Feminist psychology

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Feminist psychology is a form of psychology centered on social structures and gender. Feminist psychology critiques historical psychological research as done from a male perspective with the view that males are the norm.[1] Feminist psychology is oriented on the values and principles of feminism. It incorporates gender and the ways women are affected by issues resulting from it.

Gender issues can include the way people identify their gender (male, female, genderqueer; transgender or cisgender), how they have been affected by societal structures related to gender (gender hierarchy), the role of gender in the individual’s life (such as stereotypical gender roles), and any other gender related issues. The objective behind this field of study is to understand the individual within the larger social and political aspects of society.[2] Feminist psychology puts a strong emphasis on women's rights.


Feminist psychoanalysis

The term feminist psychology was originally coined by Karen Horney. In her book, Feminine Psychology, which is a collection of articles Horney wrote on the subject from 1922–1937, she addresses previously held beliefs about women, relationships, and the effect of society on female psychology. Horney developed this form of psychology specifically in response to Sigmund Freud’s theory of “penis envy”[3]

Functionalism, Darwinism and the psychology of women

The beginning of psychology research presents very little in the way of female psychology. Once the functionalist movement came about in the United States, academic psychology’s study of sex difference and a prototypic psychology of woman were developed.[4]

Feminist psychology organizations

Association for Women in Psychology (AWP)

The Association for Women in Psychology (AWP) was created in 1969 in response to the American Psychological Association’s apparent lack of involvement in the Women’s Liberation Movement.[5] The organization formed with the purpose of fighting for and raising awareness of feminist issues within the field of psychology. The association focused its efforts toward feminist representation in the APA and finally succeeded in 1973 with the establishment of APA Division 35 (the Society for the Psychology of Women).

Society for the Psychology of Women

APA Division 35, the Society for the Psychology of Women,[5] was established in 1973.[6] It was created to provide a place for all people interested in the psychology of women to access information and resources in the field. SWP works to incorporate feminist concerns into the teaching and practice of psychology. Div 35 also runs a number of committees, projects, and programs.

Section on Women and Psychology (SWAP)

The Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) has a section on Women and Psychology (SWAP), which is meant "to advance the status of women in psychology, promote quity for women in general, and to educate psychologists and the public on topics relevant to women and girls."[7] SWAP supports projects such as Psychology's Feminist Voices.[8] The Journal of Diversity in Higher Education expresses that female psychologists are often considered to be inefficient due to their low contribution in scientific productivity. Hence, women tend to dominate in low level positions than their male counterparts even if they acquire their doctorial degrees.[9]

The Psychology of Women Section (BPS)

The Psychology of Women Section (BPS),[10] of the British Psychological Society was created in 1988 to draw together everyone with an interest in the psychology of women, to provide a forum to support research, teaching and professional practice, and to raise an awareness of gender issues and gender inequality in psychology as profession and as practice. POWS is open to all members of the British Psychological Society.

Current research


A major topic of study within feminist psychology is that of gender differences in emotion. In general, feminist psychologists view emotion as culturally controlled and state that the differences lie in the expression of emotion rather than the actual experience.[11] The way a person shows his or her emotions is defined by socially enforced display rules which guide the acceptable forms of expression for particular people and feelings.[11]

Stereotypes of emotion view women as the more emotional sex. However, feminist psychologists point out that women are only viewed as experiencing passive emotions such as sadness, happiness, fear, and surprise more strongly. Conversely, men are viewed as more likely to express emotions of a more dominant nature, such as anger.[12] Feminist psychologists believe that men and women are socialized throughout their lifetimes to view and express emotions differently. From infancy mothers use more facial expression when speaking to female babies and use more emotion words in conversation with them as they get older.[12]

Girls and boys are further socialized by peers where girls are rewarded for being sensitive and emotional and boys are rewarded for dominance and lack of most emotional expression.[12] Psychologists have also found that women, overall, are more skilled at decoding emotion using non-verbal cues. These signals include facial expression, tone of voice, and posture.[13] Studies have shown gender differences in decoding ability beginning as early as age 3 ½.[12]


In the United States, women comprise half of the work force. However, there are only a small amount of women with high held positions in corporations. Women constitute only 16% of Fortune 500 corporate officers, 12% of board directors, 16% of state governors, 14% of United States senators, 2% of high-level military officers, and 24% of university and college professors. Women of color have much lower statistics than Caucasian-American women. Women of color are included in less than the above percentages in higher-up work forces. The United States is ranked 59th out of 184 countries in the participation of women in the lower government levels. Women tend to experience a "glass ceiling effect" when taking on leadership positions. The glass ceiling effect refers to invisible yet powerful barriers that prevent women from moving beyond a certain level in the work place.

