But What Have You Done For Me Lately? - Women and Psychology - Edited








Meg Smith

Alternatives are normally proposed when an established body of knowledge fails to be relevant to the needs of the current situation. In Australia women are still trying to get courses relevant to women into institutions of learning. It is still considered rather radical to suggest that women might be subject to different psychological pressures than men and hence merit some study.

Consider the current state of women's studies in Australian universities. A male professor of sociology is currently giving a course on theories of women's liberation despite a department with some of the best women academics in the country. Sydney University went on strike to support the right of two women postgraduate students to give a course on feminist thought. A general studies course on women's liberation currently running at the University of New South Wales has met with little enthusiasm from the predominantly male students. 

Consider the undergraduate psychology courses. Such courses are normally devoted to generic topic areas such as personality, motivation, learning, statistics, child development and abnormal behaviour. Typically, women appear only in the child development areas under topics like maternal deprivation or the psychological effects of breast feeding on the child. Or in the abnormal psychology section under personality disorders such as hysteria and sexual delinquency. No mention of Niles Newton 's studies of breast feeding and its relationship to the woman's sexuality. Or of Matina Horner's work on female achievement and why women fear success. Or even why so many more women than men are hospitalised for 'nervous disorders'.*

Most of the current criticism of psychiatry and psychology in Australia has been directed towards the practice of psychosurgery and behaviour therapy using aversive techniques.— While such criticism is valid, such procedures constitute only a small part of current therapeutic practice. The real oppression of women and other minority groups by psychological practice stems from the assumptions on which research and hence therapy is based. Ann Winklert notes that psychologists have frequently based their research on the assumption that the behaviours observed and required of males and females at the present time are the most natural and desirable. 


Based on Phyllis Chester's work in America Women and Madness (Nelson, Doubleday, 1973). To my knowledge, no one has yet done a comparable breakdown of patients in psychiatric hospitals in Australia.

See for example, 'Intellectual Poofter Bashers' by Sue Wills in Camp Ink, Vol. 2, No. 11, and 'Lobotomy or psycho civilized woman' by May in Vashti's Voice, No. 4, July, 1973. Ann Winkler, The underlying values of research on sex differences. Unpublished mss., Macquarie University, Sydney, 1973.


Behaviour Therapy techniques are far more effective in changing behaviour than person-oriented techniques. But both techniques can be oppressive if the goals of therapy are decided by practitioners who bring their own prejudices into the question of what is a desirable outcome of therapy. And what society regards as natural, desirable and acceptable behaviour may not be the most adaptive for theperson.

It is not only the use of lobotomy and aversive therapy in treating women that has estranged the women 's movement from psychology and psychiatry. Helen Moloney has argued that psychological evidence is often used to keep women in the place where the therapist thinks she ought to be.*

The literature on abortion is one instance where psychological evidence can be manipulated to suit the bias of the author. Not just in obviously biassed collections such as The Politics of Abortion by Paul Duffy, S.J.t, or the Abortion Law Reform Association's Abortion: The Unenforceable Law, but in respectable textbooks like Jeffcoate's Principles of Gynaecology which is listed as a textbook for final year obstetrics and gynaecology courses in medicine. For example : 

'maternal instinct is so strong that permanent remorse and regret are left in the minds of ten percent of women who agree to the operation. When the indications for the termination are flimsy this figure rises to twenty-five to fifty per cent.' §

No research evidence is cited to substantiate this statement. Would students reading this have any way of knowing that 'maternal instinct has never been proved to exist or that 'permanent remorse and regret' can just as easily be induced by the horror and guilt of the doctor as by the effects of the operation itself? Or take Beverley Raphael's 11 paper on the psychosocial aspects of induced absortion in which she explores the motives of women who become pregnant and then seek an abortion. Most of the suggestions made to help the doctor counsel the woman are based on the assumptions that 1 she had definite reasons for getting pregnant in the first place these include self punishment, replacing a loss, depression, childhood deprivation, hostility and uncertain femininity; and 2 she will feel a sense of feminine failure after the abortion. If she doesn't, it is unconscious and the doctor is urged to elicit these feelings.

Unfortunately, the number of feminist psychologists, doctors and other professionals who can fight the anti-feminists on their own ground is pitifully slim in Australia. Judging by the enrolment figures in psychology at the University of New South Wales in the last two years, this situation is not likely to change in the near future. The trend has been for women to outnumber men in the undergraduate years but for men to outnumber women by the time the students reach postgraduate level. Even then more women go into clinical vocational courses whereas men go into research. The end result is that female practitioners base their work on theories formulated by men.

The women's movement in Australia has attracted quite a few female academics but not very many female psychologists as yet. The time will come when previously non-feminist academics suddenly realise that the women's movement is worth studying after all and change their stance to fit in accordingly. At the present moment, women academics are divided between those who assert that they made it without women's liberation so wha t's wrong with you; those who are content to sit on the fence and occupy the lower levels of academe; and those who belong to women's groups and are usually regarded as anti-intellectual, dogmatic zealots. According to Leffler, Gillespie and Ratner** who studied the phenomena in America, the first two groups should soon start proving empirically what the third group already knew from the testimony of women in the movement.

