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 indignation.
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 tion.
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 theories:
“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) Century
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
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 layer 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 sons.