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The Myth of Empowerment: Women and the Therapeutic Culture in America

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The Myth of Empowerment surveys the ways in which women have been represented and influenced by the rapidly growing therapeutic culture—both popular and professional—from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. The middle-class woman concerned about her health and her ability to care for others in an uncertain world is not as different from her late nineteenth-century white middle-class predecessors as we might imagine. In the nineteenth century she was told that her moral virtue was her power; today, her power is said to reside in her ability to “relate” to others or to take better care of herself so that she can take care of others. Dana Becker argues that ideas like empowerment perpetuate the myth that many of the problems women have are medical rather than societal; personal rather than political.

From mesmerism to psychotherapy to the Oprah Winfrey Show, women have gleaned ideas about who they are as psychological beings. Becker questions what women have had to gain from these ideas as she recounts the story of where they have been led and where the therapeutic culture is taking them.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The Myth of Empowerment artfully documents 150 years of American efforts at self-improvement. Re-reading such sociological classics as Bellah, Lasch, Reiff, and Reissman, Becker expands (and sometimes explodes) their arguments by inserting women into their accounts of social life. Moving next to a savvy account of popular women-centered therapies arising out of the late 20th century feminism, Becker shows how they unwittingly incorporate some of the very premises that they repudiate. The Myth of Empowerment—delightfully informed by a witty sensibility, written with brio and clarity, and cast in elegant prose—is compelling reading.”

-Jeanne Maracek


“I was impressed with how the author marshaled this critical literature into a coherent and...compelling narrative.”
-Social Service Review


“Dana Becker writes that for the past few decades women have been encouraged to believe that by taking care of their psychological selves they are becoming ever more powerful. Not so. In this intelligent and chilling examination, Becker traces how the repackaging of the psychological as power has led to the ultimate colonization of women's psyches. She is a beautiful writer, an exacting historian of ideas, and a tremendously intelligent guide through these troubled waters.”
-Sharon Lamb,Professor of Psychology, Saint Michael's College and author of The Secret Lives of Girls and The Trouble with Blame

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814799253
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 2/1/2005
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Dana Becker is associate professor, Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. She has been in private practice of psychotherapy since 1989. She is the author of Through the Looking Glass: Women and Borderline Personality Disorder.

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction 1
2 In the self's country : individualism in America 17
3 Romancing the self : from mind cure to psychotherapy 36
4 American nervousness and the social uses of science 60
5 Long day's journey : from sentimental power to professional expertise 77
Interlude : feminism and the ongoing dialectic of equality versus difference 103
6 Psychological woman and the paradox of relational individualism 108
7 The myth of empowerment 136
8 American nervousness redux : women and the discourse of stress 169
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