In addition, women experience a "sticky floor effect." The sticky floor effect happens when women have no job path or ladder to higher positions. When women have children they experience a roadblock called the maternal wall. The maternal wall is when women receive less desirable assignments and less opportunities for advancement after they have a child. When women begin working at a company, their advancement can be limited by not having a senior level employee taking an active role in the development and career planning of junior employees. There are a lack of female mentors to assist new female employees because there are less women than men in higher level company positions. A woman with a male mentor could experience difficulty in gaining bonding and advice from out of work experiences. This is because men play basketball or golf and typically exclude women from these endeavors. Other factors limiting leadership for women are cultural differences, stereotypes, and perceived threats. If women show a small amount of sensitivity, they are stereotyped as being overly emotional. Generally, employers do not accept sensitive, soft people as being able to tackle tough decisions or handle leadership roles. However, if a woman displays male traits she is portrayed as mean, butch, and aggressive. Women are viewed as less competent when they showcase non-"feminine" traits and are not taken seriously.

Another factor leading to discrimination and stress are cultural differences between managers and workers. For example, if a manager is white and has an employee of color, stress may be created if they do not understand or respect each other. Without trust and respect, advancement is unlikely. Regarding perceived threats at work, it is not a matter of sexual harassment or harassment in general. The threat is the fact that women could possibly take over. The more women working in a place of employment, the increased threat a man feels over job security. In a study of 126 male managers, when asked to estimate the number of women working at their place of employment and whether or not they felt men were disadvantaged. Men who believed there were many women felt threatened about the security of their job (Beaton et al., 1996). Alice Eagly and Blair Johnson (1990) discovered that men and women have different small differences in their styles of leadership. Women in power were seen as interpersonal and more democratic, whereas men were seen as task oriented and more autocratic. In reality, men and women are equally effective in their styles of leadership. A study by Alice Eagly (Eagly, Karau, & Makhijani, 1995) found no overall differences in the effectiveness of male and female leaders in facilitating accomplishment of their group goals. [14] [15] [16] [17]


Feminists argue that gender-based violence occurs frequently in the forms of domestic violence, sexual harassment, childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape. Violence towards women can be physical or psychological and is not limited by race, economic status, age, ethnicity, or location. Women can be abused by strangers but often the abuser is someone the woman knows. Violence can have both short- and long-term effects on women, and they react to the abuse in various ways. Some women express emotions such as fear, anxiety, and anger. Others choose to deny it occurred and conceal their feelings. Often, women blame themselves for what happened and try to justify that they somehow deserved it. Among victims of violence, psychological disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression are common. In addition to the psychological ramifications, many women also sustain physical injuries from the violence which creates the necessity to seek medical attention. [18] [19] [20]

Relational-cultural theory

Relational-cultural theory is based on the work of Jean Baker Miller, whose book Toward a New Psychology of Women proposes that "growth-fostering relationships are a central human necessity and that disconnections are the source of psychological problems."[21] Inspired by Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique, and other feminist classics from the 1960s, Relational-Cultural Theory proposes that "isolation is one of the most damaging human experiences and is best treated by reconnecting with other people," and that therapists should "foster an atmosphere of empathy and acceptance for the patient, even at the cost of the therapist’s neutrality".[22] The theory is based on clinical observations and sought to prove that "there was nothing wrong with women, but rather with the way modern culture viewed them."[23]

Feminist therapy

Feminist therapy is a type of therapy based on viewing individuals within their sociocultural context. The main idea behind this therapy is that the psychological problems of women and minorities are often a symptom of larger problems in the social structure in which they live. There is a general agreement that women are more frequently diagnosed with internalizing disorders such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders than men.[1] Feminist therapists dispute earlier theories that this is a result of psychological weakness in women and instead view it as a result of encountering more stress because of sexist practices in our culture.[1] A common misconception is that feminist therapists are only concerned with the mental health of women. While this is certainly a central component of feminist theory, feminist therapists are also sensitive to the impact of gender roles on individuals regardless of sex.

