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date: 24 October 2020

Feminist Social Work Practice

Abstract and Keywords

Feminist social work practice is based on principles derived from the political and social analyses of women’s movements in the United States and abroad. As a practice approach, feminism emphasizes gendered analyses and solutions, democratized structures and processes, diversity and inclusivity, linking personal situations with political solutions, and transformation at all levels of intervention. Feminist practice is in concert with a multisystemic approach; it complements and extends strength-based social work. It requires of the practitioner, regardless of method, to be relational and open to other ways of knowing and understanding.

Keywords: feminism, women’s movements, empowerment, social work practice, gender issues

Feminist social work practice broadly encompasses intervention knowledge and skills based within and informed by the political and social analyses of the various women’s movements in the United States and abroad. Feminism provides a critical lens through which to understand, and then work to ameliorate the concerns and issues, primarily of women and those for whom they care. Feminist theories suggest frameworks for analyzing gendered roles and identities, which is particularly important for comprehending and addressing the challenges faced by individuals and communities who transgress traditional expectations. Feminist movements intersect and partner with other social movements, engaging in cooperative strategies to address human rights, environmental justice, anti-racism initiatives, LGBTQA+ rights, and other collective actions that pursue social justice. These insights, processes, and outcomes are the building blocks for feminist social work, and they also influence other practice paradigms.

Defining Feminism and Its Scope

Although there is considerable debate within feminist scholarship as to what constitutes feminism, there are several themes common across most definitions. First, it is assumed that, collectively, women have been and continue to be denied societal power and privilege because of gender norms, roles, responsibilities, and assumptions. Second, it is structural inequality that shapes the position and standing of women, not personal actions or individual circumstances. Third, it is inherently activist in orientation, concerned with “challenging women’s subordinate (or disadvantaged) status in the society at large and in their own community” (Gluck, 1998, p. 34; see also Evans, 2004; Hewitt, 2010; hooks, 1984; McCammon, Taylor, Reger, & Einwohner, 2017; Reger, 2012; Thompson, 2010).

Feminism is not, however, a monolithic ideology, perspective, or movement (see Table 1 for historical and current waves in the United States). The first wave of feminism, specifically in the United States and Great Britain, brackets the work of activists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who focused on suffrage and legal rights such as property ownership though largely limited to benefiting white women (McConnaughy, 2017). The reemergence of the women’s movement second wave, in the 1960s in the United States, gave rise to several ideological streams. Within each, different visions, assumptions, processes, strategies, and outcomes were articulated and were, to varying degrees, integrated into social work theory and practice (Dominelli, 2002, 2019; Finn, Perry, & Karandikar, 2013; Kemp & Brandwein, 2010; Mehrota, 2010; White, 2006). Table 2 summarizes the most widely recognized perspectives—liberal, radical, socialist, cultural, and womanist, that dominated feminist thought particularly in the 1970s and 1980s (for an excellent account of the historical development of these feminist streams, see Echols, 1989) and set the groundwork for current feminist praxis. Variations of liberal and cultural feminism hand sex positive expression. The developing Internet was embraced as a platform for a more democratized dissemination of essays, videos, and manifestos. Current, or fourth wave feminists have engaged in various strategies, especially tactical social media use, to challenge sexual violence (e.g., the #MeToo movement), support fluid gender roles and sexual identities, examine connections between gender and other forms of oppression, and counter the suppression of reproductive rights (Aronson, 2017; Hurwitz, 2017; Miller, 2017; Reger, 2012). Fourth wave feminists are more cognizant of global feminist efforts and the need to deconstruct dominant Western feminist narratives (Rademacher & Fallon, 2017).

