How Psychology Undermines Feminist Activism

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In this piece for the Feminist Current, Tove Happonen argues that the therapy model pathologizes women’s responses to systemic injustice, aiming to change their emotional reactions to oppression rather than addressing patriarchy itself.

“Therapy opposes collective feminist action both by determining some of us are unfit to support other women if we don’t have degrees, and also by claiming we are unfit mentally — in need of therapy ourselves. It places the burden of overcoming the effects of patriarchy, along with the blame for it, onto us as individuals. I myself was often told by therapists, when I expressed how powerless I felt in terms of my ability to improve the situation of women in our society, that I could not focus on trying to save the world until I first saved myself. I was in too fragile a mental state to make any difference, they said. I couldn’t be an activist without damaging myself in the process. Just as our foremothers were labelled hysterical, we are taught that we are too mentally unwell or unstable to be effective activists. We learn that we suffer from things like social anxiety, depression, various phobias, bipolarity, and trauma that we need to personally overcome and heal from, through professional ‘help,’ before we can focus on organizing and changing anything beyond ourselves.”

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22 COMMENTS

      • I guess no one is interested in acknowledging this, so I’ll share a relevant link to provide some context: https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2017/10/23/christian-right-tips-fight-transgender-rights-separate-t-lgb.

        excerpt:

        Passing as Progressive, Feminist, and LGB-Friendly

        As Right Wing Watch also mentioned in their coverage of the same panel [at the reactionary Family Research Council’s “Values Voter Summit”], a trend emerged during the session, as various speakers wrapped their opposition to nondiscrimination measures in rhetoric passing as progressive: transgender rights were depicted as anti-feminist, hostile to minorities and even disrespectful to LGB individuals. This seems to be part of a larger strategy, meant to weaken transgender rights advocates by attempting to separate them from their allies, feminists and LGBT rights advocates.

        In her presentation, Kilgannon mapped out three non-negotiables in the fight against the so-called gender identity agenda, a conspiracy theory touted by anti-LGBT groups that disavows sexual orientation and gender identity. The first is to “divide and conquer. For all its recent success, the LGBT alliance is actually fragile and the trans activists need the gay rights movement to help legitimize them.” In other words, separate trans activists from the gay rights movement, and their agenda becomes much easier to oppose. As Kilgannon explained, “Trans and gender identity are a tough sell, so focus on gender identity to divide and conquer.” For many, “gender identity on its own is just a bridge too far. If we separate the T from the alphabet soup we’ll have more success.”

  1. Okay I’m just going to come out and say it.. that article was a big crock of you-know-what. There are countries and cultures in this world that still have a patriarchy, but Western cultures, and the field psychology, are not under the patriarchal umbrella. I’m sorry, but no. Just no.

    The author was quoting a book from 1975 (!) , and I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but this is a field that at is *dominated* overwhelmingly by women. Also a higher than average (compared to other fields) amount of minorities and LBGTQ. So if there is systemic oppression against women going on, you can look to those groups. We do it to each other. Also a field completed dominated by democrats, so we can all stop blaming and vilifying the white patriarchal republican male. We can also spend all day talking about what happens to men and boys in this system (vets for example, the elderly, what’s happening to boys with the ADHD diagnosing…and all of the psychiatric drugging that go hand in hand with that), so let’s not cherry pick who has it worse when getting sucked into the system. This is not a competition, and it’s intellectually dishonest to pick and choose who this field affects. No one is immune under the right (unfortunate) circumstances, or when under someone else’s “authority”.

    Until we’re honest about where the issues are.. all who participate in this field and the power that drug companies and the “chemical imbalance” propaganda has..including the undermining and blocking of holistic approaches from going mainstream or being covered by insurance, and what a crappy job this field does of helping people to truly heal and be free, we really are just going to be spinning our wheels.

    • Are you seriously suggesting that patriarchy doesn’t exist in the USA? Have you looked at the composition of Congress, at pictures of most of the CEOs in the USA, at how rape victims are treated in the USA? Not to mention, patriarchy goes WAY beyond “women are oppressed by men.” It seems your view of what constitutes patriarchy is very, very narrow. It really comes down to relative privileges in society, and to suggest that white males don’t have an overall advantage economically and politically is quite naive, in my view. Men and boys being abused by the system is not evidence of the absence of patriarchy, but its continued domination of our system.

