LERNER: I was in graduate school in New York in the '60s, and the feminist movement was really gaining steam, but I was asleep or perhaps in a coma, and my only reaction was, "What does this have to do with me? I'm getting my Ph.D.; no one ever discriminated against me. If women want to get out of the kitchen, why don't they get out of the kitchen?" I went from New York to Berkeley, which was at the heart of feminism in the early '70s, and I still didn't get it. When I moved to Topeka, Kansas, in 1972 and came to the Menninger Clinic, necessity became the mother of comprehension, and I really got feminism. Oddly enough, it was in the land of patriarchy where I woke up.
RH: I don't hear much about feminist psychology in the field these days. If you agree with me, why do you think that is? Did feminism reach its goals?
LERNER: That's really an interesting question. There was certainly a phenomenal energy back in the late '70s and '80s when The Women's Project in Family Therapy, with Betty Carter, Peggy Papp, Olga Silverstein, and Marianne Walters, was so influential. As far as I know, the younger generation of therapists hasn't paralleled that force, but we've certainly kept feminist principles operative in our work, since gender is a filter that shapes our clients' sense of power, possibility, and place in the world. But one would have to be naive, to put it sweetly, to see the goals of feminism as having been accomplished. If you listen to any world report, violence against girls and women, and the erosion of the rights of women, is astounding worldwide. So I don't think for a second that we've accomplished our goals.
RH: So why is there so little discussion of feminist issues these days?
LERNER: I'm trying to think of how to say this without putting forth a sense of pessimism. I think that this is a time in the world, politically speaking, where people are very polarized and, frankly, quite nuts. There's an awareness of so many groups being oppressed, misunderstood, erased, and eradicated. I think sometimes we don't know where to begin to focus the principles of feminism, which are all about diversity, and inclusion, and tolerance of differences, and people having a place at the table.
There was a sense with the Civil Rights Movement and the Women's Movement that we could set things right, and there'd be a just world. I think there's a realization now of just how deeply rooted the problems are. That said, feminism is alive and well in psychotherapy. Consider, for example, The Stone Center at Wellesley College, The Feminist Therapy Center in New York, and The Multicultural Family Institute in New Jersey, directed by Monica McGoldrick. Then there are psychologist–activists like Jeffrey Kottler, who's set up a foundation to provide educational opportunities to girls in Nepal who'd otherwise be sold into sexual slavery, inspiring countless psychotherapy students to become activists. It's just that the challenge of making a just world seems like a larger task today—which is no excuse for throwing up one's hands.
RH: Given this tremendous need, how can psychology help create a more just world today?
LERNER: I'd answer that in one sentence: "Any way we can."
Ryan Howes, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, musician, and clinical professor at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, California. He blogs "In Therapy" for Psychology Today. Contact: email@example.com; website: www.ryanhowes.net.
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