Feminist Therapy: A Transformative Educational Tool

by Mary Helen Garvin

Traditional psychotherapy and psychiatry have been suspect among feminists for some time. Sexist biases in psychological theory, and the use of psychotropic drugs to deal with women's depression and anguish have been considered a means of enforcing social control, encouraging repression of anger, and pushing women to continue adjusting and submitting to a patriarchal system that is inimical to women's well being. These patriarchal influences which are implicit in the process of socialization of every child, male or female, are rooted in centuries of culture. They are so all-pervasive and so subtly and powerfully reinforced that to arrive at a point of being able to stand back and evaluate them is tantamount to being re-born. The consciousness-raising process basic to the feminist movement has facilitated this re-birth in many women, and, along with the belief that the personal is political, has been instrumental in the critiquing of existing physical and mental health services for women and in introducing new services designed to meet the specific needs of women from a female perspective. At the same time, new psychological theory which recognizes that females develop differently from males has emerged. This new consciousness and political perspective have produced a form of therapy for women that differs radically from traditional psychotherapy in three categories:

  1. the distribution of power in the client-therapist relationship;

  2. the theory underlying "therapeutic" intervention;

  3. the political emphasis.


To have power is to have the capacity to put forth an effort or action which produces moral or physical change. Feminist therapists criticize traditional therapy because it has tended to take power away from women due to the bias that females are somehow inferior to males, and are happiest in a submissive role. The structure of psychoanalysis and psychiatry are of a one-up/one-down nature. The therapist is the "expert" who "treats" the "patient" who has something pathologically wrong with her. She puts herself in the hands of the therapist and passively waits to be "analyzed" or "cured", believing that the pathology is within herself. Helen Levine (1983) speaks of the helping professions in general when she says that "By and large, women have found that helpers stress adjustment rather than change; individual, not collective or political solutions; personal pathology; weakness rather than strength; [they emphasize the] psyche, unrelated to economic and social hazards in women's lives; and the authority of male experts, male management, and male decision- makers in and beyond the home."

Feminists have called for "a radical therapy of equals" (Walstedt, 1971, quoted by Sturdivant) to replace this system that is unhealthy for women. Feminist therapists have developed a series of practical actions that contribute to the establishing of an egalitarian relationship between client and therapist based on three perspectives: a) consumerism, b) competency of the client, and c) the therapist as a competent role model.

a. Therapy viewed from a consumer perspective:

The use of the word "client" to describe the woman coming for help implies the engagement of a professional service from one who will act primarily in the interest of the engager. Therapists are therefore to serve the client's goals, not their own: women are encouraged to "shop for a therapist", to ask questions about the therapist's values, life-experience, training and professional experience, mode of working, and fee schedule. Client and therapist work together to contract counseling goals, and to negotiate the fee. It is not unusual for a feminist therapist to negotiate for an exchange of services in lieu of a fee.

b. Implicit belief of the therapist in the competency of the client:

When the therapist believes that the client is the "expert" on her own feelings and life-experience, she will see pathology as residing in the culture, not the client. She will share her skills with the client believing that the client will be able to learn them and will make use of them in her own life outside the counselling hour. She will discourage dependency believing that the client can be responsible for her own life. She will frequently use a problem-solving approach, and she will validate the client's feelings and experiences, especially naming those experiences that emerge out of the oppressive patriarchal system. Susan Sturdivant notes that "by setting such an expectation of competence and personal power from each client, the feminist therapist immediately begins a reversal of the usual socialization process in which women are taught to be passive, dependent and incompetent." (p. 82)

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