Memoirs of a Feminist Therapist by Joan Saks Berman, Ph.D.
(Editors Note: Joan Berman is a former CWLUer now working as a psychotherapist
and professional photographer. The photo shows Joan in the early 1970's)
"What is it like working with Indians? What kind of problems do they have? Is there a lot of alcoholism?" These are questions frequently asked when someone discovers that I work for the Indian Health Service (IHS). I find myself feeling frustrated when I try to answer these questions, wanting to say that they're just like other people, not aliens from another planet, but at the same time knowing that there are cultural differences which are important in the process of therapy.
This was the beginning paragraph of a paper I wrote about my work with Native American women, which was first presented at the Advanced Feminist Therapy Institute and the Association for Women in Psychology (AWP) annual conference. The paper was later presented at conferences in Managua, Nicaragua in 1987 and in Sidney, Australia in 1988, and after many revisions, was published in Women and Therapy in 1989. The published version has the title, "View from Rainbow Bridge: Feminist Therapist Meets Changing Woman."
I began working for the Indian Health Service on the Navajo and Hopi reservations in June, 1980. When I first left Chicago, my birthplace, for the Arizona desert, I felt as if I were going off on a Peace Corps assignment because I was going to an area that was geographically alien, to work with people whose native languages were not English, and whose culture and religion were unfamiliar. I wondered if I would be able to bridge the cultural gap in order to empathize with the emotional concerns of the people who would come to me for help.
I saw this as a crucial factor, since my previous experience with ethnic and racial minorities in an urban environment had led me to understand how culture can influence how an individual defines her identity and self-concept, as well as well as some of the effects of being a member of a group which experiences discrimination by the larger society. I see myself as a minority because of my own Jewish heritage as well as my feminist beliefs, and found it strange, once I was on the reservation, to be perceived as an Anglo, a representative of the dominant though somewhat external culture. My feminist perspective has aided me in seeing the similarities as well as the differences in working with women of another ethnic group.
Tuba City Indian Hospital had never had a feminist therapist on the staff, and word got around fast, for better or worse, without my having to advertise that was my orientation. It is my belief that a feminist integrates her politics into all aspects of her life, so that it is demonstrated by her behavior, and others soon come to recognize that aspect of her approach. I began working with battered women who were referred from the medical clinic, and unsuccessfully tried to get a group started, for there were more than enough referrals of this kind.
My first summer there, a college student in the CETA summer intern program sought me out to be her supervisor while she worked to do the groundwork for a battered women's shelter. At the time, the one in Flagstaff had not yet opened. Angie, a Navajo whose family lived there, went back to school in Flagstaff, but her work was continued by a couple of VISTA volunteers. We formed the Committee Against Spouse Abuse, and later participated in a Northern Arizona Task Force, a coalition of similar groups in communities both on and off reservations. I also was invited to speak on the psychological aspects of rape victims and their families during an all-day in-service training seminar on rape and sexual assault for hospital and school personnel.
I began studying the Navajo language at the local branch of the community college. The classes actually met in the high school in the evening. Navajo is a difficult language to learn and was used to relay secret radio messages during World War II. I read that it requires right hemisphere functioning of the brain, in contrast to most language ability which takes place in the left hemisphere. I hoped that as a left-handed, right-brained person I would have an advantage. It was my idea that some familiarity with the language would be an important aspect of cultural awareness which could aid me in understanding my clients, although Navajo interpreters were available when necessary. Among other things, Navajo, like Chinese and other Asian languages, does not differentiate gender in third person pronouns, so in English, he and she might be used interchangeably.
One of the activities of my job was to make home visits, often useful in facilitating follow-up on clients. It was a way to experience first-hand the isolation of a remote rural hogan (traditional style home) and the rustic living conditions, so different from the comfort and convenience of offices and middle class, urban style housing. I feel I was lucky to live in government housing, with electricity and telephones, and didn't have to haul water from miles away of chop wood for heat and cooking. The clients who came to be seen in the clinic had to travel long distances on dirt roads. There was no public transportation and frequently clients had no money for gas or in fact, no regular transportation except walking or hitchhiking.
I knew that the kind of work I was doing and the conditions of the environment were not well understood by the establishment professional community after I tried taking the oral exam for licensure in the State of California. I had already spent several years in Tuba City and wanted to move on because my patriarchal, autocratic psychiatrist boss was bad for my mental health. As part of the oral exam, I had to present a case from my practice, and I described a battered woman whom I helped to establish a life away from her abusive husband.
