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date: 03 February 2023

Feminist Psychology in North Americafree

Feminist Psychology in North Americafree

  • Kate SheeseKate SheeseSigmund Freud University Berlin


Feminist psychology as an institutionalized field in North America has a relatively recent history. Its formalization remains geographically uneven and its institutionalization remains a contested endeavor. Women’s liberation movements, anticolonial struggles, and the civil rights movement acted as galvanizing forces in bringing feminism formally into psychology, transforming not only its sexist institutional practices but also its theories, and radically challenging its epistemological and methodological commitments and constraints. Since the late 1960s, feminists in psychology have produced radically new understandings of sex and gender, have recovered women’s history in psychology, have developed new historiographical methods, have engaged with and developed innovative approaches to theory and research, and have rendered previously invisibilized issues and experiences central to women’s lives intelligible and worthy of scholarly inquiry. Heated debates about the potential of feminist psychology to bring about radical social and political change are ongoing as feminists in the discipline negotiate threats and dilemmas related to collusion, colonialism, and co-optation in the face of ongoing commitments to positivism and individualism in psychology and as the theory and practice of psychology remains embedded within broader structures of neoliberalism and global capitalism.


  • History and Systems of Psychology


Feminist psychology as an institutionalized field in North America has a relatively recent history. Its formalization remains geographically uneven, linked to the institutionalized status of psychology, varying definitions and enactments of feminism, and local political struggles and strategies in different geopolitical regions (Rutherford et al., 2011). In the United States and Canada, feminist psychology was institutionalized in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in tandem with the second-wave women’s movement. As global power relations and the hegemony of American psychology began to be challenged through anticolonial movements and liberation struggles of the 1960s, the women’s movement added to the political and intellectual momentum and was seized upon to center feminist concerns in psychology, effectively establishing a new field of inquiry and practice (Pickren & Rutherford, 2010).

Even where feminist psychology has an institutionalized presence, it has not taken the form of a unified or uncontested epistemological or political endeavor. The historical pairing of feminism and psychology has been, and remains, diverse, complex, and linked to the shifting discourses of gender and sexuality (Rutherford & Pettit, 2015); structures of racism, White supremacy, and neocolonialism (Rutherford et al., 2011); and economic and political ideologies (Liebert et al., 2011).

Early Inroads

Despite the field’s more recent institutionalization, efforts by women to identify and subvert sexist assumptions and practices in American psychology have a much longer history, dating back to the discipline’s establishment in the late 1800s, in the midst of first-wave feminism. Overcoming significant barriers to participation in higher education and scientific work, a small cohort of women held higher degrees in psychology in the late 19th century and early 20th century (Rutherford et al., 2013). Many of these psychologists, such as Christine Ladd-Franklin (1847–1930), Helen Thompson Wooley (1874–1947), and Leta Stetter Hollingworth (1886–1939), were women’s rights supporters and activists, and they used their hard-earned professional status to confront sexist barriers in psychology and to bring feminist values to bear on their empirical work. Christine Ladd-Franklin, for example, repeatedly challenged the Society of Experimentalists’ barring of women from their meetings. Although her efforts to change the Society of Experimentalists’ policy were unsuccessful, she found other means to increase women’s participation in psychology, establishing the Sarah Berliner Postdoctoral Fellowship in 1909, which enabled women who had recently been awarded a PhD to continue their work at an institution of their choice (Rutherford et al., 2013).

The institutionalization of psychology occurred significantly later in Canada than in the United States. In Canada, separate psychology departments were established in the 1920s, and Canada’s national professional organization formed in 1939, 47 years after its American equivalent (Wright & Myers, 1982). Thus, the first cohort of women in Canadian psychology entered the field later than their American counterparts and encountered fewer institutional and educational barriers (Keates & Stam, 2009). Some of the challenges they did face, however, were comparable to those of their contemporaries in the second generation of women in American psychology: being ushered into less prestigious applied work, being denied access to laboratories by male professors, and facing barriers to full-time academic work as a result of antinepotism rules (Gul et al., 2013).

Helen Thompson Wooley and Leta Stetter Hollingworth both used their empirical work to undermine prevailing sexist assumptions about women’s nature and abilities (see Shields, 1975a). Helen Thompson Wooley developed the first dissertation in psychology addressing sex differences, The Mental Traits of Sex (Thompson, 1903). As part of her dissertation, she reviewed the existing literature on male–female differences and conducted her own empirical study comparing the motor and sensory abilities of a group of men with those of a group of women. Both her literature review and her study found little evidence for sex differences; indeed, she found that men and women exhibited more similarities than differences on most tests (Rutherford et al., 2013). Thompson Wooley’s conclusion that the influence of different social environments and expectations should be considered anticipated the position of future feminist psychologists.

Leta Stetter Hollingworth very explicitly engaged feminism in her psychological work. Indeed, her participation in a variety of feminist, radical, intellectual groups in the early 1900s likely influenced her research challenging two prevalent social beliefs about women’s inferiority and unsuitability for certain types of work: the variability hypothesis and the functional periodicity hypothesis (Rutherford et al., 2013; Shields, 1975b). The variability hypothesis posited that men had a greater range and variability of psychological and physical traits than women had; if true, the hypothesis would account for greater numbers of men of both superior and inferior capacity and for women’s mediocrity. The functional periodicity hypothesis suggested that women’s menstrual periods rendered them dysfunctional for a certain portion of each month, which would preclude them from performing certain types of work.