Table 1. Feminist Movement Waves and Primary Foci from the United States

Wave and Time Period

Primary Foci

First Wave—19th and early 20th century

  • Women’s suffrage

  • Basic legal rights such as property ownership

Second Wave—1960s to 1980s

  • Range of issues particularly violence against women, reproductive health, equal rights amendment and equity legislation

  • Established various women-centered organizations such as feminist health centers, sexual assault centers, domestic violence shelters, women’s bookstores, women’s credit unions, and women’s art spaces

Third Wave—1990s to 2010

  • Individual self expression

  • Promotion of diversity

  • Sex-positive initiatives

Fourth Wave—2013 to present

  • Intersectionality

  • Reproductive rights

  • Violence against women, especially sexual harassment through the #MeToo movement

  • Strategic use of social media as tool of feminist education, outreach and organizing

Table 2. Perspectives, Primary Causes of Women’s Inequality and Oppression, and Examples of Strategies from Second Wave Feminism

Perspective

Primary Causes of Inequality and Oppression of Women

Strategies or Actions

Liberal

Denial of access and opportunities due to sex-role stereotyping or structural barriers or both

  • “Let us in”—integration of women

  • Legal remedies to secure and extend women's rights (for example, employment and education equity legislation)

Radical

Concept of “sex caste”—women subordinated because of male supremacy and cultural patriarchy

  • Modeled after black power movements

  • Consciousness-raising

  • Collectivist or consensus orientations to power

  • Politicized approach to alternative services (for example, rape crisis centers, health clinics)

Socialist

Intersection of gender and class, specifically in disparities resulting from labor market and other economic structures

  • Social protest, with emphasis on economic issues especially for poor and low-income women (for example, welfare rights)

  • Partnerships with labor union efforts

Cultural

Societal denial and repression of women’s inherent, and superior, ability to nurture

  • Create and sustain separate spaces and own culture that would promote female biology as the basis of women's power

  • Maternal or caregiving feminism

  • Entrepreneurial ethos that promotes “women as women” (for example, women's bookstores)

Womanist

Intersection of race and gender, with emphasis on unique “double jeopardy” of women of color

  • Combination of strategies that address needs of women of color

  • Critiques of racism within feminist analyses and practices

An important theoretical development that began as a critique of feminist analysis and is now central to analytical frameworks is the concept of intersectionality—a praxis grounded in the interaction and multiplicity of cultural identity components. Informed by womanist perspective theorists (see Collins, 1990; Combahee River Collective, 1981; hooks, 1984; Smith, 1979), critical race legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw argued that gender oppression was shaped by racial hierarchies, such that women of color experience a duality of oppressions that white women do not and that only or primarily focusing on gender oppression marginalized the experiential subordination of women color. She termed this analytical construct intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1989). Other scholar-activists further delineated this concept, such that intersectionality now focuses on a the complex, interactive matrix of structural oppression, meaning that gender, race, class, sexual identity, and other dimensions of cultural identity interrelate in ways that shift the causes and consequences of societal power, privilege, subordination, and domination (Choo & Ferree, 2010; Collins & Bilge, 2016; Livingston, 2018; Roth, 2017). Intersectionality informs much of current fourth wave feminist activism, as well as other movements such as Black Lives Matter, queer and transgender efforts, and human rights initiatives.

Dovetailing with this ever-developing intersectionality paradigm is the growth of (for lack of a better term) “global” feminist praxis. Efforts to decolonize the academy have impacted feminist thought by shifting attention away from western perspectives to the scholarly and activist work of women throughout the world (Alexander & Mohanty, 2012; Mohanty, 2003). This body of knowledge explicitly concentrated on the work of women and allies in the global south and African diaspora with focus on grassroots community development, to mid-range micro financing endeavors, to nation-building movements (Dominelli, 2019; Drolet, 2010; Rodriguez, Tsikata, & Ampofo, 2015; Visvanathan, Duggan, Wiegersma, & Nisonoff, 2011). Lessons culled from these initiatives challenge the often privileged assumptions embedded in western feminist work and extend the reach of feminism globally.