The critique I received of my presentation included such remarks as performing like a social worker because I aided her in such things as getting food stamps and looking for a job, so she could support her children. I was also told that I didn't demonstrate sufficient cultural sensitivity, although I was living immersed in the culture! Of course, during the exam I didn't think it was appropriate to talk about my leisure time activities, which included attending kachina dances in the Hopi villages, and all night Yei Bi Chai dances, a healing ceremony performed at the annual Western Navajo Fair. Perhaps I should have worn my turquoise necklace, tiered skirt, and handmade moccasins (an outfit which caused one of my feminist colleagues to ask if I had "gone native") to the exam.
When I finally left, it was by transferring to another IHS location in Albuquerque, where I am now. But in another sense, it was a longer road which took me to this place. Once, when I was in an encounter group workshop, I participated in a life-planning exercise that required me to write my own eulogy. Writing a memoir is something like that exercise, constructing by oneself, not only one's memories, but the ways one would like to be remembered.
Going back in the time machine, I remember when I first realized I was a feminist, which was Labor Day weekend, 1967. Prior to that time I had been a political activist, probably starting with the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) sit-ins at the University of Chicago in 1961, protesting the University's segregated housing policies. In May, 1965, I was arrested in Chicago's first anti-Vietnam War demonstration, after we sat down in the middle of State and Madison at 4:00 on a Friday afternoon. The arrests were immortalized in Studs Terkel's book, Division Street: America (pp.85-101), in his interview with Eva Barnes, who joined our demonstration.
Shortly after the arrest for disorderly conduct, my FBI file was started. In the fall, when I started to work on my doctorate at Northwestern University, I applied for a position as psychological assistant at the VA in order to support myself as I was going through school. At the time, the federal government employment form (SF-171) asked if you had ever been arrested (not convicted) for anything besides a traffic violation. The charges had not yet gone to trial yet, so I thought I had best be honest and described the reason for the arrest. Although in court we were convicted of blocking traffic and charged a $25 fine (the amount of our bail), the ball had already started rolling. The FBI interviewed my parents neighbors and all my past employers, back to the time I was in high school, but no one would say that I was a subversive.
During the next few years, I was active in Citizens for Independent Political Action (CIPA), a neighborhood organizing group. One of the other women in the group had read Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and had joined the National Organization for Women (NOW), but when she talked about the issues, I didn't think they pertained to me. After all, I was a graduate student preparing for a professional career, not a housewife with children. It was as a representative of CIPA that I attended the National Conference for New Politics in September, 1967. Madelyn Murray O'Hare called a women's caucus and it was during that meeting that I had my "click" experience. It suddenly became clear to me that if I was a full time graduate student and worked 20 hours a week in the VA mental health clinic, I shouldn't also be expected to do all the housework, cooking and laundry while my husband watched television or went to visit his buddies. The next time that he complained that he didn't have clean socks, I told him he could do the laundry himself.
It was not long after that the women of CIPA formed a consciousness-raising group, called rap groups in Chicago. In November, 1969, after a weekend conference at a rural retreat center, the Chicago Women's Liberation Union (CWLU) was formed out of the various rap groups around the city. The CWLU was from the beginning an anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and anti-capitalist organization and addressed itself actively to feminist issues such as equal pay for equal work, the legalization of abortion, and organizing neighborhood and workplace groups of women, as well as to consciousness- raising. The word feminism as we use it now was not in common usage at the time, especially among young revolutionaries. From the left (male-dominated) point of view, feminism was a bourgeois liberal movement.
A few months earlier, a group of women and men, psychologists, social workers, and "paraprofessional" mental health workers, who worked at the state mental hospital and community mental health centers organized a radical therapists collective, questioning the authoritarian and patriarchal stance of established treatment approaches and attempting to develop new ones embodying more democratic principles. The community psychology movement was gaining momentum and the back wards of the ancient state hospital, with their hydrotherapy and electroshock therapy rooms, were being closed down, now that people could be restrained by chemicals and didn't need locked doors to protect society from them.
It was during this time of social protest and the anti-war movement that Psychologists for Social Action got started, and within that organization, a Women's Consortium was formed in March, 1969. We decided to plan a symposium for the American Psychological Association annual meeting in August, 1969, in Washington, D.C. The title was "Woman as Subject," as contrary to women as sex objects. Since the symposium was not sponsored by one of the existing divisions of the organization, it was not listed in the official program. Instead, we plastered the public areas of the hotels with flyers advertising the event. And 400 people, mostly women, showed up. As amazing as this was to us, there were also two other workshops and paper sessions organized by women in other cities. The symposium presented by the Chicago group, which I chaired, discussed (1) the socialization of women and girl children, (2) the Women's Liberation Movement, (3) alternatives to marriage, (4) women in work and employment, (5) demythologizing sex-role stereotypes, and (6) female sexuality.