Hollingworth challenged both hypotheses in the article “Science and Feminism” (Lowie & Hollingworth, 1916), which she wrote with Robert Lowie, a former student of cultural anthropologist Franz Boas. Hollingworth and Lowie both served on the Committee on the Biological Status of Women of the Feminist Alliance, an association founded in 1914 with a commitment to dismantling barriers to employment for women based on sex discrimination. In their article, Hollingworth and Lowie extensively reviewed anthropological, anthropometric, and psychological research, including Hollingworth’s own, and found no evidence for innate differences in ability that would affect women’s ability to work. Hollingworth pointed out that the variability hypothesis endured despite the fact that scientific studies had already persuaded many scientists that beliefs about women’s intellectual inferiority and men’s increased variability were unfounded (Rutherford et al., 2013). In Lowie and Hollingworth’s response to the functional periodicity hypothesis, their review of the literature related to menstrual impairment yielded no evidence supporting the hypothesis; rather, they found “a veritable mass of conflicting statements by men of science, misogynists, practitioners, and general writers” (Lowie & Hollingworth, 1916, p. 283). The authors concluded, as Thompson Wooley had just over a decade earlier (in 1903), that social conditions were determining factors in women’s abilities and activities.

In the United States, feminism as an organized political movement largely dissolved after women won the right to vote in 1920. In the postwar period, the field of psychology, mirroring shifts in society more broadly, saw a revival of gender stereotypes and roles (Pickren & Rutherford, 2010). While there was little collective feminist action in society and in psychology at this time, one notable exception was the National Council of Women Psychologists (NCWP)—its formation in 1941 was a direct response to women’s exclusion from participating in the Emergency Committee in Psychology. The NCWP emerged from ongoing discussions among about 50 New York–based women, and by 1942 it had a membership of nearly 250 doctoral-level women psychologists whose initiatives included the selection of women for the military, preparation of recommendations on how to remain calm in war, and advice on childrearing for working mothers (Capshew & Laszlo, 1986). Although the values of the individual members and the overall council were not explicitly feminist, their organizing and their work challenged sexist barriers to professional participation in psychology and helped to sustain interest in women’s issues (Johnson & Johnston, 2010).

Beliefs about sex roles and innate abilities took on renewed pertinence after World War II as American soldiers returned and were reintegrated into the professional positions many women had filled in their absence. The NCWP and the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) formed a joint committee to address the roles of men and women in postwar society. As part of the committee’s work, Georgene Seward (1902–1992), a social and clinical psychologist, published a book, Sex and the Social Order (1946), which reviewed sex differences in behavior across different species. Seward concluded that the basis of sex differences was increasingly social as one moved along the evolutionary spectrum, and that the overwhelming tendency to assign human social roles according to biological sex produced significant psychological distress and conflict (Rutherford et al., 2013).

In the last chapter of her book, Seward made a series of recommendations for the fundamental reconfiguration of traditional sex roles, which she argued was necessary for establishing a successful and democratic postwar society. The recommendations included promoting traditionally feminine values in the socialization of all children, training girls in mathematics and mechanics, training boys in child care and parenting, and developing cooperative housing, day care, and economic reforms that would promote equal participation of both men and women in the workforce. Seward’s work had limited impact at the time, and it took until the 1960s for radical reconfigurations like those Seward proposed to gain cultural and political resonance.

The Women’s Liberation Movement and the Rooting of Feminist Psychology

In 1966, as the women’s liberation movement gained momentum, the National Organization for Women (NOW) formed and issued a mandate that echoed Seward’s earlier recommendations (Rutherford et al., 2013), with demands for a national system of child care, for a reconceptualization of marriage that included the sharing of domestic and childrearing responsibilities, and for the end to exclusionary professional policies and practices that belittled women and fostered their self-denigration and dependence (Rosenberg, 2008). The vociferous critiques of existing structures and values of American society that were expressed by the civil rights movement, the New Left, and the antiwar movement throughout the 1960s propelled many women into political action. Many women in psychology were active in these movements, and it was not difficult for them to identify professional practices of discrimination, exclusion, harassment, and discrediting and at the same time to begin to articulate the ways in which psychology was itself complicit in producing and legitimating the concepts, categories, and structures through which women were (mis)understood, marginalized, and violated.

The women’s liberation movement was a galvanizing force in bringing feminism formally into psychology, and feminists in psychology transformed not only its sexist institutional practices but also its theories, and they radically challenged its epistemological and methodological commitments and constraints. Indeed, since the late 1960s, feminists in psychology have produced radically new understandings of sex and gender, have recovered women’s history in psychology, have developed new historiographical methods, have engaged with and developed innovative approaches to theory and research, and have rendered previously invisibilized issues and experiences central to women’s lives intelligible and worthy of scholarly inquiry (see Morawski, 1994).

