The Psychotherapeutic Sensibility in Feminism
Imagining cultural rearrangements durable enough to produce nongendered personalities in future generations was both a radical project and a very optimistic one, since it simultaneously required a great deal of patience and men's cooperation. The women's movement also advocated short-term approaches less dependent on reaching cultural consensus. Women, for example, could simply jettison the niceties of gender expectations. If enough women refused to make their behavior conform, then getting angry would amount to an effective political strategy. "A woman should be proud to declare she is a Bitch," one typical statement pointed out, because "bitches seek their identity strictly through themselves and what they do. They are subjects, not objects."
Bitches are aggressive, assertive, domineering, overbearing, strong-minded, spiteful, hostile, direct, blunt, candid, obnoxious, thick-skinned, hard-headed, vicious, dogmatic, competent, competitive, pushy, loud-mouthed, independent, stubborn, demanding, manipulative, egoistic, driven, achieving, overwhelming, threatening, scary, ambitious, tough, brassy, masculine, boisterous, and turbulent. Among other things, a Bitch occupies a lot of psychological space. You always know she is around. A Bitch takes shit from no one. You may not like her, but you cannot ignore her.
Being a bitch, many women discovered, was easier to appreciate in theory than to realize in practice. Layers of female socialization could not be shed so easily or comfortably, and acts of feminist willpower, no matter how resolute, were inadequate to the task. Those who did succeed found that their defiance, whether expressed at home or in public, met with swift and certain reaction, not infrequently in the form of punitive psychological intervention, as Weisstein, Chesler, Bart, and others had painstakingly shown. On the one hand, this frustrating state of affairs made the paternalism of psychological experts ever more galling to feminists. On the other hand, it confirmed the centrality of both "psychological oppression" to women's subordinated status and "psychological liberation" to a vision of sexual equality. In its early years, the women's movement addressed women's subjective experience explicitly and continually, making it the building block of movement organization, the foundation of feminist theory, and the justification for reforming the psychotherapeutic enterprise.
Consciousness raising (CR) groups, not coincidentally, were sometimes called "bitch sessions." The practice of group discussion and support which formed the organizational nucleus of the movement's radical wing during its early years embodied a respectful attention to emotion and a desire to communicate the subjective feel of women's everyday lives, which ran the gamut from anger to anguish. CR groups originated with New York Radical Women (NYRW), a radical feminist group formed in the fall of 1967. After a meeting during which the women experimented with going around the room to describe their own feelings of oppression, NYRW member Kathie Sarachild coined the term "consciousness raising" to describe both the practice and the resulting insights. As a veteran of the civil rights movement and the student Left, Sarachild understood that this quintessentially feminist practice was inspired by recent civil rights activism, as well as more distant models among Chinese revolutionaries and Guatemalan guerrillas (fig. 19).
CR groups were small, met regularly, and often recruited members through friendship networks as well as feminist organizations. They emphasized introspection, emotional self-exposure, and the sharing of personal, experiential testimony. Pamela Allen's "Free Space," one of the best-known statements about CR, outlined four stages in the feminist group process. "Opening up" in a nonjudgmental context was the first, followed by "sharing, "analyzing," and "abstracting." "It is imperative for our understanding of ourselves and for our mental health," she explained, "that we maintain and deepen our contact with our feelings. Our first concern must not be with whether these feelings are good or bad, but what they are. Feelings are a reality." The egalitarian practice of encouraging each woman to speak, the refrain of unconditional emotional acceptance, and the value placed on emotional awareness and mental health made CR reminiscent of humanistic psychotherapeutic trends such as Carl Rogers's client-centered psychotherapy. "We always stay in touch with our feelings," began one of Sara-child's descriptions of the place of CR within feminism.
But the stated goals of CR—to develop feminist theory and build a women's movement—sharply distinguished it from psychotherapy, as many feminists were at pains to point out. That the distinction was
crucial is evident in numerous, repeated warnings against "thinking that women's liberation is therapy" and "thinking that male supremacy is only a psychological privilege." "Our oppression is not in our heads," Jennifer Gardner vehemently declared. "Therapy assumes that someone is sick and that there is a cure," Carol Hanisch retorted. Psychotherapy insulted women by appeasing them, whereas CR sessions "are a form of political action." "Consciousness raising is not a form of encounter group or psychotherapy," Barbara Susan reflected. "I've been involved in both and I can tell you they are very different."
