Rethinking Mental Health and Disorder: Feminist Perspectives

Rethinking Mental Health and Disorder: Feminist Perspectives

by Mary Ballou

This volume presents work at the interface of feminist theory and mental health. The editors a stellar array of contributors to continue the vital process of feminist theory building and critique.  See more details below


This volume presents work at the interface of feminist theory and mental health. The editors a stellar array of contributors to continue the vital process of feminist theory building and critique.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This very important book will change the way we construe and work with so-called 'mental illness.' It will help theorists and therapists better understand how considering person and environment is basic to working with severely distressed clients. Reading this book with an open mind will make a difference in your thinking, your writing, and your effectiveness with clients, both women and men. I could not recommend it more highly."--Allen E. Ivey, EdD, ABPP, Department of Psychology (Emeritus), University of Massachusetts

"This provocative volume challenges mainstream ideas about personality and psychopathology that are narrow in perspective, regressively biological, or inattentive to context. Instead, it gives emphasis to relationship, identities, multiple influences, and different ways of knowing to build theories that are relevant to diverse groups. Gender and culture matter, in both theory and practice! Calling into question the pathologizing of distress and difficulty, the authors reexamine human resilience and experience in order to honor and help in ways that are liberating and relevant. This book is a 'must' for graduate-level courses on feminism and theories of human behavior."--Jean Lau Chin, EdD, ABPP, CEO Services, Newton, MA

"This book is at the cutting edge of the field of feminist psychology, indeed at the cutting edge of the newest developments in psychological theory. It offers critique as well as new avenues for the development of theory and research. The editors have assembled a group of outstanding theoreticians and practitioners, selecting authors who are both knowledgeable and creative. The book will be an excellent addition to the reading lists of graduate courses in the psychology of women and personality theory, and an invaluable reference for feminist scholars."--Oliva M. Espin, PhD, Department of Women's Studies, San Diego State University

As evolutionary and biological theories of psychology gain prominence, not incidentally buttressing conservative political agendas and the profits of pharmaceutical corporations, a number of feminist and other critics have objected that the experience of oppression and the sources of resilience arising from structures of gender, culture, class, race, and sexuality continue to play a major role in how normal and abnormal are construed by mainstream mental health professions. Ballou (counseling psychology, Northeastern U.) and Brown (psychology, Argosy U.) present eleven chapters in which these critics discuss both the feminist critique of normative psychology and present new perspectives on "psychopathologies." Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR

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Rethinking Mental Health and Disorder

Feminist Perspectives

The Guilford Press

Copyright © 2002 The Guilford Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-57230-799-4

Chapter One

Unfinished Business

Postmodern Feminism in Personality Psychology

Jeanne Marecek

Psychologists have set about describing the true nature of women with a certainty and a sense of their own infallibility rarely found in the secular world.... Psychology has nothing to say about what women really are like, what they need, and what they want, essentially because psychology does not know. -Weisstein (1971, pp. 207, 209)

Theories of feminine personality were easy targets for the ire of second-wave feminists inside and outside psychology. Indeed, the history of psychology amply justifies Weisstein's scorn. As the first wave of feminism was cresting, Grant Allen declared women to be "the sex sacrificed to reproductive necessities," the "passive transmitters" of the gains in human civilization produced by men (1889, p. 258). He summed up the distinction between the sexes succinctly: "All that is distinctly human is man ...; all that is truly woman ... is merely reproductive" (p. 263).

Writing at the height of the campaign for women's suffrage, Joseph Jastrow (1915) devoted a lengthy section to male-female differences in his personality textbook Character and Temperament. In Jastrow's account, woman was little more than a uterussurrounded by a supporting personality. He was persuaded that the "divergent anatomy and physiology of sex" gave rise to a host of male-female dichotomies, including male reason and female emotion.

In contrast to claims about female personality grounded in reproductive biology, psychoanalysis offered theories based on girls' early experience. At least in theory, psychoanalysis offered possibilities for multiple developmental pathways, diverse feminine personalities, and female sexual subjectivity. But this multiplicity did not survive in the reworking of psychoanalysis in the postwar United States. Representations of feminine personality in American popular culture during the 1950s enshrined such psychoanalytic concepts as penis envy, the weeping womb, and female masochism. Writers took as inevitable the inferiority of women's character, moral fiber, and mental stability. Popular accounts of feminine personality were prescriptive as well, insisting that for women, heterosexuality, monogamy, marriage, and motherhood were essential conditions for normality, maturity, and fulfillment. A runaway best-seller of the era was Modern Woman: The Lost Sex by Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia Farnham (1947). The authors claimed that wartime participation in paid work had "masculinized" women, reducing them to a "bundle of anxieties" and generating an epidemic of neurosis, delinquency, and disordered emotions throughout society.