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, women in psychology began organizing to protest sexist institutional practices, to challenge psychology’s androcentric theories, and to secure a platform for women’s work. In 1968, Naomi Weisstein (1939–2015) delivered a paper that became a foundational text in feminist psychology; the text was published in 1971 under the title Psychology Constructs the Female. In this work, Weisstein argued that psychology had failed to produce any valid knowledge about women or their experiences, a failure she linked to psychologists’ focus on inner traits at the expense of considering social context and to a reliance on unscientific theories and on examples of sexed behavior in specific animals that mirrored social relations in humans while ignoring those that didn’t.

Pioneering work like Weisstein’s, along with effective political activism by other groups in psychology, such as Psychologists for Social Responsibility’s successful campaign to have the American Psychological Association (APA) relocate its annual convention in protest of police brutality in Chicago in 1968, inspired a sense that the status quo in psychology could be challenged and changed (Tiefer, 1991). Women began organizing informal meetings and formal associations to challenge the status quo. In 1969, several groups of women organized unofficial but very well-attended symposiums, paper sessions, and workshops for the APA convention (Rutherford et al., 2013). During these sessions, women circulated petitions demanding that the APA rectify sexist discrimination in the organization and in psychology departments and calling for the APA to pass a resolution confirming abortion as a civil right. Following the meetings, a group of around 35 men and women psychologists continued to meet, laying the groundwork for the formation of the Association of Women in Psychology (AWP). In 1970, the AWP developed several resolutions and motions related to sexist institutional practices that it presented to the APA. The APA responded by appointing a Task Force on the Status of Women, which produced a report documenting inequities in the field. A key recommendation was to develop a division within the APA to address deficiencies in psychological knowledge about women. Division 35, the Division of the Psychology of Women, was formally approved in 1973, despite covert resistance (Rutherford et al., 2013).

In Canada, organizing followed a similar trajectory. In 1972, a hugely popular underground symposium was held parallel to the annual convention of the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) and was followed in the coming years by the convening of the Task Force on the Status of Women in Canadian Psychology (Pyke, 2001). In 1976, the Task Force presented nearly 100 recommendations to the board of directors, including the establishment of a special interest group on the psychology of women, which became what is now the Section on Women and Psychology (SWAP; Rutherford et al., 2013).

In addition to offering official spaces for engaging with feminist concerns in psychology, these organizations also provided opportunities for networking and mentorship and for important psychosocial support, often serving as a refuge from hostile and belittling professional environments (Unger et al., 2010). The associations also spawned professional journals, securing venues for the publication of feminist empirical research and theory and legitimizing the psychology of women and gender as a scholarly pursuit (Rutherford & Yoder, 2011).

As women increasingly staked out spaces for academic exchange and the development of a psychology of and for women, they also began to explore and address the invisibility of women in accounts of psychology’s history. In 1974, Maxine Bernstein and Nancy Russo published “The History of Psychology Revisited, or Up With Our Foremothers,” an article in which they argued that androcentric biases and documenting practices in psychology had led many to assume, incorrectly, that women had not contributed in significant ways to the development of psychology. What started as an important recovery project, searching for information about women’s contributions and repositioning women in the historical record (see Bernstein & Russo, 1974; Furumoto, 1979; Shields, 1975b), developed into more nuanced analyses of the structural conditions and social relations that shaped women’s experiences as psychologists (see Johnston & Johnson, 2008; Scarborough & Furumoto, 1987). In the 21st century, historiographical work has taken gender as a category of analysis, interrogating how psychologists have participated in constructing gender—that is, how they have understood, deployed, and reified notions of sex and gender (Rutherford & Pettit, 2015).

Products, Tensions, and Dilemmas of Feminist Psychology

Reconceptualizing Sex and Gender

Sex Differences

Beliefs about women’s inferiority linked to biologically based sex differences have persisted well beyond the early years of psychology, and discrediting these assumptions continues to be a focus of feminist work. As Helen Thompson Wooley and Leta Stetter Hollingworth did in the early 1900s, many psychologists have relied on forms of feminist empiricism, that is:

the conviction that if scientific research were done carefully and objectively enough, the results would dismantle and undermine the unscientific and biased assumptions that formed the basis of these commonly held beliefs.

(Pickren & Rutherford, 2010, p. 268)

In 1974, Eleanor Maccoby (1917–2018) and Carol Jacklin (1939–2011) published The Psychology of Sex Differences, a book based on their comprehensive review of hundreds of studies on sex differences. The aim of their work was to assess the validity of a range of purported sex differences and to review the theoretical positions on their sources. Maccoby and Jacklin (1974) concluded that there was empirical evidence to support differences in just four out of more than 80 traits or skills, and they suggested that sex-typed behaviors were likely the result of a social learning process that was built on biological foundations (for a more detailed description, see Rutherford et al., 2013). Although both women were feminists, active in the social justice movements of the 1960s (Ball, 2011), they did not identify their work as feminist. Indeed, some feminist psychologists have criticized Maccoby and Jacklin’s emphasis on the biological origins of sex differences, despite the authors’ explicit conviction that biology is not destiny (Rutherford et al., 2013).

