Spring 2018, WST4935/6935 Women and Therapy

Description and Goals

Contemporary “psychology” had its origins in the 19th century treatment of mad women.  Today, men constitute the bulk of in-patient mental health clients, while the vast majority of out-patient services go to women, who are diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and related somatic complaints at approximately three times the rate of men.  Unsurprisingly, women are the largest consumes of “self-help” culture as well.  And at the same time, the American Psychological Association estimates that 75% of postgraduate students in psychology and related fields today are women. This class examines the relationship between women and therapy as it has evolved since the 19th century, looking at women both as patients and as practitioners. While attending to the bio- and neurological dimensions of mental illness, it is grounded in a social constructivist approach, and draws on history, literature, and feminist and critical theory as well as clinical writings. Attention will be paid to traditionally “female complaints,” including hysteria (and its contemporary analogue, borderline personality disorder), eating disorders, and depression as well as to the innovations of feminist therapy and multicultural counseling. Students will do weekly short papers and a substantial final project. Although the class will not dwell at length on the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, the class presumes some knowledge of Freud, if for no other reason than to understand both his continued utility and the feminist critique of him.  Students should purchase and read Freud for Beginners (Appignanesi and Zarate; available through amazon.com) in preparation for the first class meeting. If you’re curious, you can see What Past Students Would Tell Prospective Students about Women and Therapy here.


At the close of our fantastic semester, we each carved out a personal “action plan” to guide our future personal, education and career, and broader community commitments. Below is a compendium of responses, compressed to eliminate repetition and edited for clarity.  (Identifiable responses were not published.)  

One thing I plan to do differently in my personal life is….

Bring information from this class into pre-professional organizations I belong to and use it to raise discussion about gender and power in the mental health community…talk about bell hooks with my family and friends…become more activist so I can stay informed and be a change-maker…create a campus group that advocates for improved mental health resources on campus…use social media to share progressive information…empathize better with family, peers, and friends, using historical context to understand how things are affecting them…recommend to friends (especially males) and my sister that they take a feminist class to open their minds…engage in more activist work for social change and encourage others to do so too…get out of bed every morning.

One thing I plan to do differently in terms of my education and career is…

Take additional classes on gender and feminism so I can incorporate their insights into my career as a counselor…be more critical of the psychiatric and psychological professions’ discussions of women and sexuality…add a Women’s Studies major so I can better serve women as a researcher/clinician…get a Master’s in Women’s Studies so I can be more effective as an activist for women’s mental health…employ a feminist/multicultural stance in my practice, rather than doing classic CBT…use my peers’ work to enhance my understanding of women’s mental health issues and “cultural competence”…pursue a career that allows me to focus on my own well-being… pursue a Phd in Human Sexuality…look at the medical profession with a more critical eye…think about writing a feminist book instead of getting a Phd in Psychology.

One thing I plan to do differently in the broader community is…

Read self-help more critically and encourage others to do the same…be more open-minded and understanding when loved ones experience emotional or mental stress…reflect on the social issues that may exacerbate my mental illness and think about how activism against the system may alleviate some of my symptoms…ask more questions in therapy…delve more deeply and in a more explicitly feminist into my personal stake in the clinical areas I hope to practice in…appreciate existing processes and progress, while staying informed…continue to think about intersectionality in order to be more aware of how to engage folk from different communities and grow from that engagement…examine the forms of oppression at work in my own life rather than participating in an internal discourse of blame and pathologization…find a way to merge the science/positivist point of view with more feminism/social constructivism..not be afraid to creative, play, think “outside the box,” and write shitty first drafts.