Although feminism is “pro-woman,” it should not be equated solely with women working with other women on issues of concern only to women (Aronson, 2017; Hyde, 1996, 2005). First, female-dominated organizations or activities are not feminist when they impose or support patriarchal gender norms and values. For example—Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum (United States), a largely female membership organization, sought to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment and further solidify traditional male and female roles (Hyde, 2008; Rohlinger & Claxton, 2017). Similarly, women’s auxiliaries in the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations reinforced traditional gendered mothering in service to white supremacy, and illustrate the intersections of patriarchy and racist hierarchies (Blee & Yates, 2017; Perry, 2004). (Hyde, 2008; Rohlinger & Claxton, 2017). Second, men as well as women, can be proponents and beneficiaries of feminism. Recent gender scholarship, influenced significantly by feminist theory, focused on the constraints of stereotypic male roles and the high price that men pay when they step outside the confines of these expected roles (Connell, 2005; Messner, Greenberg, & Peretz, 2015; Okun, 2014). Finally, the issues that are addressed do not have to be quintessentially feminist issues (e.g., sexual violence, pay equity). Women have been and continue to be involved significantly in social change campaigns that concern neighborhood safety, environmental racism, public education, or labor; it is the empowering processes and outcomes of such collective actions that make them feminist (see Hewitt, 2010; McCammon et al., 2017; Reger, 2012). This is particularly evident on the global stage in community development, microfinance, and electoral and public health campaigns (for examples, see Dominelli, 2019; Drolet, 2010; Finn et al., 2013; Visvanathan, Duggan, Wiegersma, & Nisonoff, 2011)

Regardless of perspective, feminist practice addresses myriad issues that affect women differently than they do men. These include sexual violence, education and employment equity, child and elder care, reproductive and sexual health, pension and retirement benefits, poverty and income maintenance, mental health access, and the rights of sexual minorities (see Hewitt, 2010; McCammon et al., 2017; Peterson & Lieberman, 2001). Even though women have made substantial gains in the last decades, critical issues and problems remain. Consider these facts about women in the United States:

  • Women are more likely than men to be in or near poverty, with the risk significantly increased for single mothers, older women, and women with no postsecondary education.

  • As of 2015, women earned 79 cents to every dollar earned by a man; for African American women, it was 60 cents, and for Latinas it was 55 cents. If equal and comparable pay equity was achieved, the female poverty rate would be cut in half.

  • Women are 58% of all social security beneficiaries 65 and older, and 71% of all beneficiaries 85 and older; social security makes up 55% of older women's income, compared with 39% for older men.

  • A woman in the United States is assaulted or beaten every 9 seconds; daily, 3 women are murdered by their intimate partners. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women. It is estimated that up to 10 million children witness some form of domestic violence, and men who witnessed this as children are more than twice as likely to abuse their intimate partners.

  • Access to legal abortion has steadily eroded. Currently, 87% of all counties have no abortion provider; national legislation (as well as in many states) limits later term abortions even if the woman’s life is endangered; a number of states are considering or have implemented measures that criminalize women who experience miscarriages and stillbirths. The Planned Parenthood Federation was forced to withdraw from Title X funding because of new federal regulations prohibiting abortion referrals; this will result in hundreds of thousands of low-income women and their families losing basic health services (Belluck, 2019). The potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act would result in significant loss of reproductive health services.

  • Women are twice as likely as men to experience clinical depression; less than half of these women receive treatment.

  • Title IX of the 1964 Civil Rights addresses sex discrimination in education. Yet girls in public schools, especially those who are pregnant or parenting, are often denied access to education and support services. Girls, particularly black females, are at higher risk for disciplinary actions and suspensions, even for minor infractions. Female students are susceptible to sexual harassment and bullying, with lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students at heightened risk.

  • Women of color have significantly higher maternity mortality rates as well as sharp increases in STD and HIV infection rates; they also contend with more limited access to reproductive health services (Domestic Violence Statistics, n.d.; National Organization for Women, 2006; National Women’s Law Center, n.d; U.S. Congress, 2016).

To place the United States in an international context, a recent Reuters survey ranked this country as the tenth most dangerous nation for women and the only one that would be considered a western democracy (CBS News, 2018). For the nine countries placed above the U.S., women contend with profound levels of sexual violence, economic inequities, human trafficking, lack of health, education, and welfare programs, and restrictions in access to public life. These and other realities for women inform the development and implementation of feminist practice (Finn et al., 2013).