The publication and popularity of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: A New Synthesis in 1975 further ignited controversy, due to its claim that genetic inheritance is responsible for social behavior. Concerned about the position of genetic determinism and about the dangerous potential to justify sexism and racism, Ethel Tobach (1921–2015), a comparative psychologist at the American Museum of Natural History, and Betty Rosoff, an endocrinologist and professor of biology at Yeshiva University, formed the Genes and Gender Collective. The collective organized their first meeting as a daylong symposium with the aim of challenging genetic determinism on a scientific level and demonstrating its discriminatory effects against women, children, and ethnic minorities. The meeting generated massive and unexpected interest, and over 350 women from diverse backgrounds attended (Rutherford et al., 2010). In 1978, based on their initial symposium, the collective published the first issue of their seven-volume series Genes and Gender. The collective went on to hold conferences focusing on pressing scientific and social issues, including genetic determinism and children, women’s health and the intersection of gender and race/ethnicity, the effects of economic policies, and the societal origins of peace and war. Their final volume, published in 1994, was titled Challenging Racism and Sexism: Alternatives to Genetic Explanations; it had emerged from the group’s efforts to counter the interest in J. Philippe Rushton’s repeated argument that differences among Asians, Europeans, and Africans on several measures, including intelligence, were genetically determined (Rutherford et al., 2010).

Debates about sex differences continue, with sustained interest in genetic and evolutionary explanations and more recent appeals to differences in neurological “hard-wiring” (Fine, 2008). Feminist psychologists continue to deconstruct, refute, and elucidate the stakes of these claims (see Fine, 2013; Fine et al., 2013).

Developing Gender

The term “gender” made its debut in psychology with John Money’s introduction of the phrase “gender roles” in 1955 (Downing et al., 2015; Rutherford et al., 2013). The term did not really gain traction, however, until the late 1970s. In 1979, Rhoda Unger (1939–2019) distinguished between “sex,” referring to biological maleness and femaleness, and “gender,” referring to socially constructed characteristics and traits, in her widely circulated article, “Towards a Redefinition of Sex and Gender.” The conceptual clarity brought about by this distinction allowed psychologists to move beyond the empirical testing of differences. It opened a conceptual space for more relational, political, and process-oriented questions about how people, relationships, and practices become gendered, about the different ways gender might be expressed and interpreted, about the ways gender regulates access to power, and about how gender interacts with other social formations (Pickren & Rutherford, 2010).

In the 1970s, work on masculinity and femininity (e.g., Bem, 1974; Constantinople, 1973; Rubin, 1975) had already begun to pry open this conceptual space, challenging the conceptualization and measurement of masculinity and femininity as essential qualities of being male or female and as being mutually exclusive. Sandra Bem (1944–2014) was highly influential in this respect. She was actively engaged in the women’s liberation movement, and her earliest research (1973) on sex roles demonstrated that sex-biased job ads “aided and abetted” sex discrimination in women’s recruitment into the workforce. Based on this research, her expert testimony in landmark legal cases contributed to changes in sex-biased recruitment practices (George, 2012). Bem’s subsequent work extended Constantinople’s (1973) argument against the measurement of masculinity and femininity as opposite ends of a bipolar continuum, suggesting that individuals could adopt both traits. Bem (1974) introduced the notion of an androgynous sex-role identity, wherein individuals possess and enact both masculine and feminine qualities, and she argued that this flexibility was, in fact, a requisite for healthy psychological functioning. She devised the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI), an alternate measure of sex-related attributes, which allowed respondents to endorse characteristics of both or neither femininity and masculinity. Bem’s work on androgyny and its measurement was subjected to substantial conceptual and methodological critique. Indeed, her work generated a great deal of debate as well as reconceptualization of sex and gender, and it has spawned ongoing inquiry into gender identity by others in the field. Related work in the first decades of the 21st century has engaged with queer theory as well as intersex, trans/nonbinary gender activism and scholarship, reworking conceptualizations of sex and gender, challenging cisnormative assumptions and practices in psychology, and resisting the pathologization of non-cisgender identities (see Richmond et al., 2012; Richmond & Sheese, 2010; Singh et al., 2013).

In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, several feminist psychologists developed new approaches to understanding and valuing gender differences. These psychologists reassessed attributes traditionally ascribed to women, recasting them not as deficiencies or signs of immaturity, but as unique strengths and capacities for relationality and connectedness. Jean Baker Miller (1927–2006) first articulated the need to redescribe and re-evaluate feminine traits on women’s terms in her classic text, Toward a New Psychology of Women (1976). She argued that women’s needs for emotional connection and empathy as well as their capacities for care and nurturance were psychological essentials and the foundation of a more advanced way of living. Baker Miller went on to develop a relational-cultural model of psychological development that cast the ability to sustain relationships as fundamental to human growth, and disconnectedness as a threat to psychological health. She focused on how gendered power imbalances produced disconnectedness, compelling individuals to hide or to distort their authentic feelings. Subsequent work at the Stone Center at Wellesley College has developed analyses of how other structural forms of discrimination, such as racism, classism, and heterosexism, also generate relational fractures (Pickren & Rutherford, 2010).

In 1982, Carol Gilligan published In a Different Voice, where she described a distinct style of moral reasoning she had identified in women’s moral decision-making processes, which she called “an ethic of care.” Following the landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal in the United States, Gilligan was interested in understanding how women might approach the decision to terminate a pregnancy. In interviews on the subject, Gilligan found that women often relied on a relational framework to navigate their dilemmas. Rather than drawing on supposedly universal ethical codes, which was believed to reflect the highest stage of moral development, women kept relationships at the center of their considerations and used feeling and thinking as the basis for their decision-making. Elaborating an ethic of care exposed the androcentric biases of prevailing psychological models of moral development, clarified why women’s proposals for resolving moral dilemmas did not register within the models’ measures, and refuted the notion that women typically achieved a lower level of moral development than men.

