Chapter 2: The Liberated Counselor

Counseling For Liberation
by Charlotte Ellen

Chapter 2: The Liberated Counselor

Although the women are successfully feminine, as the culture defines it, they are limited if not infantile in their growth in the intellectual, social, and mastery aspects of living. The men are successful masculine types but are limited as human beings by rigidity, fear of and avoidance of emotion, and inability to participate in comfortable intimate relationships."

Mabel Blake Cohen (1)

The Counselor's View of Women

In thinking about counseling and the new woman, I think back to my own therapy when I was a college senior. I spent many hours in personal debate and dilemma about whether I wanted to be a career woman or a housewife. The whole conflict seemed to give me little choice when the therapist said, "Well, I wouldn't want to come home tired after a day's work and have my wife complain about her hard day at the office. "(2)

These words illustrate the difficulty faced even now by many women who seek counseling help. Too many counselors continue to define women by their biological function and by their relationships to men, and to label them "unfeminine" when they assert themselves. It is painful for me to realize that until just a few years ago, I did the very same thing myself in my own counseling!

In 1970 a group of forty-six male and thirty-three female clinicians (psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers) participated in an attitudinal study.(3) They were asked to complete a 122-item questionnaire which listed behaviors or traits on a bipolar basis: very subjective -- very objective, very dependent -- very independent, etc. The task was to indicate for each such trait whether it described a healthy male, or a healthy female, or a healthy adult without regard to sex. The results were striking. Male and female clinicians alike equated healthy adult with healthy male! Healthy adult anc healthy male were both seen as objective, independent, intelligent, assertive, capable. A healthy female by contrast, was seen as subjective, dependent, submissive, excitable in crisis, emotional, passive. The opinions these modern psychotherapists hold about women are remarkably like those of Freud! In the eyes of these counselors, a woman cannot be both a healthy female and a healthy adult. If she chooses to be a healthy adult, she must be "like a man." What is good for persons is not good for females.

In her classic study, Women and Madness, Phyllis Chesler points out that women "go crazy" more easily and oftener than men do.(4) Her book cites overwhelming statistics describing the greater number of women in mental hospitals and in private therapy. Probably most ministers would corroborate the statistics which indicate that more women than men ask for help. Chesler also points out that psychotherapy and marriage exercise a similar function for a woman -- as vehicles for personal salvation through a benevolent male authority:

Both psychotherapy and middle-class marriage isolate women from each other; both emphasize individual rather than collective solutions to women's unhappiness; both are based on a woman's helplessness and dependence on a stronger male authority figure. . . . Both psychotherapy and marriage enable women to express and defuse their anger by experiencing it as emotional illness, by translating it into hysterical symptoms: frigidity, chronic depression, phobias. . . . 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 — in the arms of the right husband, on the couch of the right therapist.(5)

Thus many women who seek counseling find little help in escaping the trap between a submissive existence in which they are of secondary importance if not actively obedient to men, and a pedestal-like existence in which they are exalted as beautiful and holy.

Increasingly, women are getting into consciousness raising groups with other women and discovering that they are not "sick," that other women have the same experiences and feelings, that they don't need counseling at all but merely a sense of their own identity which will allow them to lead fuller lives. Increasingly, too, women who do decide to enter therapy look for feminist therapists, professionals who, whether female or male, focus on helping the client define herself in terms of her own needs and potential rather than in terms of the assumptions and expectations of society or of the particular therapist about her needs.

The anger and rebelliousness women are expressing is often hard for men to understand. Men who are ministers can perhaps understand it more readily than others because they themselves sometimes feel limited as persons by other people's attitudes toward them. One male minister said well what many feel:

I feel put in a special category by the image that many people in my congregation and community try to put on me (and it's hard not to feel it even if I don't see myself in this way).

I feel both put up and put down -- put on a pedestal of pseudorespect and also treated as something different, special, not fully a man.

I feel that some people think I need special protection and deference (clergy discounts, exemption from the draft, clergy housing allowance, exemption from income tax), and that there's something of a put-down there, a way of saying we see you as weak and needing to be protected.

I feel angry that, although my training is just as long and rigorous as that of other professionals, I am paid a lower salary.

Several male pastoral counselors of my acquaintance feel that they are viewed as lower on the totem pole than other mental health professionals with equal qualifications. Such awareness may make it easier for men counselors to understand how women feel.

Most counselors in the past have been guilty of helping men to stay in their boxes as well. While we have taught women to be helpless, we have taught men that to be a man means not needing help. The counselor's attitudes about being a man are as crucial to growth-producing counseling as are attitudes about being a woman.

Counseling for Wholeness

For both women and men in counseling, the question really is: "How do I become a whole person?" And that inevitably leads to another question, "What is a whole person?" Some psychologists are using the word androgyny derived from the Greek words andros ("male") and gyne ("female"), to describe the kind of wholeness that frees people to discover their full personhood.

