Feminist psychology

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Feminist psychology is a form of psychology centered on societal structures and gender. Feminist psychology critiques historical psychological research as done from a male perspective with the view that males are the norm.[1] Feminist psychology is oriented on the values and principles of feminism. It incorporates gender and the ways women are affected by issues resulting from it.

Gender issues can include the way people identify their gender (male, female, transgender), how they have been affected by societal structures related to gender (gender hierarchy), the role of gender in the individual’s life (such as stereotypical gender roles), and any other gender related issues. The objective behind this field of study is to understand the individual within the larger social and political aspects of society.[2] Feminist psychology puts a strong emphasis on women's rights.


Feminist psychoanalysis[edit]

The term feminist psychology was originally coined by Karen Horney,[3] a neo-Freudian psychologist who founded a psychology focused on gender and discovering how gender affected the individual.[4] In her book, Feminine Psychology, which is a collection of articles Horney wrote on the subject from 1922–1937, she addresses previously held beliefs about women, relationships, and the effect of society on female psychology. Horney developed this form of psychology specifically in response to Sigmund Freud’s theory of “penis envy”[5]

Functionalism, Darwinism and the psychology of women[edit]

The beginning of psychology research presents very little in the way of female psychology. Once the functionalist movement came about in the United States, academic psychology’s study of sex difference and a prototypic psychology of woman were developed.[6]

Feminist psychology organizations[edit]

The Association for Women in Psychology (AWP)[edit]

The Association for Women in Psychology was created in 1969 in response to the American Psychological Association’s apparent lack of involvement in the Women’s Liberation Movement.[7] The organization formed with the purpose of fighting for and raising awareness of feminist issues within the field of psychology. The association focused its efforts toward feminist representation in the APA and finally succeeded in 1973 with the establishment of APA Division 35 (the Society for the Psychology of Women).

The Society for the Psychology of Women[edit]

APA Division 35, the Society for the Psychology of Women,[7] was established in 1973.[8] It was created to provide a place for all people interested in the psychology of women to access information and resources in the field. SWP works to incorporate feminist concerns into the teaching and practice of psychology. Div 35 also runs a number of committees, projects, and programs.

The Psychology of Women Section (BPS)[edit]

The BPS Psychology of Women Section,[9] of the British Psychological Society was created in 1988 to draw together everyone with an interest in the psychology of women, to provide a forum to support research, teaching and professional practice, and to raise an awareness of gender issues and gender inequality in psychology as profession and as practice. POWS is open to all members of the British Psychological Society.

Current research[edit]


A major topic of study within feminist psychology is that of gender differences in emotion. In general, feminist psychologists view emotion as culturally controlled and state that the differences lie in the expression of emotion rather than the actual experience.[10] The way a person shows his or her emotions is defined by socially enforced display rules which guide the acceptable forms of expression for particular people and feelings.[10]

Stereotypes of emotion view women as the more emotional sex. However, feminist psychologists point out that women are only viewed as experiencing passive emotions such as sadness, happiness, fear, and surprise more strongly. Conversely, men are viewed as more likely to express emotions of a more dominant nature, such as anger.[11] Feminist psychologists believe that men and women are socialized throughout their lifetimes to view and express emotions differently. From infancy mothers use more facial expression when speaking to female babies and use more emotion words in conversation with them as they get older.[11]

Girls and boys are further socialized by peers where girls are rewarded for being sensitive and emotional and boys are rewarded for dominance and lack of most emotional expression.[11] Psychologists have also found that women, overall, are more skilled at decoding emotion using non-verbal cues. These signals include facial expression, tone of voice, and posture.[12] Studies have shown gender differences in decoding ability beginning as early as age 3 ½.[11]


In the United States, women comprise half of the work force. However, there are only a small amount of women with high held positions in corporations. Women constitute only 16% of Fortune 500 corporate officers, 12% of board directors, 16% of state governors, 14% of United States senators, 2% of high-level military officers, and 24% of university and college professors. Women of color have much lower statistics than Caucasian-American women. Women of color are included in less than the above percentages in higher-up work forces. The United States is ranked 59th out of 184 countries in the participation of women in the lower government levels. Women tend to experience a "glass ceiling effect" when taking on leadership positions. The glass ceiling effect refers to invisible yet powerful barriers that prevent women from moving beyond a certain level in the work place.

