Chapter 10: Growth Resources in Feminist Therapies
Feminist therapies are one type of radical therapy. The common motif in all the radical therapies is the conviction that personal growth and social change are inextricably interdependent. In my view, this motif must be one dimension of any therapy that seeks to maximize human growth. A systemic-political awareness is needed to offset the temptation, besetting every therapeutic and growth approach, to become the luxury of the privileged, a privatized, socially irresponsible form of secularized salvation-seeking. The awareness of the societal roots of every personal problem can help keep us counselors, therapists, and teachers working at the crucial though difficult task of integrating our commitment to personal growth with our concern for helping to create growth-sustaining institutions. The philosophy and the methodology of the radical therapies can help the disciplines of counseling and therapy to transcend their middle-class origins and become channels of liberation and growth for the poor and oppressed who are the vast majority of the earth’s people.
There are three major streams of radical therapies. In an early type of radical therapy, R. D. Laing, Thomas Szasz, and others challenged the apolitical belief system and the oppressive institutional practices of conventional psychiatry.(1) A second stream emerged from the impact of the new left (during the sixties and early seventies) on certain mental health professionals including Claude Steiner, Hogie Wyckoff, and Phil Brown.(2) In a paper representing this perspective, Lester Gelb declares, “In the treatment of the individual or group of individuals we must be aware that social change may be the most meaningful therapeutic goal and therefore must be a real part of our professional concern.”(3) The third stream of radical therapy, feminist therapy, is the most rapidly growing and influential in terms of its impact on therapists of many orientations.
All three streams share the view that the societal context of an individual’s problems is an essential concern in therapy. As the radical therapy manifesto declares: “Liberation from within must be accompanied by liberation from without.”(4) All these streams see the traditional mental-health philosophy and delivery systems as unhealthy for patients, especially for the relatively powerless people in a society — including the poor, minorities, and women. All three streams call for the democratizing of hierarchical therapist-patient relationships and of mental health centers. The
credo of radical therapy — “Therapy means change not adjustment” — is a motif of all three streams.
I will focus in this chapter on the feminist stream of radical therapy for several reasons. Feminist therapies concentrate attention on the growth-inhibiting ways that half the human family (and their institutions) treats the other half. (What could be more basic for anyone who does therapy or receives it?) It is clear that sexism is a massive cause of truncated growth, in both women and men, and a major cause of diminished effectiveness in most therapies. Feminist therapists tend to keep a balance between the goals of personal healing and growth, on the one side, and sociopolitical empowerment to equip and motivate persons to change sexist systems, on the other. Most feminist therapies have a robust sense of the interrelatedness of personal, relational, social, political, and historical factors in liberation. This contrasts with the most radical of the radical therapists, who seem to reduce therapy to social action. Furthermore, feminist therapy tends to be explicitly growth-oriented:
“Therapy” is not something reserved for desperate and “sick” people — but rather it can be for anyone functioning well who would like to function better. Therapy is viewed as a process of heightening one’s consciousness and mobilizing one’s personal powers. By learning tools for self-awareness, you can integrate the “therapeutic” process into your life so that you continue to develop and grow consciously.(5)
The feminist vision of human wholeness is an essential dimension of any therapy that is truly liberating for either women or men. In my experience, there is fresh hope and fresh power for growth in this vision.
There is no one body of theory and methods shared by all feminist therapists. A “feminist therapist” is any therapist for whom the feminist perspective is a central therapeutic philosophy and orientation. Such therapists represent a variety of therapeutic orientations and degrees of radically in their feminism. (6)
My closest relationship is with a radical feminist who is also a skilled therapist. Charlotte Ellen’s(7) feminism and her work as a feminist therapist have been a continuing challenge and stimulus to my awareness of the importance of the issues explored in this chapter. My personal struggles with these issues undoubtedly have colored my reflection on them.
Insights about Growth in Feminist Psychology
Feminist psychologists have identified the male biases that have distorted the understanding of “normal” human development, which undergirds the work of growth-oriented professionals.(8) They also have documented the growth-diminishing sexism in traditional psychotherapeutic theories and in the practice of most therapists. They have exposed the need for the “liberators” of growth to be liberated from sexism so that they can facilitate the full becoming of both women and men. The growth possibilities inherent in the feminist understanding of human growth are well stated in Jean Baker Miller’s powerful book. Toward a New Psychology of Women. Here are some of her salient points:
Humanity has been held to a limited and distorted view of itself — from its interpretations of the most intimate of personal emotions to its grandest vision of human possibilities — precisely by virtue of its subordination of women. . . . As other perceptions arise — precisely these perceptions that men. because of their dominant position, could not perceive — the total vision of human possibilities enlarges and is transformed. The old is severely challenged.
Although women have been like a subservient caste, in many ways, “they have played a specific role in male-led society in ways no other suppressed group has done. They have been intertwined with men in intimate and intense relationships, creating the milieu — the family — in which the human mind as we know it has been formed. Thus women’s situation is a crucial key to understanding [and changing] the psychological order.”