Both Baker Miller’s and Gilligan’s work have been criticized for contributing to the reification of sex differences and for essentializing women (Pickren & Rutherford, 2010). The essentialism criticism did not uniquely apply to their work. Indeed, the majority of the research emerging from the first decades of institutionalized feminist psychology has been judged essentialist. These scholars largely relied on and reproduced a unified category of “woman” that ignored the diversity and specificity of women’s experiences. Throughout the 1980s, there were mounting calls to rectify the ways in which essentialist visions of womanhood systematically excluded the experiences and voices of women of color, in particular, or constructed marginalized communities as social problems (Anzaldúa & Moraga, 1981; hooks, 1981). Throughout the 1990s, feminists in psychology who were concerned about understanding and dismantling interlocking systems of racism, sexism, classism, and ableism developed new theoretical tools and new modes of inquiry to shed light on the dynamic interplay between different forms of structural inequality, identity, and subjectivity. Beginning in the 1990s, novel methodologies and reflexive practices of South African feminists reflected critical concern with the ideal of a shared sisterhood, nonracialism, and voice and representation in South African feminist psychology (Kiguwa & Langa, 2011). This range of projects took up earlier critiques of science, drawing on constructionist and standpoint theories and engaged intersectionality theory, Black feminist thought, critical race theory, and feminist postcolonial critiques of Western feminism.

Approaches to Knowledge

Social Constructionism

The investigation of feminist concerns in psychology has consistently demanded innovative theoretical and methodological tools. Attention to social context and the suspicion of singular objective truths and truthmaking have been features of feminist thought and inquiry in psychology since the late 1800s. It is not surprising, then, that feminist scholars were frontrunners in engaging constructionist critiques and values (Gergen, 1985). Although not explicitly endorsing constructionism, Weisstein’s (1971) critique embodied constructionist concerns, challenging assumptions of neutrality and objectivity, emphasizing the influence of social context, and arguing against the notion of women’s fixed essences (Rutherford et al., 2015). Much of the work throughout the 1970s to deconstruct gender differences and to understand gendered processes came from a constructionist perspective (see Kessler & McKenna, 1978). Unger (1983) articulated an influential critique of knowledge production in psychology, emphasizing the discipline’s implicit and unstated ontological assumptions, the concealing effects of its objectifying practices, and the politics of knowledge. In the 1990s and 2000s, feminist scholars interested in the discursive production of oppression increasingly engaged social constructionism. Leonore Tiefer’s (2003) work deconstructing female sexual dysfunction, Jane Ussher’s (2006) work on regulating the reproductive body, and Cordelia Fine’s (2010) work on neurosexism are key examples of discursive approaches in feminist psychology.

Feminist Standpoint Theories

Feminist standpoint theories were developed in the 1970s and 1980s as part of a broader feminist critique of science and challenges to objectivity (see Harding, 1986). Feminist standpoint theories emphasized the power of social position to shape one’s understanding of social reality and privileged the standpoint of the oppressed as a less distorted and more complete view of reality (Rutherford et al., 2015). Crawford and Marecek (1989) distinguished between a standpoint and a social position, the former being a goal to strive toward, rather than a given. A standpoint reflects the transformation of “an oppressive feature of a group’s condition into a source of critical insight about how dominant society thinks and is structured” (Harding, 2004, p. 7). Thus, as they relate to processes of knowledge production, feminist standpoint theories acknowledge that research is a value-laden endeavor at all stages. They also grant epistemic authority to marginalized individuals and communities over their everyday experiences. Feminist research in psychology based on standpoint theories has been committed to practicing critical reflexivity (Belle, 1994; Wilkinson, 1988) and to minimizing the distance between research subjects and research objects (Fine et al., 2003).

Black Feminist Thought and Intersectional Theory

Black feminist thought developed out of Black feminist activism in the United States and shares many of the core tenets of standpoint theories, particularly the emphasis on lived experience as valid ground for knowledge production (Collins, 2000). However, rather than suggesting that subjugated standpoints offer a more accurate view of social reality, Black feminist epistemology conceptualizes objectivity as a product of dialogical processes between partial and situated insights (Collins in Rutherford et al., 2015). Black feminist thought also produced intersectionality theory, which was initially conceived as an analytical lens for theorizing the multiple oppressions faced by women of color in the United States, specifically in the reference to their erasure within American antidiscrimination law (Collins, 2000; Crenshaw, 1989, 1991). A key insight of intersectionality theory is that the social categories through which hierarchies are constructed do not have single, fixed meanings and are always interrelated and mutually constituted (Marecek, 2016).

Intersectionality theory works against essentialist claims about women and calls on researchers to bring multiple lines of difference into simultaneous focus in order to explore the shifting salience and meanings of social categories in different social, structural, and historical contexts (Ferree, 2009; Rutherford et al., 2013). Intersectionality theory has proven to be a particularly pernicious challenge to researchers in psychology, especially those in the United States, whose methodological approaches do not easily lend themselves to the study of social categories as dynamic meaning systems but typically treat social categories as static, a priori independent variables (Purdie-Vaughns & Eibach, 2008; Shields, 2008).

