Women on the edge of a breakthrough

April 4, 1997

Jane Ussher argues that there are still important female issues that lack proper recognition in psychology

In 1985 a group of women psychologists, despairing at the state of British psychol-ogy, submitted a proposal to form a Psychology of Womensection of the British Psychological Society. They had every reason to complain. For although women were in the majority within the discipline, they were markedly absent from positions of power. Women made up approximately 80 per cent of undergraduates, 60 per cent of graduate students and 80 per cent of those at the lower levels of clinical and educational psychol- ogy; but they represented only 30 per cent of lecturers, 15 per cent of senior lecturers or readers, 3 per cent of professors and 10 per cent of the most senior clinical and educational psychology posts.

Glass ceilings were not the only impetus for over a decade of organised attempts to enforce change. The subject matter of the discipline was itself under scrutiny. Since the birth of the discipline in the late 19th century, psychologists had unquestioningly worked from a model of male as norm. Women had been systematically excluded from research, and the findings of research conducted with entirely male samples was unquestioningly generalised to the whole population, with women invariably positioned as deviant if they did not match up to the masculine norm.

So, for example, Lawrence Kohlberg based his influential theories of moral development on research conducted entirely on samples of boys. When he later found that girls could not reach the higher stages of his hierarchy of moral reasoning, he concluded that girls were inherently less developed in this sphere. Erik Erikson developed theories of ageing based on studies conducted with men, focusing on events within the male life-cycle, neglecting all that is particular to the life-cycle of women. He was not alone. Menstruation, pregnancy, the menopause and other gynaecological issues were almost invisible within the official agenda of psychology, as were other peculiarly "female concerns" such as women's friendships, feminine gender development, or lesbianism.

The group that lobbied the BPS in 1985 wanted to redress this imbalance. But its request was denied. Yet this was merely the beginning, rather than the end.

The proposal to establish a Psychology of Women section of the society was resubmitted and accepted in 1987. Ironically, given that one of the three themes at this year's BPS conference, a decade later, is "feminist psychol-ogy", the earlier acceptance was conditional on the word "feminist" being removed from the proposal. Those who were once so scathing about the very suggestion of this being a legitimate arena for teaching or research are now accommodating.

But there have been problems along the way. The move away from traditional masculine models of organisation and power is not achieved without cost, in terms of the time taken to negotiate every issue and the feelings of envy evoked in individual women when things do not go their way. Those pioneers who now hold power themselves have to deal with the ambivalence this can provoke. How these senior feminist psychologists deal with the younger generation now coming up - those energetic graduates wanting to climb the ladder themselves - will be interesting to see.

The issues confronting feminist psychology

Premenstrual syndrome

Premenstrual tension first appeared in the psychological literature in the 1930s and has been beset by controversy ever since. Renamed premenstrual syndrome in the 1970s, it includes up to 150 different symptoms, including irritability, hostility and physical pain. It has been estimated that between 10 and 40 per cent of women experience serious disruption to their lives premenstrually. Yet there is little agreement about the underlying causes of this problem.

Research to date has focused on the biological aspects of PMS, and more than 50 biomedical treatments have been suggested, including hormones and anti-depressants. But recent reviews of the PMS literature have come to the same conclusion: there is no simple biological substrate for PMS and no one treatment has been shown to be more effective than a placebo.

Many psychologists steer away from biological explanations, arguing that psychological or social factors - including stress or marital dissatisfaction - precipitate PMS. Such theories explain why women do not report PMS in every cycle, as there are monthly changes in social circumstances.

All this is anathema to the vociferous group which argues that PMS does not exist, but is rather a socially constructed label that trivialises women's legitimate anger. Compare the claims of the antipsychiatry movement of the 1970s - "We're not mad, we're angry".

These divisions have led to splits in research camps. Yet there are now signs of rapprochement. Women who seek help for PMS are increasingly being offered a mix of medical and psychological treatments. The controversy is not over, but there are signs that inter-disciplinary dialogue is replacing open dissent.


One of the most heated battles in recent years has centred on "the heterosexuality debates". The focus of this was the move to form a "lesbian section" of the BPS in the 1990s. The proposal was turned down and the split between lesbian and heterosexual feminist psychologists on the question caused bitter argument.

One side argued that lesbians could not simply be considered under the umbrella term "women"; that there was a need for a separate organisation for lesbian psychologists and that research on lesbian experience was marginalised in mainstream psychology.

The other side argued that lesbians were women and that everyone should be aware of sexuality issues. The answer was to include more lesbian issues within the mainstream feminist psychology agenda, rather than put them in a separate camp.

Now a "lesbian and gay psychology" section of the BPS has been proposed. Yet there will always be tensions over issues of difference between women - the heterosexuality-lesbian difference is perhaps one of the greatest of all.


Pornography was at the centre of the "sex wars" - the debates around sexual pleasure of the 1970s and 1980s. Radical feminists teamed up with the religious and political right to gain the power to legislate against pornography and its purported effects. In the opposing camp, that of free speech, the selective use of censorship laws to discriminate against representations of gay and lesbian sex, coupled with the fact that the evidence on the effects of pornography was inconsistent, militated against an all-encompassing ban. The sex-wars drew psychological research on sexuality and pornography into the courtroom.

Traditionally, psychological research on pornography has examined its effects in a controlled laboratory situation. It has been found that pornography is sexually arousing. Men are reported to be more likely to find sexual violence erotic when the violence is presented as exciting for women. More worrying is the finding that men watching aggressive porn are more likely to behave aggressively towards women immediately afterwards.

Watching soft-core porn has the effect of making rape more likely to be trivialised. Incontrovertible evidence for the anti-porn lobby, it would seem, supporting the claim that "porn is the theory and rape the practice".

But many psychologists argue that cause and effect models are too simple. Men who watch pornography do not simply act out what they see. Psychoanalytic psychologists argue that rape is as much about transgression and fantasy as it is about the actual desire to act. As the boundaries of acceptable sexuality shift, so do the boundaries of pornography. Lady Chatterley's Lover was once banned; now we have hard-core porn on cable TV. Are both "pornography"?

* Jane Ussher is director of the Women's Health Research Unit and senior lecturer in psychology at University College London.

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