A dominant group [men] inevitably has the greatest influence in determining a culture’s overall outlook — its philosophy, morality, social theory, and even its science. The dominant group thus legitimizes the unequal relationship and incorporates it into society’s guiding concepts. . . .In the case of women, for example. despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the notion persists that women are meant to be passive, submissive and docile — in short, secondary. From this premise, the outcome of therapy and encounters with psychology and other “sciences” are often determined.(9)
According to Miller, the potentialities assigned in our culture to the dominant group (men) for development reflect only a limited part of the total range of human potentialities. Subordinates (women and others) are assigned potentials that are less valued by the culture. Yet, in our present world value crisis, the very potentials that women have overdeveloped and men have largely ignored, are the key to developing more humanizing ways of living by both sexes. In male-dominated societies, women have had to develop greater awareness of relationships and of feelings, and greater tolerance of these feelings of vulnerability that are inherent in all growth. They have had to develop relationship-and people-nurturing skills, which are not well developed by most men. They have come to recognize the essential cooperative and creative nature of healthy human relationships. The lopsided development of nurturing and serving capacities by women, and their socially reinforced neglect of their many other potentials, contribute to the problems that bring women to therapy. (The same is true, in reverse, for men.) But the value for both sexes of the socially denigrated potentials women have had to develop is real, nonetheless. They have developed the very attributes that the world needs to save us from lopsided values of men, which drive them and male-led institutions and nations to “advance at any cost, pay any price, drive out competitors, and kill them if necessary.”(10) Our society must learn to value the strengths women have developed and provide them equal opportunity to participate in reshaping our institutions and our society. Only thus will women and men be able to develop their full potentials in our society.
Growth toward wholeness for women involves developing their strong, assertive, rational potentials and integrating these with the nurturing, relational strengths they have overdeveloped. Growth for men involves developing their neglected nurturing, feelingful, vulnerable, relating, cooperative capacities and integrating these with the strengths that society has programmed them to overdevelop. Miller reflects on how the splitting of human potentials between the sexes impoverishes everyone: “We do not yet talk about how much we are all interdependent and need to relate to an equal, how challenging and beneficial that process can be, how often this is thwarted, and how little practice we get in it, and how much of our life is spent at the much more primitive level of learning how to be either one-up or one-down.”(11) Healthy growth for both women and men must involve developing and bringing together in creative synthesis the nurturing strengths and the assertive strengths that all human beings possess potentially. This understanding of human growth is an invaluable contribution from feminist psychology to all parents and to all of us in the growth professions.
Feminist thinkers have exposed the ways in which the effectiveness of traditional therapies has been reduced by sexism in both their theory and practice. Freud, whose theories have been formative in most psychotherapeutic schools until recently, perceived women as damaged men (without a penis). Women, he believed, see themselves as defective and inferior and therefore turn their aggressiveness inward. This produces “normal” personality in them that is passive, dependent, and masochistic. Their innate submissiveness fits them for their “normal” roles as dependently attached to men, serving others as wives and mothers. The general history of psychotherapeutic theory, until the advent of the feminist therapists, has reflected and reinforced the misogynic prejudices of male-dominated culture.(12) Clara Thompson and Karen Homey offered refreshing exceptions to the male distortions of psychotherapeutic understandings. As foremothers of contemporary feminist therapists, they pointed to the sexist misconceptions and blind spots of psychoanalytic theories.(13)
In her classic study, Women and Madness, Phyllis Chesler points out that the professions of psychiatry and psychology are dominated by men while the majority of their patients are women. She shows that most clinicians, both male and female, do therapy on the basis of traditional myths about female inferiority and sex-role stereotypes; that most therapists defend as “scientific” and “therapeutic” views of women as innately submissive and dependent; and that the institutions of private therapy (for the affluent) and mental hospitals (for the poor) mirror rather than challenge the general female experience of being treated as inferior in a patriarchal culture:
For most women, psychotherapeutic encounter is just one more instance of an unequal relationship, just one more opportunity to be rewarded for expressing distress and to be “helped” by being (expertly) dominated. Both psychotherapy and white or middle-class marriage isolate women from each other; both emphasize individual rather than collective solutions to woman’s unhappiness; both are based on a woman’s helplessness and dependence on a stronger male authority figure. . . . Both control and oppress women similarly — yet, at the same time, are the two safest (most approved and familiar) havens for middle-class women in a society that offers them few — if any — alternatives.
Chesler points to the consequence for women of isolating the personal from the cultural dimensions of their problems:
Both psychotherapy and marriage enable women to express and diffuse their anger by experiencing it as a form of emotional illness, by translating it into hysterical symptoms: frigidity, chronic depression, phobias, and the like. Each woman, as patient, thinks these symptoms are unique and are her own fault: she is “neurotic.” She wants from a psychotherapist what she wants — and often cannot get — from a husband: attention, understanding, merciful relief, a personal solution.(14)
A revealing study of sex-role stereotypes in therapists was done by Inge K. Boverman and four other psychologists. They developed a questionnaire consisting of 122 bipolar items, each of which described a human characteristic such as “Very aggressive — Not at all aggressive.” They administered it to 79 psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers (46 men, 33 women).(15) One-third of the clinicians were asked to pick the characteristics describing a “healthy, mature, socially competent adult person”; one-third to pick items describing a “healthy, mature, socially competent adult man”; and one-third a “healthy, mature, socially competent adult woman.” The researchers found that clinicians of both sexes held concepts of “health” and “maturity” that parallel our society’s sex-role stereotypes. The traits chosen to describe a healthy adult did not differ significantly from those describing a healthy man, but they were strikingly different from the traits chosen to describe a healthy woman. Other studies have shown that the characteristics identified with a healthy woman are less valued in our society than traits identified with a healthy adult male. The choices of the clinicians of both sexes revealed a negative conception of a “healthy” woman. They described a healthy woman as more emotional, less objective, more excitable in crises, less competitive, more easily influenced, less aggressive, less independent, less adventurous, more conceited about appearance, having more easily hurt feelings, and disliking math and science, more than a healthy adult or a healthy man.
It seems clear that the clinicians’ unconscious sex-role stereotypes must constrict the full potentializing of their women clients. If a woman client accepted and internalized these therapists’ criteria of wholeness, she could not develop personality potentials that are most valued by our culture and identified with a “healthy male” and a “healthy adult.”
