: Feminist Theory

Barbara Herlihy and Vivian J. Carroll McCollum

Feminist counseling theory and practice evolved from the feminist movement of the 1960s, which provided a forum for women to actively articulate their dissatisfaction with their second-class citizenship in a patriarchal social system. Feminism, which is the philosophical basis for feminist counseling, "aims to overthrow patriarchy and end inequities based on gender through cultural transformation and radical social change" (Brown, 1994, p. 19). The overall purpose of feminist counseling is to help clients change by making choices based on their own personal experiences and strengths (Enns, 2004). Thus, the major goals of feminist counseling are change, equality, balancing independence and interdependence, empowerment, self-nurturance, and valuing diversity (Enns, 2004).


Betty Freidan, one of the most vocal early feminists, put a face to feminism with her book, The Feminine Mystique (1963). The National Organization for Women was instrumental in rallying the charge to reform social structures and traditional roles for women and was a strong voice for feminism during the 1960s and 1970s.

As the feminist movement grew, many women formed groups for the purpose of consciousness-raising and to discuss their lack of a collective voice in politics, the workplace, economics, education, and other significant sociopolitical areas (Kaschak, 1992; Kirsh, 1987). Consciousness-raising groups began as loosely structured meetings of women who met to discuss their shared experiences of oppression and powerlessness but soon developed into sophisticated self-help groups that empowered women and challenged the social norms of the times (Evans, Kincade, Marbley, & Seem, 2005). Feminist counseling grew from these consciousness-raising groups, which played important roles in educating, radicalizing, and mobilizing women in the early 1970s. These groups were instrumental in helping women gain personal insight, but they were not as effective in producing political change. Thus, they became a chief mechanism for effecting personal change and support for their members (Lieberman, Solow, Bond, & Reibstein, 1979) but left a void where broader change at a societal level was needed.

As the therapeutic value of consciousness-raising groups became evident and the need for more structured groups grew, the 1970s marked the beginning of feminist counseling as a recognized approach to psychotherapy. Feminist counseling evolved, however, without being founded by a specific person, theoretical position, or set of techniques (Enns, 2004; Evans et al., 2005). This early phase of feminist counseling was predicated on the assumptions that women had shared experiences of oppression and victimization and that only a proactive approach could be effective. Early feminist counselors helped name other issues facing women and worked to adapt traditional therapies to meet the needs of women.

Feminist theory progressed through three distinct phases: radical, liberal, and moderate. Early feminist theory called for a radical form of counseling and psychotherapy, using techniques that were designed to help women see that a patriarchal society was at the center of many of their problems and that change would be virtually impossible until they were empowered to feel equal and act with equal voice. Radical feminist counselors vigorously communicated the goals and tenets of feminism, which included (a) encouraging financial independence, (b) viewing women's problems as being influenced by external factors, and (c) suggesting that the client become involved in social action (Enns, 2004). Radical feminist counseling encouraged active participation in social action groups and other social justice causes to ensure societal change that embraced gender equity. Walstedt (1976, cited in Enns, 1993) called feminist counseling a "radical therapy of equals," which made it dramatically different from traditional counseling with its hierarchical composition. The radical phase of feminist counseling theory lasted approximately 10 years and was the catalyst for the development of other grassroots counterinstitutions, such as rape crisis centers, that offered a wide range of services to women (Enns, 1993).

Not all feminists welcomed the new feminist counseling. Some feminists during this period implied that feminism and counseling were incompatible because counseling involved "one up/one down politics that encouraged women to focus on pleasing the therapist rather than assuming responsibility for themselves" (Enns, 1993, p. 8). Groups became the preferred method for feminist counselors because the balance of power between the counselor and clients was more equal, with both counselor and clients receiving and giving emotional support. Many more women could be reached through groups, thus effecting more sweeping social change (Kaschak, 1981).

The 1980s saw a further infusion of feminist thought with other counseling theories in what has been termed the mainstreaming era (Dutton-Douglas & Walker, 1988). The idea was to put traditional theories to a political gender "litmus test" and remove those parts of the traditional approaches that promote a dichotomous view of men and women (Elliott, 1999). Many early practitioners of feminist counseling promoted the goal of androgyny – integration of both traditional masculine and feminine characteristics as an ideal of mental health (Enns, 2004). Androgyny research (Bern, 1976, 1987) and behavioral skills training (Brown, 1986) became the standard for feminist counseling. Feminist counselors were encouraged to choose from all traditional intervention methods that did not support gender- biased outcomes (Enns, 1993).

Contrarily and simultaneously, during this same era, feminist counseling was being defined as a separate entity (Enns, 1993). Stages of feminist counseling were articulated and skills for implementing feminist counseling were presented (Ballou & Gabalac, 1985; Fitzgerald & Nutt, 1986). Also, feminist personality theory was proposed to support and integrate feminist therapeutic practices (Enns, 1993).

Feminist counseling became more liberal and less radical. Liberal feminists emphasize different goals than their radical counterparts. Liberal feminists view counseling as a process to gain self-understanding and see the necessity for flexibility in helping the client solve problems (Enns, 2004).

Since the late 1980s, there has been a movement within feminist theory that acknowledges feminine potential, focuses on equality, and acknowledges that many of the shared problems of women are created by a society that does not value them or allow them to exercise their free will. Unlike the earlier years of feminist counseling, the tone of feminist counseling has become more moderate, adapting goals espoused by both radical and liberal feminists. During the 1980s the demand for groups decreased, and individual counseling became the most frequently used form of feminist practice (Kaschak, 1981). Enns (1993) and Shreve (1989) posited that a "second wave" of consciousness-raising is necessary to provide knowledge and resources for women and to effectively impact many of the same social issues that plagued women in the past. This third phase of feminist development in counseling is in continuous development and helps to further define and clarify the work of the feminist counselor (Enns, 2004; Walker, 1990).

Contemporary feminist therapists practice from a range of theoretical perspectives. Enns, Sinacore, Ancis, and Phillips (2004) identified four feminisms that have emerged and that focus on multiple discriminations in addition to gender. Postmodern feminists examine how reality is socially constructed and focus on the changing contexts in which oppression occurs. Womanists, a term often preferred by feminists of color, consider the interactions of sexism, classism, and racism and work to eliminate all forms of oppression. Lesbian feminists believe that heterosexism is at the core of women's oppression. Transnational or global feminists seek to link women's experiences throughout the world and to address the exploitation of women worldwide. Given the variety of perspectives, it is clear that there is no singular, unified feminist theory.

Like the feminist movement itself, feminist counseling has its supporters and its critics. Critics are often those who are unfamiliar with the precepts of the theories and those who harbor erroneous concepts that feminist therapy is antimale just because it is profemale. According to Ballou and Gabalac (1985) and Enns (1992), a feminist counselor is a self- professed feminist who is not prejudiced on the basis of gender or sexual preference and who works toward social equality for women.

Because many traditional counseling practices have been harmful when used with women (hooks, 2000), feminist counselors are encouraged to continually examine their theoretical orientations from a feminist perspective (Enns, 1993). Although there are a variety of perspectives, Evans et al. (2005) described modem feminist counseling as an approach that incorporates the psychology of women, research on women's development, cognitive-behavioral techniques, multicultural awareness, and social activism into a coherent theoretical and therapeutic package.

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