Feminist Therapy


Feminist family therapy grew out
of the second wave of feminism that began in the 1960s and 70s.
So many people contributed to this model that it is impossible
to identify one person as its founder. The main principles of
the model focus on the personal as political, valuing the voice
and perspectives of women as well as men, challenging sex-
role stereotyping, and forming egalitarian relationships in
both families and the therapeutic process. Feminism
came late to a consideration of multiculturalism and an
appreciation of cultural diversity. The early proponents
of feminism were often white, middle class women who wanted to
escape the bondage of societal patriarchy. Women of color and
lesbians challenged the “one-feminism-fits-all” and
initiated a broadening of respect for all marginalized
people and cultures. In this video, Dr. Patricia Robertson, a
feminist therapist and Professor of Counseling at East Tennessee
State University, works with an African American family
consisting of a single parent and her two adult children. This
demonstration highlights therapeutic interventions in
which the voices of women are valued; sex-roles are challenged
both within relationships and at work; concerns are
de-pathologized and reframed; and the personal experiences of
the women are validated. Pat: Good morning. I’m
interested in getting to know all of you and find out why you
are here and what your hopes are. And one of you called for
an appointment: Who did that? tacy:I did. I wanted to get
some help for my mom. at:Okay, can you tell me more
about that, Stacy? Stacy:ell, she had just ended a
relationship with this man who was like her partner for over
four years. We all thought they would get married, but she ended
it, and she was really sad for a long time, like over a month she
was sad. It took us a while to get here. I don’t know if she’s
sad any more, but she was sad. at:Okay, so what do you hope
for her? Stacy: just want her to be happy. Pat:nd how about
for yourself? tacy:I want me to be happy too. Pat:kay,
that’s good. What do you think about your mom in that
relationship? What’s your perception about that?
tacy:Well, she was happy with him for a long time. I mean, he
stuck around longer than most men do. I just think she has a
problem with picking men. at:How about for the two of
you: Has him being out of your life been significant? Stacy:
liked him okay. I just want my mom to be happy? Pat:ow about
you, Jessica? essica:I didn’t really like him. He always
needed her time and attention, and I kind of lost her when he
was around. at:(Turning to the mother) Right. Lee, I’m
hearing a little bit from your daughters: I am wondering how
it’s affecting you to hear? Stacy has a little bit of a
perception, it sounds like, that you have a flawed picking
mechanism when it comes to men; and I’m hearing Jessica say that
somehow they lose you when men are in your life, that they
don’t have you around as much. How is it for you to hear that?
ea:First of all, she’s always saying that. I guess I wouldn’t
call it a “flawed picking mechanism.” Probably I have this
Mother Theresa kind of syndrome where I’m always bringing in
“wounded dogs.” I kind of see something in them, or they’re
attracted to me for various reasons. The relationship starts
out good. We’re both giving equally, and there’s mutual
respect. And then, after a while I am doing all of the giving,
all the nurturing, and I just get tired of it and let it go.
at:So tell me more about the more recent man you’ve been
involved with: What was his name? ea:Ralph. Pat:alph,
okay. Tell me some about when you met him and how you decided
to partner with him. Lea:hen I met him, I was attracted to
him, first of all, because he was kind of quiet. I like to
talk. So that was good; he did a lot of listening, He was very
supportive of what I said And most important, he wasn’t
insecure about me being educated and a strong, assertive Black
woman. That was really interesting. That really
attracted me to him. He was very supportive of my career and
where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. I liked that in
him. Pat:’ll bet you did. So, actually, what I am hearing is
that you fell in love with a man, who was respectful and
caring and showed support for you. You even saw some nurturing
in him. And . . . you had hope: You really has some hope that it
would be a good relationship. ea:Yeah, I did. Yeah, I did.
But after a while, it got to the point where I was doing all the
caring, all the nurturing. I think he kind of began to take
me for granted, like I was always the one supposed to do
this. I was always the one supporting. He was “needy.” I
had needs too, but I was always the one fulfilling his needs.
at:Yeah. Well, another thing that I hear in there is that
it’s not that, at least in my perception, it’s not that you
saw a man that you knew was needy and that you knew was not
care for you or wouldn’t be supportive. But you actually saw
a man who was loving, gentle, kind, and supportive. And you
fell in love with him. When those things started shifting,
you actually had the courage to get out. Stacy said that there’s
been multiple men in your life, that have been in your life and
then out of your life. My guess is that that courage has been
something that you’ve shown over and over. When things are not
the way they seem at the beginning, you walk away from
them. ea:Yeah, I do. I really would like, not an equal
partnership, but at least not to be the one who’s always giving
more. I need to be able to get something back at some time.