During the discussion, women started talking about discrimination that they had experienced in school, the job market, and in PSA itself. During the sessions, several petitions were circulated for signatures, demanding that APA revise its accreditation procedures to include an examination of discriminatory policies against women in the psychology department to be accredited. Other petitions demanded that APA examine its own practices to eliminate discrimination against women in its membership and services it offers, and urging APA to pass a resolution to the effect that abortion (still illegal at that time) be considered a civil right of the pregnant woman. The women who were in the central core of the excitement continued to meet in someone's hotel room, and it was out of this that the Association for Women in Psychology (AWP) was born.
Elaine Stocker and I wrote a description of these historic events which was published in Women: A Journal of Liberation (Winter, 1970). We had many long laborious meetings forming and reforming the structure of the organization and rewriting the bylaws, because birthing a non-hierarchal, feminist organization was not an easy thing, and we had few models. The Chicago women's caucus of PSA became one of the chapters of the organization, and because we already had experience in dealing with conflict and working together collectively, we were seen as a strong power within the AWP organization, sometimes being referred to as the "Chicago Monolith." We wrote papers on feminist psychology and feminist process together for future APA conventions, and we taught a course, "Psychology for Sisters," in the Liberation School of the CWLU. This was before women's studies programs existed in universities; as a group, we were inventing it as we went. We used mimeographed and ditto copies of papers from feminist publications as the readings (there weren't many Xerox machines around yet); few books on the subject had been published.
after AWP's 1970 midwinter business meeting, my husband and I went
to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade, to cut sugar cane in international
solidarity. Travel to Cuba was forbidden by the U.S. government, but
because of a court ruling, it was only illegal to take one's passport
there. Transportation was difficult, however. The Chicago contingent
traveled by chartered bus to St. John's, New Brunswick, Canada, to
board a Cuban trip. In spite of heavy security training and efforts
to deep our departure secret, FBI agents stood at the bottom of the
escalator in the Greyhound station, snapping the photos of each of
us as we descended to the departure gates.
Our cover story was that we were going on a skiing trip to Canada, but it was transparently fiction, since we didn't carry any skis with us. We spent the night locked in a liberal church in Boston, where we were to meet another group. By then our cover had been blown, and as we boarded the buses in the morning, TV reporters stuck microphones in our faces, asking questions about us. When I returned home two months later, my coworkers in the Mental Health Center told me that everyone knew where I went. The ship we traveled on had been converted from a cattle ship in seven days. Five hundred of us, North Americans and Cubans slept in bunkbeds dormitory style, and bathed in group showers if we could brave the cold to get undressed. The work of cutting sugar cane with a machete was the hardest work I've ever
The work of cutting sugar cane with a machete was the hardest work I've ever done, and my feet were swollen and blistered most of the six weeks we worked. I was usually so exhausted that I wasn't able to stay up at night to enjoy the entertainment provided us, old Charlie Chaplin classics or Cuban bands for dancing. This was also an intensely political experience, extending into the two weeks of travel throughout the island after our work was done. In our direct work with the Cubans as well as from the lectures provided for us on Cuban government, health care, education and many other aspects of Cuban life, I learned that a socialist revolution was not enough in itself to completely transform the condition of women in a society, although Cuban's women's lives were markedly improved in material ways. (Details of my observations were published in Women: A Journal of Liberation, summer, 1970, later quoted in Sheila Rowbotham's book, Women, Resistance and Revolution.)
It became clear to me that my political priority would be working for women in the process of changing society, whether or not we would ever have the kind of revolution which took place in Cuba. As we left Cuba, standing on the deck of our again reconverted cattle ship as we pulled out of the Havana harbor, I had the feeling that I was leaving home to go off to fight the Crusades in the "belly of the monster."
Returning to Chicago, my job with the Illinois Department of Mental Health, and political activity with the CWLU, I felt like an alien from another planet, something like the experience experienced by one of the characters in Doris Lessing's The Four-Gated City. It seemed that even women's fashionable clothes were a frivolous affectation when a "plain brown wrapper" was all that was necessary.
In June, 1971 my husband and I separated after nine years of marriage. We had no children, and since I had been the main breadwinner for much of the time, it was an intensely emotional experience, but not an economic hardship for me. I started saving money in big chunks out of every paycheck, and resigned from my job at the end of the year. I started a part-time private psychotherapy practice, and it may have been at this time that I began referring to myself publicly as a feminist therapist. I also began teaching women's studies courses on a part-time basis at local universities. I taught the introductory women's studies course as well as Marriage and the Family, Psychology of Women, Women in Socialist Societies, a seminar on utopian communal societies, especially looking at sex roles and the division of labor, etc. I was also a member of the board of the Women's Studies Program at Northeastern Illinois University.
