Feminist Counselling

8 Jun 2007 |  for counsellors | by Bill, writer at UK & Ireland Counsellor Directory

Feminist counselling attempts to actively address the problems of social inequities, especially gender inequalities, in counselling. As befits a movement that challenges authoritarianism in the development of counselling and psychotherapy, there is no “authorised” definition of Feminist Counselling. Not so much a school as a mode of working (encompassing, e.g., humanistic, psychodynamic and Jungian approaches [1]), Feminist counselling is associated with the following attitudes:

  • striving for equality in counsellor-client relations: a recognition of power imbalances between counsellor and client, especially those associated with gender roles and expectations, and a greater use of self-disclosure, in particular related to the therapist’s own attitudes and experiences in relation to gender roles and other areas of social inequality.

  • consciousness-raising: the framing of client problems in terms of social roles and oppression. Fostering an awareness in the client of power inequities in society, especially those related to gender, but also in connection with class, race and other social imbalances.

  • interdependence: encouraging and valuing relatedness as important for psychological health and stressing the one-sidedness of independence as a therapeutic goal.

Historical Background

Feminist Counselling emerged from the realisation that counselling theory and practice had developed in a male-oriented, highly patriarchal social system. Freud, despite his huge contribution to the development of counselling and therapy, tended to lack awareness of his own patriarchal biases, leading to distortions in interpretation such as his ‘penis-envy’ theory: “If we delve deeply enough into the neurosis of a woman, we not infrequently meet the repressed wish to possess a penis like a man”. [2]

Even in his own time though, Freud’s views were challenged, and reinterpreted as a social problem. Alfred Adler, with his more developed understanding of the psychological effects of social status and power, stated:

“From the general problem of envy and jealously we may pass to the consideration of a particular type of envy: the envy of the female sex for the social position of the male sex. We find many woman and girls who want the privileges of being male, and thus take on male qualities and attitudes to achieve them. This attitude, which I have termed the ‘masculine protest’ is quite understandable. If we look at society impartially, we can see that men are all too often in the lead – more appreciated, valued and esteemed than women. Morally, this is inexcusable and ought to be corrected.” [3]

By the forties and fifties, voices challenging Freud’s standpoint on gender were being heard increasingly. Simone de Beauvoir noted the portrayal of women as The Other from the psychoanalytic point of view:

“Freud never showed much interest in the destiny of woman; it is clear he simply adapted his account from the destiny of man, with slight modifications. … He writes ‘the libido is constantly and regularly male in essence, whether it appear in a man or in a woman.” [4]

Commentators such as Karen Horney [5] and Erich Fromm [6] have suggested that womb envy or pregnancy envy might be more appropriate concepts than penis envy, as male envy of women's central, productive role in bringing forth life may give rise to an unconscious tendency to devalue women and to overvalue creative work in compensation. Fromm wrote:

“It sounds almost unbelievable today ... to read the following statement written by Freud ‘I could not point to any need in childhood as strong as the father’s protection’. Similarly… that the father’s death is ‘the most important event, the most poignant loss, in a man’s life’. Thus Freud gives the father the place which in reality is that of the mother.” [7]

However, attitudes persisted in relation to gender roles and the perception of women. Betty Friedan, writing in 1963, highlighted how psychoanalysis continued to reinforce gender inequalities:

“I sat in the office of .. one of the few women editors left in the women’s magazine world… ‘Many of us were psychoanalysed’, she recalled. ‘And we began to feel embarrassed about being career women ourselves. There was this terrible feeling that we were losing our femininity. We kept looking for ways to help women to accept their feminine role.” [8]

In the sixties and seventies, Feminism as a movement came to the fore, and by the late seventies and early eighties, organisations such as the Women’s Therapy Centre (www.womenstherapycentre.co.uk), the Stone Center (www.wcwonline.org) and FTI, the Feminist Therapy Institute were being founded. In 1978 The Directory of Social Change stated:

“The feminist critique of conventional therapy is twofold. Firstly psychotherapy exists basically to reinforce the idea that if a person cannot adjust to her social role, it is she who’s wrong, not society. Therapists argue that women want to be mothers and wives: they make women believe that this is all a healthy, normal female should desire and they are quite ready to help them when they don’t. Secondly, feminists have attacked the patriarchal character of a therapeutic situation. Most of the time, the therapist is male, and the woman will once more enter into a dependent relationship with a man, repeating her social, economic and emotional dependence on her father, husband, boyfriend, boss. Often therapy seems only to reflect power relations that already exist in society.” [9]

It could be argued that things have moved on since then, not least in that the majority of counsellors and therapists available, at least in the UK, are female. A 2004 review of one hundred entries with discernably conventional male or female names on the BACP “find a therapist” web page [10] suggested that the ratio was more than four to one in favour of women therapists. However, a study of counsellor perceptions from 2003 suggested that gender biases are still a significant factor in counselling practice [11].

