Feminist theory (FT) was developed in reaction to the perceived oppression and inequality women face in society. Largely considered a postmodern theory, the fourth-wave of feminism is strongly focused on the intersectionality and empowerment of women (Carbin & Edenheim, 2013). FT is closely related to gender sensitive perspectives, multicultural theory, and overlaps with aspects of systems theories. Feminist therapy may integrate any of these models yet Wolf et al. (2017) suggest “this theoretical model is broad enough to be used with varying types of intersecting social identities” (p. 439). The “personal is political”, introduced by third-wave feminists, has been retained as a guiding principle for the perspective, shown to empower women to endure their challenges in their struggle for power (Thomas, 2014; Sharoni, 2018). Sociopolitical constraints are exemplified in cultural attitudes and behaviors as well as common language used to oppress women (Schalk, 2013; Mills, 2008). FT views female ontology reliant on socio-political, cultural, and environmental constructs for women rather than determined by biological gender (Ashton and McKenna, 2018). This theory suggests that modalities for change can be achieved through awareness, consciousness raising (CR), choice and political liberation (Prochaska & Norcross, 2018). Historical events that disrupt the political hierarchies such as the recent “Me Too” movement validate the objectives and necessity of FT (Sharoni, 2008; Enloe, 2017). For many women the positivity of their agency depends heavily on this lens (Pollack & Brunet, 2018). Another source of empowerment for women can be developed through building a strong, collaborative therapeutic alliance. This is achieved when the empathetic therapist holds space, and accepts the intersectionality of the client’s diversity, sexuality, and culture without judgement (Worthen, 2017).
Theory Paper Questions
What is the guiding metaphor for feminist theory?
There are two guiding metaphors relevant in the development and formation of feminist theoretical perspectives. The first, and most common metaphor is the anthem of third wave feminism “the personal is political” (Thomas, 2014). This metaphor places psychological, social, and political implications central to systematic inequalities women face. Oppressive gender stereotypes and living in a patriarchal society where men are afforded an unequal amount of power, shape the unique challenges women face. This metaphor supports the importance of consciousness raising and challenging socially constructed political norms to improve the inequities affecting women’s minds, bodies, spirits, livelihood, and independence (Pillow et al., 2019).
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The second guiding metaphor “intersectionality” supports a more inclusive approach to FT. Carbin and Edenheim (2013) suggest that the concept of intersectionality was originally developed as a term to address the various race, ethnic and socio-economic facets of a woman’s lived experiences rather than attribute it to her gender. The first-wave of feminism espoused the experiences of Caucasian, heterosexual, middle-class women, excluding those less privileged; not recognizing the struggles and complexity of women from alternate backgrounds. Intersectionality became a lens through which researchers could examine the structuralist feminist viewpoint and was later adopted to examine multicultural theories, eventually becoming a stand-alone construct to examine overlapping and systems theories. In this way, the metaphor of intersectionality was adopted for a more universal approach to examining and researching. The metaphors used in FT address the key socio-cultural concerns that arose in each wave of feminism.
What was the socio-cultural context (background) within feminist theory?
Freud’s psychoanalysis demonstrates the androcentric voice of early psychotherapies. Visionary psychologist Karen Horney (1924) was one of the earliest to challenge generalized gender theories of personality development and the social and cultural constructs under which Freud’s psychoanalytic theories were established. Horney refuted Freud’s phallic stage of psychosexual development and the construct of penis envy as the primary source of women’s insecurity. Rather, Horney explained women’s insecurity as a natural reaction to the power bestowed upon men and withheld from women in society. Balsam (2013) writes that Horney could clearly see how “the phallocratic cultural bias of Central Europe had colored Freud and his followers’ developmental thinking about sex and gender” (p. 696).
Schalk (2013) explains that early feminist writers and researchers strived to identify and challenge sexist theories through drawing attention to the language used to perpetuate gender oppression. This androcentric bias holds in the historical development of words like “mankind” to describe all people (Mills, 2008). Feminist scholars like Mills (2008) shed light on the cultural significance of the socio-cultural shift in language towards more gender neutral and inclusive terms like “humankind”. Early Euro-centric socio-cultural psychological models privileged patriarchal authority and perpetuated oppressive ideas at the expense of women’s power and dignity.
What are the principle assumptions about human nature and the way knowledge arises in feminist theory?