Some Key Concepts of Feminist Therapies
Drawing on the thought of Anne Kent Rush, Jean Baker Miller, Elizabeth Friar Williams, and Charlotte Ellen, let me overview the key concepts in the thought of feminist therapists:
—Contrary to the dominant beliefs of our society, women generally possess strong potentials for autonomy, competency, and leadership. The task of therapy is to help them discover and develop all their rich inner potentials and powers.
—For women to develop hidden strengths is an exciting but risky adventure. When they risk moving out of their subservient “place,” they receive flak from both men and from unliberated women. But this is the necessary risk of growth.
*—The societal programming of women is a basic block to their growth which must receive attention in any effective therapy. Their problems in living cannot be reduced to intrapsychic and interpersonal dynamics, for these both are rooted in the wider dynamics of their relative powerlessness and inferiority as defined by society. In contrast to traditional therapies, feminist therapy includes consciousness-raising to help women regain their power and self-worth by redefining themselves. The personal and political dimensions of women’s (and other oppressed people’s) problems must not be separated. Personal empowerment (growth) should equip and motivate one to sociopolitical action with others, to change the social sources of diminished growth.
*—Consciousness-raising therapy for women should increase their understanding of the past and present roots of their personal problems in the historical and the contemporary social position of women.
—Women need to develop their own special powers both for their own wholeness and for the wholeness (and perhaps survival) of society. Having been devalued and neglected for so long, female energy and insights must now be emphasized to counterbalance the destructive effects of male dominance.
*—Women in therapy should be encouraged to develop strong, autonomous identities, not derived from their relations with men.
—There is excitement for women in recovering their lost heritage as healers and growth nurturers through the millennia.(16)
*—Therapy for women seeks to enable them to integrate the many splits that they have internalized from patriarchal cultures — splits between mind and body, thought, feeling, and action; the rational and the intuitive; the scientific and the artistic; the objective and the subjective; the individual and her environment. Therapy seeks to restore the essential unity of life.
*—Therapy for women is best done in small groups of women, with a woman therapist. There the energy and powerful mutuality of women can be experienced. In such a reality-oriented community of mutual caring, women can grapple together with inner and relational problems and potentials, and with the impact of the wider society on their lives. A women’s therapy group (which must include consciousness-raising) can help women integrate the experience of therapy with their total lives; it can reduce the isolation from other women (in middle-class society) and the hurt of being “helped” by powerful authority figures, usually male.
*—Women in therapy should be encouraged to explore and expand their life options and to move intentionally toward self-chosen growth goals. They should be encouraged to be assertive in satisfying their real needs, choosing life-styles and occupations that they find fulfilling (in the home, in paid employment, or a combination of both).
—Women should be helped in therapy to recognize their appropriate anger at their one-down position in society. They should be encouraged to use this anger to change relationships and social practices rather than turning their anger on themselves in ways that produce depression, masochism, and psychosomatic problems.
*—Women should be free to define “normal” for themselves. Every woman is ultimately the only real “expert” in her own healing and growth. Therapy should help her discover her capacity for self-healing.
*—Only therapists with raised consciousness, who are continuing to work on their own continuing liberation, can function as growth-liberating rather than subtly oppressive therapists. The political awareness of the therapist is a crucial resource in any therapy that is really liberating.
*—Nonhierarchical relationships between therapist and client are essential for therapy to be fully effective. The professional elitism of some mental health professionals increases the inequality and hurts the client’s already frayed self-esteem.
—Women in therapy should discover precisely how they make themselves vulnerable to exploitation by others, especially men.
*—Body awareness and empowerment is a vital part of therapy for women since most women have been alienated from both their physical strength and their pleasure potentials. Women should be helped to develop their capacities for enjoying their own bodies and encouraged to derive at least as much pleasure from sex as do their partners.
*—Women in therapy should be freed to enjoy other women as desirable, loving friends.
—Women in therapy should learn to respect and satisfy their own needs. Serving others should be an expression of one’s love for them rather than one’s sole mission in life; a woman should learn to expect others whom she serves to reciprocate fairly in meeting her needs.
The feminist vision that energizes feminist therapists is releasing a growth renaissance among women today. Jean Baker Miller declares:
Women have always grown in certain ways despite whatever obstructions were in the path. , . . What is new today is the conscious and explicit search for even further growth by larger numbers of women. . . . Many women are now asking about the prospects and processes of self-development. . . . There is a new and exciting sense of motivation and purpose, a burst of energy and incisiveness among many women.(17)
Feminist Therapy Resources for Therapy with Men
Some of the working concepts of feminist therapy parallel emphases in other growth-oriented therapies — e.g., the affirmation of the riches of human potentials; nonhierarchical therapist-client relationships; the goal of restoring unity within oneself and with one’s environment; the emphases on self-healing and body work. Furthermore, the principles of feminist therapies offer valuable resources for the growth of men as well as women. Elizabeth Williams states: “I think of feminist therapy as a way to sensitize people of both sexes to the way in which they use role behavior to keep themselves at a distance from their own and other’s realities and from realizing themselves as fully developed human beings.”(18) As an experiment, go back and change “woman” to “black” in these principles./ Now, try changing the word “woman” to “man” and vice versa in the principles with the asterisks./ The use of these principles with growth-oppressed people, even those who are subtly oppressed (white males for example), can increase awareness of their need to change constricting social definitions of wholeness for themselves. Feminism and feminist therapies offer new, more whole definitions of healthy “maleness” as well as healthy “femaleness.”