Indeed, attempts to bring intersectionality together with American feminist psychology have brought certain epistemological tensions and methodological incompatibilities into focus. One problem produced by these tensions is the tendency to use the term “intersectionality” as a characteristic of certain people or as a label for any research that concerns a subset of women (Marecek, 2016). In this sense, feminist psychologists’ ongoing reliance on an individualist model of gender pushes them to regard gender and other social categories as components of personal identity rather than as building blocks of systems of social stratification (Marecek, 2016). Feminist psychologists outside of the United States have been more successful in integrating an intersectional analysis, primarily by drawing on discursive and narrative psychology (see Gavey, 2005; Liu, 2017; Magnusson, 2011; Prins, 2006; Rahilly, 2015; Staunaes, 2003).

Feminist Postcolonial Theory

Feminist postcolonial theory developed largely in response to postcolonial theory’s lack of engagement with a gendered analysis and as a critique of Western feminist’s homogenizing and ahistorical view of women in the Third World, obscuring the material, social, and political complexity of women’s lives (Lewis & Mills, 2003; Mohanty, 1988, 2003). Feminist postcolonialism has interrogated the relationship between colonialism and patriarchy (Spivak, 1988), articulated the gendered dimensions of colonialism at symbolic and discursive levels (Loomba, 2005), and brought “Native feminisms” to bear on the theorizing of sovereignty and nation-building (Smith & Kauanui, 2008). Despite the potential of these approaches to more richly theorize “the conjunction of the psychological and the political, the affective and the structural, the psychical and the governmental” (Hook, 2005), relatively little work in psychology in North America has engaged feminist postcolonial theories. This relative absence likely has to do with the embeddedness of hidden colonial thinking in psychology and its implicit assumption that Western conceptualizations of mental life and psychological objects and events are more sophisticated and relevant for psychological theory (Teo, 2005), including for feminist psychological theory and practice. At the same time, the language of decolonization has been widely, arguably superficially, adopted by critical scholars in the social sciences as a new lexicon for discussing social justice and critical methodologies (Tuck & Yang, 2012). Tuck and Yang (2012) argued that the project of decolonization is distinct from civil and human rights–based social justice projects and demands an altogether different form of justice. In this sense, they argued that decolonization cannot, and should not, be used metaphorically or synonymously with terms like social justice or human rights.

Much of the work that has engaged feminist postcolonial theory in psychology has focused on developing decolonizing praxis—for example, elaborating ethical frameworks for decolonial participatory action research (Guishard, 2015; Tuck & Guishard, 2013), theoretical and practical approaches to racial trauma and collective healing (Comas-Diaz, 2008; Comas-Diaz et al., 2019), frameworks for activism and solidarity across borders and in times of crises (Fine, 2012; Lykes, 2013; Norsworthy, 2017), and decolonizing praxis within the academy (Ayala, et al., 2020; Lykes et al., 2018). Other scholars have taken decolonization as a foundation for examining issues like intimate violence in activist communities (Jashnani et al., 2011), paranoia, and psycurity (Liebert, 2018), and for extending psychological theories of sociopolitical development (Carmen, et al., 2015) or affect (Liu, 2017), for example. In a special issue of the journal Feminism & Psychology on feminisms and decolonizing psychology, Macleod et al. (2020) confronted the significant challenges and urgency of decolonizing feminist psychology in order to “overcome the gendered, race-, caste-, and class-based injustices perpetuated between the Global South and the Global North, as well as within these broad regions” (p. 301).

Key Topics

Feminist concerns drove both theoretical and methodological innovations and, in turn, the new modes of inquiry rendered previously invisibilized issues and experiences central to women’s lives more legible and subject to scholarly investigation.

Gender-Based Violence

Understanding and addressing gender-based violence has been perhaps the most persistent, pressing, and defining priority of feminist psychology, not only where it exists as an institutionalized field, but also where the relationship between feminism and psychology has not been formalized (see Chen & Cheung, 2011; Khalid, 2011; Kumar, 2011). Gender-based violence includes rape and sexual assault, incest, childhood sexual abuse, domestic and intimate partner violence, sexual harassment, and child and forced marriage. It also includes transphobic and homophobic violence, although these issues have received relatively little attention from feminist psychologists. Despite the development of the term “gender-based violence” in order to more carefully theorize the construction of gender and how it is policed and to address the limitations of the earlier focus on violence against women, the majority of work on violence has continued to focus on cis-women and has taken the term “gender” in gender-based violence as a stand-in for (cis) “women.”

