In Praise of Women Healers

In the spirit of Women’s History month, I would like to acknowledge all of the women academicians, therapists, and writers who have contributed to the body of knowledge from which we therapists have developed a deeper understanding and appreciation for female psychology.  We owe a debt to a long list of women throughout history whose contributions have been invaluable.

When I first got my license, thirty years ago now, awareness of the female experience was just beginning to be expanded to include the prevalence of child abuse, particularly child sexual abuse and incest, domestic violence, co-dependency, sexual harassment, and rape.  These were topics that generated tremendous shame as it had long been taboo to talk about them or to confront the familial dynamics or social enculturation and complicity within which they occurred.  Prior to this, when women attempted to voice these experiences and the feelings they engendered, they were often disbelieved, characterized as “too sensitive”, their symptoms dismissed as “all in (their) heads”, or  labeled as “crazy”, and too often outpatient treatment consisted of the palliative prescription of minor tranquilizers which, in turn, often led to addiction. Women hospitalized against their will before the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, passed in 1967 and which gave us the familiar 5150 terminology that limits the circumstances and amount of time one can be involuntarily hospitalized, were often subjected to ECT and lobotomies in the 1940’s and 1950’s for “involutional melancholia”.  Before this, women could even be committed to sanitariums by their husbands for indeterminate periods of time.

The writings of women such as Alice Miller (“The Drama of the Gifted Child”; “Prisoners of Childhood”; “For Your Own Good”), Carol Gilligan (“In a Different Voice”), Susan Forward (“Betrayal of Innocence”; “Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them”), Jean Baker Miller (“Toward a New Psychology of Women”) to name a few, were very instrumental in helping the therapeutic community better understand these issues and more effectively treat women clients. Though not necessarily with conscious intent, the field had previously been dominated by the male viewpoint and the female perspective had been widely misunderstood and systematically invalidated.

Alice Miller, from whom John Bradshaw’s work is informed, exposed the toxic effects of what she terms “poisonous pedagogy”, a form of child-rearing which utilized psychological and physical abuse to achieve breaking a child’s spirit in order to induce obedience at any price.  Jean Baker Miller examined the power differential between men and women when writing about domination of males and subordination of women. Susan Forward revealed the emotional devastation and psychological harm that follows the betrayal of trust inherent in sexual abuse and validated the high incidence of incest and misogyny, noting how women can participate in their own mistreatment. Carol Gilligan reframed women’s moral development as springing from a relational sensibility, equal to the detached application of “justice” characteristic of male development, previously viewed as the standard against which to be compared.

The work of these women in the field of psychology draws on important earlier writing by feminists in the women’s movement that broke new ground re-evaluating commonly-held assumptions regarding women’s roles, abilities, and rights.  Further, they have examined intimate relationships and how they reflect and affect the attitudes of the larger culture, pointing out how a domination ethic and power differential between men and women is played out in both normal and abusive relationships, and more adequately explaining the common motivation behind rape (to dominate), for example.  Women writers such as Carol Hanisch (“The Personal is Political”), Kate Millett (“Sexual Politics”), Betty Friedan (“The Feminine Mystique”), Gloria Steinem (“Feminist Family Values; Outrageous Acts & Everyday Rebellions”), Germaine Greer (“The Female Eunuch”), Susan Brownmiller (“Against Our Will:  Men, Women, and Rape”), Rosemary Radford Ruether (“Gaia & God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing”; “Goddesses & the Divine Feminine: A Western Religious History”), and Mary Daly (“The Church & the Second Sex”; “Beyond God the Father”) have examined and questioned how woman has been portrayed negatively culturally and religiously and the impact this has had on women, society, and even the concept of the divine.

In turn, the work of these iconoclastic feminist writers was made possible by early feminists such as Susan B. Anthony who made countless speeches on women’s rights, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (“The Woman’s Bible”), Lucretia Mott (“Discourse on Woman”), Mary Wollstonecraft (“A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”), as well as many others who make up our rich herstory, who have championed the rights of women and questioned the laws and mores established by the male hierarchy and authority of their time.

We as women have a proud legacy as healers of the human spirit; we are wise to explore and celebrate it both for our own healing, growth, enlightenment, and self-esteem as well as for that of our female clients.  Hopefully this brief synopsis can spark an interest in exploring this topic in more depth and I invite you to do so in celebration of March as Women’s History month!

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