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The Rise of Feminine Psychology and Redefining Perspectives in Mental Health

Updated: Mar 6


By Amber-lee Buendicho


Psychology’s history is full of male dominated theories and perspectives and while several have been debunked, feminine psychology has led to broader concepts and approaches that have improved our understanding of the human experience. Pioneers in feminine psychology explained that early psychology only offered minimal insights in relation to females, where societal norms silenced and suppressed women indicating a lack of gender equality and scope (Leung, 2019). Once gaining momentum, feminine psychology significantly contributed to psychology as a field and is still relevant to the practice and theory today. Although, some critics say the methodologies used in feminine psychology are unconventional, the methodological approaches used evaluate and identify developed psycho-socio-cultural issues relating to women and psychological approaches and theories. Nevertheless, the argument stands that there could still be a sex issue in the field of psychology in terms of the disproportionate ratio of men and women in modern times, ultimately impacting theory, research, and practice as it comes from a one sex perspective, just like its history. In saying that, the importance of reflecting on gender bias and discrimination improves psychological perspectives regardless of sex and so, awareness of various human experiences is crucial for this field.


Historically, feminine psychology emerged and challenged original theories and ideas from typical esteemed, affluent, white male psychologists. Originally, psychology was dominated by males to the point females were prohibited from studying and even practicing, despite their interest and desire to pursue psychology. Eventually, women were accepted, though, never given recognition as a psychologist (Leung, 2019). By the 1900s, compelling and influential women such as Karen Horney, radically challenged the theories and ideas of past male psychologists, such as Sigmond Freud and his theory of psychosexual stages, female sexuality, and development. Horney exposed the biases and phallocentric views that misunderstood women, neglected to acknowledge their experience and rejected socio-cultural aspects (Leung, 2019; Miletic, 2002). Horney’s refutation of Freuds views of women went far beyond Freud himself and in her work details how women have accepted these masculine viewpoints themselves and can unconsciously endorse the power relations of their cultures, even if they are oppressive (Miletic, 2002). Overall, she emphasised that male realities cannot describe female realities nor define the female experience with the lack of female viewpoints in the field, and so, feminine psychology was born.



Picture of Karen Horney (died in 1952)


Fundamentally, feminine psychology breaks down the patriarchal framework that was commonly applied in psychology. It focuses on the political, economic, and psycho-socio-cultural issues that impact women, and to understand men and women more broadly while challenging masculine-biased views (Leung, 2019; Miletic, 2002). For example, up until the late 18th century, hysteria was considered exclusively as a difficult woman’s disease, a feminine disorder that could be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM), that included symptoms of depression, rage, anxiety, chronic tiredness, eating disorders and even pain (Ussher, 2013). From this, the psychological narrative continued to develop in ways that pathologised women’s experiences and resulted in sexism.


In recent times, the DSM added numerous female “disorders” including Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD). Its inclusion in the DSM-IV came with strong feminist opposition as Western cultural constructs of a woman’s premenstrual phase are considered a psychological disturbance, whereas other cultures do not classify premenstrual symptoms as psychological, but rather just regular biological symptoms (Ussher, 2013). In addition to this, these classifications have previously prohibited women from career opportunities such as physicians, pilots, and even presidents. These examples provide insight into the relentless psycho-socio-cultural narrative that women are erratic and unstable (Ussher, 2013). While psychological frameworks and theories are improving, it can be said that these psycho-socio-cultural narratives of women shaped contemporary views of gendered prejudice and discrimination and it is still an ongoing issue.


Illustration of the infamous Sigmond Freud conducting session with woman


Moreover, feminine psychology has been criticised for its overuse of qualitative research and its lack of mainstream hypothesis testing and experimentation compared to other areas of psychology (Gergen, 2008). Still, some argue that this area of psychology is always in transition and is designed to seek social justice, enhance women’s voices, and explore different ways of understanding the human experience (Gergen, 2008). Certainly, there are limitations to qualitative measures overall, however, when a theory requires further study, qualitative research is essential to explore its key concepts to effectively set up the framework for further quantitative examination and research.


Also, many conventional quantitative research studies provide insight into implicit concepts such as gender bias and stereotype threat (Miletic, 2002). For instance, Diehl et al. (2020) created and validated a gender bias scale to measure female leaders’ experiences and perceptions of gender bias and found gender bias to be harmful to female leader’s health and relevant organisational outcomes. On the other hand, qualitative research such as Miletic (2002) study, enhances the scope of socio-cultural impacts in the fields of psychiatry and psychology and further investigates subjugation and gender imbalances. Both these research methods have made significant contributions and advancements in this field, so, qualitative methods should not be discredited because it takes a slightly less traditional approach.


