When unjust or even terrible things happen to people, some will resist. When people resist together, rather than as individuals, campaigns and political movements start. One of the most powerful resistances in the last 100 years has been the growth of feminist movements. Four of us, of different ages, social classes, sexualities and cultural experiences, have noticed a gap – the lack of a feminist ‘infrastructure’ for therapists, a lack of discussion and debate in the counselling world about feminist ideas and strategies: what does feminism mean for clients and practitioners now?
One of the aims of this jointly written article is to ask why it is that, when sexism is still so alive, and there is a clear response in other areas of work and study, counselling and feminist practices seem to be estranged (see everydaysexism.com for current debates about sexism).
‘It wasn’t until very recently in conversation with a feminist friend/colleague that I recognised the link between my previous life as a feminist geographer and my praxis now as a (feminist?) psychotherapist. I thought my feminism had seeped out somewhere in the transition. But now I recognise that over the past 20 years my feminism has become embodied. It is who I am as a person and as a practitioner, although I don’t explicitly call myself a feminist psychotherapist as, unlike in geography, my other area of practice, there is no framework to do so. My feminism is in the language I use, in the way I relate to clients and their experiences of inequalities, the assumptions I make and/or try not to make and what I model in my being when sitting with clients. It is in the fine line I try to tread between psychoeducation work that might support their wellbeing and hearing and acknowledging their experiences, which are often complex, traumatic and peppered with inequality. For example, working with young women who battle on a daily basis with sexting; with young men who feel the pressure to fit into a tightly prescribed definition of masculinity; with young transgendered clients who struggle with not fitting into cisgender categories. Contributing to this piece is perhaps the next step in my journey.’
In this article we aim to bring the women’s movement slogan from the 1960s, ‘the personal is political’, into the therapeutic encounter, reflecting on some of the language of feminism over the past decades as we go. Like a lot of feminist ideas, ‘the personal is political’ draws on thinking from the social sciences. Language is constantly changing and defining itself as new meanings emerge.
Women, resistance and revolution
Counselling and psychotherapy practices reflect the politics of the time; they are not politically neutral. This article is not the place to consider how capitalism in its current forms operates as the social context for the therapeutic work we do.1,2 In the image on the cover of Sheila Rowbotham’s 1972 book Women, Resistance and Revolution (see figure 1),3 the powerful-looking woman fighting to release herself from chains refers to the rise of socialism and communism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The historical symbolism might cause some discomfort now, for some. We want to acknowledge the roots of feminism in the French revolution and other mass movements about power and equality because feminism is profoundly concerned with inequality.
The therapy industry too does not exist in a political vacuum.4,5 Some would argue that most of the distress that brings people to counselling has its roots in inequalities, poverty, injust systems and dysfunctional relationships, influenced by oppressions of various kinds. Family life, traditionally a place of sanctuary for women and children, can be a dangerous choice. This is why suggesting couples counselling to a woman or man who has been abused by their partner is not power sensitive. Power relations in families and at work have not yet been transformed, despite the collective energies in the women’s movement, gay liberation, Black Power and the civil rights movements in the 60s and 70s.
Never give up
Jacky Fleming’s subversive cartoons, and especially the one reproduced with this article symbolise the feminism of the late 20th century. The cartoons capture the fight for equality in pay and employment opportunities and the struggles for contraception and abortion rights, sexual liberation and autonomy. They are also very funny. Contemporary stand-up comedy, typically a male-dominated and sexist domain, has been changed by some comedians who have put global feminism into the very heart of their shtick (see Bridget Christie, for example).
We aren’t of course advocating handing out revolutionary feminist literature in the counselling room – nothing so directive. Practising as a feminist, however, is a different way of being, whatever kind of practice you’re involved in. Nor are we saying that there is one right way to practise as a feminist. The examples we set out below are intended to trigger and extend conversations. What follows explores one experience of feminist practice.
‘Working initially with young women who had experienced complex trauma, often including sexual abuse, feminism was far more visible within this service; a team of practitioners who were sufficiently well resourced to support women who had experienced multiple inequalities. Yet this feminist space has been ruptured through financial cutbacks. The majority of practitioners are now on associate or volunteer contracts, giving less stability and less ground to do the holding work for some of the most vulnerable. To provide the ground and support I need as a practitioner I am now working within the university sector. Structurally, this gives me stability in the form of a well-paid contract and colleagues that I need around me to support my work. I enjoy meeting with my clients and the more varied work and yet I recognise that my heart isn’t singing in the same way.’
