The Influence of Second Wave Feminism
on Applied Psychology

Shona Cekelis
Simon Fraser University

Feminism has had an effect on every sphere of human activity through the examination and evaluation of the limits of traditional gender roles on both women and men. The influence of feminism on applied psychology, ie. therapy and counselling for women, will be examined by looking at the effect of sex roles on mental health; criticism of traditional therapies; formulation of alternative therapies; and consideration of ethics. It was not until the second wave in the 1960s that feminism made a substantial impact on psychology and, therefore, the focus of this paper will be on the literature that came out in the 1970s.

Sex Roles and Psychological Well-being: The Double Bind

One area of applied psychology influenced by feminism was research on sex roles. In the early 1970s studies were done that looked at the connection between sex roles and clinical concepts of mental health (Pyke, 1981). In particular, there was a series of studies conducted by Inge et al which found that clinical judgements of mental health were different for women and men. These judgements reflected traditional sex-role stereotypes; and, what was judged to be a healthy ideal for an adult (sex unspecified) was more similar to a healthy man than a healthy woman (Broverman, Broverman, Clarkson, Rosencrantz, & Vogel, 1970). Broverman et al (1970) argued that while it may not have seemed important that judgements of mental health were parallel with stereotypical sex roles for men and women, it was important in light of the "powerful negative assessment of women" revealed by the content of the traits identified (Broverman et al, 1970, p.4). For example, healthy women, as opposed to healthy men, were considered to be more submissive, less adventurous, more easily influenced, less aggressive, less competitive, more excitable in minor crises, more emotional, more conceited about appearance, less objective and disliking of math and science (Broverman et al, 1970).

The major implication of the double standard of mental health was that it left women in a double bind: if a woman was to be healthy as an adult then she would be unhealthy as a woman; and if she was to be healthy as a woman then she would be considered unhealthy as an adult (Broverman et al, 1970; Kimball, 1975). This suggested that perhaps the traditional female sex role itself had negative effects on women's mental health (Broverman et al, 1970; Woolsey, 1977). Lorette Woolsey (1977) found that femininity was incompatible with the socially highly valued items of competence and individual achievement and that this lead to ambivalence, fear of success, guilt and anxiety in women (Woolsey, 1977). Meredith Kimball (1975) looked at how the social roles of women, ie. housewife and mother were not conducive to women's mental health. For example, women were often socialized to be dependent on their role as wife for a sense of identity thereby losing a sense of independence after marriage (Kimball, 1975).

Why a Double Standard?

As for reasons why there was a double standard of mental health, one possibility was social desirability. Broverman et al (1970) discussed that while there is not much support for applying different standards of mental health to women and men based on biological differences, there was support that it is more socially desirable to have masculine traits. Woolsey (1977) also touched on social desirability when discussing how the socially valued items of competence and individual achievement were incompatible with the female sex role. Just looking at the profile of a 'healthy' woman as cited in the Broverman study previously, it is no small wonder the profile for a healthy man was more desirable.

Kimball (1975) suggested that the double standard of mental health exists because it is the power group in society, ie. White, middle class men, who determine the standard. The implication of this is that those who are outside the dominant power group will be compared to it with the result that the outsiders are either considered inferior, as in the case of the Broverman findings, or superior, as in the exaltation of the virtues of motherhood (Kimball, 1975). Either way, it leaves the power group as the standard to which everyone else is compared. Kimball (1975) noted that while there were plenty of criticisms levelled at the debilitating effects of stereotypes on women, not as much attention was paid to the effects of stereotypes on men. This lack of concern indicates that the concept of masculinity was assumed to be superior.

