Feminism and the Treatment of Trauma

Feminist theory can be traced back hundreds of years, evolving uniquely across societies over time but still marked by parallel themes. My own study of feminist theory begins with the women’s movements and the work of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the later 1800s, the women’s suffrage movement leading into the 1920s and the reignited women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Originally, women were working toward recognition of their status as humans, as landowners and as voters. Later, they sought rights as decision makers about their own bodies — and their reproductive rights, in particular — and pursued workers’ rights, and equality with regard to gender identity, income, marriage, parenting and caregiver roles. Women, through all of these efforts over time, created and nurtured a community that validated their experiences and renewed an internal sense of being enough, being whole.

In my last blog post, I shared a bit about the synthesis of treatment protocols and the value of the practitioner who is willing to mindfully deviate, blend and collaborate in the treatment of trauma. Collaborative efforts can be understood through the lens of feminist theory and its application of rich, deep knowledge of the female experience. As Laura Brown, a feminist trauma therapist in the Seattle area, puts it, “What is inherent in feminist therapy theory is the radical notion that silenced voices of marginalized people are considered to be the sources of the greatest wisdom.” Dr. Brown’s website includes both a definition of feminist therapy and an “epistemology of difference” that frames creative and nuanced interventions to address the experiences of those unlike ourselves by assessing our own bias and privilege. Collaborating with our clients and letting their wisdom be our guide can lead down a path of healing specific to the unique experience of the client.

When we deconstruct this conceptualization, we see that feminism is not just the active process of creating a society in which women are equal to men, but rather the process by which the most marginalized people become our experts. Their experiences become our guiding principles, and our societies become places we all are valued uniquely and equally in our experience and in our personhood.

The sort of notion, of a utopian society in which we treat each other as equals, with love and harmony, may rightfully be dismissed as too naïve or at least oversimplified. But a therapeutic lens of equality, of equalizing the experience of the traumatized, is not. This knowing, that there is wisdom within the oppressed and victimized, is one with which therapists of trauma treatment are intimately aware. We are aware that the body holds our memories, that epigenetics suggests that our bodies hold also the memories of our ancestors. The children and grandchildren of those who lived through the Holocaust often demonstrate the same stress responses of their ancestors, and they are potentially engaging with fear or anxiety that comes from a deeper place of knowing.

In a March 2015 article in Scientific American magazine, author Tori Rodriguez states, “Rachel Yehuda, a researcher in the growing field of epigenetics and the intergenerational effects of trauma, and her colleagues have long studied mass trauma survivors and their offspring. Their latest results reveal that descendants of people who survived the Holocaust have different stress hormone profiles than their peers, perhaps predisposing them to anxiety disorders.” Our role as feminist therapists, therefore, is to hold the space for the body to experience what it knows so that it can express, organize, grieve and heal from the pain.

Treating trauma and building resilience from a feminist framework can capitalize on the brain science and what we now know about neuroplasticity. (Thank you, Daniel Siegel, Janina Fisher, Pat Ogden, etc.) Starting with the truth of each person’s experience avoids the cognitive dissonance that is often present when the therapist sets the frame. This dissonance can cause clients to get caught up in self-judgment about how society expects them to handle emotions and traumatic material. Feminism strives for equal opportunity, and I would suggest a similar goal within feminist therapy. Both that the frame is set collaboratively and that the truth of an individual’s trauma is given every opportunity to be considered, to emerge, to guide, evolve, soften, integrate and ultimately h