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Feminisms in Psychology

Feminist treatises on female (or feminine) psychology were written well before psychology existed as a formal discipline (e.g., Mill, 1869/1929; Wollstonecraft, 1792/1996). And it did not take long after the inception of scientific psychology in the late 1800s for the first major debate to erupt among psychologists about “female nature”, women’s abilities and proclivities, and their proper roles (Shields, 1975). The debate was sparked in large part by contemporaneous feminist movements for women’s vote and women’s access to higher education (cf. Rutherford, Marecek, & Sheese, 2012). Debates in the discipline about women’s proper roles and women’s nature and capacities continued sporadically, but it was not until the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 1970s that feminist psychology coalesced as a subfield of psychology in the USA (Stewart & McDermott, 2004). By the 1980s, similar subfields had emerged in Canada, in the UK, in several other European countries, and elsewhere. Women psychologists in those days had ample reason to align themselves with feminism, as many felt the brunt of presumed inferiority, as well as discrimination, exclusion, belittlement, and harassment at the hands of their male colleagues. As a result, feminist psychologists melded science and activism: They agitated for equitable conditions of work at the same time as they challenged conventional psychological knowledge and pressed for changes in psychotherapeutic practices and ethics.

Feminists aim to produce knowledge that directly benefits women’s lives or promotes social justice more widely; the activist commitments of feminist psychologists have often guided their choice of research questions (Wilkinson, 1986; 1996). For example, feminist psychologists of the 1970s turned attention to many topics that until then had not been part of social science research. Such topics either had escaped the eyes of male researchers or, because they “only” concerned women’s lives, had been regarded as unimportant or of little general interest. Over the years, feminist psychologists have produced extensive knowledge about the experiences of women and girls, about men and boys, and about gender relations (cf. Unger, 2004). Going beyond empirical studies, a good deal of feminist analysis has challenged persistent derogatory shibboleths about women. For example, Mary Brown Parlee (1982), troubled by the flawed measures and faulty research designs in the extant research, studied women’s moods and capacities across the menstrual cycle. With properly designed studies and adequate measures, Parlee found few menstruation- related impairments in women’s performance.

Many feminist psychologists have been part of interdisciplinary programmes in Women’s Studies or Gender and Sexuality Studies. This alliance has stretched their intellectual horizons, exposing them to ways of producing and appraising knowledge beyond the confines of conventional psychology. Through interactions with colleagues across a range of disciplines, feminist psychologists have often developed a heightened capacity for self-scrutiny and disciplinary reflexivity (Wilkinson, 1988). For many feminist psychologists, their interdisciplinary outlook has raised doubts about how psychology produces knowledge, about psychological metatheory, and about the reigning epistemologies in psychology. Although the mainstream of psychology regards its research methods as a means to produce truth—that is, knowledge that is value-free and unbiased—many feminists doubt that this is possible. Instead, they see that it is impossible for knowers—including scientific researchers—to disengage themselves from the interpretive communities to which they belong (Fleck, 1935/1979). Knowledge, as a result, is inevitably imbued with the standpoints and perspectives of the knower.

In what follows, we briefly summarize four broad critiques of social psychology that have been brought forward by critical feminist theorists. First, many conventional psychological theories and measurements are laced with androcentrism. Second, psychology—as part and parcel of western culture— is permeated by an individualistic bias. This leads both to extolling the selfdetermining power of the individual and to overlooking or minimizing the power of societal contexts to determine human action. Third, conventional psychology, in its aim for scientific prestige, posits universal explanations and theories (Sherif, 1978/1992). This drive for universalism has diverted attention away from the particular and specific circumstances that lead to oppression and injustice. Fourth, when psychologists think in terms of male-female differences, they do not to see that the categories “women” and “men” are malleable and contextually determined.

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