The origins of feminist theory can be traced back to the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, particularly “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” in 1794. Since that time, other individuals have championed this model, adhering to its main tenet – to view the world in a way that brings attention to inequality, oppression, and injustice while promoting egalitarianism. Psychologists who use a feminist approach, regardless of specialty, bring a holistic perspective to their work.
Andrea Barnes, J.D., Ph.D., private practitioner in Pembroke, Mass., defines feminist theory as delving into the role of gender, power dynamics, sexism, patriarchy, being female in the world, and how all these factors affect the individual.
For example, when the therapist obtains background information, she or he remains tuned into power relationships and what’s going on in life that contributes to any concerns, Barnes said. The quality of personal relationships, workplace dynamics, and opportunities that prevent or encourage advancement are woven into a woman’s conceptualization of what is happening in her life.
Psychologists might use mindfulness, breathing techniques, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), or some other tool to aid patients in their recovery. Regardless of presenting symptoms and therapeutic model, using a feminist lens broadens the discussion and doesn’t contradict other therapies. Barnes said, “Feminist theory looks at the broader context and takes the stigma and blame away.”
Barnes added that no matter the approach, the goal is for the client to feel freer, express her needs, speak up, and not defer to someone else. “The client should feel free to make choices and be more in control of her own self,” she said.
Alana Coscia, Psy.D., clinical director at Small Victories Wellness Services in Middletown, Conn., treats a range of patients who present with body image issues. Her clients include nonbinary and transgender people as well as cisgender women and men who believe their body does not “line up with what we are told a body should look like.” She said, “Our societal agreement that fat equals bad is an underlying concern.”
Coscia said the country is “…rooted in systemic racism that filters down through different areas,” including body image. Social media influencers who promote unhealthy relationships with food and brands that feature waif-like models have negative effects on her clients, who internalize these external factors.
Coscia uses talk therapy individualized to the patient’s other existing mental health concerns. Through a feminist lens, she explores matters of power, privilege, and oppression and helps clients learn how to make changes with factors in their control.
Coscia tied the recent Roe v. Wade decision to body image, noting that it instilled helplessness and hopelessness in her clients. “It sends a message that we’re not good enough and can’t make decisions for ourselves,” she said.
Post-doctoral resident, Alyson Faires, Psy.D., currently treats a broad population at Community Health Center Inc. in New London, Conn., an integrated health care site. She pointed out that the most important, but overlooked, aspect of feminist theory ignores certain segments of the population.
“Feminism in general has historically focused on cisgender and white women. People of color and LGBTQ+ people have not entered into the conversation,” she said.
Faires reported that intersectionality – a way of seeing how various forms of inequality collaborate and exacerbate each other – offers a view of how society impacts these individuals.
During therapy sessions, Faires helps patients come to a place where they can regain power. A huge piece is being validating, reassuring clients that their response to an issue is completely normal, she noted. “It’s important to sit in the discomfort of negative feelings.”
Faires is comfortable with self-disclosure and exercising “her voice.” She said, “I tell clients that I’m angry too, that these feelings are normative. My inner goal is to empower the client and equalize the playing field.”
Faires utilizes a feminist approach with her male clients as well, exploring how gender roles affect them, specifically the need to be strong. “I help them tap into other emotions. They are not diminishing their identity as men if they cry or express emotion,” Faires said.
Rebecca Rosenblum, Psy.D, MS, clinical psychopharmacology is a private practitioner in Cambridge, Mass. She was introduced to feminism as a college student. Her interest in this theory led her to join the Association for Women in Psychology, a group responsible for the development of Division 35, the Society for the Psychology of Women.
As a psychologist that draws from feminist theory, Rosenblum brings intersectionality to all the work she does, utilizing this foundation from the initial history taking through treatment. “I ask different questions about gender roles and use a feminist lens to see what is going on in a client’s life,” she said. Rosenblum primarily uses EMDR to explore how memories affect patients emotionally.
Rosenblum’s goal is to help re-regulate a client’s system. Through EMDR, she brings this about, helping clients regain balance. “Memories don’t disappear, but their emotional disturbance and vividness recedes,” she said.
According to Rosenblum, a feminist approach involves intentional collaboration more than in traditional therapy. “You and your client are on equal footing. The client has expertise about their experience, and you have experience and professional knowledge.”
While Rosenblum is a trauma therapist, she is a feminist first. Some of her clients purposely seek her help because of her feminist approach. She said that political winds can communicate a lack of safety for many with interpersonal trauma histories; for instance, the recent Roe v. Wade or when the “me too” movement hit society.
“I’ve worked with Black Americans on the impact of their societal trauma due to racism,” she said. External issues such as mass shootings, killings by police, and other issues of sociopolitical safety are often addressed.
Patients also present with issues related to romantic relationships and asserting boundaries, gender-based violence and equality in the home. She added that getting involved and developing agency helps clients feel better.
Nearly 40 years ago, Aimee Gaffney, MACP, licensed psychologist master in Vermont, began her career integrating the approaches of depth psychology, dance and body-oriented therapy, and feminism into her full-time practice.
Mentored by strong women in her family and feminist theorists at Antioch New England Graduate School, her practice was launched on a core principle of moving past a male definition of women’s value and worth, their right to economic and psychological freedom, including rejecting the objectification of women’s bodies in all ways.
The Jungian analyst Marion Woodman, and her work on addiction and eating disorders, was key early on in Gaffney’s understanding about symptoms such as self-loathing, anorexia, depression, anxiety, and PTSD as indicative of a cultural illness (patriarchy) that forced women to pathologize themselves and destroy their capacity for self-worth and their own determined agency.
“Joy and embodiment weren’t a birthright,” she said.
Gaffney integrates the work of Dr. Peter Levine and Somatic Experiencing to further undo the symptoms that affect the body and nervous system after developmental, situational, and cultural trauma.
While talk therapy is useful locating an event, and a meaningful story, somatic therapy allows the body to speak safely, to express what the narrative approach can’t accomplish: the release, titration, and metabolization of affective states “stuck” internally without resolution.
“This causes symptoms we pathologize,” she said. This approach allows individuals to return to a natural, regulated internal state and reclaim more passion and energy for life.
“The integration of both psychotherapy with Somatic Experiencing is a model that weaves the artistry and benefit of both approaches. We live embodied.”
Gaffney discussed the recent overturning of Roe as a tsunami of overwhelming responses as women understood their rights concerning sexual and reproductive freedom had been hijacked.