Originally focussed on gender issues and envisaged as providing therapy and counselling for women by women, some versions of Feminist Counselling are now seen as encompassing a wider scope, covering issues of social inequality in general, beneficial to the counselling of men, women and couples, and practicable by both male and female counsellors. The FTI code of ethics, for example, is neutral as to the sex of the counsellor, and states:

“… a feminist analysis addresses the understanding of power and its interconnections among gender, race, culture, class, physical ability, sexual orientation, age, and anti-Semitism as well as all forms of oppression based on religion, ethnicity, and heritage.” [12]

Mary Ballou, Chair of the FTI Steering Committee writes of their ethical code:

“At the time it was originally written the preponderance of opinion was that Feminist Therapy was for and by women. This was in the late 80's. At the revision of the code which began in the early 90's, this point brought forth much discussion which [sic] a clear consensus. Failing a consensus we stayed with the female pronouns in the document. My own opinion shared by many is that the critical issue in feminist therapy is implementing the principles rather than the sex/gender of the client or counselor.” [13]

Aspects of Feminist Counselling

Equality in counsellor-client relations Given the emphasis that it places on the effects of social inequalities on the problems of clients, feminist counselling is particularly concerned with the effect of power imbalance in the counselling relationship, and goes to lengths to minimise this, such as trying to de-institutionalise the setting, and to dispel the mystique of the counselling process. Thomas Ringer writes:

“... missing from traditional psychotherapy, particularly with respect to women, is a negotiation of boundaries and a mutuality which is credible and egalitarian. In a more egalitarian, mutual therapeutic relationship, it is possible to share experiences, a process through which women’s experiences of oppression are validated…” [14]

In pursuit of this goal, counsellor self-disclosure is seen as important, and tends to be encouraged to a greater degree than in traditional therapy:

“Traditionally, a therapist’s disclosure is seen as spoiling the transference and to be avoided at all costs. However, in feminist therapy disclosure can open up the relationship to a real exchange and need not be merely about gratifying needs. ... It has been well demonstrated that all therapists have a predilection to interpret within their own autobiographical preference and that this will influence the nature of the relationship in an implicit way. Giving the woman some information enables her to engage with the therapist, and with the interpretations made, within a more enlightened framework.” [15]

This tendency for disclosure encompasses not only the counsellor’s feelings and experience, but also aspects of the theory and practice of the counselling process:

“One way of minimizing the power differential is to demystify aspects of the therapy relationship. … The therapist should be open to talk about her theoretical biases, her prejudices, and how her theory and practice view the psychology of women.” [16]

Consciousness-raising Feminist counselling approaches take the viewpoint that social factors tend to be under-recognised in women’s therapy. Client problems are perceived as often being grounded in the nature of society. Shere Hite writes:

“... some schools of therapy seem to blame women as a general principle by labelling their socially created problems with gender-biased and blaming phrases, such as ‘masochistic’, ‘dependent’ and so on – completely ignoring the concrete phenomenon of most women’s economic dependency during the most of the twentieth century ... and the effects this has had on women’s (and men’s) psychologies. A new psycho-cultural therapy should be developed.” [17]

It is typically seen as crucial in feminist counselling that such aspects of the client’s situation, especially in so far as they relate to social discrimination against the client, should be both acknowledged by the therapist and brought into focus with the client. Jocelyn Chapman states:

“Feminist counselling is not only about living more fully in the present, like most other forms of counselling. It is also about working towards the future. It is training people, men as well as women, for a society that does not yet exist; a society in which so-called ‘feminine’ values and way of thinking are valued as much as so-called ‘masculine’ ones. ” [1]

Interdependence Feminist counsellors tend to stress and value relatedness, and give it as much importance as the fostering of independence, if not more. Jean Baker Miller writes:

“... women’s sense of self becomes very much organized around being able to make and then to maintain relationships. … this psychic starting point contains the possibilities for an entirely different (and more advanced) approach to living and functioning – very different, that is, from the approach fostered by the dominant culture. In it, affiliation is valued as highly as, or more highly than, self-enhancement. Moreover, it allows for the emergence of the truth; that for everyone – men as well as women – individual development proceeds only by means of affiliation. At the present time [1979], men are not prepared to know this.” [18]

Hite’s research suggests that relationship-insecurity in women is typically a reaction to men’s tendency to distance themselves emotionally [19]. Unger and Crawford say that this is because the need for relationship, whose expression is misinterpreted as neediness in women, is also present in men but tends in their case to be repressed:

“Boys who define masculinity as the opposite of femininity tend to grow into men who devalue women and believe in the superiority of whatever qualities they define as masculine. They deny and repress their ‘feminine’ needs for closeness and connection with others, which reduces their ability to be warm, loving fathers and leads them to be satisfied with less closeness in relationships.” [20]

However, being masculine is not about suppressing those human qualities which are conventionally associated with women [21], and healthy independence is not achieved by suppressing one’s relationship needs. Baker Miller highlights the difference in emphasis on relatedness in feminist counselling by contrasting the assessment of a traditional male psychoanalyst, that a client, Jane, was needy and demanding, and a feminist counsellor’s assessment that her need for relatedness was healthy and appropriate:

“Over time, Jane progressed very well on two therapy sessions a week. Dependency never became an issue in these sessions. What the analyst had seen as dependency between the trainee and Jane was, in our view, the trainee's appropriate expression of caring and Jane's response to this caring. In fact, as her therapy came to an end, Jane reported that what had helped her most was her therapist's responsiveness to her strong feelings.” [22]

An outgrowth of this aspect of Feminist Counselling is Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT) which suggests that growth-fostering relationships are a central human necessity and disconnections are the source of psychological problems [23].

Ethics of Feminist Counselling

The Feminist Therapy Institute (FTI) publishes a Code of Ethics for Feminist Therapy [10]. The main points which differentiate FTI’s guidelines from the BACP Ethical Framework [24] is that it especially stresses issues related to cultural differences, oppression and power differentials, and that it encourages the therapist to:

  • intervene when the client’s rights are violated
  • educate the client regarding power relations
  • integrate feminism into psychological theory.
  • seek multiple avenues for impacting change, including public education and advocacy within professional organizations & lobbying for legislative actions.
  • facilitate the client’s navigation of the criminal justice system.

However, some commentators have expressed concern about the references to activism in FTI’s ethical code [25], reflecting an ethical dilemma which arises in feminist counselling relating to the perception of the “personal as political”. To the extent that the counsellor perceives the counselling process, as about “training people….for a society that does not yet exist” [1] it is arguable that the counsellor is using the client to further their own agenda for social change. Counsellors need to be very clear of their own motivations, so that boundaries can be respected and to ensure that the work being done is truly for the client’s benefit.

Another danger in relation to feminist counselling is that one’s attitudes to social injustice might degenerate into a political correctness that masks one’s own prejucides [26]. For example, although FTI’s ethical code is written to be applicable to both male and female counsellors, and membership to FTI is open to both, male counsellors are subtly discouraged from participating by the language used elsewhere in the site, e.g. "You ... want to join with other women ..." [27]; “FTI is committed to being an organization of women of varying backgrounds." [28]


Feminist counselling has developed and evolved over the last thirty years or so. Originally seen as counselling for women by women, and focussing on the social nature of many of the problems brought by women to therapy, increasingly practitioners have become aware that gender is only one of the dimensions of inequality found in society, and that in order to work safely with clients and avoid a one-dimensionality of approach, the feminist analysis must also address the understanding of power and prejudice in relation to race, class, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, religion and age.

This more evolved version of feminist counselling can be thought of as feminist not so much in terms of focussing on the inequities of patriarchy and the gender-role dimension of the problems of women, but in the wider sense of taking a stance against the inequities of all hierarchical social constructs, and maintaining a focus and awareness of how social inequities of all kinds contribute to people’s problems. Some of the connotations of the label “feminist” may make it difficult for this wider sense of feminist counselling to be properly appreciated by the rest of the counselling and psychotherapy community.