Still, questions persisted. "Is women's liberation a therapy group?" At all points on the feminist political spectrum, women answered with a resounding no. Reducing women's status to the psychological obstructed individual consciousness and social change by trivializing the possibility that women could act collectively on the basis of a politics of gender. Dangling the illusion of a "personal solution" before women was a futile form of "go-it-alonism," according to radical feminist Kathie Sarachild, whose influential guidelines for running small feminist groups included a list of classic forms of resistance under the heading, "How to Avoid the Awful Truth." Leftists interested in the radical potential of cultural politics also tried to remain alert to the difference between "life-style revolution" and "cultural revolution." In her article on this topic, Gall Kelly cautioned, "We have gotten so bogged down in the way we live that we lose the possibility of becoming relevant to the way others live." For her part, Betty Friedan worried that feminist groups might deteriorate into "navel-gazing and consciousness-raising that doesn't go anywhere." CR may have begun with feeling, but it was supposed to lead to thinking and acting.
The passion of feminist qualifications made it apparent that the differences between CR and psychotherapy were as elusive as they were important. There was just no way to sidestep the pressing psychological problems women brought with them into CR groups, and, for the most part, movement activists did not try. The healing spirit and communal support system CR offered were among the new movement's most conspicuous and attractive features.
Feminism's rapid growth through the vehicle of small groups was not lost on practicing psychotherapists either, especially psychotherapists with feminist sympathies. A flurry of research studies attempted to systematically analyze the group process of feminist CR. Some clinicians and clinical researchers went so far as to suggest that women's liberation was really a misnomer, disguising a movement dedicated to
self-help and personal sustenance with fraudulent political rhetoric. Many others, however, were sensitive to the differences between feminism and psychotherapy, as well as the striking similarities. The expert guide, symbol of unwelcome authority, had been banished from the group, but CR still had therapeutic results and was "ideally suited to the exploration of personal identity issues." It was possible to see the feminist practice as simultaneously a challenge and an alternative to conventional psychotherapy.
Annoyed by all the talk about psychotherapy, which they found dismissive, many feminists redoubled their efforts to convey the urgency of their political goals. But the confusion between psychological and political change endured. Feminists themselves were partially responsible. Practically every woman who spoke or wrote about CR mentioned its therapeutic results because it was obvious that collective sharing reduced the burden of self-blame and made women feel a lot better. In our groups, Pamela Allen wrote, "we begin to build (and to some extent, experience) a vision of our human potential." Even feminists who worried that CR groups would "never get beyond the level of therapy sessions" to realize their "revolutionary potential" had to admit that "the rigid dichotomy between material oppression and psychological oppression fails to hold." Carol Payne was one of many to describe how her own group wrestled with the perplexing relationship between individual needs and collective action.
We argued about this [the purpose of the CR group]. A women's group shouldn't be group therapy, we decided. But there were elements of group therapy in what we were trying to do, to help each other deal with personal problems. . .. We never resolved the question of what a women's liberation group was supposed to do. There was always a conflict between those who favored the personal, psychological approach and those who felt that a women's group should be building a bridge between the personal insight gained by being in a small group and political action with a larger body of women.
It was simply impossible to separate women's complaints about their lives and aspirations for change from an overall assessment of women's status as a gender category and, in the end, this was precisely the point. Feminists faced this dilemma because they treated women's experience as raw data, refusing to wall off "the personal" from "the political." Barbara Susan put it simply: "Consciousness raising is a way of forming a political analysis on information we can trust is true. That information is our experience."
Surely this twin belief that experience was truthful and deserved a
prominent place in comprehending public issues was one of feminism's most enlightening contributions. It was also deeply flawed, as Alice Echols has argued in her history of early radical feminist groups and ideas. Echols documents the internal factionalism that grew logically out of the erroneous assumption that most radical feminists made about the nature of that experience—namely, that women constituted a cohesive sex/gender class. Kathie Sarachild, one of CR's architects, pointed out that the movement's group practice and the idea that gender necessarily unified women were inseparable. CR assumed "that most women were like ourselves—not different," by which she meant white, well-educated, and middle-class.
When movement organizations came face-to-face with the major internal challenges raised by working-class women and lesbians, many simply crumbled, as Echols has shown, unable to digest the fact of "differences" among women. A feminism based on the assumption of common experience could not long survive after that assumption was exposed as false. "The dream of a common language" was exchanged for "lies, secrets, and silence," and the very divisions and conflicts that (white, middle-class) feminists feared most came to the fore.