Sandra Bern, a psychologist, has developed a scale for de- termining how "androgynous" an individual is.(6) She defines androgynous persons as those able to be either instrumental or expressive, assertive or yielding, independent or playful -- in other words to behave appropriately as the situation requires. She found that such persons had higher overall intelligence, higher spatial ability, and greater creativity than strongly "masculine" or strongly "feminine" persons, all

of whom "displayed behavioral deficits of one sort or another." The strongly "feminine" females had the greatest difficulty of all in her tests. Bern has shown that high "femininity" in females "has consistently correlated with high anxiety, low self-esteem and low social acceptance."(7) She also demonstrated that high "masculinity" in males is limiting though not nearly as crippling as high "femininity" in women.

These findings suggest that we live fuller lives as individuals and get along with each other better as we become more androgynous, that is, more nearly whole persons. What this means for the minister as counselor, is the importance both of striving for inner wholeness for oneself and of looking at one's counselees and parishioners as whole persons, individuals who are free to grow into whatever their own potential dictates rather than according to some arbitrary cultural or religious standards of "femininity" and "masculinity."

The issue, of course, is choice. Good counseling includes the kind of consciousness raising that helps people become aware of the options available to them. Do I choose a career in the home or out of it, or some combination of both, on the basis of my own needs and interests or because of the dictates of society? Do I choose making money and getting ahead because I want to or because of society's expectations? What other possibilities are there for me? The issue is not what we choose, but that we choose.

These concerns raise another question which is posed by the fact that most ministers who counsel with women are men. Can a male minister counsel in a liberating fashion with the women members of his congregation, who invariably make up the bulk of his counseling load? Even if he is aware of the issues, and is seriously searching for personal liberation from his own male box, can he hear the cry much less stimulate the efforts of a woman to be free?

Probably the gender of the therapist is not the crucial issue in good counseling. Many women counselors, having "made it" in a male-dominated system, have been so co-opted by the system that they see their role as that of helping their clients adjust to the respective "femininity" and "masculinity" demands of society. Certainly a woman cannot hear the cry of another woman if her own consciousness is not raised. Ideally a woman counselor with a raised consciousness, one who is struggling with her own journey toward liberation, would be a better counselor for women than a man would be and vice versa. But a liberated male counselor is better than an unliberated female counselor (for women and for men).

Some people believe that a counselor can "suspend" her or his own frame of reference while working with another person whose frame of reference is different. Thus if I am married I can help an unmarried person or if I am black I can help a white person and vice versa; age and sex too need not be barriers. I believe that this is indeed true, but only if the counselor actually sees the other person as fully human and not in some way a lesser or "not OK" person because of the difference. A heterosexual person cannot help a homosexual person to develop her or his full personhood, whatever that may mean, if the heterosexual equates homosexuality with sickness or immorality. There is no way that such a counselor could suspend that frame of reference. The same would be true where the issue is sexism: a female counselor -- or a male counselor -- who feels that women and men "should" learn to fit the stereotypes cannot be helpful to anybody.

A counselor can be liberating, either for women or for men, only if his or her attitude towards femaleness and maleness, toward "femininity" and "masculinity," is subjected to continuing self-examination. A person who does any kind of coun- seling with preconceived notions of what is best for the client, or of what the person "ought" to be and do, is not a good counselor no matter what the focus of the problem. Of course that means continually examining one's own feelings and behavior in relation to one's own "feminine" and "masculine" side: How do I relate to persons of the other sex? How is my own marriage (if I have one) affected when I truly accept the equality of the sexes? Under what circumstances do I regard my needs, especially my professional needs, as having first priority? To what extent do I feel "OK" or "not OK" about behaving in "feminine" ways (if I'm a man) or in "masculine" ways (if I'm a woman)?

The Androgynous Counselor

What, then, are the characteristics of a good counselor, an "androgynous" or liberated counselor?

(By liberated, of course, I mean relatively liberated, one who is incessantly struggling to become liberated; no one is completely liberated.) Such a counselor may not be easy to find. Several characteristics of the liberated counselor can be listed. 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 imbedded 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 non-defensive, 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 fully androgynous person.

Central to almost every religious tradition is the belief that the first humans were androgynes, beings possessed of such strength and power that the gods found it necessary to split them in half in order to preserve their own divine supremacy.(8) The androgynous counselor has a crucial role to play in helping us "get it all together" again as individuals and as a society. Before considering how that can happen, it is important to look at the problems and pain that the "splitting" has caused for women and men individually and in their relationships with each other.


1. * Mabel Blake Cohen, "Personal Identity and Sexual Identity," in Miller, Psychoanalysis and Women, p. 182.

1. Ibid.,p. 175

2. Liz Hargrove, Marriage and Family Counselor, in unpublished paper.

3. Tinge Broverman, et al., "Sex Role Stereotypes and Clinical Judgments of Mental Health," Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 34, (1970).

4. Chesler, "Women and Madness," pp. 62, 63. 18.

5. Ibid., 121-22.

6. Bern, "Sex Role Adaptability."

7. Ibid.

8. Eliade, "Two and the One," pp. 78-124; Plato, "The Symposium," The Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett (New York: Random House, 1920), 1:316-17.