Feminist therapy places a strong emphasis on gender and the negative influence it can have on mental wellbeing. The patriarchal nature of society and its related pressures are a central theoretical principle.
Practitioners contend that a person’s problems can sometimes be affected by cultural and societal forces. The oppression of women and the socio-political status to which they have been consigned is central to Feminist theory.
The Feminist approach evolved from the social and political upheaval of the 1960s. Although it cannot be attributed to a particular individual, its development can be traced back to the Women’s Movement of the mid-20th century which challenged traditionally held attitudes that placed women in restrictive gender roles.
The Women’s Movement was a major proponent of the ‘Personal is Political’ argument which was popularised by Carol Hanisch in her essay of the same name.
Male domination and traditional family values were challenged and social roles were seen as a form of social control. This type of thinking formed part of the Second Wave Feminism Period which began to flourish in the early sixties.
As a result of 1960s activism as well as the gender-bias research of the 1970s, organisations such as the Association for Women in Psychology (AWP) began to emerge.
Founded by members of the American Psychological Association who had grown tired of sexual-bias in psychology, the AWP began to challenge the status quo and encourage Feminist psychoanalytical research.
Feminist therapists focus on the differences between men and women regarding environmental perceptions. They contend that women make sense of their environments through the context of relationships. However, men tend to see things according to power and competition.
A therapist will therefore try to help the client recognise the problems and dysfunctions within their relationships.
Practitioners also argue that the acceptance of traditional gender roles has the potential to restrict and suppress individual freedom.
So clients are encouraged to challenge these outdated constraints by recognising their own power. This empowerment can only be achieved through self-acceptance, authenticity and self-confidence.
Feminist theory has many similarities to the Existential approach to therapy which places importance on the shared journey between counsellor and client.
Therapists encourage active participation in order to ensure that the client does not remain passive. Despite the focus on female empowerment, feminist theory can also be used with men, families, couples and sometimes groups.
How can Feminist Therapy help?
Feminist Psychotherapy can help individuals to improve self-confidence and sense of self. The approach is also used to help people overcome traumatic past events such as physical or sexual abuse.
While many forms of psychotherapy are preoccupied with a person’s shortcomings, feminist therapists tend to focus on their client’s strengths and encourage them to use these positively and effectively.
The responsible use of personal power is also strongly encouraged – this can prove very useful in confronting violent or abusive relationships.
Other issues such as those regarding body image can also be addressed in Feminist Psychotherapy which can sometimes help individuals to address problems such as eating disorders.