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Posted by Katyayni Sharma

In 1925, a paper titled “The Psychical Consequences of the Anatomic Distinction Between the Sexes” was published. The paper stated that “women oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own”, thus reducing women entirely to their reproductive and sexual functions. The paper was published by Sigmund Freud, often considered the pioneer of modern therapy and a figure so profound in psychotherapy that his name rings synonymous to the very field of psychology. Freud was a man of his time, and true to the yesteryear common discourses, he vividly opposed women’s emancipation and viewed them as the sole product of their sexual reproductive cycles. This view still plagues much of the future work that has been done with respect to women, in psychotherapy as well as in medicine. It took fifteen years before Karen Horney, one of the first woman trained in the psychoanalytical school, questioned and critiqued Freud’s view of women, stating that his concept of ‘penis envy’ actually emerged from the discrimination women faced as children in households, as opposed to its Freudian origin in psychological complexes. Karen Horney, in her own way, gave birth to Psychoanalytical Feminism, which laid the foundation for Feminist therapy, a school acting as a bridge between the psychological distress experienced by women and their unique socio-economic location. 

Also read: Everybody Should Go To Therapy

Karen Horney, in her own way, gave birth to Psychoanalytical Feminism, which laid the foundation for Feminist therapy, a school acting as a bridge between the psychological distress experienced by women and their unique socio-economic location. 

The Origins Of Feminist Therapy 

Having emerged nearly sixty years ago, Feminist Therapy and Counseling seek to converge women’s psychology, developmental and cognitive psychology with social activism in a holistic therapeutic package. It emerged as a direct response to the gaps that were profoundly created by traditional schools of psychotherapy in their treatment of women’s distress and psychological disorders. In the first decade of its origin, Feminist Therapy excluded men from being both clients and practitioners, but the practice has now evolved and extended to any mental health practitioner who wishes to adopt a non-gendered and culturally fair approach towards understanding the client’s unique social and political position. Unlike other schools of psychological understanding, Feminist Therapy emerged from a growing social and political consciousness which came with the rise of Feminism. It is an outgrowth of the Feminist movement and is deeply linked with the intersectional school focusing on the impacts race, ethnicity and class have with relation to a to a person’s gender identity. 

Feminist therapy started in the 1960s USA, in the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, with the growing understanding that women were an oppressed group worldwide. Contemporary Feminist Therapy has emerged out of three critical parts of the Women’s Rights Movement: the Consciousness-Raising groups (CRs), the battered women shelters and the anti-rape movement. The CR groups were leaderless groups where women met and discussed their concerns and issues. The groups proved to be a fertile ground for the collective questioning of patriarchy and oppressive norms. Group solidarity proved cathartic and therapeutic in nature, which led to the dismissal of two common therapeutic notions. One, women’s distress was purely personal, something that emerged sporadically with no systemic outlook to it, and two, this distress could only be alleviated by an expert. The Consciousness-Raising groups laid the foundation for modern group therapy circles, a crucial part of Feminist Therapy. Parallel to this, the antirape movement and the battered women shelters were both indicative of the fact that the violence and oppression faced by women were systemic and a result of deep-rooted patriarchy, and hence they stood as a proof that a separate system of feminist therapy was needed to cater to the distressing needs emerging from them. 

The antirape movement and the battered women shelters were both indicative of the fact that the violence and oppression faced by women were systemic and a result of deep-rooted patriarchy, and hence they stood as a proof that a separate system of feminist therapy was needed to cater to the distressing needs emerging from them. Image Source: UNC Health Talk

The antirape movement and the battered women shelters were both indicative of the fact that the violence and oppression faced by women were systemic and a result of deep-rooted patriarchy, and hence they stood as a proof that a separate system of feminist therapy was needed to cater to the distressing needs emerging from them. 