In 1971, I heard Ann Tompkins speaking and showing slides of the Peoples' Republic of China. She had lived there from 1965 to 1970, during the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. I was thrilled and excited by what she said. Remembering fondly my journey to Cuba, I decided to find a way to go to China. I started speaking about it to other members of the CWLU, and gradually a group of women was formed. We started studying about China together and wrote a proposal for our trip which we sent off to the Chinese embassy in Ottawa, Canada, since this was before the Peoples' Republic of China was diplomatically recognized by the United States. Then we waited hopefully for a response.
I knew it was possible for Americans to travel in China if they were sponsored by some kind of Chinese organization, since two friends of mine had gone on a tour of Chinese factories and workplaces. During this process, President Richard Nixon made his historic trip to China, and we all sat around the television set, with our eyes glued on the screen, drinking in every sight and every bit of information. We were finally invited to visit in August, 1973, as guests of the China Travel organization, an "ordinary friendship tour." This was not the time we had chosen, and we had hoped to go as guests of the All-China Women's Federation. Nevertheless, we eagerly said yes, we would go however we could.
While in China, we visited factories and other workplaces where women were employed, health care facilities including an obstetrical hospital, rural communes, museums, arts and crafts workshops, department stores, government organizations, etc. In every place, we met with the Revolutionary Committee in charge of the administration, and were told of the ever expanding role of women in the organization. Sometimes we were told of the heroic struggles of women to achieve equity in the workplace and in the political structure. Although Chinese government policy was "Equal work for equal pay," it was not so easily accomplished in face of thousands of years of patriarchal tradition. In addition to formal visits where we were accompanied by local guides as well as the two women translator/guides who accompanied us throughout the three week trip, we were able to use whatever little spare time we had (usually early morning or evening) to wander wherever we chose.
We were also allowed to photograph almost every place we went, with the exception of the observation deck at one of the northern ports, and from the window of our airplane while traveling from one city to another. Our freedom to wander was limited only by our energy and our fluency or nonfluency with the language. Although I had studied Beijing dialect for about a year and a half before the trip, I found that it was still difficult for me to understand when Chinese was spoken. I was able to ask for simple things in the hotel with varying success, and attempt to converse with our local guides while riding in the tour bus or van, but did not feel confident in being able to find my way wandering the back streets of some of the most populous cities of the world. It was amazing, however, to be able to walk back to our hotel in Shanghai at 11 PM, and not feel danger in the dark streets.
The Chinese also felt that we had something to offer. We had a long meeting with delegates from the municipal women's association. We had been asked to do a presentation on the U.S. women's liberation movement. It was felt that it was a heavy responsibility to represent all the women activists in this way, and we stayed up almost all night to prepare our various parts of the presentation.
One place that we repeatedly asked to go to on an official visit was the Shanghai Psychiatric Institute. Our Chinese hosts politely refused to comprehend why we would want to go to such a place unless it was to gawk at the freaks. We tried to explain that we had a psychologist, several social workers and a physician in our group, as well as others who were interested in a political comparison of their mental health system with the one in our country. I knew of other Americans who had visited the psychiatric facility.
Finally, we were told that we would be unable to actually visit the Institute, but a meeting had been arranged between us and some of the staff of the hospital. The meeting took place in the conference room on the top floor of our hotel and lasted several hours while we learned about the use of Chairman Mao's little red book as a basis for group therapy, in conjunction with acupuncture and the standard psychotropic medications with which we were familiar. There was often also intervention at the patient's workplace and in his home neighborhood. Clinical psychologists were not part of the treatment team, and were apparently unknown in that country.
When we returned to Chicago, we continued to active as a collective. We thought about writing a book about our experience, and investigated the possibility with several publishers without success. We showed slides from our trip to almost any group who was interested, for a small fee, in order to earn money to pay back the loans made to several of our members for their travel expenses. We team taught courses on contemporary Chinese society at several local universities.
years later, in August, 1985, I had the opportunity to travel to China
again. This time it was with a group of women psychologists from all
over the country (and Canada), under the aegis of the Division of
Psychology of Women of the American Psychological Association. We
were the guests of the Women's Association, and in Beijing stayed
in their guest house, which had once belonged to the emperor. One
of the women who had been our guide during our 1973 trip was now a
director of the Women's Association. We again visited many interesting
places, this time including Buddhist temples and famous Chinese rock
I found that the introductory presentations at each site were not so thoroughly politicized now that the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was over, as when I had been there before. And, we were able to visit the Psychiatric Institute for a full tour this time! We presented papers at two conferences this time, having been asked to repeat it in a second city because we apparently made such a good impression in the first city. Our papers at the conferences were based on the research that had been done by feminist psychologists in the intervening time, and we covered topics we thought would be of interest to Chinese women. These included the effects on children of growing up in a one-child family and the dual career couple.