For us middle-class white males, it is more difficult to become aware of how our growth is limited by social programming than it is for women and minorities. Our growth-constrictions are sugarcoated and hidden behind the rewards of our one-up position. The payoffs of our privileges and power are so seductive, it’s easy to ignore their high costs. Only when men feel anger at the price they pay by sacrificing their full humanity do they begin to free themselves by making radical changes in their values and life-styles.
More and more men are beginning to sense that we can’t have it both ways. We can’t have the power and comfort of trying to keep women in their “place” without boxing ourselves in with the male mystique — the exhausting one-upmanship; the struggling to always win; the feelings of damaged self-worth when we don’t win; the loneliness of never letting ourselves be vulnerably open with another person, particularly a man; the chronic hiding of half our feelings — the vulnerable, fearful, tender, needy, longing, “weak” feelings; the disguised, only half-satisfying ways of getting the nurture we need from others; the always precarious foundation for our self-worth in proving our “manly” value by continuing successes; the chronic stress of feeling ultimately responsible for supporting one’s family “successfully”; the pressure to stay on the success-seeking treadmill until one is knocked off by a mid-life heart attack.
It is essential for therapists who work with men to help raise their consciousness concerning ways the chronic pressures to “be a man” spawn both intrapsychic and interpersonal problems. Just as women are dehumanized by being treated as sex objects, men are treated as success objects.(19) Because many of us men have not developed the inner powers of wholeness, we are threatened by the blossoming power that women are discovering in themselves. The fact that we tend to perceive other men as potential competitors means that we must concentrate most of our normal human needs for closeness and dependency on women, often on only one woman. Ourunconscious shame about dependency (which feels “unmanly”) produces anger and ambivalence toward the woman upon whom we are dependent. Consequently we both express aggression toward her and frighten ourselves with the fantasy (which often proves not to be a fantasy) that she will leave us if she really discovers her strength as an autonomous person.(20)
The glib statement, “Never mind about women’s liberation — I’m for human liberation!” often indicates that the speaker (usually a man) is ignoring the unique liberation needs of women in our society. The growth-oppression of women overlaps and intertwines with that of men but, in many respects, it is different. Achieving liberation from a one-down position in society is very different from achieving liberation from a one-up position. For women, liberation is like struggling to swim upstream against the powerful current of institutional sexism. For men, in contrast, liberation is like discovering that the current we thought was taking us where we wanted to be is carrying us away from those we love and toward the brink of a waterfall (an early death from chronic male stress). Our liberation as men and as women has separate and unique dimensions, even as it also has many areas of similarity and interdependence. Whatever members of either sex do to liberate themselves and their full potentials makes it more urgent for the other sex to grow freely and fully.
Firsthand encounter with the feminist awareness in a woman therapist or in another close relationship can increase a man’s awareness of himself as an oppressed oppressor. It can help him see how he is contributing, directly or indirectly, to the diminished growth of women, in his personal relationships and in institutions where he has decision-making power. This confrontation may help a man sense his own need for liberation as well as the need to renegotiate a fair marriage contract or, help create equal opportunities for advancement among the women employees of his business.
I had only a vague inkling that I needed to liberate myself from anything (except my personal hang-ups) until Charlotte began to challenge and change her growth-restricting programming as a woman and as a wife. As she moved out of her “box,” I gradually became aware of mine. Just as the black freedom movement triggered a chain reaction of other liberation movements (including the reawakening of the women’s movement), the feminist awareness and its political consequences are triggering demands for liberation among many men. The emotional intimacy in many women-men relations makes the impact on men of changes in women very powerful. I know from experience that, when a woman who is liberating herself is someone with whom a man has a deep bond of caring, that man’s motivation for change can become very strong.
It is essential for both male and female counselors-therapists to be involved in their own continuing self-liberation and to get their consciousness raised (regarding the role of sexism in personal problems). Elizabeth Williams states: “It is theoretically possible for male therapists to be good feminists, but it takes work for them to achieve a real understanding of sexism and its effects on women. Some feminist-therapy referral organizations have a few men on their lists — men who have taken the time and trouble to go through consciousness raising.”(21)
Whatever his feminist awareness, a man has two disadvantages as a growth enabler for women. He cannot know the experience of women in a sexist society from the inside, and he cannot serve as a role model, for a woman client, of a strong, competent, caring woman. But if his consciousness has been raised and if he is warm, open, vulnerable, and growing (as well as competent), relating to such a man can be growth-enabling for both women and men. A male counselor who has struggled and grown in his self-liberation has certain advantages over women therapists in working with male clients. He can understand from the inside the pain of a man who is struggling ambivalently for liberation. He also can function as a role model of a man who is on the liberation journey. Women feminists can be effective growth enablers for men as well as women if they have owned their own power, so that they can avoid projecting their anger toward the male-dominated power establishment inappropriately onto male clients.
Here are some characteristics of a liberated and liberating counselor-therapist, female or male: Such a counselor: 1. Values being female equally with being male. A woman counselee cannot learn to value herself from a counselor who devalues women. 2. Believes in complete equality between women and men at all levels and in all areas of public and private life, on the job, and at home. 3. Is aware of the fact that deeply embedded cultural stereotypes are likely to have their influence on him or her at an unconscious level, even though intellectually he or she rejects such stereotypes. 4. Is nondefensive, unpretentious, and nonjudgmental. 5. Holds the basic philosophy that it is his or her job to help the client find out who she or he is and wants to be. This may mean raising the issue of other choices and options for persons who are ‘not raising that issue for themselves. 6. Is constantly aware of his or her limitations in working with a person of the other sex. 7. Is in the process of becoming (and encouraging counselee and client to become) a more whole person.(22)
Our society will need many more liberated counselor- therapists in the years ahead. As the speed of change in women’s identity accelerates, the epidemic of painful conflict in female-male relationships will increase by geometric progression. This crisis in intimate relationships is fraught with pain but also with unprecedented potentialities. In our times there probably is greater conflict in male-female relationships than during any previous period in history. But there are also greater opportunities for developing the depth and creativity that are possible only between equals. Many couples will need the skills of a growth-oriented, liberated therapist to learn how to use these growth opportunities.