 The Goals And Impacts Of Feminist Therapy 

The Second-Wave Feminist warcry of ‘Personal is Political’ forms the primary doctrine of modern Feminist Therapy. In feminist practice, there is no lasting personal change without social change. Each client is enmeshed in their unique socio-cultural location, attributed to them as a virtue of their gender identity, amongst others. The understanding is that the system of oppression which adds to the personal experiences of psychological distress in women needs to be addressed along with unique personal issues. Perhaps the most dynamic impact of Feminist Therapy can be seen in the emergence of Feminist Family Therapy. While Family Therapy has been a separate branch since the 1940s, the intersectional advent of the Feminist school into it, changed its outlook drastically. In Feminist therapy, the therapist questions all power structures rampant to the family systems, which are often considered intrinsic to a family. Feminist therapists help clients in understanding, questioning and changing these detrimental familial and gender roles which helps the clients in breaking generational cycles of oppression and systemic violence. 

Feminist Therapy is both personal and political. In theory, this seems like a direct extension of Feminism. But it is crucial to stop and introspect on the privileged and racially exclusive nature of Second-Wave Feminism which gave rise to the need of intersectionality. The earliest circles of feminist consciousness, as witnessed by the world at large emerged, were exclusively White, educated upper-class women. This influence continued in the Feminist Therapy school until the 1990s. The political element of the Feminist Therapy school is nuanced; it entails that individual women differ on the basis of caste, class, racial and ethnic circumstances. Some women are products of their privilege, while some are not. There is a greater demand today for Feminist Therapists to be inclusive and intersectional. This demand is beautifully highlighted by the maxim stating that “all women are women, there is no being who is only a woman”. (Spelman, 1988)

Feminist Therapy In India 

The mental health space in India has undergone a radical change in the past few decades with NGOs, civil society organizations and mental health practitioners all coming together to challenge the stigma associated with seeking help for distress. Parallel to this, the nation’s Feminist movement is also on a rise, with Feminist activists emerging as a powerful force in the public sphere. However, very little is researched or nuanced about the relationship between these two spheres. The overarching issues faced by womxn in India are similar to those discussed above. The collectivistic familial structure, the subservient position socially attributed to womxn, and the complete denial of a unique space for the impact of disorders specific to womxn are all factors that amplify their psychological distress and therefore, calls for a greater emphasis on Feminist Therapy in India.

The collectivistic familial structure, the subservient position socially attributed to womxn, and the complete denial of a unique space for the impact of disorders specific to womxn are all factors that amplify their psychological distress and therefore, calls for a greater emphasis on Feminist Therapy in India.

One factor which plays a crucial role in Indian Feminist Therapy space is the fact that womxn here are more likely to seek and get clinical interventions for mental health. Sociological and psychological research has shown that the general Indian notions of masculinities act as an inhibitor for men to seek help when they need it, hence reducing male seekers of psychological interventions. In practice, this has also misrepresented womxn as the primary subjects requiring improvements in mental health and better coping. The practitioners do not consider their unique social standing, thus limiting the statistical prevalence of womxn seeking interventions as mere proof of them needing more improvements. This is one way in which most practitioners in India replicate the socially sanctioned patriarchal notions prevalent in society, which puts the onus for well-being entirely on womxn. In this way, the scope of Feminist Therapy is quite limited in India.

Also read: Trust Me, Therapy Helps: Notes From A Recent Believer

While the only sustainable way of change is making sure that Feminist and intersectional approaches to therapy are adopted by practitioners in India, it is also important to note that the change is slow. Feminist Therapists are slowly emerging in the mental health space in India, especially in the space of family counseling, where there is a growing understanding that the problems faced by women in marriages are not always individual, they have a deep systemic patriarchal element to it. In its truest form, feminist therapy or counselling considers dominant social forces that impact the mental and emotional well-being of any subjugated person.


Katyayni is a recent graduate in Psychology and Political Science from LSR. She has worked extensively in the field of gender and SRHR, and her interests include poetry and languages. She can be found on Instagram and LinkedIn. She can be found on Instagram and Linkedin.

Featured Image Source: VeryWellMind.com

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