The goal of feminist therapy is the empowerment of the client. Generally, therapists avoid giving specific diagnoses or labels and instead focus on problems within the context of living in a sexist culture. Clients are sometimes trained to be more assertive and encouraged to understand their problems with the intent of changing or challenging their circumstances.[12] Feminist therapists view lack of power as a major issue in the psychology of women and minorities. Accordingly, the client-therapist relationship is meant to be as egalitarian as possible with both sides communicating on equal ground and sharing experiences.[13]

Feminist therapy is different than other types of therapy in that it goes beyond the idea that men and women should be treated equally in the therapeutic relationship. Feminist therapy incorporates political values to a greater extent than many other types of therapy. Also, feminist therapy encourages social change as well as personal change in order to improve the psychological state of the client and society.[1]

Issues with traditional therapies

Gender biases

Many traditional therapies assume that women should follow sex-roles in order to be mentally healthy. They believe gender differences are biologically based and encourage female clients to be submissive, expressive, and nurturant in order to achieve fulfillment (Worell & Remer, 1992). This may be done unconsciously by the therapist- for example, they may encourage a female to be a nurse, when they would have encouraged a male client of the same abilities to be a doctor, but there is the risk that the goals and outcomes of therapy will be evaluated differently in accordance with the therapist’s beliefs and values.


Traditional therapies are based on the assumption that being male is the norm. Male traits are seen as the default, and stereotypically male traits are seen as more highly valued (Worell & Remer, 1992; Hegarty & Buechel, 2006). Men are considered the standard of comparison when comparing gender differences, with feminine traits viewed as a deviation from the norm and a deficiency on the part of women (Hegarty & Buechel, 2006).

Intrapsychic assumptions

Traditional therapies place little emphasis on sociopolitical influences, focusing instead on the client’s internal functioning. This can lead therapists to blame clients for their symptoms, even if the client may in fact be coping admirably in a difficult and oppressive situation (Worell & Remer, 1992). Another possible issue can arise if therapists pathologize normal responses to oppressive environments (Goodman & Epstein, 2007).

Principles of empowerment

The personal is political

This principle stems from the belief that psychological symptoms are caused by the environment. The goal of the therapist is to separate the external from the internal so the client can become aware of the socialization and oppression they have experienced, and attribute their problems to the appropriate causes (Worrel & Remer, 1992).

Therapists do not view their client’s cognitions or behaviors as maladaptive- indeed, symptoms of depression or PTSD are often considered to be the normal, rational response to oppression and discrimination (Goodman & Epstein, 2007). Traditional therapies place little emphasis on sociopolitical influences, focusing instead on the client’s internal functioning. This can lead therapists to blame clients for their symptoms, even if the client may in fact be coping admirably in a difficult and oppressive situation (Worell & Remer, 1992). Another possible issue can arise if therapists pathologize normal responses to oppressive environments (Goodman & Epstein, 2007).

Egalitarian relationships

Feminist therapists consider power inequalities to be a major contributing factor to the struggles of women, and as such criticize the traditional therapist role as an authority figure. Feminist therapists believe interpersonal relationships should be based in equality, and view the client as the “expert” in their own experiences. Therapists emphasize collaboration, and use techniques such as self-disclosure to reduce the power differential (Worrel & Remer, 1992).

Value the female perspective

The goal of feminist therapy is to re-value feminine characteristics and perspectives. Often, women are criticized for breaking gender norms while simultaneously being devalued for acting feminine. In order to break this double bind, therapists encourage women to value the female perspective and self-define themselves and their roles. In doing so, clients can value their own characteristics, bond with other women, and embrace traits that had previously been discouraged (Worrel & Remer, 1992).


Sex role analysis

One component of feminist therapy involves a critique of cultural conditioning that produces and maintains socially biased structures (Ballou & Gabalac, 1985). From birth, women are taught which behaviors are appropriate, and face sanctions if they fail to conform. These gender stereotypes are taught explicitly or implicitly by the family, media, school, and the workplace, and lead to gender-related belief systems and self-imposed expectations (Worell & Remer, 1992).

Before women can be free of these expectations, they need to gain an understanding of the social systems that molded and encouraged these gender stereotypes, and how this system impacted their mental health. First, women work to identify the gendered messages they’ve received, as well as the consequences. Then, women explore how these messages have been internalized, and decide which rules they would like to follow and which behaviors they would prefer to change (Worrel & Remer, 1992).

Power analysis

Power systems are organized groups that have legitimized status, that are sanctioned by custom or law, that have the power to set the standards for society. In Western society, women are expected to conform to the power systems that place them as submissive and inferior to men (Ballou & Gabalac, 1985). Types of power include the legal, physical, financial, and institutional ability to exert change. Often, men control direct power via concrete resources, while women are left to use indirect means and interpersonal resources. Also, sex-roles and institutionalized sexism play a role in limiting the power women have (Worrel & Remer, 1992).

Power analysis is the technique used to examine the power differential between women and men, and to empower women to challenge the interpersonal and institutional inequalities they face (Worrel & Remer, 1992).