To be fully effective, women’s CR (consciousness-raising) and CR-therapy groups must be led by women and men’s groups by men. Before they can relate to men and participate in society from a position of equality, many women must mobilize these inner strengths from which they have been alienated by society’s programming. This mobilization occurs most effectively in small groups composed of and led by women. Because women therapists have the advantages described earlier, they must be the primary growth-enablers for women clients. Similarly, male therapists whose consciousness has been raised must carry the primary responsibility for facilitating the liberation and growth of male clients.
To meet the increasing need for female growth therapists, more women must be trained for all the counseling-therapy professions, including pastoral counseling. Graduate training and continuing education for therapy professionals should include consciousness-raising experiences that heighten therapists’ awareness of sexism and of other societal problems that must be faced in therapy. The training of both female and male therapists should balance the analytical, critical, rational, left-brain, so-called “masculine” orientation (which has dominated most training) with training experiences that foster personal growth and the development of the nurturing, integrative, creative, intuitive, right-brain side of their personalities. Training should make counselors-therapists aware that professional elitism and the hierarchical delivery systems that are still prevalent within the mental health establishment are counterproductive to wholeness and must be changed.
The Process and Methods of Feminist Therapies
Feminist therapists use a wide variety of methods, depending on their therapeutic training, style, and preference. But the feminist orientation is at the center of their work, influencing everything they do. A brochure from a feminist therapy center describes the way in which various approaches are used: “While we rely on and find valuable many of the modalities of traditional therapies, we utilize these in a non-sexist context and strive toward demystifying the power relationship between client and therapist.”(23)
An open, nonhierarchical client-therapist relationship is basic in any radical therapy style. One feminist therapist I know well uses these approaches to help demystify therapy and change the “doctor-patient” relationship that many clients expect when they come: She introduces herself by her first name rather than “Doctor”; she feels free to share her own feelings and struggles as these are relevant to the client’s issues; she demystifies the therapy process by saying why she is using particular techniques; she affirms the client’s capacity and responsibility for self-healing and growth; she does much of her therapy sitting on pillows on the floor.
The central and unique methodology of feminist therapies is the use of consciousness raising in both individual and group therapy.(24) The source of CR methods is the CR groups as these developed within radical therapy and within the feminist movement. Because this model integrates personal growth and social-political change, the CR group is a valuable innovation for the whole field of therapy and growth work.
Effective CR groups blend processes that help to restore a sense of personal self-esteem, power, and competency, together with conscientizing processes that help people become aware of the role of societal oppression in their problems and empower them to join with others in social change efforts. The CR group model can be used for therapeutic-growth-liberation work with any oppressed group. It may be the key to creating indigenous socio-therapies among those in pockets of poverty in affluent countries and among economically and politically oppressed people in the developing countries.
In their unmodified form CR groups have no professional “leader” or “therapist”; they are explicitly not “therapy” (with the connotations of privatized sickness, and passivity in receiving help from a one-up professional that that word connotes for many people). But, as the experience of countless women demonstrates, an effective CR group can be very therapeutic. CR groups illustrate the remarkable healing-growthing power of lay, self-help groups that are flourishing in many places.
The authors of a manual on setting up CR groups state the philosophy of feminist consciousness raising:
The key to all that happens in the CR . . . is the phrase “from the personal to the political.” In the CR meeting the members will begin by discussing their own experiences, being as personal as they can and wish; but with the guidance of the leader they will recognize the common denominators of their experiences and see the political implications of whatever is happening in their own lives. . . . “Political” . . . in this context refers not to political parties or voting, but to the concept of power in society: who has it, how it is used, how can one get it, how society is managed. Unless the political point is made for each topic discussed in CR, there is a danger that the women will not genuinely have their consciousness raised; they may — or may not — achieve some relief from tension or pain, but until they see the connection between what happens to them as individual women and what happens to all women in a sexist society, they are not experiencing real feminist CR. . . . The other kinds of group activity labeled CR miss the essence of the feminist approach when they concentrate solely on ways the individual woman can improve her situation or beef up her personal “copability”; however valuable these may be, they are at best temporary expedients and at worst illusory, since they coax the woman to work on herself rather than society. There are no personal solutions to social problems — only adjustment, accommodations, temporary loopholes — and pain. Nothing a woman can do for herself alone will solve her basic problem of being female in a society rigged against her.