Core Principles of Feminist Social Work

Feminist practice transcends all arenas of social work intervention, from micro to macro. Well-developed feminist approaches have been articulated for clinical, group, organization, community, policy practice, and collective protest methods (see, for example, Abramovitz, 2006; Butler-Mokoro & Grant, 2018, 1991; Charles, 2000; Cohen, 2003; Dominelli, 2002, 2019; Figueira-McDonough & Sarri, 2002; Finn et al., 2013; Hyde, 1996, 2005, 2008; Kemp & Brandwein, 2010; Mizrahi, 2007; Mizrahi & Lombe, 2007). Gender issues and gender-based oppression are woven through the Social Work Grand Challenges (for example, see Edleson, Lindhorst & Kanuha, 2015). These approaches to feminist social work are rooted in the theories, models, and skill-sets delineated by numerous scholar-activists (Kemp & Brandwein, 2010; also see Bricker-Jenkins, Hooyman, & Gottlieb, 1991; Figueira-McDonough, Netting, & Nichols-Casebolt, 1998; Gutierrez & Lewis, 1999; Hyde, 1996). To begin to appreciate the scope of feminist practice, the feminist journal Affilia, founded in 1986 as a “dedicated space for feminist women’s voices, underrepresented in mainstream social work journals”, suggests the wide range of issues and actions under the umbrella of feminist social work.

On the basis of this body of work, as well as historical and contemporary efforts to address the concerns of women, core principles of feminist social work practice can be identified (see Dominelli, 2002, 2019; Finn et al., 2013; Foster, 2018; Kemp & Brandwein, 2010; Mehrotra, 2010; Peterson & Lieberman, 2001; White, 2006). These core principles are as follows:

  • Gendered lens: An understanding that societal dynamics and relations shape, and are shaped by, gendered roles and responsibilities. With respect to practice, this means that the status and experiences of women need to inform the identification, analysis, and solution of problems, as well as the processes used. It is tempting to think that, since women are the majority of social work practitioners and clients, the profession automatically incorporates gendered analysis into interventions. This principle, however, speaks specifically to understanding the power dynamics generated by gendered norms, expectations, and behaviors, not merely women working with women.

  • Personal is political: One of the most well-known slogans of the U.S. women’s movement, this principle links the individual experiences of women with broader societal structures and trends. To understand and make this connection, the seemingly mundane aspects of what it means to be female and male, and how these roles are socially reproduced, must be deconstructed. This examination then informs the change process. One strategic implication of this is the demystification of knowledge; that women are “experts” in their own lives, and problem analysis is built on shared experiences. Narrative development and consciousness-raising are primary tactics in understanding and examining societal problems and concerns, and the impact that these concerns have on individuals. Practice is centered on facilitating and acting on these understandings.

  • Democratized structures and processes: Within feminist practice, the ways in which a goal or objective is achieved often is considered as important as the actual achievement. Attending to the process of practice, from a feminist perspective, means facilitating collaborative styles such as consensus decision-making and delegation or rotation of tasks. Structures, such as collectives or “flattened” hierarchies, are put into place to support such cooperative processes. While this principle has greatest relevancy for the development and maintenance of programs and organizations, it also pertains to the broader dynamics of networking and relationship building as central components in practice. The value of egalitarianism as critical to feminist social work is underscored. Commitment to this principle necessitates attention to process as well as product. This, in turn, can result in a tension between how a project unfolds and the outcome of the effort.

  • Inclusivity and intersectionality: While understanding the gendered dynamics essential in feminist analysis and practice, it is not the singular factor in comprehending the patterns of subordination and oppression in the United States and other countries. Feminists, particularly within the liberal wing, have appropriately been critiqued for insufficient attention to race, class, sexual identity, (dis)ability, age, and other dimensions of cultural identity. Western feminists have been challenged to decenter their foci and assumptions, and embrace a more globalized analytical framework, such that the knowledge and strategic skill building articulated by feminists in developing or global south countries are not just recognized but are fully promoted. Increasingly, feminism has committed to the elimination of all forms of oppression and the facilitation of full participation by bridging differences. This decentering necessitates working toward the understanding of social problems and solutions through perspectives other than that of white, middle class women. It also requires the close examination of the ways in which various forms of privilege are manifested in practice efforts (no matter how well-intentioned the efforts are) and to understand that an action or intervention that works for one group could have deleterious impact for another.

  • Care and caregiving: Because so much of women’s lives focus on providing care and support to others, feminists place relationships and caregiving at the heart of decision-making processes. Thus, relational responsibilities are factored into interventions and program development (e.g., the provision of child care at protest rallies). The bottom line is not fiscal or utilitarian in nature, but instead is based on how relationships are protected and facilitated. This nurturing dimension of feminism can be incorporated into all aspects of practice.