Although the notion of a sex/gender class became suspect in later years, faith in the truth of experience remained at the heart of the women's movement. The conviction that "experience" was "information we can trust" continued to inspire the production of theory and the direction of activism in the late 1970s and 1980s, as a chorus of new feminist voices proceeded to describe how varied that experience could be and challenge the women's movement to account for the difference that "difference" made.
"Feminist therapy" surfaced early in the movement as a possible alternative to the sexist practice of traditional therapies, as we have already seen. What it was exactly and how it differed from CR were notoriously difficult to determine, but the persistence of discussion about it, and the strong demand for it by potential consumers, illustrated yet again the abiding place of the psychotherapeutic sensibility within feminism.
Predictably, CR was an important model considered by feminists who were also practicing psychotherapists interested in offering sensitive services to their female clients. "The CR groups of the women's movement have implications for the treatment of identity problems of women in therapy," concluded one examination of the relationship between the two, which also noted that many members of CR groups had
apparently had previous experience in psychotherapy. "I prefer to view therapy as a consciousness raising process," wrote Anne Kent Rush, one of the authors of Feminism as Therapy, a superficial book that conflated feminism and psychotherapy and reasoned that anything that was "healing" and respectful must be both therapeutic and good for women.
Most early efforts to define feminist therapy began and ended with the proposition that women's social environment, rather than their intrapsychic makeup, was the primary source of individual psychological problems. More specific, practical questions went unanswered. Was psychotherapy more likely to be feminist in individual or group forms? What could feminist therapy offer men, if anything, and could they practice it too? Did the theoretical orientation of the clinician make any difference? Were Rogerian psychotherapists more feminist than orthodox psychoanalysts? In the absence of guidelines for therapeutic form and content, the general feeling seemed to be that virtually any school or style of psychotherapy could qualify as feminist—from cognitive reprogramming to psychodrama and gestalt—as long as a feminist practiced it.
This muddled thinking did little to interfere with the growing popular interest in therapeutic services with a feminist slant. One of the AWP's early projects, for example, was to compile a national Feminist Therapy Roster as a service to the larger feminist community. A brief comment in the AWP newsletter about who should be included reflected the nebulousness of feminist therapy itself: "If they don't know what that [feminist therapy] is, then we don't want them." In order to be listed, the AWP asked psychotherapists to specify their credentials, describe their services, and write up a "statement of your position on feminism." The first edition of the roster was a mere twelve pages long and included only forty-five resource listings in the entire country, a very modest effort indeed compared to the thriving industry in feminist therapy that would appear in the late 1970s and 1980s.
While feminists declared war on the sexism of psychological experts, they were also willing to appropriate those aspects of psychological theory and practice perceived as potentially liberating for women or strategically useful to the women's movement. I have tried to show that the culture of psychology is not adequately understood as a competitor for women's hearts and minds, peddling adjustment while feminism pledged genuine change. Psychological expertise functioned as friend
and foe, with both roles facilitating feminist mobilization and lending credence to feminist thought.
That feminists quietly welcomed certain aspects of psychology while loudly denouncing others produced a paradox—but perhaps it was merely wisdom in paradoxical form—at the heart of feminism. Psychological knowledge could be feminist or antifeminist. It could promote feminist consciousness and inspire social change. It could instill self-hatred and vindicate the status quo. At times this state of affairs was extremely perplexing. Should the women's movement actively support personal growth strategies, or insist that women's only hope was in eliminating systemic barriers such as legal inequalities and discrimination? What would it matter if women achieved institutional gains, only to have their subjective experience remain mired in dependence and powerlessness? Could a line even be reasonably drawn between psychological and social experience?
The curious courtship of psychology and women's liberation thus recapitulated the ambivalent political dynamic that earlier chapters have demonstrated was so crucial to the overall historical direction of psychological expertise after World War II. Capable of soothing and exacerbating social and political ruptures, psychological experts were technologists of pacification one moment and prophets of renewal the next. For feminists, who understood keenly the danger of reducing women's social status to the psyche, the challenge was to link the dots between self and society, between the personal and the political, without making either appear to be a by-product of the other.
"Experience" was what the women's movement offered as connecting tissue. To grasp it was to anchor truth, probe the validity of theoretical formulations, and test the effectiveness of collective action against the inescapable measure of subjectivity. Historically rooted yet in constant motion, experience was feminism's ultimate evidence. It certified that psychology was a trap for women, but it also hinted that psychology might offer a way out of the trap. Experience was slippery and useful, demoralizing, liberating, and terribly confusing. Little wonder that women seeking to comprehend their past, chart their future, and realize their own humanity would sometimes long for some clearer, more reassuring way of understanding their lives. They did not find one.