They conclude with this affirmation of the values of the process:
Feminist consciousness raising will enrich a woman’s personal life with sisterhood, support from other women, intellectual and emotional stimulation; but its most important contribution will be to show her how to work to free herself and other women through feminist understanding and action. Real CR is inevitably tremendously exciting and genuinely liberating. It is worth all the effort it takes.(25)
In an in-depth analysis of CR groups as an alternative to traditional psychotherapy for women(26) Barbara Kirsch cites a study describing four stages in the group process: (1) Opening up — Each member tells personal experiences as a woman in a nonjudgmental atmosphere of support and acceptance of feelings; group closeness and mutual trust develop rapidly. (2) Sharing — Through deeper expression of feelings, needs, and experiences, the individuals discover that many of their problems are shared by other women; this leads to the awareness that their problems root in society’s problems more than in their individual inadequacies. The sense of group cohesion grows stronger with this awareness. (3) Analyzing –The group reaches beyond personal experiences and focuses on the devalued position of women in society. This leads to new objective understandings, which are integrated with the member’s personal experiences as women. (4) Abstracting — The group members evolve a new vision of their potentials as women, and the group begins to see itself as a means for changing social institutions so that the potentials of women can be realized
Some feminist therapists have discovered that the CR group’s philosophy and methods can be integrated with professionally led group therapy in ways that deepen the growth-enabling effects of both. Charlotte Ellen reports these learnings from experiences with small CR-therapy groups: I have learned a few things since I first began doing such groups. It is clearly possible to combine therapy with CR. The group members become even more “therapeutic” for each other than the “therapist” has been. It is possible to do gestalt work in a way which really includes and enhances the group instead of just being individual work in a group setting. . . . The group feeling and support, and the strengths of the individuals grow much faster when the facilitator becomes a member of the group. My function has become, in such groups, simply that of having up my sleeve possible agenda items and exercises, moving in on those rare occasions when the group is bogged down or when someone clearly needs my “more skilled” intervention. My own pain and struggle as a woman are at least as “therapeutic” as my leadership skills.(27)
Charlotte’s groups ordinarily run for eight weekly two-hour sessions. Group sessions usually begin with a CR type go-round in which each woman has a chance to share her situation and needs. Sessions may focus, in CR group fashion, on topics suggested by the therapist or group members out of their evolving needs — e.g., developing a stronger sense of self; learning how not to give one’s power away; enjoying one’s sexuality; career dreams and changes; issues around children; relations with women and men; women’s spirituality. A part of each session is spent in a structured CR-growth experience — e.g., assertiveness training, body awareness work, guided fantasies. Group members often take between-session assignments such as journal writing or drawing a self-portrait. The last session is a four-hour mini-marathon ending with a joyful celebration of the growth that group members have experienced. CR groups, in both their original form and their modified CR-therapy form, can be effective liberation-growth experiences for men as well as women. For over three years, I have been part of a small, leaderless men’s sharing group. We try to be both supportive and honest with one another as we wrestle with personal issues and explore ways of liberating ourselves as men. For me it is a refreshing discovery to find that I can risk being vulnerable and being nurtured by men. Gradually we are discovering the reward of mutual caring as “brothers.”
For men who are living with liberated women, a men’s CR group can be particularly valuable. It can help them deal openly with the pain and anger of a changing relationship, in a climate of acceptance, trust, and honesty. It can support them while it also confronts them with their blind spots and their contributions to the problems in their marriage or other committed relationships. It can reduce their overdependency on women and encourage them to develop self-nurture and inner strengths so that they will be able to enjoy interdependency with strong, liberated, growing women. (28)
Weaknesses of Feminism from the Growth Perspectives
As essential as the feminist perspective is for growth-enabling therapy, there are certain strands in some radical feminist thought that are potentially counterproductive of growth. One of these strands is the viewpoint that declares that the entire therapeutic establishment is inherently oppressive to women. In her blanket condemnation of therapies, Mary Daly rejects even feminist therapy. Daly calls for all women’s healing to occur without the label of “therapy” and outside the therapeutic establishment.(29) Her valid awareness of the growth-oppressiveness for women of many conventional therapies apparently causes her to ignore the fact that many women do experience liberating growth as a result of therapy with therapists for whom the feminist perspective is a central and transforming orientation.
Radical feminists who regard sexism as the basic cause of all other injustices and oppression fail to recognize the complex, circular causality among all forms of oppression. I agree with the basic feminist view that the inequality of the sexes feeds all other injustices in our society and that liberation from sexism is essential for the full potentializing of women or men. But it seems clear that sexism is also fed by other social evils — racism, economic exploitation, class inequality.
Wholeness-enabling counselors and therapists must be equally committed to working for, and to enabling their clients to work for, the elimination of all these intricately interrelated societal problems, which together constitute the swamp in which the malarial mosquitoes of personal problems proliferate.
The position of some radical feminists who advocate separatism of women from men as a long-range strategy cannot provide a basis for either a growth-sustaining society or growth-enabling therapies. It is a psychological illusion that either women or men can develop their full humanity totally isolated from the other half of the human family. The “power of absence,” to use Daly’s phrase, is a short-term necessity for some women to help them force chanes in unjust personal relations with men. Collectively the power of absence may be a necessary time-limited method of forcing changes in the male-dominated institutions of society. But separatism and further polarization of the sexes cannot provide a long-range strategy for a growth-enabling society. There is evidence that most women and men want and need close relations with the other sex. When these are relationships of real equality, they can be environments of mutual growth for both sexes. The full liberation and growth of women and men
are deeply interdependent. It will take the best efforts of liberated women and liberated men working together as equals to accomplish the difficult but essential transformation of our major institutions which alone will free people of both sexes to become full human beings. Separatism as a long-range strategy is counter-productive of the essential climate of mutuality and reciprocity that is needed to motivate men and women to collaborate in this way.
These weaknesses in the thought of some radical feminists are not present in the approaches of most feminist therapists. Nor do these weaknesses diminish the importance of the central thrust of feminist vision for all growth-enablers, including therapists. Think of the mind-boggling gains for humankind that can be actualized as the dream of full human liberation is gradually fulfilled. The leadership and creativity pool of the human family eventually could be doubled, without increasing the world’s population, as women free and equip themselves to use their full intelligence, relational skills, creativity, leader- ship, and growth-nurturing abilities in society, and as men free and equip themselves to use their full relational, nurturing, feelingful, and creative capacities in the home and in society. As women develop more of their other potentials, they will not need to satisfy most of their esteem and power needs by having many children. Thus the threat that we will breed ourselves off a livable planet will be reduced. If the skills and values that women have developed are incorporated into our life-styles and our institutions, the need to conquer, subdue, and exploit one another, other groups and nations, and the earth will tend to gradually diminish. Whether we move in these directions depends on how we respond to the challenges of the feminist critique and vision. The challenge to us as counselors, therapists, and growth enablers is direct and powerful!