Services are under immense pressure to deal with increasing numbers of complex clients, with dwindling resources, in the shortest amount of time possible. There is little space to offer the relationship that is at the heart of good therapeutic alliance. Those that have more flexibility to offer longer-term work are often either trainees or volunteers in third sector services. We can’t blame services for trying to survive within the context in which they find themselves. Yet there are questions about which services get resourced and who gets access to good quality psychotherapy/counselling. Feminists have been highlighting the unequal distribution of resources since the 60s.
‘Yet I think that often as practitioners we are so busy doing the work and trying to survive that we don’t have the time and space to have these conversations, certainly not at a meta-level. I’ve certainly been guilty of this. I have found ways to satisfy my feminist yearnings by ranting at friends, building peer support networks of like-minded feminist practitioners and playing Roller Derby. Yet in none of these spaces do we explicitly identify as feminists, even though our rules of engagement are cognisant with feminist praxis.’
Culture and power
Today, in the early 21st century, feminist ideas have developed and are more inclusive than in the 1980s and 90s; the complexities of intersections between gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual identities, social class, ability and disability are clearer.
In the UK, struggles against austerity and for a more inclusive gender profile in education, politics, the law and business continue. The incidence of rape and gendered violence and the fact that conviction rates are at a dismal low mean that Reclaim the Night marches have re-started in UK cities. Globally, feminist thinking resists fundamentalism and energises the fight for girls’ education and health equalities.6 These ‘causes’ reflect the individual abuse and misery stories we hear in therapy rooms every day. Take, for example, Ayesha’s story below, which typifies many of the challenges women in the UK face today.
Ayesha is a British Asian Muslim in her 30s, who is balancing her sense of family duty to her parents – a father with an enduring mental illness and a traditional mother leaning on her for support – with her own professional career aspirations, which involve working and studying at university for higher professional qualifications. Ayesha conveys a clear sense of herself and a willingness to engage in the counselling. She describes feeling torn between wanting to be a caring daughter within her familial home situation, which is unlikely to change, and her own career and marriage aspirations.
As Ayesha’s therapist, you are presented with a young woman who feels stressed and confused as a result of holding within herself the tensions between familial and personal aspirations. She has not voiced these internalised conflicts before, due to a deep-seated loyalty to her family and her community. As a second generation migrant and as a Muslim, she has experienced both living and schooling in the UK alongside belonging to her Muslim community. In her home, workplace and as a student, Ayesha encounters patriarchal values.
The fact that Ayesha has chosen to engage with one-to-one counselling suggests that her constructs include an acceptance of a European/individualistic form of help. She describes how it is important to her to be a ‘good daughter’ to her mother and ailing father. Yet her motivation and identity are powered by her success as a student in higher education and the associated career prospects. Her brother is also concerned about his parents, though he does not feel it is his duty to support his mother in the same practical way as Ayesha.
Along with Ayesha, we are still beset by external and internalised images of how to be a woman, how to be feminine; the expansion of the roles we are expected to achieve and within which we are supposed to excel has increased in the name of greater opportunities.
We are still beset too by the contradictory roles of men, the dilemmas that arise in the development of masculinity, the persistence of male violence against women, the violent imagery that surrounds boys and men in games, toys and porn, and the daily incidence of sexual violence against women. Alongside gendered identities, we are structured by membership of our ethnic group, social class, age, religion, (dis)ability and sexualities. Many dimensions divide us, alongside those that give us common cause.
Addressing the impact of these in terms of a client’s individual experiences raises a problem. We can work with the client on identifying and expressing their feelings, on developing personal coping strategies, on learning to ask for what they want. But people who have worked together to demand or create change speak of the extraordinary experience of finding that they are not alone, that others share similar experiences. They can join together to shout out, to demand change, to agitate and campaign.
Thus Ayesha’s individual experiences and conflicts must be understood in terms of cultural issues, gender issues, welfare and provision issues – the social context. Her counsellor cannot focus just on the socio-cultural dimensions; it would not be appropriate. But to be insensitive to them is to do the client a disservice. Our understanding needs to be shaped by a well-informed awareness of the larger dimensions of human experience. Ayesha carries the weight of irreconcilable pressures. We can’t fix that, but in helping her to explore her experience and ways forward we can carry within our consciousness an understanding and a demand for change, and this percolates through the empathic process.