Assertiveness training

Traditionally, assertiveness is a masculine trait, so frequently women struggle with learning to stand up for their rights. Feminist therapists work to help women distinguish assertive behaviors from passive or aggressive ones, overcome beliefs that tell women they cannot be assertive, and help women rehearse assertiveness skills through role play (Worrel & Remer, 1992).

Application to other theories

Cognitive-behavioral therapy

The biggest feminist critique of Cognitive-behavioral therapy is that the theory fails to focus on how behaviors are learned from society (NetCE, 2014). Often, the focus is on encouraging women to change their “maladaptive” responses and conform to normative standards. By putting the onus on the woman to change her thoughts and behaviors, instead of changing the environmental factors that give rise to the problems, the theory fails to question the social norms that condone the oppression of women (Brown & Ballou, 1992). Despite this, feminist therapists do use cognitive-behavioral techniques to help women change their beliefs and behaviors, in particular using techniques such as sex-role analysis or assertiveness training (Brown & Ballou, 1993; NetCE, 2014).

Psychoanalytic therapy

Many psychoanalytic concepts are considered by feminist therapists to be sexist and culturally-bound (NetCE, 2014). However, feminist psychoanalysis adapts many of the ideas of traditional psychotherapy, including the focus on early childhood experiences and the idea of transference. Specifically, therapists serve as a mother figure and help clients connect emotionally with others while maintaining an individuated sense of self (NetCE, 2014).

Family systems therapy

The main critique of family systems therapy is the endorsement of power imbalances and traditional gender roles. For example, family systems therapists often respond to men and women differently, for example placing more importance on the man’s career or placing the responsibility for childcare and housework on the mother (Braverman, 1988).

Feminist therapists strive to make the discussion of gender roles explicit in therapy, as well as focusing on the needs of and empowering the woman in her relationship (Braverman, 1988). Therapists help couples examine how gender role beliefs and power dynamics lead to conflict . The focus is on encouraging more egalitarian relationships and affirming the women’s experiences (NetCE, 2014).

Core issues covered in therapy

Rape/domestic violence

A feminist approach to dealing with rape or domestic abuse is focused on empowerment. Therapists help clients analyze societal messages about rape or domestic abuse that encourage a victim-blaming attitude, and try to help clients get past shame, guilt, and self-blame. Often, women do not know the true definitions of abuse or rape, and don’t immediately identify themselves as victims (Worrel & Remer, 1992).

Survivors often face negative reactions from others that lead to re-victimization when trying to seek help, so therapists can help the woman navigate the medical and legal services if she wishes. At all times, although safety is the main concern, the therapist empowers the woman to explore her options and make her own decisions (for example, to leave the relationship or stay following an attack) (Worrel & Remer, 1992).

It is emphasized that any symptoms are in fact normal responses to the traumatic effect, and the women is not pathologized. Both rape and domestic violence are not viewed as something you can recover from, but are instead viewed as experiences that you can integrate into your life story as you restructure your self-esteem and self-confidence (Worrel & Remer, 1992).

Career counseling

Occupational choice is a main theme in feminist counseling. Women are more likely to earn less than men, and are overrepresented in lower-status occupations (Worrel & Remer, 1992). Several factors influence this career trajectory, including gender-role stereotyping of which jobs are appropriate for men and women. Women are often pointed towards nurturing jobs, while leadership jobs are reserved for men (Worrel & Remer, 1992).

Institutionalized sexism in the educational system often encourages girls to study traditionally feminine subjects while discouraging them from studying math and science. Discriminatory hiring practices also reflect the attitude that men should be the breadwinner and women are a riskier choice because their work will be disrupted once they have children (Worrel & Remer, 1992).

These societal messages often lead to internalized negative messages, including lower self-confidence and self-esteem, lower levels of assertiveness and willingness to negotiate, and the imposter syndrome, where women believe they do not deserve success and are merely lucky (Worrel & Remer, 1992).

When women do seek nontraditional employment, they are placed in a double bind, where they are expected to be competent at their job while simultaneously being feminine. Especially for women in male-dominated fields, trying to be competent and successful as a woman is difficult (Howard, 1986).

Feminist therapists

Feminist therapists work with women in search of counseling, as well as men, for help in alleviating a variety of mental health concerns. Feminist therapists have an interest in gender and how multiple social identities can impact an individual's functioning. Psychologists or therapists who identify with the feminism, the belief that women and men are equals, and/or feminist psychological theory may call themselves feminist therapists. Currently, there are not many postdoctoral training programs in feminist psychology, but models for this training are being developed and modified for institutions to start offering them.[24] Most of this training is modeled around gender-fair counseling techniques.[2]


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External links