Experiencing Growth Methods from Feminist Therapy
Rush’s Getting Clear, Body Work for Women, and Feminism as Therapy by Mander and Rush, offer a rich variety of CR-growth methods, many of which can be used with both sexes. Responsible Assertive Behavior by Lange and Jakubowski has exercises for developing constructive assertiveness in one’s attitudes and behavior. (Chapter 10 discusses ways of combining assertion training and consciousness raising in women’s and men’s groups.) Counseling for Liberation by Charlotte H. Clinebell describes the “fishbowl,” the “sex reversal fantasy” (pp. 68-71), and the “unlived life fantasy” (71-72), all of which can provide powerful experiences of consciousness raising for both women and for men. If you have access to these books, I recommend that you take time to sample and experience several of these growth exercises.
Here are some additional CR exercises that I invite you to try now, to raise your own consciousness and to become aware of which exercises you can use in counseling and in growth groups. Debrief each experience with someone you trust:
Close your eyes and get in touch with your experience as a woman or a man, being aware of which parts of this feel heavy, constricted, or unalive, and which parts feel strong, buoyant, energized, and alive./ Picture two empty chairs facing each other./ Put the two sides of yourself in the two chairs and carry on a dialogue between them./ See if the alive sides can revitalize the other side of yourself./
Imagine that you are going for help with a personal problem to a counselor who has been recommended to you by someone you trust./ See yourself walking through the door of the counselor’s office and discovering that she is a woman./ What are your feelings?/ Now, repeat the fantasy but this time have the counselor be a man./ Repeat the fantasy and have the counselor be a black woman./ A black man./
Close your eyes and see yourself relating to your spouse or to your best friend of the other sex./ Imagine that the two of you are utterly free spirits, liberated from your restricting sex-role programming and your sexual hang-ups. Be aware of how each of you feels, behaves, and relates to the other./ Now, compare this fantasy experience with the ways you actually feel, act, and relate./ Decide what you will do to move from your present degree of inner freedom and aliveness to a more liberated state of being./ Ask your spouse or friend to try the fantasy./ Share and compare your two experiences and your decisions about changes, seeing if you can develop a joint plan to support each other’s growth and the full liberation of your relationship./
For Further Exploration of Feminist and Radical Therapy
Brenton, Myron. The American Male. New York: Coward-McCann, 1966. Explores how the code of masculinity cripples the personality and restricts the enjoyment of men, and suggests how they can liberate themselves.
Broverman, Inge K., et al. “Sex Role Stereotypes and Clinical Judgments of Mental Health,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, vol. 34, no. I, pp. 1-7. Report on research revealing the sexism of therapists.
Brown, Phil, ed. Radical Psychology. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1973. A collection of papers on radical therapy. Chesler, Phyllis. About Men. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978. A revealing study of the destructiveness of male dominance and values.
—Women and Madness. New York: Avon Books, 1973. Documents the central role of sexism in “mental illness” in women and the destructiveness of much of their treatment by male therapists.
Clinebell, Charlotte Holt. Counseling for Liberation. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976. Describes methods of integrating counseling and consciousness-raising and methods of liberating pastoral counseling and the church.
—Meet Me in the Middle/On Becoming Human Together. New York: Harper, 1973. An autobiographically oriented discussion of the issues facing women and men struggling for more liberated, whole lives.
Daly, Mary, Gyn/Ecology, The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1979. A powerful expose of male destructiveness to women in Indian suttee, Chinese foot binding, African genital mutilation, European witch burning, and American medicine and psychotherapy. Documents the blindness of male scholarship to the meaning of all these forms of massive male cruelty.
Dinnerstein, Dorothy. The Mermaid and the Minotaur, Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1976. A depth exploration of the deleterious effects of the prevailing form of emotional symbiosis between the sexes.
Farrell, Warren. The Liberated Man. New York: Bantam Books, 1975. Describes male trappedness, what liberation can mean for a man, and how to achieve it.
Fasteau, Marc F. The Male Machine. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974. Explores the destructiveness of the masculine stereotype and looks to an androgynous future.
Franks, Violet, and Burtle, Vasanti, eds. Women in Therapy, New Psychotherapiesfora Changing Society. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1974. Essays on the changing psychology of women and the new therapeutic approaches that emerge from this.
Gornick, Vivian, and Moran, Barbara K. Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness. New York: New American Library, 1972. A series of papers exploring the experience of women in a male-dominated world.
Jongeward, Dorothy, and Scott, Dru. Women as Winners. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1976. Uses TA and gestalt therapy to understand our society’s constrictions on the full growth of women and to provide methods of removing these limitations.
Lange, Arthur J., and Jakubowski, Patricia. Responsible Assertive Behavior. Champaign, III.: Research Press, 1976. Cognitive and behavioral procedures for trainers planning and leading assertion groups.
Malcomson, William L. Success Is a Failure Experience, Male Liberation and the American Myth of Success. Nashville: Abingdon, 1976. Explores the bondage of the male success myth and ways of breaking free.
Mander, Anica Vesel, and Rush, Anne Kent. Feminism as Therapy. New York: Random House/Bookworks, 1974. An exploration of feminism as a healing experience for women.
Miller, Jean Baker, ed. Psychoanalysis and Women: Contributions to New Theory and Therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1973. A collection of papers by persons challenging, correcting, and enriching the traditional male-defined psychology of women.
