Types of therapy are generally characterised and differentiated by reference to their theoretical perspectives on the one hand or their methodologies on the other. So psychoanalysis is differentiated from behavioural therapy by reference to the theory of the unconscious, or gestalt work from Rogerian counselling in terms of authentic dialogue versus unconditional positive regard.
Feminist therapy is different. Feminist practitioners can do and do come from any school of therapy and embrace all kinds of methods – from group trainings and one to one supportive coaching through to traditional transference focussed individual analysis. Instead they are united by a commitment to a common socio-political agenda, the struggle for gender equality, and the conviction that therapy can play a crucial role not only in achieving this but also, sadly, in its opposite, serving to reinforce traditional roles and power structures.
More of this later. Let us note for now that the histories of psychotherapy and feminism are profoundly entangled, and that although by the 1960’s and 1970’s psychoanalytic orthodoxy is the target of feminist critique, psychoanalysis in the first half of the 20th century is much more progressive. The talking cure begins with listening to women, and from its inception them to train and practice as analysts at a a time when most other professions did not. At the beginning of the 20th century medical training for women was confined to a tiny number of institutions. Freud’s insistence that psychoanalysis was autonomous from neurology and psychiatry, and that it could learn as much from literature and philosophy as from medicine, allowed women to enter the profession without having a prior medical training.
The radical political commitments of the early psychoanalysts are often played down in the authorised biographies of the movement. Freud was a paid up lifelong Liberal and a supporter of women’s suffrage who as an undergraduate had translated the work of JS Mill into German. Vienna was at the centre of the artistic avant-garde and home to a strong socialist movement, as was Germany. Psychoanalysts like Wilhelm Reich and Sandor Ferenczi allied themselves with the Left and established free clinics for the poor.
The openness of the psychoanalytic profession to women ensured that the beginning of the second world war, women analysts were at the heart of the profession – in contrast with to their still as yet marginal place in medical general practice or psychiatry. After Freud’s death in 1940, Anna Freud, his daughter, inherited his mantle, becoming the single most influential child psychologist of the post war era. Meanwhile the ideas of Melanie Klein were being taken up in group analysis and therapeutic work with psychotic patients who had previously been thought untreatable by means of analysis. Although theoretical differences between these two analysts were the basis of the most important split in the psychoanalytic world since Jung’s defection, both analysts were united in their focus on the crucial part played by the ‘mother’ in the psychological development of the infant.
Just as in the First World War, the need for increased production had brought vast numbers of women into the labour market. With the peace, women became surplus to requirements, and the ideal of the full time mother was promoted as part of a new concern with the mental and physical health of the child by the emergent welfare state. Going home to be a ‘homemaker’ was a way to create jobs for returning soldiers, and to ensure that the next generation of workers were properly raised.
Hence the paradox of the 1950’s – a time of unprecedented affluence for ordinary citizens and unparalleled investment by the state in the education and welfare of children, yet also a period of moral panic, sexual repression and the return of rigid and traditional ideas about women’s role in society. Although Freud had said little about mothering, being much more concerned with the role of the father in infantile development, ‘Freudianism’, a crude version of the current psychoanalytic orthodoxy, was popularised in the movies and the media. Everything from poor infant health to autism, juvenile delinquency, schizophrenia and homosexuality were held to be the fault of inadequate mothering.
‘Suddenly Last Summer’, the movie of the Tennessee Williams play of the same name, provides a perfect example of this moment. Here is the wikipedia plot summary:
New Orleans, 1937: Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor) is a young woman institutionalized for a severe emotional disturbance that occurred when her cousin, Sebastian Venable, died under questionable circumstances while they were on summer holiday in Europe. The late Sebastian’s wealthy mother, Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn), makes every effort to deny and suppress the potentially sordid truth about her son and his demise. Toward that end, she attempts to bribe the state hospital’s administrator, Dr. Lawrence Hockstader (Albert Dekker), by offering to finance a new wing for the underfunded facility if he will coerce his brilliant young surgeon, Dr. John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift), into lobotomizing her niece, thereby removing any chance that the events surrounding her son’s death might be revealed by Catherine’s “obscene babbling”.