Much research has been done to identify sex differences in intelligence, creativity, logical reasoning , response to erotic stimuli to name but a few areas. But very little research has been directed at the causes of such differences. More importantly, theories are based on such differences. The data that girls do less well at logical reasoning tasks becomes a theory that girls cannot reason as well as boys which in turn becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as the system adapts itself to steer the girls into easier areas. Women know that the reason for their poor reasoning lies with teachers.


Helen Moloney, How Psychiatry Puts Women Down. Paper presented at the Geigy Psychiatric Symposium, Sydney, August, 1973.

IPaul Duffy, The Politics of Abortion. (Society of St Paul ; Homebush, 1971).

T. McMichael, (ed.) Abortion: the unenforceable law. (Abortion Law Reform Association, Melbourne, 1972.)


T.N.A. teffcoate, Principles of Gynaecology. 3rd ed., (London, 1967) p. 807.

Bever l ey Raphael, 'Psychosocial aspects of induced abortion'. Journal of N.S.W. Association for Mental Health, Vol. 5, No. 1, Summer , 1972.

Allan 011ey, They told me not to leave a stone unturned but look at what crawled out from under. Mimeo mss., University of

**N.S.W., Sydney, 1973.


As Ann Lefler. Dair Gillespie and Elinor Lerner Ratner describe the present situation in America where the women's movement has become respectable. 'Academic Feminists and the Women's Movement', The Insurgent Sociologist, Vol. IV, Fall. 1973. who didn't think it important that they do as well at mathematics, parents who gave them dolls instead of construction toys and male friends who thought that brainy girls were unfeminine. But a researcher who has never had any of these experiences is going to see things far differently and come up with theories like maybe girls aren't as motivated as boys.

Women are often seen psychologically as im perfect caricatures of men. Until Matina Horner's classic work on why women don't achieve, the confusing and often contradictory findings on 'achievement motivation' in women were ofteninterpreted to prove that women were incapable of achievement. The 'pathological' reactions to stories of successful women were quite logical solutions to a double bind situation: a woman is taught that it is good to do well academically but along the way she learns that if she does, she is competing with men who will reject her if she continues to compete.* 

Even if women are not seen as imperfect caricatures of men, the assumption that they should be complementary to men is the basis on which many therapists treat their women patients. Inge Broverman and her colleagues have shown that many therapists, both male and female, have different standards of mental health for men and women. Their standards for a healthy adult man were similar to those of a healthy adult but their standards for a healthy adult woman differed from both by being more submissive, emotional, sensitive, dependent and less competitive. Such characteristics may be complementary to masculine characteristics but they are certainly not valued by society. Even supposing that a woman's therapy is 'successful', she will soon learn that she is still not valued by society and still remains amongst the  powerless. Which is likely to drive her to seek more 'therapy' when she breaks down again. Such women either go meekly from one therapist to another or join the ranks of the bitter, aggressive, suspicious women who Ainslie Meares writes off as 'hysterical women's libbers', t and Beverley Rap- hael analyses as women who are incapable of channelling their femininity and sexuality. §

Again, little has been done to work out why clinicians have different standards of mental health for men and women or how to correct such bias. It is not enough merely to state that it is so and put it down to our sick culture. As Sandra and Daryl Bern have pointed out, most people are uncons- cious sexists anyway and the hardest battle for the women 's movement is going to be converting the liberal middle class who vocally support women's liberation but still think that women are better at organising someone to do the housework and still feel embarassed about asking for paternity leave.

It may be fashionable at present to criticise therapy and psychology but the fact remains that there are still people who feel they need some sort of mentor to help them handle their current situation. Maybe society is all wrong, maybe women and other minority groups are misunderstood by the powerful but it is not going to change yet.

In what ways can change be initiated? First, there needs to be a radical restructuring of the way psychology is taught. At the present time, all the non-controversial, basic material is lectured to captive audiences within universities and other tertiary institutions. Such audiences absorb psychology to help them 'understand' children in schools, patients in hospitals or workers in industry. The courses are geared to the potential employers of psychologists, not to the needs of the people who go to psychologists. For example, there is a heavy emphasis in most courses on psychological assessment and statistics. The young graduate is more able to classify people on the basis of their behaviour than to help them change their environment or help them adjust to it.

Secondly, psychologists should work on both sides. Very few industrial psychologists are employed by unions which means that workers cannot hope to fight the ways in which management manipulates them. No psychologist should work in an institution unless she or he has first been an in mate of that institution or at least felt what it is like to be on the receiving end of therapy. Unfortunately, being a counsellee still carries considerable stigma unless one is undergoing psychoanalysis as a 'training analysis'. Few therapists could admit that they had sought help at sometime. With the introduction of the pseudo-patient technique* it is rapidly becoming acceptable to admit to other psychologists that one has been a pseudo-patient but not to medical practitioners.


