In the early 1970’s, women were for the first time permitted entry to graduate programs in psychology in Western universities. The laws were changing and the times were changing. I was one of those women and we were nothing if not eager to learn and eager to belong to the profession that had for so long denied us. But we soon found that our inclusion in the field was not going to be seamless. We saw things differently. Not just school itself, not just the all male faculties, but the very theories that we were supposed to be learning often excluded or distorted.
That is, we soon noticed that none of the popular theories of psychotherapy had really considered gender, in fact there was not even a word for it at the time. So before we could study it, we had to name it into existence, much like a new baby.We called it gender, borrowed from the romance languages. Perhaps it was not so important that una mesa was feminine and un sombrero masculine, but it turned out to be crucial difference when applied to human beings. That was our first big discovery and it meant that we had to then ask the question of gender to every theory and practice in the field. How does this approach treat gender?
Most ignored it with the glaring exception of the psychoanalytic approaches, that placed men and the phallus in the center of their theoretical map. However, they blindly chose to apply this theory to women also, so that men became the haves and women the always damaged and wanting have-nots.
The belief of Freud and his followers was that a woman who recalled being sexually molested was expressing an unconscious wish to have that occur, typically by her father. Remember that this is a theory developed by the father of the entire field, so why wouldn’t his perspective dominate his theory. It is perhaps no longer startling how much psychotherapeutic theory is drawn from the psyche of its inventor and the perspective of the father.
In fact, I long ago developed a theory from the perspective of the daughter and named it after Antigone, the daughter/sister of Freud’s Oedipus. It is too extensive to repeat here, but can easily be found online.
We women students proceeded boldly when we saw how important our perspective was to developing a psychology of everybody. Our next idea was a simple, but revolutionary, one. We decided, in therapy, to believe what women told us had happened to them rather than considering these reports to be fantasy or wishes.
The stories of sexual assault and rape, intimate partner violence, and other forms of terrorizing women came like a tidal wave until it was impossible not to see what was right in front of our eyes. We thought we had our eyes wide open, yet there was so much that we did not see because each of us thought whatever offense had happened only to her and that she should have been able prevent it. It took numbers, every woman’s voice to understand that these assaults were really occurring.
Even if she took it to therapy, she was advised to keep peace in the home by not complaining or that she imagined it, asked for it, dressed for it and was appropriately masochistic and, therefore, feminine. All these interpretations came through the cultural and psychological masculine gaze, known then as “objectivity.”
Why am I now harking back to the 1970’s, you may well be asking. “Now” is almost 50 years later and most psychotherapies have long labored over these issues and the dangers and offenses to girls and women on this planet. Yet we have come full circle to another level of “telling.” What was the private province of the psychotherapy office is “coming out,” led this time by celebrities and public figures, who are less likely to be dismissed as “unapologetically feminist and all that entails in certain confused minds
Of late, the reality of this situation has become so clear and obvious that more and more women have come forward to tell their stories, to say “Me too,” whether they are celebrities or ordinary women. There is power in numbers when you lack other forms of power. There are also men who are willing to stand up and say “I haven’t done enough to respect women.” Everyone knows that this has been going on in Hollywood, in government, in academics, anywhere that men have more power than women.
Yet no one can any longer deny women’s reality. The question is no longer “Did it actually happen?," but “Why did it take so long for women to support each other’s experiences and to claim them as their own?" "Why is it so difficult for many otherwise decent men to stand up against such “fake secrets?” It is differently dangerous for women and for men to break the rule of silence, but difficulties are being overcome and 50 years later, the private has become public.