Mrs. Venable meets with Dr. Cukrowicz in the primordial garden (“like the dawn of creation”) at her estate to discuss her niece’s case, and their conversation eventually turns to Sebastian. Mrs. Venable describes him as a poet whose art was his sole occupation – even though he only wrote a single poem each year during the summer months and never published his work – and recounts her own previous vacations with him. Cukrowicz agrees to visit Catherine and begin his evaluation. Catherine has been confined to a private women’s mental institution since returning from Europe several months earlier. When Cukrowicz interviews her, she struggles to recall the specific events that led to Sebastian’s death and her subsequent breakdown, but expresses a sincere desire to do so.
Beginning to doubt that she has lost her mind, Cukrowicz decides to move Catherine into the state hospital for continued observation. Catherine’s mother, Grace (Mercedes McCambridge), and brother, George (Gary Raymond), pay her a visit there and reveal that Sebastian has left them a considerable sum of money. Unfortunately, Mrs. Venable will not give them the inheritance unless they sign papers to commit Catherine to the institution and allow a lobotomy to be performed. Alarmed by this prospect, Catherine tries to escape. She accidentally wanders onto a catwalk suspended over the men’s recreational area. With the door at the other end of the catwalk locked, she is forced to fight her way back past the men who are trying to climb up onto the catwalk and grope her, and returns to her room in defeat.
Later, Mrs. Venable drops by to check on the status of Cukrowicz’s evaluation. The doctor persuades her to meet Catherine face to face. In the ensuing confrontation, Catherine tries to get her aunt to reveal the true nature of her relationship with Sebastian and the reason why she was left behind and Catherine chosen to take her place as his traveling companion, vaguely hinting that Sebastian used them as “bait” and that they “procured for him”. Mrs. Venable responds to these allegations by fainting. Using this opportunity to slip away, Catherine finds another catwalk that runs above a room filled with women. She climbs the railing and leans out precipitously, considering the jump, but before she can release her hold, an orderly, (David Cameron), comes up behind her, drags her back to her room and sedates her.
In a last-ditch effort to help Catherine, Cukrowicz brings her to the Venable estate where he administers a truth serum that will allow her to overcome any resistance to remembering what happened that summer. Before an audience consisting of her aunt, mother and brother, Miss Foxhill (Mavis Villiers), Dr. Hockstader, and Nurse Benson (Patricia Marmont), all of whom have gathered on the patio in the jungle-like garden, Cukrowicz begins questioning Catherine. She recalls how she and Sebastian spent their days on the beach in the Spanish town of Cabeza de Lobo. On one occasion, he drags her reluctantly into the water, causing the fabric of her white bathing suit to become transparent. A group of young men who had been watching her from the neighboring public beach start to approach but are intercepted by Sebastian. Catherine comes to realize that he is using her to attract these boys in order to proposition them for sex. Since the boys are desperate for money, Sebastian is successful in his efforts; however, he gradually becomes “fed up with the dark ones” and, being “famished for blondes”, makes plans to depart for the northern countries. One scorching white-hot day, Sebastian and Catherine are beset by a team of boys begging for money. When Sebastian rejects them, they take up pursuit through the streets of the town. Sebastian attempts to flee, but the boys swarm around him at every turn. He is finally cornered among the ruins of a temple on a hilltop. In the meantime, Catherine has been frantically trying to catch up with Sebastian, but she reaches him only to see him overwhelmed by the boys. To her horror and revulsion, they begin to tear him apart and eat his flesh. She screams for help, to no avail.
At this point in telling her astonishing account of Sebastian’s demise, Catherine has collapsed upon the ground, sobbing. Her mind undone by the shock of hearing Catherine’s tale, Mrs. Venable closes Sebastian’s last book of poems, the pages of which are blank, then slowly rises from her seat and takes Cukrowicz’s arm. Calling him “Sebastian”, she tells him not to be out in the sun for too long and that they should go inside the boat and inform the captain that they want to leave. Mrs. Venable is led away and Cukrowicz returns to check on Catherine, who has recovered. They both walk into the house together..