Second-wave feminists were at the forefront of theorizing and politicizing women’s experiences of violence, in particular rape and sexual harassment (see Brownmiller, 1975), and throughout the 1980s and 1990s they worked to dispel myths about gendered and sexualized violence and to advocate for coordinated responses (Biglia, 2011; Morgan et al., 2011). Feminist psychologists have played a key role not only in documenting the incidence of violence against women, but also in elaborating the ways in which intimate violence, threats of violence, and concerns for safety fundamentally structure much of women’s everyday experience, behavior, and relationships to their own bodies and selves (Gordon & Riger, 1989; Koss, 1993; Walker, 1979). They have also traced the roles of gender ideologies and compulsory heterosexuality in producing cultural scripts that influence how nonconsensual sex is normalized and when it is labeled by the victim as assault (Hlavka, 2014; Kahn et al., 1994), and what Gavey (2005) termed the “cultural scaffolding” of rape. Some important work has engaged with intersectional theory and postcolonial analysis to elaborate the ways in which gender-based violence is embedded within, and co-produced by, overarching systems of racism and colonialism (Bennett, 2001) and to challenge models of rape myth acceptance and interventions based solely on studies of White women (Morgan et al., 2011; White et al., 1998; Wyatt, 1992).

A great deal of work has documented the harm that is often perpetuated in victims’ interactions with the justice and medical systems and the dilemmas this produces, particularly for women belonging to communities that are overpoliced and multiply alienated from the criminal justice system (Campbell, 2008; Morgan et al., 2011). In many parts of the world, this work has been combined with advocacy and activist efforts to successfully create reforms in law, policy, and practices surrounding the treatment and support of victims of violence. Despite significant reforms and the ongoing attention to gendered and sexualized violence in feminist psychology and beyond, there is little evidence to suggest that rates of violence are decreasing (Rutherford et al., 2013).

Feminist Interventions in Clinical Psychology and Psychiatric Diagnosis

On the heels of the antipsychiatry movement and as the women’s liberation movement gained traction, feminists began to elaborate comprehensive critiques of the mental health professions. In 1972, Phyllis Chesler published Women and Madness, a widely read critique of psychiatry and clinical psychology, in which she argued that diagnostic categories were based on gender stereotypes, pathologizing women who conformed to them and casting as deviant those who did not. Chesler’s book served as a critical rallying point for feminists in psychology. The ensuing critiques and activism gave rise to a movement to reform knowledge and practice in clinical psychology and drove the development of new clinical theories, feminist therapies, and diagnostic practices (Rutherford et al., 2013).

Given psychology’s failure to produce socially contextualized understandings of women’s experiences, as well as the fact that most psychiatrists and clinical psychologists were men, while most consumers of psychotherapy were women, feminists protested men’s position as the architects and arbiters of women’s normality. Feminists began to elaborate the ways in which clinical constructs and diagnostic practices were infused with cultural biases about women and beliefs about femininity—for example, psychoanalytic assertions that heterosexuality, marriage, and motherhood were criteria for women’s normality and that ambition and achievement were manifestations of penis envy (Lerman, 1986). A great deal of feminist critique and activism have focused on specific diagnostic categories, which they have shown to commonly reflect cultural stereotypes about marginalized groups, as well as on prevailing moralities regarding gender and sexual expression (Caplan & Cosgrove, 2004; Duschinsky & Chachamu, 2013; Rutherford et al., 2013). In the early 1970s, feminists collaborated in protesting the inclusion of homosexuality as an official psychiatric diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Leading up to the preparation of the third edition of the DSM, feminists produced position papers and scientific reviews and provided direct testimony to the DSM editorial committees to protest the inclusion of diagnostic categories that specifically pathologized women’s behavior and experiences, such as the diagnoses self-defeating personality disorder, paraphilic rapism, and premenstrual dysphoric disorder (Marecek & Gavey, 2013). These critiques and protests persist, with increasing attention being paid to the ways in which psychiatric categories can be built to develop markets for new pharmaceutical medications and how the medicalization of psychological suffering diverts attention from its social and political context (Marecek & Gavey, 2013; Marecek & Hare-Mustin, 2009; Parlee, 1994; Tiefer, 2006).

Feminist therapy emerged in the early 1970s, largely as a countercultural endeavor outside of the mental health system, and it moved into more mainstream settings by the 1980s (Rutherford et al., 2013). Early feminist therapists who organized free-standing collectives relied heavily on the model provided by the consciousness-raising movement for how to work with, and empower, women (Ruck, 2015; Rutherford et al., 2013). Over time, a number of principles were developed, including an ethical obligation to work toward social justice, attention to power relations and increasing collaboration in the therapist–client relationship, and an emphasis on structural explanations for women’s challenges (Pickren & Rutherford, 2010). Feminist therapists went on to embrace a variety of theoretical orientations, and many of the principles of feminist therapy have been integrated into other forms of therapy and ethical guidelines. The commitment to attend to power relations in the therapeutic relationship has been most influential in transforming ethical guidelines for clinical practice, particularly around therapist–client sexual relations. In Women and Madness (1972), Chesler described how women were regularly coerced into having sex with their male therapists in the name of treatment. In 1972, none of the major professional associations in the United States considered sexual contact in therapy to be an ethical violation (Kim & Rutherford, 2015). In 1977, feminist psychologists were successful in compelling the American Psychological Association to change its ethical code to prohibit sexual contact between therapist and client.