FT assumes that human experience is constructed by socio-political and cultural constructs for women rather than biological gender as other theories propose. Many traditional psychotherapies are formulated on societal gender biases that favor men. An individual’s environment, gender role, role strain, conflict and discrimination all have a significant impact on identity, which could explain why women tend to experience “largely internalizing problems” (Prochaska & Norcross, 2018, p. 325). More recently, FT has expanded it’s focus to examine the intersectionality of ethnocentric, heterosexist, and intrapsychic constructs (Corey, 2011). FT strives to be “gender-fair, flexible-multicultural, interactionist, and life-span oriented” (Corey, 2011, p. 347). It refutes androcentric theories and, intrapsychic orientations that blame the victim.
Ashton and McKenna (2018) share that knowledge arises through a socially constructivist lens in FT. Feminist standpoint theory & feminist empiricism suggest a form of social constructivism is required to adapt the way knowledge is constructed. The central idea behind feminist standpoint theory is that individuals “who are socially oppressed have distinct experiences, and after critically reflecting upon these experiences they can turn their perspective into a ‘standpoint’ - an epistemically privileged perspective from which the nature of relevant social relations is visible” (Ashton & McKenna, 2018, p. 6). Feminist empiricism is guided from an epistemology that “combines the empiricist view that experience and observation provide the least defeasible evidence we have about how the world is with the idea that feminist social values can play a legitimate role in the process of inquiry” (Ashton & McKenna, 2018, p. 11). From this perspective, incorporating feminist values and examining research through a lens that identifies sex biases contributes to the evolution of feminist therapy, awareness and CR.
What is the theory of change: How do psychological problems develop and how are they resolved within the perspective offered by feminist theory?
Feminist theory proposes that problems can develop for women through pathological dispositions and largely through oppressive environmental conditions. A feminist therapist is attuned to the social systems that may be contributing to the individual’s challenges. A treatment plan is addressed after the accurate cause of the distress is identified. Feminist therapists are not quick to pathologize rather they seek to understand the expectations and discrimination placed on the client to reveal the root cause of suffering (Prochaska & Norcross, 2018).
Feminist therapists uses a variety of techniques to resolve client’s challenges. Consciousness raising (CR) is central to the goals of the therapist, an individual’s awareness and social change. Yet many feminists would suggest that psychologists are appropriating CR from its original intent as a revolutionary tool for change, and further oppressing women with the promise that CR will fix their individual problems (Ruck, 2015). Provided individuals are aware that CR is used to identify inequality in “the environment rather than intrapsychic dynamics” (Ruck, 2015, p. 307), it can be an effective tool for personal and social change as well as social liberation and gender equality activism and advocacy. Bibliotherapy is a valuable tool at the therapist’s disposal that allow for CR and reflection between sessions.
Change can also occur by drawing awareness to an individual’s ability to choose. This is probably best exemplified by Roe vs Wade (1973) the most iconic women’s right verdict legislating a women’s right to choose (Chen, 2013). Unfortunately, women still live in a world where they are forced to continue to fight for rights over their own bodies. When women are given autonomy over their bodies and their fundamental human rights are upheld, they are empowered, again reinforcing that for women, that the personal is political. Once a client feels empowered to make different, and sometimes difficult choices; therapists can support this progress with counterconditioning. This can take the form of assertion or communication training in an effort to generate anti-oppression skills, reinforce progress, and prevent deterioration of the skills learned in therapy (Prochaska & Norcross, 2018).
What sociocultural, historical and/or ideological contexts are relevant to the development of feminist theory?
The main motivation behind FT is gender inequality. For this reason, it should not be homogenously grouped in with gender sensitive therapies or multicultural theories. Although they share similarities in their efforts with marginalized group members, the systematic oppression of women is unique and one distinct aspect of an individual’s intersectionality. It is not more or less significant, simply different. For example, racism is a recognized and acknowledged oppression, while gender inequality is normative, unconscious, suppressed and often denied by both men and women giving power to hegemonic masculinity (Thomas, 2014).
Most recently, the “Me Too Movement” reinforced why a focus on gender equality and FT are relevant in our society. We have witnessed public mockery towards sexual assault, aggression and abuse, to suppress abuse allegations in academia, politics, and the celebrity hierarchy. Women that spoke out against their perpetrators risked being discredited, ridiculed and alienated (Sharoni 2008). Enloe (2017) assures us “patriarchy is as current as Brexit,