Therapy is a great way to work through, discuss and understand issues in one’s life. However, conventional talk therapy might not always be the best method. Feminist therapy is a type of psychotherapy that focuses specifically on gender, aiming to address the specific challenges that result from gender bias, stereotyping, oppression and discrimination.
Feminist therapy began in the late 1960s in an attempt to promote women helping other women. During this second wave of feminism, many women’s organizations sprang up to help tackle issues of domestic violence and women’s health. Feminist therapy was born out of this focus on women’s rights and social issues specifically relating to women.
The Association for Women in Psychology was then founded in 1969, continuing to spur action about a woman-centric focus in psychology and therapy. Feminist therapy was one of the first therapies to specifically work on issues such as eating disorders, trauma and abuse,and body image.
Today, feminist therapy continues to work through a gendered lens, understanding how societal norms, expectations and gender constructs affect an individual’s life. Feminist therapy takes into account how gender stereotypes can lead to not only problematic understandings of gender but also challenges with gender identity. Feminist therapy is practiced both privately and in community settings, with the latter taking in place in women’s health centers, LGBTQ+ organizations or domestic violence shelters.
Because feminist therapy focuses on the way that the individual’s gender affects their everyday life, gendered marginalization becomes the focus of the therapy. Each discussion is aimed to understand how marginalization affects numerous aspects of one’s life, even if the correlation is not explicit.
Feminist therapists often share their own stories and experiences with the individual as both a model for and a reflection of what the individual is going through. The relationship between the individual and the therapist is more mutual than conventional talk therapy; in feminist therapy, both the individual and the therapist are sharing and actively participating in the discussion almost equally.
Even if the feminist therapy session is private, this type of therapy acknowledges that the issues discussed reach far wider than the therapy session room. Both the individual and the therapist are committed to making a positive impact on society and taking action to promote their feminist beliefs.
Feminist therapy specifically works to uplift the individual, not further their marginalization or oppression. This means the therapist may avoid labels relating to mental health and instead focus on the individual’s strength.
Feminist therapy may focus on gender, but it is not limited to one type of oppression. Rather, feminist therapy can take an intersectional approach to understand how factors of race, sexuality, age, religion and more can also affect one’s marginalization.
Individuals and therapists work together to discuss how unequal power in society and its institutions have impacted their lives. Specifically, they analyze how these power hierarchies have limited their ability to succeed or progress.
While the therapy is focused on gender, the person’s issues are also framed within cultural, political and social contexts. The circumstances of their past and current everyday circumstances are paramount to the therapy discussion.
While the therapy works to understand how an individual has been marginalized, the therapist does not work to reenact trauma but rather improve a client’s wellbeing through understanding. Rather than forcing the individual to conform to gender roles and cultural expectations, the therapist works to build up an individual’s self-esteem through validation of their identity.
While feminist therapy began to have women help other women, the practice has now expanded to help people of multiple genders. This may include couples, families or people who just want to explore how gender affects their emotional lives and mental health and/or the lives and health of those in their life. Because feminist therapy works to understand how gender affects marginalization, transgender and gender non-conforming people might turn to the practice to discuss gender-based discrimination and oppression.
When choosing a feminist therapy practice, it’s important to look for a licensed psychotherapist who truly understands and believes the principles of feminist therapy. This means that the psychotherapist is knowledgeable about how gender discrimination, bias, stereotyping and oppression manifest in society; it also means that the therapist is aware of cultural expectations of gender and is sensitive to how individual gender identity is constructed. A feminist therapy practice should also be committed to social justice both in and outside of the physical therapy room. They should be active in gender equality movements and understand how they intertwine with the political context of our current moment.
When deciding what feminist therapy practice is right for you, it’s important to consider the personal beliefs of your therapist and the experience they’ll bring to the discussion. Because feminist therapy relies on a mutual, close relationship with the therapist, you want to choose someone you not only trust but also someone with whom you feel comfortable. Your feminist therapist may not have similar experiences as you, but they should have shared priorities and values.
Feminist therapy is a great practice if you’re working through mental health challenges and want to understand how they intersect with your gender. While conventional talk therapy can be helpful, feminist therapy’s specific approach to gender expectations, identity, bias, discrimination and stereotypes can allow individuals sort through how their gender marginalization affects other areas of their lives. Feminist therapy is unique not only in its philosophy but also in its practice, which includes a close, interpersonal relationship between the therapist and individual and a commitment to social change. Feminist therapy can be a helpful way to not only work through issues relating to gender but also curate a larger social awareness of how gender expectations and marginalization function in our cultural context.
Zoë Kaplan is an English major at Wesleyan University in the class of 2020. She writes about women, theater, sports, and everything in between. Read more of Zoë’s work at www.zoëkaplan.com.
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