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Is All Psychotherapy Feminist?

By March 30, 2016May 26th, 2019No Comments

What does feminism have to do with psychotherapy?

In the early 1970’s, a lifetime ago for the oldest of us and a moment in ancient history for the younger among us, feminist psychotherapy was born. It was born of necessity. Why in the 1970’s though? Why not earlier, as psychotherapy had been actively practiced and discussed since the days of Freud and his daughter, Anna, and the neo-Freudians who broke from Freud’s emphasis on male sexuality to consider other aspects of the human experience, including Karen Horney, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Melanie Klein and others.

The answer is not so simple and not so complicated either. Psychotherapists, up until the introduction of second wave feminism, tended to practice a psychotherapy that took the male child and the masculine as normative and desirable, the female or feminine as abnormal or even invisible. Femininity gone a little too far was diagnosable as hysteria (the wandering uterus) or depression or frigidity (the temperature of her sexual response. His was known as impotence or lack of power, also appropriate to society’s gender expectations of its invented two genders).

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, certain changes in the law in the U.S. allowed women to enter graduate programs in Clinical Psychology in significant numbers for the first time in history. One of the perhaps unintended consequences of this change was that these students began to talk to each other, began to notice that the field focused on the masculine as the norm and invisibilized or pathologized the feminine, that women were treated differently in graduate classes than were the men. Trying to speak, they were often interrupted by a man’s voice, the voice of authority. Trying to meet with their male graduate advisors, they were sexually harassed or even raped. It was made very clear to female students by the largely male faculties that sex was a fair exchange for all the work they would put in to your dissertation. Many students yielded to this aspect of ordinary life; it had not yet occurred to them that there was a choice

Some instead asked impertinent questions of their mentors, of each other and of psychotherapy itself and found that psychotherapy reflected and perpetuated the same double standard as did graduate school and as did life itself. Studies were conducted, articles were published[1][2] [3]books[4][5] and journals[6] began to deal with what came to be called “women’s issues.”

This turned out to be revolutionary, to produce thousands of articles and books and to change the theory and practice of psychotherapy forever. Feminist therapists were the first to believe what women said had happened to them and not to dismiss sexual violations as fantasy or desire. Feminist therapists introduced or were extremely influential in the development of narrative therapy, contextual therapies, a deeper understanding of gender and culture, constructivism in psychotherapy and sexual therapies such as pre-orgasmic (no longer frigid) groups for women. Although many practitioners and clients/patients are not aware of the roots of the therapies in which they currently engage and some of it continues to be invisibilized by a cultural allergy to the word “feminism,”, it is impossible to underestimate the influence of feminist ideas, critiques and feminist therapy itself on current theories and practices.


[1] Broverman, I. K., Broverman, D. M., Clarkson, F. E., Rosenkrantz, P. S. & Vogel, S. R. (1970). Sex-role stereotypes and clinical judgments of mental health. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 34(1), 1-7.

[2] Weisstein, N. (1970), Kinder, Küche, Kirche as Scientific Law: Psychology Constructs the Female, in Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings From The Women’s Liberation Movement, edited by Robin Morgan.

[3] Kaschak, E. Sociotherapy: An ecological model for psychotherapy with women. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, Spring l976, 6l-63.

[4] Chesler, P. (1972), Women and Madness, New York: Routledge.

[5] Baker Miller, Jean (1976), Toward A New Psychology of Women.

[6] Women and Therapy, established in 1982.

This article was originally published in Psychology Today.

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak, Ph.D. is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning psychologist, author and teacher. She is well-known as a speaker, workshop leader, human rights advocate and a public intellectual.