How Radical Women Changed Psychiatry in the 1970s


A half century ago a “radical caucus” formed in the American Psychiatric Association. The group, while somewhat small, felt that mental medicine needed to undergo change. The caucus also worried about the United States as a whole. Racism. Sexism. Poverty. Dislocation. The Environment. Militarism. Political divides. Corruption. Sound familiar?

As we reflect on the #MeToo era, Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, and other deeply unseemly characters in 2020, it’s important to note that women’s issues and mental health were embedded in radical mental medicine fifty years ago. Feminism and sexual politics in the late 1960s and 1970s led to a reassessment of gender-based hierarchies in the mental health establishment. And transformative change was the result. These changes occurred because of the actions of both patients and doctors.

Back then, psychoanalysis and psychopharmacological interventions were criticized; both Freud’s focus on sexual fantasies and the use of “mother’s little helpers” (benzodiazepines) came under fire. Critics drew from second-wave feminism to refocus on the role of women in mental health.

Radicals criticized psychiatry for reinforcing notions of the dutiful mother and obedient housewife, suggesting psychiatry (and pharmaceuticals, yes) were a means to regulate women. Those women who did not behave “properly” risked ending up in psychiatric care and possibly chemically sedated, or worse. Works like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, for instance, suggested that mass tranquilizer use during the 1950s had pacified women and had facilitated women assenting to the limits imposed on them.

Other books besides The Feminine Mystique displayed the complicity and willing participation of mainstream psychiatry in disciplining women, and placing constraints on what was regarded as unfettered emotional, sexual, and artistic activity. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, published in the United States in 1971, as well as the publication of Virginia Woolf’s five volume diaries (1977–1984) underlined women’s experiences with mental illness and raised awareness of the dangers women faced at the hands of the mental health system.

Altogether, these books humanized the suffering and the social controls that women had to deal with if they didn’t act according to the so-called norm or accept their role in American society.

Later, the work of feminist sociologist Kate Millett grew as a significant element of antipsychiatry and patient power. In 1970, Millett wrote an academic study of patriarchy in Western literature, Sexual Politics, but she later offered memoir-style works focusing on her relationships and sexuality throughout the decade, such as Flying (1974) and Sita (1977).

Even later, Millett became a dominant figure within the American anti-psychiatry movement when she wrote her 1990 memoir, The Loony-Bin Trip. It chronicled her harrowing psychiatric experiences, including her diagnosis of “bipolar” disorder, her struggle with deadening lithium, and her psychiatric confinement. Millett, in retrospect, brought together important disparate ideas about freedom, sexuality, and anti-psychiatry, and she communicated these to broad audiences in the United States.

And what of other activist patients, like Millett? The “ex-patients” movement grew in this era, including the “anti-psychiatry,” “mad liberation,” and “psychiatric survivor” movements. While the movement lacked distinct leadership, Judi Chamberlin was crucial. Chamberlin’s On Our Own: Patient-Controlled Alternatives to the Mental Health System, was published in 1978 to much acclaim. It would later be hailed as the movement’s Bible/Koran/Talmud/Vedas/I Ching.

Was there a glue for the collection of interlocking movements across the country? If anything, the movements communicated through Madness News Network. As Chamberlin put it: ‘In various places across North America there are even single, isolated individuals who are genuine participants in our movement.”1

Additionally, the first annual Conference on Human Rights and Psychiatric Oppression was held in 1973.

Judi Chamberlin
Judi Chamberlin

Looking back, Chamberlin was a fascinating and intrepid person. In thinking about how patients and radical psychiatrist parted ways, she had signaled a missed opportunity to confront “hip professionals” and to discuss “real alternatives,” in addition to challenging the mental health professional “who made money off human suffering while presenting themselves as radicals.”2

Chamberlin thought the patient “movement is very open, very fluid,” but she herself came to be accused of elitism. Being reflective and thoughtful, she posited that “maybe I’m just blind to it.”3

In 1969, two feminist psychiatrists, Hogie Wyckoff and Joy Marcus (in California), added their energy and intellectual imprint to radicalism in mental medicine. Wyckoff turned a harsh spotlight on the multiple ways in which women were alienated, including through coercive or unsatisfactory sexual experiences, withholding of recognition for and minimization of their work, and the induction of self-contempt for themselves and their bodies.

At the same time, she patently rejected individual therapy (writing, “there are no individual solutions for oppressed people”) and described the shape and outcomes of radical feminist therapy. She proved highly influential in shaping radical documents I’ve come across.

(In Miami that same year, 1969, the “Women’s Caucus,” a subgroup of the Radical Caucus, had advocated that birth control information and devices be made freely available to women of all ages.)