In 1982, the founding meeting of the Feminist Therapy Institute was held in Vail, Colorado, at the end of the ski season. Each of us attending had been encouraged to prepare a presentation. One of the papers presented was about multiple personality disorder and it set my head spinning because I began to think that one of my patients might fit that diagnosis. The prospect of working with such a patient provoked a great deal of anxiety in me, because it seemed so bizarre, and so difficult. My own paper was about the ethics of dual or overlapping relationships. It was later expanded into a chapter in FTI's first book, Handbook of Feminist Therapy: Women's Issues of Psychotherapy. This led to another article on the same subject published in another book by FTI, Feminist Ethics in Psychotherapy. Membership in FTI has kept me in touch with some of the most exciting women in feminist therapy, and has encouraged me to keep writing for publication, something not encouraged in my job as a clinician.
Back in 1974, I was asked to participate in a Bachelor of Arts research project by answering a questionnaire (and being the natural archivist that I am, I saved a copy of my responses). At that time, my definition of feminist therapy was:
As to whether or not a male therapist could be classified as a feminist therapist, I explained my negative answer in this way:
While I prefer to work with women clients, there are some male clients whose concerns include overcoming the negative aspects of male socialization and sex-role stereotypes, and/or find themselves in conflict with the larger society's values and expectations for their behavior. Feminist therapy might be especially useful for male clients who identify themselves as gay or who are struggling with aspects of their sexual identity or the problems they encounter related to their sexual preference." I found it difficult to answer with a simple "yes" or "no" the question of whether a feminist therapist deal with male clients' problems adequately:
Finally, I distinguished between feminist therapy and humanistic therapy in this way:
To these definitions, I would add that a feminist therapist is not an armchair practitioner and theoretician. She participates in activities which attempt to change and improve the society's treatment of and attitudes toward women and men.
Among my own recent activities has been participation in a task force working to write and promote state legislation criminalizing therapists' sexual exploitation of their clients. Although this issue was first brought to my consciousness as early as 1970, when Phyllis Chesler spoke about it while working on her book, Women and Madness, it continues to be a violation of the basic trust necessary between client and therapist. Women who individually attempt to bring charges against therapist perpetrators are often invalidated in ways similar to those used against other victims of sexual abuse and sexual assault.
In a recent newspaper column, Sally Quinn, a Washington, D.C. journalist, wrote that "women think feminist movement is out of touch," and uses as examples Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, and Patricia Ireland, the new president of NOW. She concluded by saying that, "The truth is that many women have come to see the feminist movement as anti-male, anti-child, anti-family, anti-feminine." What she says both angers and disappoints me. Sally Quinn is one of the women journalists who directly benefited from AWP's early media policy of speaking only to women reporters.
I remember that she was one of those who covered the news of AWP's founding. It was the media that made people like Gloria Steinem a star, not the feminist movement. I never knew that Jane Fonda and Barbra Streisand were especially respected as women's movement activists. But more importantly, if it is true that women have come to see the feminist movement so negatively, it is because of the distorted and biased way it is still represented in the media, included television sitcoms and docudramas and male-directed movies from Hollywood.
It is men who hate women and children, as evidenced by rape, woman battering, child sexual abuse, and forcing women and children into poverty by not paying child support. And yet many women are still male-identified because of the greater economic, social, and physical power men still have, after all these years. (It's been many years since Gordon Allport wrote about how the oppressed identify with the power of the dominant class or caste.) Rather than being anti-child and anti-family, it is the feminists who have raised the nation's awareness of issues of child abuse and woman abuse, and have founded shelters and rape crisis centers with many hours of volunteer sweat before municipal governments and the United Way decided to fund them.
doesn't say women shouldn't have babies, but that they should have
a choice about if and when to have them, and to have child care centers
and other social institutions to support their decision and still
be able to support their family. Feminism is, after all, about having
the freedom to make choices, choices about whether to marry or not,
choices about sexuality separate from reproduction, that is about
being heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or celibate, choices about
work, about education, about health care, and about safety. Is this
a very revolutionary idea? If so, then feminist therapists are subversives.