In addition, women experience a "sticky floor effect." The sticky floor effect happens when women have no job path or ladder to higher positions. When women have children they experience a roadblock called the maternal wall. The maternal wall is when women receive less desirable assignments and less opportunities for advancement after they have a child. When women begin working at a company, their advancement can be limited by not having a senior level employee taking an active role in the development and career planning of junior employees. There are a lack of female mentors to assist new female employees because there are less women than men in higher level company positions. A woman with a male mentor could experience difficulty in gaining bonding and advice from out of work experiences. This is because men play basketball or golf and typically exclude women from these endeavors. Other factors limiting leadership for women are cultural differences, stereotypes, and perceived threats. If women show a small amount of sensitivity, they are stereotyped as being overly emotional. Generally, employers do not accept sensitive, soft people as being able to tackle tough decisions or handle leadership roles. However, if a woman displays male traits she is portrayed as mean, butch, and aggressive. Women are viewed as less competent when they showcase non-"feminine" traits and are not taken seriously.

Another factor leading to discrimination and stress are cultural differences between managers and workers. For example, if a manager is white and has an employee of color, stress may be created if they do not understand or respect each other. Without trust and respect, advancement is unlikely. Regarding perceived threats at work, it is not a matter of sexual harassment or harassment in general. The threat is the fact that women could possibly take over. The more women working in a place of employment, the increased threat a man feels over job security. In a study of 126 male managers, when asked to estimate the number of women working at their place of employment and whether or not they felt men were disadvantaged. Men who believed there were many women felt threatened about the security of their job (Beaton et al., 1996). Alice Eagly and Blair Johnson (1990) discovered that men and women have different small differences in their styles of leadership. Women in power were seen as interpersonal and more democratic, whereas men were seen as task oriented and more autocratic. In reality, men and women are equally effective in their styles of leadership. A study by Alice Eagly (Eagly, Karau, & Makhijani, 1995) found no overall differences in the effectiveness of male and female leaders in facilitating accomplishment of their group goals. [13] [14] [15] [16]


Feminists argue that gender-based violence occurs frequently in the forms of domestic violence, sexual harassment, childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape. Violence towards women can be physical or psychological and is not limited by race, economic status, age, ethnicity, or location. Women can be abused by strangers but often the abuser is someone the woman knows. Violence can have both short and long term affects on women and they react to the abuse in various ways. Some women express emotions such as fear, anxiety, and anger. Others choose deny it occurred and conceal their feelings. Often, women blame themselves for what happened and try to justify that they somehow deserved it. Among victims of violence, psychological disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression are common. In addition to the psychological ramifications, many women also sustain physical injuries from the violence which creates the necessity to seek medical attention. [17] [18] [19]

Relational-cultural theory[edit]

Relational-cultural theory is based on the work of Jean Baker Miller, whose book Toward a New Psychology of Women proposes that "growth-fostering relationships are a central human necessity and that disconnections are the source of psychological problems."[20] Inspired by Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique, and other feminist classics from the 1960s, Relational-Cultural Theory proposes that "isolation is one of the most damaging human experiences and is best treated by reconnecting with other people," and that therapists should "foster an atmosphere of empathy and acceptance for the patient, even at the cost of the therapist’s neutrality".[21] The theory is based on clinical observations and sought to prove that "there was nothing wrong with women, but rather with the way modern culture viewed them."[22]

Feminist therapy[edit]

Feminist therapy is a type of therapy based on viewing individuals within their sociocultural context. The main idea behind this therapy is that the psychological problems of women and minorities are often a symptom of larger problems in the social structure in which they live. There is a general agreement that women are more frequently diagnosed with internalizing disorders such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders than men.[1] Feminist therapists dispute earlier theories that this is a result of psychological weakness in women and instead view it as a result of encountering more stress because of sexist practices in our culture.[1] A common misconception is that feminist therapists are only concerned with the mental health of women. While this is certainly a central component of feminist theory, feminist therapists are also sensitive to the impact of gender roles on individuals regardless of sex.