Dr. Phyllis Chesler, a hugely important figure, was an especially persuasive and influential radical. In 1969, she established the Association for Women in Psychology, completed her PhD at the New School for Social Research, and became a practicing psychotherapist in New York City.

Chesler also pushed the limits of the conventional patient-therapist relationship, and thereby challenged men in the profession.

“Are you sure you want to sleep with your psychotherapist?” she asked New York Magazine readers in June 1972, a time when none of the major American mental health associations had enacted ethical codes disallowing sexual encounters on the treatment couch. The article she wrote was called “The Sensuous Psychiatrist” and it illuminated the often unspoken, exploitative aspects of therapy in the late 1960s and 1970s.

It was illustrated with a photograph of a distinguished, silver-haired older man embracing a young, attractive woman as they reclined together on a leather couch. (Kind of creepy.)

The article focused on the potential abuse of authority, gender inequalities, and the need to think more critically about the ways in which patients interacted with service providers. Chesler wrote that “most doctor-patient sex” was a “psychological form of such ‘incest’ as well as being medically unethical and legally questionable.” According to Chelser, numerous psychoanalysts believed a turn-on might actually have therapeutic uses. Sadly she was right. Many therapists regarded sex with patients—a romp on the couch—as a potentially “productive element of the therapeutic process.”

Due to Chesler, new codes were created. The American Psychiatric Association declared sexual activity with patients unethical in 1973, followed thereafter by the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists trailed in 1975. The American Psychological Association followed suit in 1977. Incredibly late, in my view—but a direct result of women radicals in mental medicine.

Radical women in the 1960s and 1970s pushed back against orthodoxy in mental medicine, but also against wider patriarchy in the country. They challenged cultural and medical norms.

In 2020, we are seeing in the #MeToo movement a vital resistance against sexual assault and sexual harassment, which themselves lead to poor mental health. And in the current climate we see the vestiges of the past. Yet depression, social anxiety disorders, and migraine disorders all appear on the rise. Mental illness, according to the World Health Organization, will become the planet’s most common illness in the next two decades, meaning it is crucial to recognize the history of how women and feminism have impacted current debates and can continue to do so in the future.


Lucas Richert’s new book, Break on Through: Radical Psychiatry and the American Counterculturedescribes the influence of radical approaches to the mental health system in the 1970s.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. Handwritten note, undated, MS 768, Series 2, Box 6, Conference on Human Rights and Psychiatric Oppression, Fifth, 1977, JCP.
  2. Lapon, Mass Murderers in White Coats, 171.
  3. ‘Frustration in Philadelphia by Judi Chamberlin,’ undated, 3, MS 768, Series 2, Box 6, Conference on Human Rights and Psychiatric Oppression, Sixth, 1978, JCP.


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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  1. I like the article, great history there. However, I would argue that these efforts at transformation were ultimately coopted and that the basic fundamental beliefs of the system have not changed much at all. Women are still told that their anxiety/depression the the face of childhood sexual abuse, rape, domestic violence, and general oppression by the mainstream of our society are personal problems. They are still proffered new versions of “mother’s little helpers” in the form of benzos and SSRIs. They are still blamed for not “adapting to their roles” properly, and still diagnosed for being “too emotional.” These seminal writers’ critiques are just as valid today as they were in the 70s. We are still waiting for the ensuing “transformation,” and will most likely wait forever for this utterly patriarchal and oppressive system of thought to actually become responsive to the actual needs of clients and society at large.

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    • I think you have a point, Steve. Namely, medicalization, the selling of “mental disorders” and their “treatments” has escalated, as has, what goes along with it, the numbers of “patients”. I figure corporatocracy has a lot to do with it. On the one hand, women can get work in the field, on the other, they’d be working in the wrong field (i.e. the labeling, drugging, and oppression of “mental patients”). Liberation!? Let’s get back to that. Yeah!

      Congratulations on the book, Lucas. This looks like one I could be reading. In recent years there has been a reaction against the movements of the recent past. I’m all for counter cultural revolution. No regrets. It’s high time we rehabilitated the times that made yours truly.

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    • Thank you Steve.
      I can’t add to that, except to say that it is worse than ever and that women in the BIZ are very eager to slam and othering women.

      The PD’s were made for women, when that became obvious, they roped some men into the mix, so as not to be blamed for attack on women.

      Most psychiatrists just hate people period….they are sick of people coming to them for help.