Here’s the trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBPwPIqYXtg
It is against this background that the second wave of feminism from the 1960’s onwards, takes up the critique of Freudian orthodoxy offered by academic psychology, principally behaviourism, on the one hand, and anti-psychiatry’s opposition to the authoritarianism of the asylum on the other.
The work of Masters and Johnson in sex research (currently being dramatized in the Channel 4 TV series ‘Masters of Sex’) challenged the idea of femininity and women’s sexuality promoted by Freudianism. The normality of the vaginal orgasm was revealed as a myth, and with it the idea of penetrative sex as the necessarily most rewarding expression of sexual desire.
As the new wave of feminism spread across college campuses (and in the US, the civil rights and anti Vietnam War movements) into wider society in the 1970’s, it took up the tools of the encounter group and consciousness raising which were part of the new human potential movement coming from Palo Alto on the West Coast and RD Laing’s therapeutic
communities in London’s East End.
Here is a documentary about RD Laing
and one about Deleuze and Guittari – the other leading lights of the anti-psychiatry movement
The establishment of ‘women’s centres’ – places where consciousness could be raised and political campaigns hatched, as well as new friendships formed and self-help developed – were at the heart of feminist activities in the 1970’s and 80’s. These quickly formed links with the refuge movement – places of safety set up for battered women to escape from abusive partners, and with this came a return to more individually focussed forms of therapy for the women who came to them.
In 1976, Susie Orbach and Louise Eichenbaum set up the first women’s therapy centre in North London. Four years later, they opened another in New York. The model was replicated and spread rapidly across Britain and the USA.
The groundbreaking text of what was now calling itself feminist therapy was Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue (1978).
Here’s a summary of the book, a classic which still merits further reading, from the Guardian.
Orbach throws out old-fashioned notions of fat being the price one must pay for a life of greed and sloth. She proposes a vastly more complex thesis: namely, that gender inequality makes women fat. “For many women, compulsive eating and being fat have become one way to avoid being marketed or seen as the ideal woman,” she writes. In other words, what your fat says about you, is: “Screw you!” “Fat expresses a rebellion against the powerlessness of the woman,” says Orbach.
She postulates that women get fat because it means they will be taken more “seriously in their working lives outside the home”. If they lose weight, they “find themselves being treated frivolously by their male colleagues”. Others do it to de-sexualise themselves; others to avoid competition with other women; others because of their mother’s own bonkers relationship with food.
Orbach argues that while fat women may think that they are desperate to lose weight, they subconsciously harbour the “desire to get fat”. Whether they know it or not, they enjoy the topsy-turvy advantages that their layers of fat offer them. But the price they pay is a high one. She gently unpicks the “very, very painful activity” that is compulsive eating. “Above all, the fat woman wants to hide,” she says. “Paradoxically, her lot in life is to be perpetually noticed.”
Orbach makes her argument with the authority of one who has Been There. She reveals that she suffered “10 years of dieting, bingeing and self-hatred” before signing up for a course on compulsive eating. Six months later, she had a whole new outlook on life; she went on to offer therapy to women with eating disorders (many years later, one of them would be Princess Diana).
Orbach’s argument about the commodification of sex and beauty in consumer societies anticipates the work of contemporary writers like Naomi Klein (The Beauty Myth).
Now, in what has called a post feminist era, where civil rights have been claimed,sexual freedom has been achieved, and alternatives to the 1950’s nuclear family are the norm, feminist therapy has moved from the margins to the centre. In a very real sense, to be a good enough therapist is to have a feminist insight and to be committed to gender equality and the rights of sexual minorities, whether one is a woman or a man, and irrespective of the gender of our clients.
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Our complete Diploma Course is a genuine, validated post graduate programme (ADHP recipients are eligible for direct entry to the MA in Counselling and Psychotherapy Practice at Bath Spa University with 90 Credits APL.