The therapy industry and gender
If we take a literal view from UK statistics, the therapy industry is overwhelmingly female. Most clients identify as women; so do most students currently in training and most qualified practitioners. Meanwhile the people in power positions, the overwhelming majority of course leaders, keynote speakers and professors, are male. Without strategies and theories about gender, without the feminist thinking about gender that has energised the social sciences in recent years, we lag behind in developing a critical awareness of the impact of sexism both within our profession and in our clients’ worlds.
‘Reflecting now, what I have noticed is that, while feminist praxis spurred me into the work and supported the development of my ethical framework and commitment to hearing the experience of multiple voices, my feminism has been silenced. I do not believe I, or others, have done this with conscious awareness. Nevertheless, I experienced little feminist theory in my training and I’m not aware of feminism within psychotherapy or counselling special interest groups. I’m aware of nothing that would support an awareness of feminist theory within the sector or provide a support network for feminist practitioners of all genders.
‘When I have been to seminars or debates they have mainly focused on an essentialist assumption of what it means to be a woman within psychotherapy/counselling, ie white, heterosexual, middle-class and ablebodied. Theoretical and practice debates appear to be decades behind wider debates across the social sciences.’
Discussion and proposals
We are hopeful about all sorts of change: about the possibility of individual change (we wouldn’t be in the business of counselling and psychotherapy otherwise); about the possibility of political change, and about the possibility that this article will spark debate and maybe change some ideas and practices in the talking therapies. We acknowledge our own privilege: for example, we are all white, relatively well off economically, and we are all university educated.
We have been and are activists, and are engaged in the current debates about why women earn a fraction of men’s pay, despite equal pay legislation dating back to the 1970s, and about violence against women and pervasive (now online) pornographic images of women. It’s not comfortable watching a rugby game, knowing that, whichever side loses, when the game is over there will be a rise in the number of women who are beaten up, as evidenced in refuges and in crime statistics world-wide.
- Proposal 1: Take responsibility for checking your own awareness and open-mindedness. Where are you up to in thinking about gender? We all need to be the person who refuses to laugh at a joke that is riddled with misogyny.
- Proposal 2: Start a discussion where you are. Does the fact that we work primarily with individuals in personal distress contribute to the disintegration of a society in which we look out for each other and identify shared concerns? If we work as part of an Employee Assistance Programme, for example, is our job to help individuals accept and tolerate the working culture that drives people to work harder and harder with less security and worse working conditions? Are we promoting acceptance and tolerance?
- Proposal 3: Analyse the gendered nature of our ‘core business’ according to feminist thinking. Women are under intense pressure to conform to ideals of femininity, and men to masculine stereotypes – where’s the critique? If we are working with women, and sometimes men, struggling to meet the idealised and market-driven images of femininity/masculinity, family, relationships, sex and happiness, what is our role? Consider that not everyone identifies within these constraints. How does this pressure impact on emotional wellbeing, on physical, emotional and sexual abuse?
- Proposal 4: Celebrate the complexities and inclusivity of identities now and how feminist thinking has contributed to that change. Each of us works in a unique network of intersecting power dynamics. Understanding your own mix will enable you to work differently with clients. How do our identities (visible and not) contribute to what happens in the therapeutic relationship?
So where are we up to now? We have argued that an individual woman’s experience is linked to and shaped by her gendered cultural identity and shared disadvantage and oppression. The role of the counsellor/therapist doesn’t exist in a vacuum, separate from and oblivious to – and, indeed, innocent of – difference and inequalities in society. Our own understanding and sensitivity, developed through reflection and engagement with others, inform our ability to work meaningfully with clients and to offer an embodied awareness of the wider social and political universe.
Jo Crozier is a counsellor in private practice and a supervisor. Kathryn Morris-Roberts is a UKCP accredited Gestalt psychotherapist at the University of Nottingham counselling service. Patience O’Neill is a freelance counsellor and supervisor. Jeannie Wright is a counsellor, supervisor and counsellor educator currently based at the University of Malta.
1. Orbach, S. Bodies. New York: Picador; 2009.
2. Appignanesi L, Holmes R, Orbach S (eds). Fifty shades of feminism. London: Virago Press; 2013.
3. Rowbotham S. Women, resistance and revolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin/Pelican; 1972.
4. Moloney P. The therapy industry: the irresistible rise of the talking cure and why it doesn’t work. London: Pluto Press; 2013.
5. Chantler K. From disconnection to connection: ‘race’, gender and the politics of therapy. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling 2005; 33(2): 239-256.
6. Campbell B. End of equality. Chicago: Seagull Books/University of Chicago Press; 2014.