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  2. “transformative change was the result.” As a woman who was misdiagnosed as “histrionic,” et al by a psychiatrist in early 2002, change for the better was not my experience. Blatant misogyny and staggering disrespect was my experience of psychiatry. Although I was not aware of how misogynistic and ungodly disrespectful my psychiatrist was, until I read his medical records, since he had incessantly lied to me. If you can believe, in the end, he had delusions of grandeur that I would believe my entire life was a “credible fictional story.”

    And I think the fact that covering up child abuse and rape is the number one actual societal function of the DSM “bible” believing industries, and this is by DSM design.

    Thus our society has “mental health professionals” who have been systemically covering up child abuse and rape on a massive societal scale. While those “mental health” workers are, of course, also aiding, abetting, and empowering child molesters, rapists, and child sex traffickers.

    I’m pretty certain all of this systemic abuse and rape covering up by our “mental health” workers definitely contributes to why we have #MeToo, #Pedogate, child sex trafficking, etc. problems running amok in our country. Of course, covering up the abuse of my child did end up being the reason I had been attacked by “mental health workers” initially, according to medical records that were eventually handed over.

    I’m quite certain the “mental health” industry should get out of the child abuse and rape covering up business, and we should start arresting the child molesters and rapists instead.

    Oh, and as to the psychiatrists raping their clients, this is apparently still an enormous problem.

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  3. And what about the children. I’m still waiting for other victims of childhood psychiatric trauma and brain damage induced child drugging to rise up and at least demand acknowledgement. I know that many of them either got out and are afraid to expose themselves as having been “mentally ill”, while others are trapped in the psych system, cash cows in a coercive and dangerous business enterprise that thrives off the trauma and disability they create for their lifelong patients to-be. How can they be rallied to speak out, when trapped in a group home or under the “care” of a deluded parent that won’t accept the reality of what actually happened?

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  4. My ex had a therapist try to seduce him. When Michael said “No” the therapist warned him not to tell anybody because “No one will believe you since you’re mentally ill.”

    This is an even bigger problem with women–though horrible for anybody. Julie Greene told me how having a counselor proposition her almost drove her to suicide.

    As long as the policy is #believenomentallyill there will be a gross power imbalance leaving clients/consumers/patients with no recourse when the authority figure takes advantage of them.

    Solution? Don’t see any counselor who uses the labels. Either rogue practitioners or uncertified or those who belong to the Choice Theory/Reality Therapy school or something similar.

    Even counselors who mean well often treat you as “less than” if they believe you are hopeless and not quite human. For example a counselor I talked to automatically sided against a woman whose family refused to let her see her grandchildren. He didn’t know her from Adam but said, “She probably was unstable or they (the “normals”) would not have treated her this way.” Troubling how his education made him automatically make these assumptions. That the “mentally ill” are intrinsically subhuman and the “normals” they interact with are never at fault.

    Check the NAMI site sometime. You can scan the forums without joining. A lot of complaining from parents, spouses, etc. about how horrible their “loved ones” act. How abusive the thirty year old son they force to live in the garage behaves. (If only he would take his meds.) Yet not a word of complaint from the “loved” one about how the caretakers abuse them.

    We know that caretaker abuse is a real thing. My guess is either they are too brow beaten to notice emotional abuse–and may feel they deserve physical abuse as well. Or the moderator censors the posts of more than “pill shaming” thought crimes.

    “Remember mental illness is nobody’s fault” could be translated “Remember everything bad that happens is the mentally ill person’s fault.” If you interact with most “SMI’s” who are conscientious patients with good insight you’ll notice how fearful they look. How they apologize for EVERYTHING.

    Not saying this is a conscious thing on shrinks’ part. But telling you that you are walking disease. (Your mind or soul is a cancer and you are hopelessly “ill” meaning evil.) That everything wrong in every relationship is YOUR fault as the “crazy” person is why so many of us get into abusive relationships.

    A few decide, “Hey, since everyone tells me I’m evil/crazy just like a serial killer why not act out on my anger? Not my fault after all.” So they become abusive and use the label as an excuse. Few do this but psychiatry encourages well meaning spouses to stay with abusers. “Mrs. X your husband can’t help his abuse. His scientifically proven brain disease means he can’t be held responsible for body slamming you against the wall and smashing the sculptor you worked on for ten years. Making him take his medicines will turn him into the sweet guy you dated.”

    But usually the shrinks will enable abusive “normals” with “crazy” spouses. We all know how that goes. And therapists will always side with the abuser as long as he or she is “normal.” Since only “sick” people hurt others after all.

    I almost married a man who treated me badly. When things didn’t go his way he told me how crazy I was and used my “bipolar” against me. I felt lucky any man would deign to be with me and let him treat me that way till he threatened my dad and sister.