      It’s also naive to suggest that being democratic, female, or liberal in any way absolves someone from abusing one’s patriarchal privileges. Weinstein, Bill Clinton, Al Franken, all liberals, all Democrats, all still felt superior enough to or had enough power over women that they could take advantage of them with impunity.

      I’d suggest you read up on the subject.

      • Yes, I’m quite familiar and have studied feminism since the late 80s/ early 90s..have studied both sides of the issue for a very long time and it’s something I’ve thought long and hard about. And yes, that’s exactly what I’m suggesting.

        I suggest reading up on the arguments against the idea of Western cultures being a patriarchy, particularly feminist Christina Hoff Sommers and the blogger from “Girl Writes What”, Karen Staughan. I used to agree with a lot of what you are saying until I read up on the other side of issue.

        p.s. If we are going by the dictionary definition of “patriarchy” that it’s a system where men hold the power and women are excluded from it; a society or community organized on patriarchal lines..I stand by what I say that the fields of Psychology / Human Services/ Social Work are *not* patriarchies. In today’s world in Western cultures, one can make the argument that those fields are actually now matriarchies.

        • Do you have a book you’d recommend?

          I’d continue to assert that women being in charge of a social service organization does not make it not patriarchal, if the women are required by the structure and their superiors to adhere to the rules made up by men or else be castigated or shunned by their peers. Many women are business leaders, for instance, but sexual harassment is still rampant in the business realm, and is chronically ignored or suppressed, including by women in charge. And guess what, it’s almost always men harassing women. Obstetrics is another great example – more women OBs than men by now, but they still do all they can to disempower the woman and do things to her and in any possible way prevent the natural birth process from going forward. Caesarian rate is over 30% nationally, and much higher elsewhere, but there is no outcry about cutting open so many women without need. Because, after all, they are women, so their rights are secondary.

          It is more complicated now that absolute apartheid can’t exist, but I don’t think matriarchy can be claimed in social work in all but the most formal definition. We’re still living with male privilege. The fact that many women can work their way around to grasp some privileges at lower levels, and that a few can even make it up to higher levels, doesn’t change the fact that men are granted power advantages simply by being male, nor that the rules are created to favor men.

          To give a more simple and amusing example: My wife and I split the housework 50-50. If someone hears this about me, what do they say? “Wow, what a great guy, he splits the housework 50-50!” What do they say about her? “Wow, she’s so lucky, he does half the housework!”

          Same amount of work, I’m great, she’s lucky. All I have to do to be a “great guy” is not be violent or disrespectful and clean up after myself. Men have much lower standards than women to adhere to. That’s privilege!

          • I’d suggest any books by Christina Hoff Sommers, and following her on social media or watching some of her videos on YouTube. Also following the “Girl Writes What” blog by Karen Straughan that I mentioned earlier. Also Youtuber Candance Owens/ Red Pill Black, who is also on FB.

            As far as Social Work/ Psychology/ Human Services, I would say that in today’s world, women aren’t required to follow the rules made up by men.. they *are* the ones making up the rules and they *are* the superiors. Perhaps the idea of the patriarchy was true in the 60s and 70s, but I believe there was shift, the tide has turned, and today’s (Western) world is different.

            I understand all too well sexual harassment, and I know what happens to women. Just from personal experience, I can tell you in my time in the field, I knew of 1 psychiatrist who was kind of a creep and told perverted jokes to the female staff. I also knew at least 3 female staff who got sexually involved with male clients, and I knew of at least 3 male staff who were were sexually harassed by female staff. The females with the male clients were fired or quit, the the females harassing the male staff got away with it. This kind of thing happens more often than people who like to think, and I don’t believe that’s the patriarchy, I believe women are just as capable of wrong doing, abuse, and taking advantage of people in subordinate positions as men are. It’s also scary to see how quickly people will jump to tar and feather and ostracize someone without proof, or due process. Check out the Girls Writes What interview on YouTube with the guy from CA who had his life ruined and lost his ranch over false rape allegations. I don’t know if it’s this attention seeking social media culture we live in now or what, but this kind of thing also happens more often than we’d like to admit (check out the Black Mirror episode “Most Hated In The Nation” for more on that theme).