at:Yeah, okay. How is it for you to think about the idea of
being courageous, that instead of you having a “flawed picking
mechanism,” that you’re a woman who picks men who look like
they’re actually going to be good partners for you, and then
when they’re not-Wow!-you have lots of courage, and you get
out. Lea:Standing) Oh, I’ve got lots of courage! I feel like
Wonder Woman when I get my courage back and my strength
back. It’s me again. at:(Smiling, almost laughing
with Lea) Yeah. I like that! So where in your body do you feel
that? ea:(Sitting again) Oh, I feel it all over. Like I said,
I’m energized. It’s exciting. It’s me. Like I have thrown off
this shell. You know turtles go out their shell: I’m just me
again. It feels good. at:How is it for you all to hear your
mom say that and to think about it in that way? essica:I can
think of the time when you were strong, when you were applying
for the vice president position at the bank. Lea:eah, I can
remember that too. I was the internal candidate for this vice
president’s position. I think I was the best candidate. I had
all the credentials, and I felt really good going into it,
applying for it. But then I began to hear some things my
colleagues were saying. Like, oh well, I was playing the race
card. I was using that as an advantage. And it began to
affect me, because I think, gosh, I been working with these
people all this time, and they know my credentials, they know
what I can do, and they know my capabilities. Here, suddenly,
I’m playing the race card. My assertiveness is coming out as
something I don’t really deserve or earn. And it kind of affected
me for a while. Then I began to think, “You know, you just need
to tell them where to go”; but I said “no,” I need to get through
this interview. So I went to the interview and did my best. But
it kind of changed how I saw my colleagues from then on.
at:So, hearing the accusation about the “race card” affected
you: I am sure it was hurtful. ea:It was hurtful, because I
worked with these people. They knew what I could do. at:And
even though you wanted to challenge them on that, in some
ways, you stayed silent, because you also work with them
everyday, and you wanted to keep on getting along with them. And
it didn’t stop you from moving ahead: Again, your strength; it
didn’t stop you from saying, “I’m not going to buy into this
in a way that keeps me from pursuing the goals that I want
to pursue. Lea:ight. I think I’m strongest when someone tells
me I can’t do something: Especially when I know it’s
something I can do and something I want to do. So I just kind of
kept quiet to kind of maintain a good work environment, and just
went on doing my own thing. at:Yeah, that makes sense to
me. And I know that you-and Stacy and Jessica-know this as
well or better than I do, but, you know, when you’re a member
of the non-dominant culture, then actually from birth, oft
times the message is given that you’re less than, that you’re
not as good as. And I think that part of what happens with that
message is that we pathologize people who are not members of
the dominant culture, and we put the pathology on them. Like, you
know, Lea, with you, your pathology is you’re choosing men
who are not good men, so you have a faulty choosing
mechanism. Or at the bank, for example, you’re playing the race
card; and so then, we start focusing on what’s wrong with
you-you’re playing the race card. And we miss the
conversations that may be even more important: The
conversations, for example, at the bank, why are their not more
women in positions of power? Why are there not more women of
color in positions of power? We can postpone that conversation
and focus on the conversation about you playing the race card.
Are there other experiences that you all have had that have been
similar to that? Stacy:eah, I’m just starting my career, and
I never feel like it’s just me: I feel like I have to be
representative of all Black women. It was like that in
college. There were very few Black classmates and virtually
no Black professors. Anytime I was absent from class, even a
large class, everyone knew the Black girl was missing. If I did
poorly on a test, then that meant that-that was evidence
that I didn’t belong. If I did good on a test, then oh, that
was from the extra help I was receiving. So, yeah . . .
at:So that’s a burden you carry also. I am sure that in
that way you really understand and empathize with what’s
happening with your mom. Does it make sense to you, Stacy, in
that way of understanding, also, not only her work environment,
but in her personal life, that what’s happening in relation to
men, that instead of it being a weakness-that she is flawed in
her picking-that actually, the strength of her is that she gets
out when she finds out that the men are not good for her, or
good in her life. And we don’t move the conversation to maybe a
conversation about these men: Why can they not sustain the
nurturance and the support and the advocacy and the respect?