Sexist claims about female psychology did not go unchallenged. In the early 20th century, feminist psychologists such as Helen Thompson Woolley and Leta Stetter Hollingworth spoke out forcefully against what they regarded as bogus accounts of female psychology. Woolley, for example, assailed psychologists for "flagrant personal bias, logic martyred in the cause of supporting a prejudice, unfounded assertions, and even sentimental rot and drivel" (1910, p. 340). Hollingworth argued against the Darwinian claim that women's genetic makeup made them less likely than men to be highly creative or intelligent. A pacifist, she also spoke out against the nationalistic pronatalism of World War I propaganda. Later on, psychoanalytic theories also drew sharp criticism. Karen Horney and Clara Thompson, both revisionist psychoanalysts, argued that it was cultural pressures on women that lay behind the feminine personality patterns that their colleagues had attributed to the intrapsychic residue of early childhood. These pressures included social and economic dependence on men, the suppression of women's ambition, puritanical restrictions on female sexuality, and limited opportunities for self-expression and development (Horney, 1926/ 1967; Thompson, 1942). Horney (1926/1967) courageously took issue with the notion of penis envy, pointing out that the ideas on the subject put forth by male analysts resembled the "naïve assumptions" of small boys. In doing so, she challenged Freud as well as Karl Abraham, her own analyst and teacher. Horney paid a high price for her audacity: she was ostracized from the psychoanalytic communities in Berlin and in the United States (Garrison, 1981).

The stirrings of second-wave feminism prompted Daedalus to devote an issue to the subject "The Woman in America" in the spring of 1964. Erik Erikson's (1964) infamous paper "Inner and Outer Space: Reflections on Womanhood" was the lead article. Erikson saw himself as a champion of women. In his eyes, his was a positive view of female difference and an antidote to both the negative Freudian view and the wrongheaded claims emerging from the nascent women's movement. For Erikson, women's "inner space"-the "somatic design" that destined them to bear offspring-created a "biological, psychological and ethical commitment" to care for human life (1964, p. 586). This inner space was the key to women's identity and psychological development, as well as to their happiness. Charging that contemporary feminists were "moralistic," "volatile," and "sharp," Erikson dismissed calls for equality of the sexes. In his opinion, the clamor to expand women's presence in public life was a response to deep-seated anxieties about nuclear annihilation. Such a feminine presence could bring to public life ethical restraint, a commitment to peace, devotion to healing, and the nurturing values associated with home and family.

Second-wave feminists took issue with all these characterizations of women's psychology. By the mid-1970s, several volumes of collected papers challenged psychoanalytic claims about personality, psychopathology, and psychotherapy (Franks & Burtle, 1974; Miller, 1973; Strouse, 1974). This critical work gained momentum from the broad-based political movement behind it. Moreover, a cohort of feminist academics and practitioners stood ready to build upon it. At least to some extent, the organized presence of feminists staved off the professional isolation and ostracism that earlier feminists had endured. Indeed, these second-wave feminists took on the task of reforming the practice of psychotherapy and counseling more generally. They formulated sets of guidelines for curbing sexism in clinical practice that were promulgated by the American Psychological Association and by the Division of Counseling Psychology.

Feminist scholars of the 1970s also made signal conceptual and methodological advances. Anne Constantinople (1973), for example, pointed out that standard psychological tests had been constructed with masculinity and femininity as a single, bipolar continuum, making them mutually exclusive. Test takers were therefore forced to disavow masculinity in order to be categorized as feminine and vice versa. Building on Constantinople's critique, Sandra Bem (1974) devised a measure of masculinity and femininity (the Bem Sex Role Inventory) that permitted respondents to endorse mixtures of masculine and feminine attributes. Feminist researchers endeavored to reform knowledge-producing practices in psychology more generally. They drew up numerous guidelines for eliminating sexist biases in the design, execution, and interpretation of studies of male-female differences, as well as guidelines for eliminating sexist language.

The publication of Personality and Psychopathology: Feminist Reappraisals (Brown & Ballou, 1992) carried the feminist critical project further, with its contributors scrutinizing a variety of theoretical approaches to personality and psychopathology. The papers collected in that volume made it clear that psychoanalysis was not unique in incorporating biases against women. (Nor indeed were psychoanalytic theories always and necessarily incompatible with feminism.) Moreover, by 1992, diverging points of view had emerged within feminist scholarship. Various theories of feminine personality had both their champions and their opponents, as did various approaches to therapy, various methods of producing knowledge, and varying ideologies of feminism. Feminist personality theory had become-and remains-an arena for vibrant, sometimes fierce, critical interchange and rigorous debate.


In this chapter, I describe developments in postmodern psychology and critical psychology. These movements offer feminists additional critical tools to rethink gender, personality, and psychopathology. Postmodernists are skeptical of received truths and taken-for-granted frames of reference. In the postmodern view, knowledge is never innocent, but always valueladen and predicated on specific sociopolitical conditions that it serves to legitimize. Postmodern inquiry points up the power of discourse-utterances, interactions, and practices-to produce consensual reality and a shared arena of public conduct. Discourse both regulates and constitutes consciousness. It constitutes what we know to be the body, conscious and unconscious mind, and emotional life (Weedon, 1987). The dynamics of power in everyday social life are another site of postmodern inquiry. This power "from the bottom" is ubiquitous and far-reaching. Indeed, what Foucault referred to as "Power/Knowledge" complicates our ideas of freedom. Whether or not we are subject to relations of force ("power from above"), we are implicated in the webs of power circulating through language. The critical psychology movement turns its eye on psychology as a cultural institution, studying how cultural knowledge flows into psychology and how psychological knowledge circulates back through culture, shoring up the status quo and legitimating prevailing power structures (Fox & Prilleltensky, 1997).