Horner, Matina. The motive to avoid success and changing aspirations of college women.' In J.M. Bardwick, (ed) Readings on the psychology of women (New York, 1972).

I.K. Broverman, D.M. Broverman, F.F. Clarkson, P.S. Rosenkrantz, and S.R. Vogel, 'Sex role stereotypes and clinical judgements of mental health'. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 34, No. 2, 1970, pp. 1–7.

Or used to. He now regards them as 'women at the crossroads of social and psychological evolution' but who nevertheless still need a (male) psychiatrist to tell them where they are going. See The New Woman (Fontana Books, 1974) which is a fantasy on how to fit psychologically healthy women into ill fitting stereotypes of feminine and masculine behaviour.

Raphael, Beverley. 'The non liberation of the liberated woman'. Paper presented at the Geigy Psychiatric Symposium, Sydney,

August. 1973. She argues that women's liberationists are so vocal because they cannot channel their creativity and sexuality

into proper feminine areas.

Ber n, Sandra L. and Bern, Daryl J. 'Case study of a non conscious ideology: training the woman to know her place.' In Bern,

D.J., Beliefs, Attitudes and Human Affairs. (California, 1970)


The reason being that so far only doctors have been investigated and are still very sensitive about it. Psychologists resort to hiding behind roles as much as any other profession. In my own training I was told that it is perfectly correct and even desirable to cite instances of my own sexual experience to a client but certainly not to share my own experience of anxiety and breakdown. If the reasoning behind such disclosure on the part of the therapist is to assure the client that the present situation is transitory and that it is possible to feel differently, then the two situations are identical.

Just as a woman who fears she is frigid needs to know that other women have overcome this, so a person who is depressed or suffers panic attacks, needs to know that it is possible to recover and learn from the experience. One of the most prevalent myths among psychiatric inmates is the belief that once you have had a nervous breakdown you are somehow tainted for life, precisely because no one ever admits that they ever had a breakdown if they succeed in getting over it, and because therapists urge patients not to associate with expatients and to mix with 'healthy' people. Thirdly, less emphasis should be placed on qualifications and more on the effectiveness of therapy. It is not necessary to complete four years of university to become a good therapist. The sort of training acquired at Australian universities equips one for research rather than therapeutic effectiveness. The only way to prevent quacks such as scientologists capitalising on people's naivety is to remove that naivety. There are plenty of qualified practitioners around who are just as dangerous as scientologists and their ilk. People usually go to psychologists because they are referred by doctors or other counsellors. And most professional codes of ethics prohibit one practitioner publicly criticising another. Clients, of course, have no validity. If you are sick enough to go to a therapist in the first place, you are probably projecting your own inadequacies on to the therapist if you criticise the treatment you get.

If enough people complain then groups can be formed to demand better treatment. Such groups that have been formed in the past have usually been fully occupied with trying to provide an alternative to the treatment meted out by professionals. Although a viable alternative to professional therapy is still vitally important, a far greater need exists for a reasonable way of ensuring better treatment from anyone who purports to be a counsellor. Perhaps counsellors should advertise their biases or better still, they should be asked to state their views on various issues.

It is not easy for any oppressed group to fight the system. The uneducated, the emotionally disturbed and the poor are the least able. For many reasons, women fall into these categories far more than men. Oppressed groups usually withdraw to learn ways to cope with the system. This, so far, has been one of the purposes of women's consciousness raising groups, gay liberation groups and expsychiatric patient groups in Australia. Groups formed to change the system usually include at least one professional who knows enough of the system to see its shortcomings and, more importantly, its need to change. This has been partly true of Control, the group which was instrumental in setting up the Leichhardt Women's Health Centre; the Feminist Psychology Group and the Alternative Psychology Group.

It normally takes some time for groups outside the established institutions of society to trust each other and to learn to work together. Women working in psychology can identify the origins of the assumptions about women but only after listening to other women. Non-professional women can do far more since they are free of the restrictions by which professionals are hampered. The harder one works to fit into the existing system, the more reluctant one is to jeopardise that position by identifyin g with radical elements. Without critical feedback it is very easy to rationalise why therapy doesn't work : she (or he) wasn't motivated you didn't charge enough people don't think they are getting worthwhile therapy unless they are charged a lot of money. Such statements reflect a basic unwillingness to recognise that something is wrong. It is about time to point out where the wrong lies.

Winkler, R.C. Research into mental health practice using pseudo-patients. Paper presented at the Geigy Psychiatric Symposium.

Sydney, August, 1974.

t See letter to the Editor, Sydney Morning Herald, May 17, 1974, by Professor D. Maddison; letter to the editor, The Australian,

18 Dec. 1973 by Dr. Wylie Gibbs; and The Australian GP Journal of the General Practitioners' Society in Australia) May, 1974.



Back to top