion and love. 
Some of this is usefully being looked at in the light of the early relationship of mother 
and daughter (4). It might also be useful to explore our relationships with our siblings
, our actual sisters, as “significant others” who can be our allies or not. Sisterhood
 is a model of a relationship that may have much to offer in considering the therapeutic
 relationship between a client and a therapist. (3).


1. Benjamin, Jessica: The Bonds of Love (1989) Virago

2. Daly, Mary: Pure Lust (1984) Women’s Press

3. Downing, Christine: Psyche’s Sisters (1988) Harper & Row

4. Eichenbaum, Luise and Orbach, Susie: Bitter Sweet – Love, Envy and Competition in Women’s Friendshps (1987) 

5. Spender, Dale: For The Record – The making and meaning of feminist knowledge (1985) Women’s Press

6. Showalter. Elaine: The Female Malady – Women and Madness in English Culture (1987) Virago.

The Political is Personal

Berni Divilly

I am weaving from my scarred tissue and wounded psyche a dream

A dream about a future

A future where honesty and respect would exist between people of difference

A future where the earth would know itself loved

Where the rivers and seas would be free of oil spoilages and toxic waste

Where plastic bags would be unknown 
and it would be safe to be in the sun without fear of the hole in the ozone 

A world where wild would be common

wild plants

wild animals

wild wind

wild children

wild women

wild men

and common land

I am making a new world for my daughter and her daughters and sons.

Feeling the despair, my losses, the betrayal of my soul, my psyche

The rape of my woman’s body my woman’s mind

I am taking my power through chattering teeth

telling the truth

stating my needs

the price of living under the horrors of Patriarchy is too high

it is costing me my life and the life of my daughters and their daughters and their