Feminist Activists Challenge the Psychological Establishment
The proposition that illegitimate (male) experts had fabricated mental disturbances like "hysteria" and "depression" in order to keep patriarchy insulated from effective opposition was the theoretical rationale behind the activist campaign feminists mounted against the psychological establishment in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Antipsychiatry permeated the style, as well as the substance, of feminist protest. Dramatic zap actions were organized at conventions of the American Psychiatric Association and other institutional strongholds of psychological expertise, sometimes in conjunction with gay men and lesbians. Typically, activists would interrupt the proceedings, shout slo-
gans like "The Psychiatric Profession Is Built on the Slavery of Women," and present a set of demands. Among other things, feminists called for an end to mother-blaming, freedom for the "political prisoners" living in mental institutions, assistance in filing legal claims against abusive clinicians, and a ban on sexist advertisements in professional journals and offensive exhibits at professional meetings. One typical communication, from San Francisco Redstockings to the American Psychiatric Association in 1970, offered the following suggestions to sympathetic clinicians:
1. Begin compiling a list of psychiatrists in every city who are willing to back women filing malpractice suits against psychiatrists who have fucked them over. . . .
2. Begin dealing with the treatment of women under welfare and the conditions of women in the state hospitals across the nation. . . .
3. Stop helping your male patients develop "healthy" male egos. . . .
4. Mother is not public enemy number one. Start looking for the real enemy. . . .
5. There are some exhibits at this convention that are oppressive to women. Trash them.
Feminists denounced the racist, sexist, and homophobic prejudices of psychological expertise and appealed for open discussion. Not infrequently, their bold actions were jeered by the (overwhelmingly male) professionals in attendance, who sometimes greeted the unwelcome feminists with "You're a paranoid fool, you stupid bitch!" and "Why don't you idiot girls shut up!" On the other hand, radicals within the professions, many of whom were seeking to eliminate "psychiatric atrocities" such as lobotomy and electroshock or put their professions on record against the Vietnam War, functioned as important allies. Cooperation between movement activists and dissident professionals was often the key to effective publicity and change. At the 1970 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, for example, the Radical Caucus distributed literature to those attending the conference in a compilation rifled "Psychic Tension" and presented a series of documents to the association's annual business meeting. One leaflet simply confronted the assembled masses with the question: "ARE YOU A MALE CHAUVINIST?" Another, "A Credo for Psychiatrists," embodied many of the themes of the feminist critique, reviewed above.
At least get off our backs. . . . It's not penis envy or inner space or maternal urges or natural passivity or hormone-caused emotionality that determines our lives. It's an upright, repressive male supremists [sic ] social structure and set of social attitudes that prevents us from seeing ourselves as full human beings struggling to live out our potential. . . . The only legitimate role for therapists is to catalyse our struggles. Psychiatry that tries to adjust to a bad situation is not help. It is betrayl [sic ] in the guise of benevolence. Psychiatrists, heal thyselves. . . . Help us become our own psychiatrists, to write our own theories, to define our own natures. If you can't do that then get out of the way. We don't want your crazy trips laid on us. We want LIBERATION NOW.
Feminist professionals also worked tirelessly to reform their colleagues' theories and practices and to advance the professional interests of women, usually through the formation of women's caucuses, radical caucuses, and autonomous professional organizations. For example, the Association for Women Psychologists (AWP) was founded in 1969 during the annual APA meeting in Washington, D.C., which was marked by protest from other dissident groups on the Left: Psychologists for Social Action, Psychologists for a Democratic Society, the Association of Black Psychologists, and the Association of Black Psychology Students. In response, the APA passed an abortion rights resolution and agreed to eliminate sex designations in its own job listings after women threatened to shut down the offending job placement booths themselves and sue the APA for sex discrimination. (The Women's Equity Action League filed suit in April 1970 anyway.)
At its inception and during its early years, AWP clearly represented the prevailing mood of radical feminist anger and adhered to the leaderless organizational style common among radical women's liberation groups. Phyllis Chesler, speaking on behalf of the new organization, demanded monetary "reparations" to be used to release women from mental hospitals and psychotherapy, a suggestion that, however heartfelt, was not taken very seriously. Nancy Henley, another founding mother of the organization, reflected in disgust that "talking to psychologists about action is like talking to Spiro Agnew about engaging in civil disobedience." Early structural decisions decentralized AWP authority by eliminating all elected officers, making all organizational roles voluntary, and warning members against "the creation of 'stars' by forces outside our organization."
Steeped in the politics of protest, the founding documents of the AWP nevertheless disclosed the positive role its authors hoped psychology might play. The statement of purpose declared that "AWP is dedicated to . . . exploring the contributions which psychology can, does
and should make to the definition, investigation, and modification of current sex role stereotypes." In ensuing years, the AWP called repeatedly on the APA to make good on that organization's founding promise "to advance psychology as a means of promoting human welfare" and to assist "the realization of full human potential in all persons."