For many feminists, postmodernism and critical psychology have been important allies. They have provided valuable resources for continuing the tradition of critique that originated with first-wave feminists like Helen Thompson Woolley. But by and large, in the United States, feminist psychologists have been wary of (and often hostile to) these movements, hurling brickbats like "jargon mongers," "number-phobics," and "antiscience types." The Psychology of Women Quarterly (PWQ), our flagship journal, has maintained an official stance that is resolutely opposed to postmodernism. In 1995, the incoming editor set the journal's policy on an exclusionary course: "As a scientific journal, PWQ provides a voice for a side of feminist psychology that we want to preserve in this age of postmodernism.... PWQ is a research journal with an empirical, scientific tradition that is centered in the discipline of psychology" (Russo, 1995, pp. 1, 2).

In 2000, the policy statement of the new editor, entitled "PWQ: Feminist Empiricism for the New Millennium," renewed and hardened this stance: "Nancy Russo argued rightly that PWQ is the scientific voice in feminist psychology. As feminists, the new Editorial Board remains committed to the idea that 'PWQ is a research journal with an empirical, scientific tradition that is centered in the discipline of psychology'" (White, 2000, p. 1).

How odd that a journal's editors would proudly announce their aim of keeping out innovation! How odd that preserving a single mode of producing knowledge for a full decade would be elevated to a feminist ideal. The later editorial policy goes on to invite "diversity" in journal submissions, but the examples of diversity it gives are quite staid: "articles with male participants, articles using older data bases, and articles using qualitative methods" (White, 2000, p. 1).

The description of PWQ as a journal of "feminist empiricism" suggests that its resistance to postmodern psychology stems not only from resistance to innovation, but also from an unexamined residue of a timeworn tradition in psychology. Empiricism is the epistemological stance that all knowledge originates in experience and observation, without the aid of theory or received knowledge. From early on, American psychology was dominated by an empiricist bias toward data gathering to the exclusion of introspection, theory, and reflection. James McKeen Cattell, who championed experimentalism, connected the production of "hard" data in the laboratory to the ideals of masculine "hardness," muscularity, vigor, and physical exertion embodied in the "New Man" movement; in contrast, he viewed reflection, contemplation, and theory building as passive and therefore associated with femininity and even effeminacy. It is ironic to find Cattell's sexist dichotomy unwittingly echoed by prominent feminist psychologists (e.g., Hyde, 1995; Weisstein, 1993). The latter, for example, has dismissed postmodernism as a "swamp of self-referential passivity" and a "cult of high retreat" (Weisstein, 1993, p. 244).

In short, postmodern ideas have had only limited circulation in U.S. feminist psychology, even while they have flowered in women's studies, in other social sciences, and in feminist psychology in other national contexts. Moreover, these ideas have often been seen through the distorting lens of positivism. The editors of this volume, Mary Ballou and Laura Brown, asked me to discuss "postpostmodernism," that is, the directions that feminist psychology might take after postmodernity. In pondering their charge, I came to believe that we in this country have only scratched the surface of what feminist postmodernism can offer to the study of personality and psychopathology. Much of this chapter, therefore, takes up the unfinished business of postmodern personality theory.


Postmodern psychology has encompassed a broad array of initiatives and ideas. I describe those that seem especially fruitful for feminists working in personality psychology and psychopathology.

Interrogating Psychology's Constructs

Evelyn Fox Keller (1995) has described gender as "a silent organizer of discursive maps of the social and natural world ... even of those worlds women never enter." We can pose two questions about how gender silently organizes the discursive map of psychology:

How does gender, in concert with other categories of social hierarchy, organize the discourse of psychology?

How do the resulting psychological constructs serve to distribute power and resources unequally across the social landscape?

Feminists have shown that many personality constructs have been conceptualized in gender-biased ways.


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Meet the Author

Mary Ballou, PhD, is Professor and Director of the Counseling Psychology Program at Northeastern University. Within the master's counseling psychology program, she has created a curriculum that encourages students to select such interdisciplinary concentrations as Culture, Gender, and Political Psychology. Within the doctoral program, she has been a leader in developing an ecological model that supports structural analysis, interdisciplinarity, and paradigm change for the combined counseling and school psychology program. Dr. Ballou also practices feminist psychology in counseling and consulting. She is coeditor (with Laura S. Brown) of Personality and Psychopathology: Feminist Reappraisals.
Laura S. Brown, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at the Washington School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University, in Seattle. She has also maintained a practice of feminist psychotherapy, forensic psychology, and consultation in Seattle since 1979. She has written extensively on issues of feminist practice, including diagnosis and assessment, feminist forensic practice, ethics and boundary issues, psychotherapy with lesbians, trauma and memory of abuse, and theory in feminist therapy. Dr. Brown has published over 120 articles and book chapters and 6 edited or authored books, and has received numerous awards for her contributions to research and practice.

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