The goal of feminist therapy is the empowerment of the client. Generally, therapists avoid giving specific diagnoses or labels and instead focus on problems within the context of living in a sexist culture. Clients are sometimes trained to be more assertive and encouraged to understand their problems with the intent of changing or challenging their circumstances.[11] Feminist therapists view lack of power as a major issue in the psychology of women and minorities. Accordingly, the client-therapist relationship is meant to be as egalitarian as possible with both sides communicating on equal ground and sharing experiences.[12]

Feminist therapy is different than other types of therapy in that it goes beyond the idea that men and women should be treated equally in the therapeutic relationship. Feminist therapy incorporates political values to a greater extent than many other types of therapy. Also, feminist therapy encourages social change as well as personal change in order to improve the psychological state of the client and society.[1]

Feminist therapists[edit]

Feminist therapists work with women in search of counseling, as well as men, for help in alleviating a variety of mental health concerns. Feminist therapists have an interest in gender and how multiple social identities can impact an individual's functioning. Psychologists or therapists who identify with the feminism, the belief that women and men are equals, and/or feminist psychological theory may call themselves feminist therapists. Currently, there are not many postdoctoral training programs in feminist psychology, but models for this training are being developed and modified for institutions to start offering them.[23] Most of this training is modeled around gender-fair counseling techniques.[2]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Crawford, M. & Unger, R. (2000). Women and Gender: A feminist psychology (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill Companies Inc.
  2. ^ a b (Worell & Johnson, 1997)
  3. ^ (1885-1952)
  4. ^ (Horney, 1967)
  5. ^ (Heffner, 2004)
  6. ^ Shields, S. A. (1992). Functionalism, Darwinism, and the psychology of women: A study in social myth. In J. S. Bohan (Ed.), Seldom seen, rarely heard: Women's place in psychology (pp. 79-106). Boulder, CO: Westview.
  7. ^ a b The association for women in psychology. Retrieved April 6, 2010, from The Association for Women in Psychology Official Website: http://www.awpsych.org/
  8. ^ http://www.apadivisions.org/division-35/
  9. ^ http://pows.bps.org.uk
  10. ^ a b Brannon, L. (2005). Gender: Psychological perspectives (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education Inc.
  11. ^ a b c d e Shibley Hyde. J. (2007). Half the human experience: The psychology of women (7th ed.). Boston MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  12. ^ a b Matlin, M. W. (2008). The psychology of women (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
  13. ^ Beaton, Tougas, & Joly, A.M., F., & S. (1996). "Neosexism among male managers: Is it a matter of numbers?". Journal of Applied Social Psychology 26: 2189–2203. 
  14. ^ Eagly & Johnson, A.H. & B.T. (1990). "Gender and leadership style: A meta-analysis". Psychological Bulletin 108: 233–256. 
  15. ^ Eagly, Karau, & Makhijani, A.H., S.J., & M.G. (1995). "Gender and the effectiveness of leaders: A meta-analysis". Psychological Bulletin 11: 125–145. 
  16. ^ Estaugh & Bridges, C. & J. (2006). Employment. In C. Estaugh & J. Bridges (Ed.). Women's lives: A topical approach. Pearson Education Inc. pp. 302–307. 
  17. ^ Hyde, J.S. (2007). Half the Human Experience: The Psychology of Women. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 
  18. ^ Matlin, M.W. (2008). The Psychology of Women. Belmont, CA: Thomson and Wadsworth. 
  19. ^ Crawford & Unger, M. & R. (2004). Women and Gender. New York, NY: McGraw Hill. 
  20. ^ http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_225.html
  21. ^ Pearce, Jeremy (August 8, 2006). "Jean Baker Miller, 78, Psychiatrist, Is Dead". The New York Times. 
  22. ^ http://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/cfs/jean_baker_miller.php
  23. ^ (Crawford, 2006)