What happens to them that they can start out that way, but it
can’t be long term? tacy: Yeah, I didn’t think about it
like that before, but I do now. My mom’s a really strong woman.
at:Yes. I can see pride that both of you all, both of you all
have in her. Lea:ut it does kind of concern me that they may
think I have flawed picking mechanisms. I can understand, I
guess, that more so than the thing about race, because my
father died at an early age, and somehow, I kind of attribute
maybe I’m choosing these men because of some need I have that
was unfulfilled by not having my father growing up. And my girls’
father left when they were young, and I really don’t want
it to affect them. And I see that they have some concern. I
want to know if there is something in my picking
mechanism that they may be picking up and carrying on in
their lives, you know. at:Where have you gotten that
message, Lea, that maybe this came because you were desperate
to have a man in your life, because your dad left at an
early age? Lea:ell, I guess just always had a longing
growing up, you know, to be like the other families, to have a
mom and a dad, to have a father there who kind of watched out
over you and protected you. I felt that I kind of missed that,
and I wonder if my girls might have missed that too. at:
What about that? What role does that play in your lives?
essica:In general, I just feel men are hopeless. Stacy:
like men. I like boyfriends. I have a couple of them, but I
don’t want anything serious. at: You looked a little
surprised by that, Lea. ea:You have a couple of them?
tacy:Well, three actually. (Laughter) Lea:hree. And none
who’ve have been to dinner yet? at:Okay. So men are important
in your life, and you choose to keep them at a distance in some
ways. tacy:Right, because I like to do my own thing. I like,
you know, my own space. I like to do what I want to do with my
money and my time. You know, I enjoy their company, but I keep
them at a distance. at:And Jessica, I heard from you, in
your mind, you think men are hopeless. essica:Yeah.
at:Do you think that Lea’s worry about the fact that the
way she has related to men might affect you, does that seem real
to you? Is that a problem for you? Jessica: like what you
said earlier about our mom being strong. I think she has been a
great role model for my sister and I. I think part of the
problem is that when she commits herself to a relationship, she
puts her whole self into it, and sometimes she gets hurt now and
again, but that’s part of loving someone. Sometimes, you’ll get
hurt. (Turning to her mother) I just want to tell you, mom, that
you have nothing to worry about. You don’t have to worry about me
at all. tacy:Yes. That goes for me too. at:I am wondering
if the two of you can also show
that same-I guess, respect may
not be the word–but honor that with your mom too. It sounds to
me like you don’t have to worry about her either. Just honor
that she lost a relationship that was important to her, and
it’s affect you all also, but really to allow her a time of
grieving, and let that be what it is, and let her choose the
timeline and let her choose the sadness, to decide that for
herself. Do you feel like you can do that for her also?
tacy:Yes, this has been real beneficial for me. I see it in a
different light now. So, I believe I can do it the next
time. at:Well, I am really interested in us having more
conversations. And I think there’s a lot that I can learn
from you. And I really would love to bear witness to some of
the conversations. I know that, Jessica, you articulated that
especially being interested in talking more about men and maybe
why there’s an issue with commitment. So hopefully, we’ll
get to have more of these (conversations). Lea: hope
so, too. Thanks, girls, for dragging me in here. (Laughing)
tacy and Jessica:You’re welcome. Pat:t’s great to
meet you all. tacy and Jessica:ou, too. Pat:hanks. Jim: Well Pat Thank you very
much for the demonstration of feminist family therapy. I
really liked this video, it demonstrates feminist family
therapy’s commitment to working with families of color. It has a
number of different intervention processes that feminist family
therapists go through. I’m interested in knowing what you
liked about it, what was your favorite parts? Pat: First of
all, what a delightful family with whom to work, I mean it was
really fun to have the opportunity to do that with Lea,
Jessica and Stacy. I think the parts that I liked the most – I
think there was a good demonstration of galorteritism.
Of believing that the client is the expert on her or his life
and I think also there was that ability or the opportunity to
demonstrate the deep pathologizing of talking about,
instead of Lea, not having a good picking mechanism of really
relabeling that and thinking about that in a different way
and also the part where we talked about playing the race
card and how that is oft times pathologized for people of
color. I think reframing too, there was the opportunity to
reframe that in things that was happening in the daughters lives
and also reframing things that was happening in their mom’s
life and the way that they observed, that the way that they
experienced that. So those, well I guess there was one other
thing too that I think there was a good demonstration of and that
is collaboration. Jim: Sure. Pat: of the process Jim: In
honoring the voices of the women that were with you? Pat:
Absolutely! Jim: And I also liked very much the process by
which the roles of women and men within, especially the work
environment, were challenged Pat: Yes Jim: but also in
personal relationships. Pat: Yes, the traditional roles and
the challenge of that, absolutely, which is central in
feminist therapy. Jim: That’s great well, thank you very, very
much for doing this Pat: Your welcome. Jim: and it will be a
video, I think, that will be watched for a long time to come.
Pat: Yeah, thanks for the

Michael Martin

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