Another reason suggested for the double standard is it may have been due to defining mental health in terms of adjustment (Broverman et al, 1970). Using adjustment to define mental health was considered problematic (Broverman et al, 1970; David, 1975; Griffith, 1975; Kimball, 1975). One problem is with the concept of adjustment itself, which holds that a person is healthy if well adjusted to the social environment (Broverman et al, 1970). This assumes that the problems of an individual are strictly due to internal reasons without questioning the role of external forces. This was a problem for women, as the social environment they were supposed to adjust to was one in which they inferior, a position that is not conducive to mental health, and as noted before may have led to problems in the first place (Kimball, 1975). Another problem with adjustment is that it creates conflict for women between the social ideal that everyone has equal opportunity, and the social reality that there are strong social pressures for people to conform to sex role stereotypes (Broverman et al, 1970). An alternative and more inclusive way to look at mental health is to emphasize self-actualization which may involve rejecting, redefining or staying with the female role depending on what the individual decides is best (Kimball, 1975).

Criticism of Traditional Therapies

The double standard of mental health as identified by Broverman et al (1970) also had implications for therapy because it was therapists in clinical settings who had created the mental health profiles. There were a number of criticisms levelled at traditional therapies. One concern was that sexist therapists may perpetuate and reinforce social and intrapersonal conflict for female clients especially in light of the negative attitude toward women (Broverman et al, 1970; David, 1975). Some suggested that therapy was intrinsically sexist because there were more male that female therapists. This essentialist and simplistic criticism did not hold up because the double standard of mental health was found in both female and male therapists (Delehanty, 1979). Psychological theoretical orientation was criticized for placing too much emphasis on the individual and not enough on social context despite the support of social psychology studies at the time which focused on the importance of social context in determining behaviour (David, 1975). Also, most traditional theories were criticized for being inherently sexist in orientation, Freudian psychoanalysis being the most obvious example (David, 1975; Delehanty, 1979; Pyke, 1981).

Alternative Therapies

As a response to the criticisms and inadequacies of traditional therapies, there was an effort to create alternatives for women (David, 1975; Griffith, 1975; Pyke, 1981). This involved an attempt to address the concepts of mental health as well as possible sexist bias within the therapist.

One alternative created was feminist therapy, cited as being more of an orientation than a specific set of techniques and which differed slightly from therapist to therapist (David, 1975; Griffith, 1975; Pyke, 1980). A feminist therapist was not simply non-sexist but was informed of feminist ideas (Griffith, 1975). One of the most important ideas was taking the emphasis off of the individual and looking at the broader social and political context (David, 1975; Griffith, 1975). Thus the therapist had to be socially and politically aware to help decrease self-blame and encourage social change (David, 1975), and there was an emphasis on group therapy rather than individual counselling (David, 1975; Griffith, 1975). Also important was to openly state the values that were operating within the therapeutic process, these included a holistic and integrative approach that avoided polarizing such concepts as masculine and feminine, personal and political, mind and body (Griffith, 1975). Another important value that was integrated into this orientation was egalitarianism, an attempt to avoid the traditional power differential between therapist and client (Griffith, 1975). Feminist therapy used self-actualization to define mental health rather than adjustment (Pyke, 1981). Among the goals of feminist therapy were for women to become more socially and politically aware and work toward social change rather than simply adjust to the environment (David, 1975; Griffith, 1975). Also important was to stress that women could be as competent as men (David, 1975). As a way to further foster competence and independence, career planning was emphasized as an important factor in therapy, promoting consideration of such things as income potential and opportunity for advancement so as to avoid delegation to the female job ghetto (David, 1975). Other alternatives to traditional therapy for women were not necessarily forms of therapy per se, but were therapeutic in process, for example consciousness raising groups, female encounter groups, body awareness programmes and women's studies courses (David, 1975; Griffith, 1975; Kimball, 1975).

Feminist alternatives to therapy involved both of what Kimball (1995) refers to as the similarities and differences traditions. Operating within the 'similarities' tradition was encouraging the development of typical male traits such as competence and career planning. Operating within the 'differences' tradition was including traits traditionally associated with women such as working cooperatively in groups as a way to revalue typically devalued female traits.