    I quit dating forever once I realized the only kind of men I can attract are abusers thanks to my training at the mental illness centers for 20 years. I always felt ugly and awkward since my teens. Then the shrink told me I was a crazy psycho too.

    “But no” says Dr. Quackenbush. “I don’t like the words ‘crazy’ or ‘psycho’ since they undermine the validity of the branch of hard medical science which I practice.” All about HIS career. Of course.

    But he knows “bipolar” and “schizophrenia” mean dangerous/murderous/evil. They are moral judgments and if he doesn’t know that he’s the only one who hasn’t caught on.

    Maybe we should just look at behaviors themselves. “Bipolar” is basically meaningless. Breaking a nose, screaming vile names, locking someone in a room…you don’t need a shrink’s diagnosis to know these behaviors are unacceptable.

    And if your partner acts that way you don’t need a shrink to diagnose YOU because you’re depressed or anxious! Get out of dodge. Find a way to escape the abuser. You need all your mental faculties–and your anxiety to escape. Fight or flight is a normal response to emotional games or threats of physical harm.

    Calling it a disease is an insult and dismisses how horrible your situation is.

    The more “educated” in psychiatry a counselor–or just about anybody is–the worse they treat those branded “severely mentally ill.” That’s why I will never see anyone who believes in the DSM again.

    I received some helpful advice in interviews with Will Hall during withdrawal. He’s uncertified by any of the mental illness factories. That only added to his value in my opinion.

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  5. You can read “The Yellow Wall-Paper” by Charlotte Perkins online for free at Gutenberg or in downloadable PDF format.

    How the Experts try to “help” the POV character:

    1. They cut her off from everybody.
    2. They prevent her from working.
    3. They encourage her in idleness–tell her to lie in bed all day thinking about how insane she is.
    4. They patronize her–treating an intelligent, rational adult like a child or developmentally delayed person.
    5. Sensory deprivation.
    6. When she complains of depression and how intolerable the situation is, her doctor husband tells her, “That’s just your illness talking.”

    But things have changed now they say.
    Here’s how:
    1. They brand you with a new “mentally ill” identity so you get cut off from friends and family.
    2. They actively discourage you from working. The drugs and discrimination play a role. (Never ask for reasonable accommodations for you “mental illness”! They kept telling me to do that. Bad advice and I think they knew it.)
    3. They only encourage “peer” activities. Weekly “groups” at the mental illness center and NAMI meetings to discuss your “symptoms” and talk about how hopelessly crazy you are.
    4. They patronize you. Treating you like a child or developmentally delayed person even though you’re an intelligent, rational adult.
    5. They put you on drugs that dull your senses.
    6. When you complain of depression and how intolerable your life situation is, the Experts say, “That’s just your mental illness talking.”

    Yep. Things are so much better now. 😛

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    • A word of encouragement.
      Charlotte Perkins was cured from her “hysteria” by rejecting her role as a madwoman and made a new life for herself doing work that brought her satisfaction.
      This is the cure I’m trying now. Sadly my body is damaged and I have real disabilities.

      But I’m no longer acting like a “bipolar” because I relocated and went off the “meds” that caused my mood swings to start with.

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  6. “Mental illness, according to the World Health Organization, will become the planet’s most common illness in the next two decades, meaning it is crucial to recognize the history of how women and feminism have impacted current debates and can continue to do so in the future.”

    I’d have thought it crucial that the World Health Organisation recognised that there is no such thing as “mental illness”, it’s a metaphor. Or are the changing climate conditions that are resulting in it raining cats and dogs going to impact the amount of veterinary services the world requires?

    Lets hope there’s someone there smart enough to figure out the difference between drug dealing/human rights abuses and real medicine, with illnesses and disease.

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  7. What’s with the italics?

    Anyway, there were indeed radical anti-psychiatry women in the 1970’s mental patients liberation movement. One of their primary targets for criticism were so-called “feminist therapists,” as well as “radical therapists” in general. In fact the movement of psychiatric inmates and ex-inmates largely came from a split within the “Radical Therapist” collective and rejection of the professional “model.”

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  8. So glad to see the topic of this article. Dr. Phyllis Chesler indeed deserves massive praise and respect, and her book — which is not mentioned in Lucas’s article — WOMEN AND MADNESS — is THE pioneering classic of feminist critique of the mental health system and remains all too true today. So do her MANY other courageous books (do google her and see the vast array of important subjects).
    And Chesler was one of the dynamic founders of the Association for Women in Psychology, which was an intensely activist organization whose activist roots are currently being revived — see and especially the information about its Activism Caucus.
    The recently deceased Dr. Bonnie Burstow has also been a tireless and inventive critic of the traditional mental health system and deserves mention.

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