Feminist Therapy

Updated October 5, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Feminism focuses on equality and is an important therapy component to address discrimination and sexism and empower individuals. So what are the approaches and themes of feminist therapy and who’s this therapy for? Read on as we explore feminist therapy in greater detail.

Feminist Therapy Is Not Exclusive To Gender

While the word feminism may elicit strong feelings in people (both positive and negative), feminist therapy has real-life benefits and applications in everyone’s lives (no matter their gender or sexual orientation). It can help people explore their strengths and weaknesses, mental health state, and have their voices heard without fear of judgment or the need to feel compelled to follow any specific gender role. Focusing on being human instead of a gendered person, without stereotyping, worry or preconceived notions of gender differences, has been incredibly beneficial to people seeking help for decades now. Feminist therapy is, indeed, for everyone.

What Is Feminist Therapy?

Feminist therapy is a branch of psychology used to treat mental health disorders and symptoms. This therapeutic approach and theory takes a close look at the differences in power between people and helps clients consider exactly how culture and socialization can shape every partof a person's life (personal identity, worldview, happiness level, etc.). Feminist theory focuses on the individual and how all forms of oppression (discrimination based on factors like race or skin color, age, gender variant, sexual preference, etc.) can impact their lives. Therapists will then work with each person to help gain empowerment and affect greater social change. It is essentially a combination of therapy, politics, and sociology. One of the main concepts of feminist therapy is that "the personal is political." Feminist therapy seeks to be gender-neutral and egalitarian.

Feminist therapy theory's origin can be traced back to the 1960s and the rise of feminism in general. It originally was developed by women for women to help deal with the massive and quick change that society was undergoing during the feminist revolution. In the 1970s, after additional research came out about gender bias, more therapists started using this model in their practices. However, it wasn't until the 1980s when it gained traction in the therapy and psychology communities. Feminist therapy is influenced by and uses a variety of different psychological theories - Gestalt, Adlerian, and Rogerian among them.

Who Founded Feminist Therapy?

While there is not one specific founder that can be attributed to the feminist therapy theory, there are a few major players. People like Jean Baker Miller (1976), Carol Gilligan (1982), Olivia Espin (1993), Laura Brown (1994), Lillian Comas-Diaz (1994), and Carolyn Enns (1997), all played significant roles in defining and popularizing this specific approach. The creation of the branch of psychology now labeled feminist therapy is often considered a collaborative effort, with no one person being (or even seeking to be) credited for it as a whole.

Principles Of Feminist Therapy

Therapists who use the feminist therapy model for their patients abide by a few specific principles that define the way this approach is practiced in a therapist/patient relationship.

First, feminist therapy always addresses both the personal and political context for why a person is seeking professional help. Looking at those cultural factors can give rise to significant insight into a person's mental health and the root of their feelings on certain things.

Secondly, feminist therapy is always seeking to commit to social change as a whole. Starting with the individual, this approach's goal is to help people make a positive impact on their communities and society in general. Healing individuals can help heal society.

Third, feminist therapists always consider diverse perspectives, honoring them as valid and important to the process of therapy. All feelings and perspectives are equally important to the therapeutic relationship.

Fourth, feminist therapy always aims to establish an egalitarian relationship between the therapist and the person seeking therapy. The therapeutic relationship between the two is designed to promote an even footing so that there is no perceived power imbalance and the process of therapy can become more human and demystified.

Fifth, feminist therapy seeks out a strength-focused approach to the therapeutic relationship. Instead of focusing specifically on diagnostic mental health labels, feminist therapists help individuals redefine their relationships with their mental health by looking at their strengths.

Finally, therapists who practice feminist therapy theory recognize that oppression can occur in all forms and impacts all people in different and diverse ways. It is always harmful and always important to address.

Some common questions about feminist therapy include:

What is the goal of feminist therapy?

You might say there is more than one goal of feminist therapy, but the primary goal of this treatment is to build up and strengthen women and people of other marginalized groups. Other goals of feminist therapy include helping women develop assertiveness, communication skills, and self-esteem to thrive in their lives and have healthier relationships.

Feminist therapists follow a politically informed model that recognizes the cultural context and stressors that contribute to current mental health concerns and relationship issues.

Originally, this type of treatment was designed to help women with their unique concerns. This occurred during the second wave of the feminist movement, starting in the early 60s. However, today, feminist ideals have evolved and aren't necessarily confined to any particular group. A feminist therapist might give professional advice and counseling to someone with any gender identity, sexual orientation, or anyone with marginalized identities who has psychological distress because of oppression in their everyday lives. So, in this sense, the goal is not only to help women but to work with anyone who needs to overcome oppression.

Is feminist therapy effective?

Any individual client's experiences with a therapist with training in feminist therapy may show that this approach is effective. However, most of the reports are simply subjective opinions. Only a few studies have been done to determine its effectiveness objectively – not enough to objectively prove whether it is effective in general as a form of therapy.