Embodiment and Sexual Subjectivities

Feminist scholarship exploring women’s embodiment and sexual subjectivities has worked to disrupt psychology’s construction of women’s bodies as disorderly, dangerous, and in need of regulation and discipline. This work has shifted the focus from women’s individual bodies, behaviors, and attitudes to the material and discursive production of women’s bodies as problematic or pathological (see Braun & Wilkinson, 2001; Chrisler & Caplan, 2002; Lloyd, 2005; Siebers, 2008) and women’s sexual subjectivities as dysfunctional or lacking (see Espin, 1995; Fine & McClelland, 2006; Rose, 2003; Tiefer, 2003; Tolman, 2002; Zavella, 1997). The focus on the material and discursive production of women’s embodiment challenges the notion of women’s dissatisfaction, shame, and estrangement as natural or inevitable and emphasizes the social and political inequalities that shape their embodiment and sexual subjectivities. This work has opened space for examining possibilities for creative resistance to dominant discourses, practices, and expectations.

Scholars like Patricia Zavella, Oliva Espin, and Tricia Rose have produced complex analyses of not only the ways in which women conform to dominant discourses and cultural practices around sexuality and desire, but also the active and creative ways in which they rework, resist, and subvert these forces. In particular, these scholars have made significant contributions toward understanding the ways in which women produce “complex local knowledges and cultural practices about sexuality” that are reflective of lived experiences in specific regional political economies (Zavella, 2003, p. 230); how geography and language, as aspects of boundary and border crossing, offer spaces for complex and potentially subversive identity negotiation in the sexual lives of immigrant women (Espin, 1995); and how deeply entangled are the experiences of pleasure, pain, desire, longing, silence, shame, suppression, violence, care, belonging, and exclusion in women’s sexual lives and the value of telling these stories in ways that do not attempt to separate and neaten the entanglements (Rose, 2003).

Despite these more complicated accounts that explicitly seek to identify and explore women’s experiences of engagement, pleasure, and empowerment, the bulk of the feminist psychology paints a relatively pessimistic picture of women’s embodiment and sexual lives. This work emphasizes women’s powerfully constrained development in the context of persistently negative sociocultural representations of women’s bodies (Braun, 2000; Fahs, 2011; Ussher, 2006), compulsory heterosexuality and heterosexism (Bartky, 1990; Kitzinger, 1992; Tolman, 2006), violence and coercion, and inadequate sex education that divorces “facts” about sex and sexuality from their social and political context and relies heavily on discourses of danger/vulnerability (Fields, 2008; Lamb, 1997; McClelland & Fine, 2014).

Feminist Psychology as a Political Project: Current Prospects and Future Possibilities

Feminist psychology began as a political project with an explicit commitment to social change. In the first two decades of the 21st century, there has been fervent debate about whether this project has any prospects for success, given the perceived incompatibilities between feminism and psychology. Feminist psychologists have discussed the insecurity and uneasy tensions that characterize the shifting relationship between psychology and feminism, as well as the points of contradiction between activism and the academy (Gavey & Braun, 2008; Liebert et al., 2011; Morgan et al., 2011; Rutherford et al., 2010; Rutherford & Pettit, 2015). In 1995, Jeanne Marecek suggested that the relationship between psychology and feminism could not be saved and that feminists should look elsewhere for sources of transformative action. Her suggestion reflected the broader and ongoing frustration of critical scholars, particularly in the United States and Britain, who argued that feminist psychology has failed to deliver on its promise to generate liberatory approaches that would transform disciplinary practices and women’s lives (Kitzinger, 1991; Rutherford & Pettit, 2015). In her analysis of the tensions in the history and ongoing development of the Psychology of Women Section of the British Psychological Society, Burman (2011) listed and defined key political dangers and tensions of feminist positions in psychology, including incorporation, recuperation, collusion, de-radicalization, liberalization, co-optation, and tokenism. These dangers continue to threaten the radical political possibilities of feminist psychology.

Much of the work in feminist psychology has retained implicit commitments to individualism, essentialism, and positivism and has tended to uncritically adopt the basic categories and assumptions of Western psychology, effectively muting its political project and rendering it unthreatening to mainstream psychology (Crawford, 1998; Rutherford et al., 2010; Rutherford & Pettit, 2015). Furthermore, the individualist assumptions underlying liberal feminist discourses of self-actualization, choice, and empowerment have fed into new forms of subjectivity demanded by neoliberalism: responsibilized, self-managed, flexible, and entrepreneurial selves. Feminist psychology, along with the other psy-disciplines, can be considered complicit in constructing women, especially young women, as the ideal neoliberal subject (Rutherford, 2018). In this sense, feminist psychology has shown itself to be vulnerable not only to assimilation into mainstream psychology, but also to co-optation by dominating economic regimes and forms of governance.

For some contemporary feminist psychologists, the radical possibilities of feminist psychologies lie in engaging with (rather than being immobilized by) the tensions produced by three key scholar-activist dilemmas having to do with complicity, colonization, and imperialism as they are linked, respectively, to the potential to be simplistic, patronizing, and elitist in one’s work (Liebert et al., 2011). While these scholars acknowledge the current constraints, challenges, and shortcomings of bringing together feminism and psychology, they pose a provocative question for considering what is at stake in the future of this work: “Who benefits when we erase and foreclose the radical possibilities of feminist psychologies under contemporary conditions?” (Liebert et al., 2011, p. 703). Considering what’s at stake and contending actively with the dilemmas of complicity, colonization, and imperialism are key tasks for keeping the political alive in the ongoing projects of feminist psychologies.


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