1. Chaplin, J. (1999) Feminist Counselling in Action. Second Edition. London: Sage p3-17.

2. Freud, S. (1977) On Sexuality p 279 Harmonsworth: Penguin Books Ltd.

3. Adler, A. (1998) Understanding Life, p76-78. Minnesota: Hazelden. (First published in English in 1927)

4. Fromm E. (1990) The Sane Society p 43-44. New York: Henry Holt and Company (first published 1955).

5. de Beauvoir, S. (1988) The Second Sex. p 70-71 London: Cox & Wyman (first published 1949).

6. Karen Horney and Humanistic Psychoanalysis. King's Psychology Network, 29-11-04. (Retrieved 27.12.04) http://www.psyking.net/id164.htm

7. Fromm, E. (1933) “The Male Creation”. Published in Love, Sexuality and Matriarchy: About Gender, p56 New York: Fromm International Publishing, 1997.

8. Friedan, B. (1965) The Feminine Mystique. p49. London: Penguin.

9. Collins, W., Friedman, E. & Pivot, A. (1978) The Directory of Social Change, Volume 3: Women. London: Wildwood House.

10. BACP “Find a Therapist” web page. (Retrieved 27.12.04) http://www.bacp.co.uk/seeking_therapist/list.html

11. Vogel, D.L., Epting, F., and Wester, S.R. (2003) "Counselors’ Perceptions of Female and Male Clients" from Journal of Counseling & Development Volume 81, Number 2, Spring 2003

12. Feminist Therapy Institute Code of Ethics, (1999). (Retrieved 26.11.04) http://www.feministtherapyinstitute.org/ethics.htm

13. Ballou, M. Private email correspondence. (Received 28.11.2004)

14. Ringer, T. Negotiable Borders. A Feminist Approach To Boundary Issues in Psychotherapy (Retrieved 27.12.04). http://individual.utoronto.ca/tdotrun/negotiable_borders.pdf

15. Maye T. (1990) "Fantasy or reality? The problem with psychoanalytic interpretation in psychotherapy with women" from (1990) Feminists and Psychological Practice. Burman, E. (ed). London: Sage.

16. Eichembaum, L, and Orbach, S. (1992) “The Feminist Psychotherapy Experience”, from Understanding Women. London: Penguin.

17. Hite, S. (1994) “Does Therapy Help? Why Therapy is Often Harmful to Women”, from Women as Revolutionary Agents of Change, p271. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

18. Miller, J. B. (1979) Towards a New Psychology of Women. Penguin Books.

19. Hite, S. (1988) “A New View of ‘Female Psychology’: Goodbye to Freud and Assorted Others”, from Women and Love. A Cultural Revolution in Progress: The New Hite Report. p118-121. London: Penguin Group.

20. Unger, R. & Crawford, M. (1992) Women & Gender. A Feminist Psychology. New-York: McGraw-Hill.

21. Dowrick, S. (1997) Intimacy & Solitude: Balancing Closeness & Independence, p66. Reading: Cox & Wyman Ltd.

22. Miller, J.B.& Stiver, I.P. (1998) The Healing Connection: How Women Form Connections in Both Therapy and in Life. Beacon Press.

23. Introducing Relational-Cultural Theory: A New Model of Psychological Development. Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Stone Center (Retrieved 22.12.04) http://www.tribal-institute.org/ovc/handouts/C10%20-%20Pamela%20Burgess- Responding%20to%20Violence%20Against%20Native%20LGBT-All%20Handouts.pdf

24. BACP Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy Rugby: BACP.

25. Satel, S. (1998) “The Patriarchy Made Me Do It”, from The Women's Freedom Network Newsletter,September/October, 1998, Vol 5 Number 5. (Retrieved 12.11.04) http://www.womensfreedom.org/artic552.htm

26. Thomas, D. (1993) Not Guilty: In Defence of Modern Man, Weidenfield & Nicholson.

27. Feminist Therapy Institute: Home page. (Retrieved 27.12.04) http://www.feministtherapyinstitute.org

28. Feminist Therapy Institute Membership Page. (Retrieved 27.12.04) http://www.feministtherapyinstitute.org/membership.htm

29. Equal Opportunities Commission: Services and your rights: what the law says. (Retrieved 20.12.04) http://www.eoc.org.uk/cseng/advice/services_and_your_rightswhat_the_law_says.asp

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