—Toward a New Psychology of Women. Boston: Beacon Press, 1976. A groundbreaking book that sets forth a new understanding of women!
Nichols, Jack. Men’s Liberation, A New Definition of Masculinity. New York: Penguin Books, 1975. Discusses the need for men to be liberated and shows how the lives of both sexes can be enriched when this happens.
Peri, Harriet, and Abarbanell, Gay, coordinators. Guidelines to Feminist Consciousness Raising. Prepared for the National Task Force on CR of the National Organization for Women; published by the coordinators in Los Angeles in 1975. A how-to manual on the philosophy, ground rules, and leadership for consciousness-raising groups.
Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born, Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: Bantam Books, 1976. Explores the two meanings of motherhood — as a relationship of women to their creative powers, and as a male-defined, constricting institution that diminishes both sexes.
Rush, Anne Kent. Getting Clear, Body Work for Women. New York: Random House, 1973. Methods of self-growth for women (and men).
Steinmann, Anne, and Fox, David J. The Male Dilemma. New York: Jason Aronson, 1974. Analyzes the responses of men to changing sex roles with suggestions for developing more liberated relationships between the sexes.
Weisstein, Naomi. “Psychology Constructs the Female,” in Gornick and Moran, Woman in Sexist Society, chap. 8. An overview of the blindness of male-oriented psychology to the discovery of the real potentials of women.
Williams, Elizabeth Friar. Notes of a Feminist Therapist. New York: Praeger, 1976. Describes feminist therapy and presents feminist issues as reflected in the lives of women in therapy.
Wyckoff, Hogie, ed. Love, Therapy and Politics, Issues in Radical Therapy. New York: Grove Press, 1976. Twenty articles from the journal Radical Therapy.
1. For a series of papers on these and other radical therapists see Radical Therapy, Phil Brown, ed. (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1973).
2. See Jerome Agel (Producer), The Radical Therapist (New York: Ballantine Books, 1971); Rough Times (Ballantine Books, 1973); Love, Therapy and Politics, Issues in Radical Therapy (New York: Grove Press, 1976); and Hendrick M. Ruitenbeck, Going Crazy: The Radical Therapy of R. D. Laing and Others (New York: Bantam Books, 1972).
3. In Going Crazy, p. 196.
4. The Radical Therapist, I, p. 1.
5. Rush, Getting Clear, pp. 6-7.
6. This is illustrated by the positions of Williams in Notes of a Feminist Therapist (New York: Praeger, 1976), and Mander and Rush in Feminism as Therapy (New York: Random House/Bookworks, 1974). The authors of both volumes are feminists. Yet the first book reflects a less radical feminist perspective than the second.
7. To avoid confusion, it is important to point out that Charlotte Ellen’s earlier name, which still appears on the book cited in this chapter, was Charlotte Holt Clinebell.
8. See Growth Counseling, chap. 6.
9. Miller, Toward a New Psychology of Women (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976), pp. 1,10.
10. Ibid., p. 88.
Psychoanalysis and Women (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1973), p. 391.
12. Although Jung emphasized the bisexuality of the psyche in both sexes and valued the
“feminine” side of persons, he accepted the sexist stereotypes of his culture when he defined the home-centered roles of women as “normal.” Alfred Adler recognized that their social powerlessness contributes to the inferiority feelings of women; and Wilhelm Reich identified the interrelatedness of political and sexual oppression. For feminist critiques of Freud and Jung, see Rosemary Radford Reuther’s New Women, New Earth, Sexist Ideologies and Human
Liberation (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), chap. 5; Naomi R. Goldenberg, Changing of the Gods (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979), chap. 5.
13. Although Clara Thompson was one of my mentors at the White Institute of Psychiatry, my male programming caused me to ignore this significant thrust in her thought during those years.
14. Women and Madness(New York: Avon Books, 1973),pp. 121-22; Chesler further illuminates the role ofsexism in therapy in her paper, “Patient and Patriarch: Women in the Psychotherapeutic Relationship,” Woman in a Sexist Society, chap. 7.
15. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, vol. 34, no. I, pp. 1-7.
16. See Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, Witches, Midwives and Nurses, A History of Women Healers (Old Westbury, N.Y.: The Feminist Press, 1973).
17. Psychoanalysis and Women, pp. 379-80.
18. Notes of a Feminist Therapist, p. II.
19. Farrell, The Liberated Man (New York: Bantam Books, 1975), p. 49.
20, See Phyllis Chesler, About Men (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978), p. 244.
21. Williams, Notes of a Feminist Therapist, p. II.
22. Charlotte Holt Clinebell, Counseling for Liberation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), pp. 22-23. The author used “androgynous” originally in describing the last characteristic, a term she no longer regards as adequate for expressing psychic wholeness.
23. Center for Feminist Therapy, Los Angeles, California 90064.
24. CR groups are one form of what I call “growth-action groups.” See Growth Groups, chap.10.
25. Peri and Abarbanell, Guidelines to Feminist Consciousness Raising (Los Angeles, 1975), p. 2.
26. “Consciousness-Raising Groups as Therapy for Women,” in Franks and Vasanti, Women in Therapy (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1974), chap. 15. The study she cites is “Free Space: A Perspective on the Small Group in Women’s Liberation,” by P. Alien.
27. Personal communication. May 7, 1977.
28. For resources for men’s CR groups, see Peri and Abarbanell, Guidelines, pp. 40-45; Unbecoming: A Men’s CR Group Writes on Oppression and Themselves (New York: Times Change Press, 1971); and the books by Brenton, Farrell, Fasteau, Malcomson, Nichols, and Steimnann/Fox.
29. See Gyn/Ecology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979), chap. 7.