  • Transformational: Recognizing gender subordination does not mean that women are merely included in status quo arrangements, which are then left unaltered. Feminist practice seeks, and contributes to, basic structural and cultural changes in terms of gender roles, norms, and status. Moreover, it challenges the manifestation of other oppressions, such as racism, homophobia, ageism, or classism, and thus, is “transformational because it involves a vision of a society that does not exist and sees social, political, and economic change as necessary for that vision to be realized” (Martin, 1990, p.1990, p. 184).

These principles can have a powerful influence on practice, as the following examples suggest:

  • A clinician would work in partnership with individuals and families, helping them understand how the presenting issues or problems are connected to larger societal dynamics informed, at least in part, by gender.

  • A group worker would facilitate groups in a way that advanced shared leadership, collective consciousness-raising, and mutual aid with attention to gendered communication patterns and roles.

  • An agency director would promote organizational structures and procedures that supported team-building, participatory decision making, open governance, and minimized hierarchy, and would institute mentoring programs and other supports to enhance opportunities for members of subordinated groups (for example, women, people of color, and people with disabilities).

  • A community organizer would emphasize empowerment-oriented processes, promote democratic and inclusive development strategies, and facilitate leadership development particularly among underrepresented or marginalized group members.

  • A policy analyst or practitioner, in the institutional arena, would help reveal the gendered realities of social problems, such as the feminization of poverty or the many ways in which the state attempts to regulate the lives of women.

  • A social movement activist, on the societal level, would help articulate the connections between personal problems and broader structural trends so that a political solution could be generated, while being mindful that the voices of women and other oppressed groups not just be heard, but also drive the strategies and actions.

As these examples suggest, feminist practice is in concert with a multisystemic approach from micro through mezzo to macro practice; it complements and extends strength-based social work (Butler-Mokoro & Grant, 2018; Domenilli, 2002, 2019; Figueira-McDonough, Netting, & Nichols-Casebolt, 1998; Kemp & Brandwein, 2010; Peterson & Lieberman, 2001). It requires the practitioner, regardless of method, to be relational and open to other ways of knowing and understanding. Given the attention to gendered, and other, forms of oppression and subordination, feminism provides a much-needed politicized context for social work. Overall, social work would be well served by more thoroughly incorporating feminist theories and strategies into the development of practice frameworks and interventions.

Current and Future Trends in Feminist Practice

Feminism is dynamic, and as such, feminist practice is continuously evolving. The inherently reflexive nature of feminism has resulted in an ability to respond to new situations, including threats, as well as the revising of analyses to better reflect the historical and contemporary realities of all women (Hyde, 2008; Mohantry, 2003; White, 2006). Three recent trends can be identified as having particular relevance in the further development of feminist social work.

First, feminist practice (and social work in general) continues to grapple with the inclusion of race, class, nationality, and other social categories into gendered accounts. Feminist theory risks reifying gender, without careful attention to other social and cultural milieu. Yet to fully understand the dynamics of gender means attention to the ways in which all cultural attributes shape, and are shaped by, one another. This goal of becoming more multicultural should not be the task of lesbians, women with disabilities, working class women, or women of color; all feminists need to embrace this by developing multicultural efforts and conceptualizing multicultural practice frameworks (Butler, 2013; Fernandes, 2010; Thompson, 2010). The relatively more recent scholarship on intersectionality—a praxis grounded in the interaction and multiplicity of cultural identity components, greatly advances the multicultural and global perspectives within feminist social work (Collins & Bilge, 2016; Fernandes, 2010; McCall, 2005; Mehrotra, 2010; Shields, 2008; Walton & Oyewuwo-Gassikia, 2017).

