“Feminist Psychology is the application of feminist ideology and ethics, which emphasizes the effect of social expectations and context on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to research and practice in psychology.” The field aims at improving the lives of women through research, clinical practice, and social advocacy that focus on women and girls and social contexts around them (Anderson & Martinez, 2014).
Karen Horney: Pioneering feminist psychology
The term feminist psychology was originally coined by Karen Horney. Karen Horney was a psychoanalyst but diverged from the Freudian school of thought. She disputed his portrayal of women’s psychology and argued that psychoanalysis focused more on men’s development than on women’s. Horney wrote a book called Feminine Psychology in 1922 in which she addresses previously held beliefs about women, relationships, and the effect of society on female psychology (Schultz & Schultz, 2016).
While Freud theorised that women are driven by penis envy, she said that men are also envious of women for their ability to give birth. She called this “womb envy”. She argued that many male behaviours arise from this womb envy that cause them to belittle women and reinforce their inferior status. They deny women equal rights, minimize their opportunities to contribute to society, and downgrade their efforts to achieve to remain superior and sublimate their womb envy. While Horney also did not deny that many women thought they were inferior to men but she did not agree with Freud’s claim that this inferiority had a biological basis. She said that these feelings of inferiorit and inadequacy came from the social structures that were male-dominated. The generations of social, economic, and cultural discrimination explained these feelings better according to Horney. Horney also hypothesised that due to these feelings of inferiority, many women would want to escape their femininity and experience sexual inhibitions. Horney aslo wrote about the psychological conflicts a woman experiences in terms of her role in the world. The traditional role being to love, admire, and serve the husband whereas Horney proposed a more modern view of women being able to create an identity for themselves by developing skills and creating a career. These traditional and modern roles create conflicts that many women even in the 21st century have difficulty resolving (Schultz & Schultz, 2016).
Read More: Karen Horney: Biography and Contributions
Feminist psychology and the APA
Feminist psychology in the United States also developed parallelly to the Women’s Movement in the early 1970s and the “second wave” of the feminist movement. It focused on psychological research, clinical practice and public policy that aim to improve the lives of women in traditionally patriarchal cultures. A group of psychologists formed the Association of Women in Psychology (AWP) in 1969 because there was a sheer a lack of representation of women in leadership positions in the American Psychological Association (APA). The field of psychology was also very sexist in many ways. The AWP members demanded that the APA include women in leadership, promote research and practice that are inclusive of women, and take public stances that support equality for women in educational and employment settings and the development of social services such as childcare and women’s health care. This resulted in the APA established the Committee on Women in Psychology (CWP) in 1973 which is currently known as the Society for the Psychology of Women (SPW). Other notable organizations in feminist psychology are the Psychology of Women Section of the British Psychological Society and the Section on Women and Psychology of the Canadian Psychological Association (Anderson & Martinez, 2014).
SPW is, however, the largest organization of feminist psychologists in the world. It promotes feminist scholarship, psychological practice and teaching. It promotes the participation of psychologists from all over the world who advocate for equality and social justice. SPW members teach, practice and conduct research that looks into the psychology of women. SPW also publishes multiple research works of women who are invested in highlighting women’s issues in the field. These publications include a scientific feminist journal called Psychology of Women Quarterly, the official SPW newsletter called The Feminist Psychologist, and other books and newsletters. Other journals like Women and Therapy, Sex Roles, and Feminism and Psychology are also established journals in Feminist Psychology (Anderson & Martinez, 2014).
Scope of feminist psychology
One of the most important points of research in feminist psychology is the distinction between sex and gender. Sex is biologically determined via sexual/reproductive organs and genetics whereas gender is socially constructed beliefs about what it means to be a man or a woman. Traditionally, gender is thought of as a state of mind whereas sex is ostensibly “fixed” at birth. However, contemporary psychology also views sex as a flexible and variable concept that does not adhere to strict binaries. Feminist psychology explores the different societal roles that are expected of the sexes and how different behaviours influence these roles. Other important topics of research in feminist psychology include emotion, leadership, work-life balance issues, menstruation, pregnancy, motherhood, and body image dissatisfaction. Feminist psychology highlights how social expectations and pressures can create internalized stress and have adverse mental health effects on individuals (Anderson & Martinez, 2014).
Feminist psychology is also increasingly focusing on research and practice that address “intersectionality” of various identities like race, socio-economic class, disabilities, sexual orientation, ethnicity, educational status, religious affiliations etc. Research on how intersectionality of identities can connect people based on common grounds but can also result in compounded discrimination due to being a part of many oppressed or minority groups is a current focus in feminist psychology (Anderson & Martinez, 2014).
Another important outcome of feminist psychology and the feminist movement was the emergence of feminist therapy and counselling. It focused on women’s psychological distress and making help better. Feminist therapy mainly emerged from three aspects of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s: consciousness-raising groups, battered women’s shelters, and the antirape movement. Consciousness-raising (CR) groups were groups in which women met to discuss their experiences as women and analysed their experiences in terms of the patriarchal and oppressive society. The goal of CR groups, however, was societal transformation not individual adjustment. Battered women’s shelters and the antirape movement also looked at male violence against women as major problems with society that supported violence against women (Evans et. al., 2005).
Feminist therapy embodies the feminist values of collaboration, egalitarianism, and phenomenology during diagnosis. Unlike traditional therapies that create a power difference between the client and the counsellor, feminist therapies are collaborative in nature and allow the client and counsellor to work together and develop hypotheses about the nature, origin, and meaning of the client’s distress. The client is considered to be an expert in theri own experiences and therefore must get a say in the diagnosis. The discussions between the client and the counsellor are based an understanding of the personal, cultural, social, and political aspects of the client’s distress (Evans et. al., 2005).
Feminist therapy also encompasses many different forms of therapy that use the feminist theory in practice. For example, feminist family therapy explores power dynamics in the family system and whether they can cause problems. Feminist family therapists help clients analyse and break down gender roles and help them overcome destructive gender roles. They challenge stereotypical notions of gender values and beliefs. Similarly, another example is feminist career counselling which explores issues of discrimination, underemployment, career choices, challenges faced by women at work, role conflicts, and sexual harassment in the workplace. The integration of work and family responsibilities is also a primary concern for women’s career counselling (Evans et. al., 2005).
Anderson, K., & Martinez, S. (2014). Feminist Psychology: An American Perspective. Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology, 710–715. doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-5583-7_111.
Evans, K. M., Kincade, E. A., Marbley, A. F., & Seem, S. R. (2005). Feminism and feminist therapy: Lessons from the past and hopes for the future. Journal of Counseling & Development, 83(3), 269-277.doi:10.1002/j.1556-6678.2005.tb00342.x.
Schultz, D., & Schultz, S. (2016). Theories of Personality (9th ed., pp. 170-175). Cengage Learning.