            As far as ObGyns, that’s conventional medicine for you, and I see that more of an issue of doctors holding power over patients in the conventional medical field in general, I don’t think that’s necessarily a male/ female issue.

            That’s nice you do half the housework! I have to admit I do most of ours, but my husband and I have worked out a deal. He does all the yardwork and snow removal, which I abhor, and I do the inside work, though he does clean up after himself. While he was out in 5 degree weather yesterday several times removing snow, I was all warm next to the wood burning stove with my cat, enjoying my female privilege :’).

          • I knew that, but thanks for the clarification. I think she’s using a different definition of “patriarchal” than me, more focused on gender and less on privilege and oppression.

          • mik- that’s okay, the comments are set up funny sometimes, but I thought it was clear you were agreeing with Steve.

            Steve- I think what you are referring to is the concept of a kyriarchy. The article was referring to a patriarchy, which by definition is about men having the power. Check out the latest stats from 2015- psychology, human services, social work..over 80% female as of that time, psychiatry residents 57% female as of that year, and female APRNs outnumber men 10:1, and I also don’t agree with our society being a patriarchy anymore either, so I was disagreeing with what the article is saying. I agree with many articles that get posted here, but that wasn’t one of them and I wanted to share my 2 cents.

  2. Western cultures, and the field psychology, are not under the patriarchal umbrella

    I’m confused by your response. I didn’t see any “competition” of the sort you describe going on in this article; the overriding theme seems to be that women are disempowered by many of the precepts of “feminist therapy.” Are you a “therapist”? Where are the issues, as you put it?

    • From the article:

      “During a workshop at a women’s gathering I attended this summer in France, Sheila Jeffreys argued that psychology individualizes the effects of patriarchy and separates women from each other. This once common feminist analysis was completely new to me, and I realized, as I discussed it with other young women (most of us in our 20s), that I had been living in a bubble wherein psychology was never questioned.

      I’m not the only one. In response to our friends’ struggles, women are quick to suggest therapy to deal with issues like lack of self-esteem, distress in social situations, habits of self-harming, relationship problems, or difficulty accepting their female body — all issues that are impacted by living under patriarchy, as can be inferred from the sex discrepancy in, for example, self-mutilation and anxiety. “Seek therapy” has become a standard piece of advice. The words, “You need help” are accepted as well-meaning and sound, when directed at friend and foe alike. What “help” refers to is understood by all, since alternatives are generally not offered.”

      I worked the field of Social Work for 15 years but thankfully, got out. I don’t believe we live in a patriarchy in Western Culture in today’s world, nor do I think psychology “individualizes the effects of patriarchy” as the article states. The opening piece with the link to the article is also saying the we aren’t addressing the “patriarchy”.

      I believe the issues are psychiatric diagnosing and drugging (big money..and advertising works), and people are being disempowered. But like I explained in my first post, I don’t think it’s “the patriarchy” that’s the issue (it’s the belief in the diagnoses, mental health system and the belief that drugs= medicine), and I think anyone who is unfortunate enough to get locked into the system (a field in today’s world that’s dominated by women, not “the patriarchy” or men) is at risk (men, women, children etc).

      • Yeah, and a lot of police brutality is perpetrated on Black people by Black cops, that doesn’t make it less racist, as we’re talking about institutions. Drugging and labeling ARE big problems, but that doesn’t address the social forces served by the “mental health” paradigm, one of which is patriarchy, though of course the problem is intensified when dealing with psychiatry per se.

        • Well said. The point of the article is that individualizing reactions to trauma and oppression obviates the need to examine the cultural/structural reasons why they occur. Black people probably “need help” dealing with the effects of racism, but providing a diagnosis and “therapy” seems like a pretty thin cover for letting racism continue to drive social and political behavior.