Similarly, and arguments of American uniqueness or exceptionalism aside, the conditions of U.S. women need to be decentered and placed within a broader global context so that more robust theoretical frameworks on the status and progress of women can be delineated (Alexander & Mohanty, 2012; Basu, 1995; Dominelli, 2019; Finn et al., 2013; Mohantry, 2003; Moosa-Mitha & Ross-Sheriff, 2010; Newell, 2000; Rodriguez et al., 2015). Scholarship on the global south and the decolonization of knowledge, even if not explicitly focused on women’s initiatives, serves as foundation and framework for furthering feminist analysis. Efforts need to be extended to sustaining international feminist efforts through education, advocacy, coalition in ways building, and mutual aid. It also means that honor the work of indigenous leadership and communities. Interventions pioneered in societies and countries other than the United States and western democracies need to be understood and embraced. Some of the most insightful work on trauma and resiliency, for example, is based on the reconciliation, conflict resolution, and mediation initiatives efforts in Africa (Ensign, 2014; Hutchinson, 2016; Mama, 2012; Mbilinyi & Shechambo, 2015).

Second, feminist practice needs to continue the development of gendered analyses and actions, as opposed to limiting its scope to women helping women. While women are the primary practitioners and beneficiaries of feminism, a gendered framework can reveal how men who do not fulfill the masculine norms and dictates of society are penalized. This is clearly seen in the realm of social policy. When low-income or poor men deviate from the breadwinner role, they are marginalized by the welfare state. These men are not able to find services and often are subjected to public humiliation; the current welfare state is designed to keep these men subordinated. What Connell refers to as “the patriarchal dividend,” which privileges men, is available primarily to those men who enact traditional gender roles that often are reinforced by heterosexual, class, and race privileges (Connell, 2005; see also Messner et al., 2015; Okun, 2014). Conversely, men who enact nontraditional gender roles, such as stay-at-home dads or male child-care workers, elementary school teachers, and even direct practice social workers, are denied the full value of this “dividend.” More nuanced gender analyses, such as the scholarship that deconstructs binary gender designations and recognizes the fluidity of sex and gender identities, would enhance feminist practice (Aronson, 2017; McPhail, 2004). Feminists should continue to understand, learn from, and ally with sexual minority and trans communities.

Success on these two points will aid significantly in countering the third trend—the escalating political, economic, social, and religious conservatism in the United States and abroad (Abramovitz, 2006; Hewitt, 2010; Hyde, 2008; Mohantry, 2003; Reger, 2012; Rohlinger & Claxton, 2017). Since the late 1970s, the evangelical Christian right has made steady inroads into political, educational, medical, and employment arenas in the United States. In other countries, religious fundamentalists have seized power and installed their own regimes, with often brutal consequences for women (see Basu, 1995; Boonprasat-Lewis & Fortune, 1999; Newell, 2000). While women, especially in western democracies, may seem to enjoy more freedom than women in earlier decades, far too many women locally and globally suffer under repressive conditions. In the United States, for example, access to reproductive health service has been and continues to be denied and dismantled. Legislation and court decisions make it increasingly difficult to gain redress in matters of employment discrimination. Despite the claims of public officials, welfare “reform” has had devastating consequences for many poor and low-income women and their families (Abramovitz, 2006; Feldt, 2004; Hyde, 2008). Sexual violence against, and the so-called honor killings of, women continue, especially in war zones (Boonprasat-Lewis & Fortune, 1999; Newell, 2000). Economic globalization, particularly when accompanied by fiscal austerity measures, has continued old and created new forms of economic suppression and marginalization for women, especially immigrants and refugees without legal protections (Chang, 2000; Denzongpa & Nichols, 2019; Dominelli, 2019, 2002; Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2004; Ghosh, 2011; Wachter & Snyder, 2018). While these issues are framed on the macro level, there is significant, ruinous fallout for individuals and families. One’s mental, physical, and spiritual health, life opportunities, and sense of worth are tied directly to these concerns.

Feminist social work practice is a holistic framework that ultimately calls for the healing of all levels of society. It embraces and advances key elements of social change within social work, most notably empowerment and the elimination of oppression (Domenelli, 2002, 2019; Figuerira-McDonough et al., 1998; Finn et al., 2013; Kemp & Brandwein, 2010; Peterson & Lieberman, 2001; White, 2006). Rather than being viewed as obsolete, feminist perspectives can enrich one’s practice while simultaneously calling on social workers to address problems that impact most people in their towns and across their nations. Feminist social work practice, in its many forms, provides a powerful means to enact social work’s commitment to social and economic justice.

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