Who was the founder of feminist therapy?

Many therapists contributed to the introduction of this type of psychotherapy. One of them was Ellyn Kaschak, who was the founder of a counseling service that was one of the first in the country based on feminist ideals.

Along with the beginnings of this therapy, groups around the country were mobilizing with consciousness raising groups. The Women's Studies International Forum began in 1978 under the name of Women's Studies International Quarterly. However, even before that, women wanted to demystify therapy so that they could get treatment in which the issues addressed by the therapist would help with empowerment so women everywhere could be treated as equals.

Who uses feminist therapy?

You may find a therapist who mainly practices this kind of therapy. However, you might be more likely to find a therapist who references many different types of treatment, with feminist methods set among them.

This type of psychotherapy can be used in clinics, therapists' offices, or online therapy. Anyone who wants a therapist who takes a feminist view of oppression, social action, social justice, social equity, and gender identity can find a therapist who specializes in feminism-based therapies. The best way is to ask the therapist before you begin treatment.

How can men benefit from feminist therapy?

Yes, men can benefit from this therapy. The important concept of power analysis applies well to men. After all, whether they have too much power or too little in some situations, they can benefit from recognizing it. That can help them build better friendships and partnerships, either way.

A therapist can offer their help in online therapy or face-to-face. No matter which option you choose, the treatment you get from such a therapist can help you see the world in a different light so that you understand marginalized individuals better. If you fall into that group, treatment can help you get stronger. If someone you know is in such a group, you can learn how to get along with them on an equal footing, which can improve your relationship with them.

Plus, if you yourself are oppressed, even if you are a man, your therapist can put the feminist perspective to work to help you overcome it.

Techniques

There are a few techniques that are routinely used in feminist therapy theory. Depending on the therapist, they may be either focused solely or in combination.

One of the main techniques is self-disclosure. The technique is helpful to show the person in therapy that many of the struggles they are affected by are normal, while also helping to equalize and liberate the client from feeling like they are the only ones going through challenging times. It can help the client, and the therapist better relates to and understand each other, which leads to increased trust.

Often, therapists will delve into analyzing and even potentially intervening in the face of toxic gender roles. The way that traditional gender roles can impact mental health can be explored in a trusting feminist therapy environment. This leads to a better understanding of the cultural factors that impact the way the client responds as it relates to the issues in his or her own life.

Feminist Therapy Is Not Exclusive To Gender

Another common technique in feminist therapy is evaluating the balance and doing a power analysis of the client's life. Examining the diverse ways that unequal power the client's ability to grow and achieve their goals is a helpful tool in reframing the issues and developing a plan for success.

Reframing is another technique that is used. A well-trained professional can help the client shift their perspective on any given situation by identifying and examining the social factors around them that may impact their mental health (either positively or negatively). The therapist will then help the client to reframe those issues using strength-based techniques and definitions.

A final technique used in feminist therapy is social action. As part of their mental health "homework," therapists will often urge clients to go out and engage in their social activism to a degree they feel comfortable with.

Four Approaches

Ultimately, feminist therapy can be approached in four different ways - liberal feminism, cultural feminism, radical feminism, and socialist feminism. Each approach varies, and it is up to each therapeutic relationship to define which branch works best. The result of each technique may vary depending on the approach that works best and fits into the goals of each session.

Is It Just For Women?

While the origins of this approach centered on addressing mental health in women, this school of psychology have since expanded to include everyone, regardless of gender, orientation, family size or structure, or personal roles. People who can benefit from feminist therapy include:

  • Teens and adults
  • Families
  • Couples
  • Immigrants
  • Refugees
  • People with disabilities
  • People from the LGTBQA+ community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, asexual, and more.)

Limitations

Even though there are many advantages to seeing a feminist therapist, potential clients should expect that there can be potential limitations as well.

Although feminist therapy has been around for decades, there hasn't been much evidence-based research proving its effectiveness for treating mental health problems.

In addition to a lack of research, another drawback is that the technique of self-disclosure, when done inappropriately, has the potential to cross professional boundaries as well as influence the client in imposing and inappropriate ways. Clients may be swayed into acting on a subject or making decisions based on the therapist’s personal experiences instead of their feelings.

One additional potential limitation is that the technique of evaluating social factors can cause clients to use feminist therapy to negate any personal blame and place it, instead, on a variety of cultural factors. Clients who blame society for their mental health issues may be less likely to seek out medical help and treatment for their problems.

Conclusion

Even despite the potential limitations, feminist therapy is a great tool for everyone (no matter a person’s gender). Allowing clients to take a step back to look at mental health from a larger, more cultural, and socially aware perspective can help them reframe their personal issues and develop a greater sense of self-empowerment.

To find a feminist therapist, visit BetterHelp to get started online today.

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