The Androgyny Construct

A further development in feminist therapy was the introduction of the androgyny construct (Pyke, 1980). It was proposed as a way to address the lack of agreement within feminist therapies and as an attempt to provide an integrative framework (Pyke, 1980). Whereas the aims of earlier feminist therapy combined both similarities and differences to varying degrees, the androgyny construct offered a more structured approach. The androgyny construct psychologist Sandra Pyke proposed was based on the work of Sandra Bem who developed an operational definition of androgyny in terms of the Bem Sex Role Inventory (Pyke, 1980). Bem defined female and male traits on an orthogonal dimension rather than as polarities on a continuum (Pyke, 1980). An androgynous person had a full range of traditional female and male traits such as nurturance, compassion, tenderness, sensitivity, affiliativeness, and cooperativeness on the female dimension; and aggressiveness, leadership, initiative, and competitiveness on the male dimension (Pyke, 1980; Tong, 1989). The goals of therapy were to integrate repressed or unlearned traits that were typical of the opposite sex (Pyke, 1980; Tong 1989).

In support of the androgyny construct was Bem's contention, based on both her own research and review of the literature, that androgynous individuals were brighter, more accomplished, and more adaptable than those who scored high in either femininity or masculinity (Pyke, 1980; Tong, 1989). Thus, it seems that the androgynous sex role orientation was conducive to psychological well-being for both women and men (Pyke, 1980).

Androgyny is a tricky concept though, because traits that are considered traditional to either sex role are defined according to current cultural stereotypes that are further influenced by race, ethnicity and class (Tong, 1989). The androgyny construct is going to be different depending on these various influences and will change with time. It seems likely that stereotypes of female and male roles as well as what would constitute an androgynous person are probably different today than they were in the seventies. Another consideration is that advocating androgyny as a goal could take a different form depending on the individual and what constitutes a satisfactory sense of self-actualization for that individual. Rosemary Tong (1989) notes the distinction between monoandrogyny, the development of a single personality type that has the best of current feminine and masculine traits; and polyandrogyny, the development of many personality types some being totally feminine, others being totally masculine and still others being a mix of both. It seems like the androgyny construct as a model of mental health proposed by Pyke did not leave much room for polyandrogyny. This points to the possibility that androgyny might be replacing one stereotype with another by prescribing an ideal (Pyke, 1981).

Ethical Considerations

Another example of the effect feminism had on applied psychology was the development of the Guidelines for Therapy and Counselling with Women by the Canadian Psychology Association (CPA) Status of Women Committee which were approved and adopted by the CPA in 1980. The purpose of the guidelines was to clarify the ethical standards of the CPA as they applied to. The guidelines reflected some of the values that were part of feminist therapy. For example, the need for therapists to be aware of the broader social context and its possible effect on women as well as the need to be sensitive to theoretical orientations that may be inherently sexist (Guidelines, 1980).

One criticism levelled against the guidelines was that the general ethical standards of the CPA should be good enough for everyone and that there really was no need to consider a special interest group. This was countered by using illustrative cases as part of the guidelines to support the assertion that there was, indeed, a need for them (Guidelines, 1980). Further, it was noted that therapists were not always aware of their of own possible biases and discriminatory practices in treatment. Also, because of the power differential in the therapist-client relationship there was a potential for abuse that was especially great for disadvantaged groups such as women (Guidelines, 1980).

This examination of research on the concepts of mental health and therapies from the 1970s is encouraging to me because it indicates that there has been some change. For example, career planning for women is a given these days, not a special consideration. It is important to note that most feminist orientations see traditional sex roles as limiting and potentially hurtful to both women and men. The emphasis here was on women as they are the ones whose concerns were not being adequately addressed by traditional models of therapy. Ultimately, examining gender roles and conceiving of alternate visions that broaden the ideas about what it means to be a human being is beneficial to everyone.


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