In the main, feminine psychology has been criticised for only discussing women, while men in psychology discuss both men and women, although imbalances exist (Miletic, 2002). Boysen et al. (2014) confirm that even though cultural shifts have changed the discourse on biological sex and mental disorders, the underlying bias has since remained the same. So, it is difficult for a theory or framework to emerge and not consider the origin of gendered psychological distress; suppression, misconduct, attitude, theories, pathologies, and treatment of women through a patriarchal lens, and this continued for centuries. Even now, there is substantial evidence to show that there are gender differences in mental disorders that lead to implicit biases and stereotypes. For example, Boysen et al. (2014) indicated that people perceived psychologically healthy men and women differently, where males were aggressive, independent, unemotional, and stable, and females were perceived as sensitive, submissive, emotional, and concerned with their appearance. Furthermore, women are perceived to experience more distress, fear, guilt, and sadness in comparison to men, who experience more anger and behavioural misconduct (Boyson et al., 2014). Unfortunately, mental illness is still highly stigmatised, and the consequence is that implicit bias is infiltrated in individuals and has impacted every facet of sex and gender.


Modern views of psychology and biological sex have made progressive steps toward gender equality and it has certainly become more open in recent years with the political climate being much more tolerant of dissension and disagreement (Boysen et al., 2014). Interestingly, there has been a rapid change in the field and now the proportion of men and women in psychology has become quite the opposite, whereby 2018, female psychologists had increased to 79.3% compared to 20.7% of male psychologists (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2021). For some, this shift is seen as a natural outcome of more women entering professional careers, however, others believe this disparity could affect theory and practice in the same way it did throughout its history with its loss of male perspectives (Cynkar, 2007).


Furthermore, Cynkar (2007) goes on to explain that while additional encouragement is required for more men to enter the field and to address this uneven gender issue, it is necessary to challenge worldwide psychology governing bodies and individual psychologists to keep the field as diverse as possible regarding theories, research and practice and continuing to meet clients’ needs regardless of gender. Therefore, psychology certainly has gender issues embedded in its history, however, worldwide psychological organisations are aware of the need for diversity now more than ever, and with overall criticism more tolerated in the field, diverse perspectives and practice can be achieved.


In essence, the legacy of male dominance in fields like psychology continues to influence how we perceive and address women's health today. Historical barriers to female participation in these disciplines have shaped the frameworks through which we understand and treat conditions affecting women. The lack of representation and recognition for female voices in early psychological discourse has led to a skewed perspective, often pathologising aspects of women's experiences that are rooted in socio-cultural factors rather than inherent deficiencies. This historical imbalance underscores the importance of embracing feminist perspectives and incorporating diverse voices into our understanding of psychological phenomena. By acknowledging and challenging the biases inherited from our past, we can work towards more equitable and inclusive approaches to healthcare and psychological wellbeing.



References:

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2021). Mental health services in Australia. Retrieved from https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/mental-health-services/mental-health-services-in-australia


Boysen, G., Ebersole, A., Casner, R., Coston, N. (2014). Gendered mental disorders: Masculine and feminine stereotypes about mental disorders and their relation to stigma. The Journal of Social Psychology, 154(6), 546-565. doi: 10.1080/00224545.2014.935028


Cynkar, A. (2007, June). The changing gender composition of psychology. Monitor on Psychology, 38(7). http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun07/changing


Diehl, A. B., Stephenson, A. L., Dzubinski, L. M., & Wang, D. C. (2020). Measuring the invisible: Development and multi-industry validation of the gender bias scale for women leaders. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 31(3), 249-280. doi: 10.1002/hrdq.21389


Gergen, M. (2008). Qualitative methods in feminist psychology. C. Willig & W. S. Rogers. The sage handbook of qualitative research in psychology. (pp. 289 – 302). RCN Publishing Company Limited. https://doi.org/10.7748/mhp.12.4.22.s23


Leung, E. (2019). Feminine psychology. Zeigler-Hill, V & Shackelford, T. (eds). Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_663-1


Miletic, M. P. (2002). The introduction of a feminine psychology to psychoanalysis. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 38(2), 287-299. doi: 10.1080/00107530.2002.10747102


Ussher, J. M. (2013). Diagnosing difficult women and pathologizing feminity: Gender bias in psychiatric nosology. Feminism & Psychology, 23(1), 63-69. doi: 10.1177/0959353512467968



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