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Final Web Event: Mental Illness and Feminism

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Mental Illness and Feminism

            In my first Web Event, titled “Web Event #1: Fear and Self-Representation”, I discussed my personal struggles with fear in the classroom, as well as analyzed where fear comes from and how it interferes with self-representation. I came to the conclusion that my fear resulted in a “self-preserving” performance that did not represent who I truly am, but the person I was okay with others seeing. It was the “me” that could not be criticized or called out for being incorrect. This “self-preserving” performance was difficult for anyone to criticize mostly because it was silent. And it is really difficult to be wrong when you are silent.

            Fear has been a defining factor in my life for almost as long as I can remember. For many years, I have suffered from depression and anxiety. I feel that my anxiety has kept me from being the ideal “strong, intelligent, independent woman” that, it is often supposed, any feminist (and “Mawrter”) should be. I’m surely not alone in this concern. The view of the mentally ill within the feminist movement (as well as in academic spaces such as Bryn Mawr) is not something that is often considered, but can be understood through disability studies theory.

            One of the first questions to ask about the topic of the feminist movement and its relationship with mental illness is if feminism and disability studies are compatible in their goals. In her work “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory”, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes “Like disability studies practitioners who are unaware of feminism, feminist scholars are often simply unacquainted with disability studies’ perspectives” (Garland-Thomson, 74). This is important to note, as it may have affected the overlap of feminist theory and disability studies theory in the past. However, they do seem to be compatible in their goals, as both seek to change normative structures in order to better the lives of those who are oppressed by them. Feminist theory and disability studies theory being both compatible, they can be applied to how society views mental illness.

            An important thing to consider when analyzing this topic is how mental illness is viewed with respect to women in the academic (and, specifically, Bryn Mawr) community. In the paper “On Being Transminded: Disabling Achievement, Enabling Exchange” by Anne Dalke and Clare Mullaney, it is mentioned that “the portfolio of the ideal Bryn Mawr woman—an ambitious, capable and high-achieving student—emphatically excluded mental illness” (Dalke and Mullaney, 7). They also note that "mental illness carries a particular stigma at Bryn Mawr, serving as the shadow side of the strong, independent, and productive women the students are striving to be” (Dalke and Mullaney, 8). A student at Bryn Mawr with mental illness who does not feel able to fit this designated role may be led to believe not only that they do not belong, but may also feel that they tarnish the image of the ideal Bryn Mawr student. Failing to meet this expectation may lead to exacerbation of the emotional problem, which in turn may affect the student’s school work and participation in class.

            Dalke and Mullaney challenge the view of the ideal Bryn Mawr student by asking “questions about the mental health costs of this intellectual work” and trying to “offer a richer, more creative version of what an ‘intellectual sister’ might mean” (Dalke and Mullaney, 8). This is an important component in changing the environment at Bryn Mawr to better accommodate those with mental illness. After all, in order to solve the problem, one must first recognize the issue, and then recognize the problematic structures in place that exacerbate the issue, and challenge those structures to become a more accommodating place. There is an issue with students with mental illness being able to fit the mold of the ideal Bryn Mawr student, and many students with mental illness have issues with accessibility within the classroom. The problematic structures in place are the structures that exclude students with mental illness from this category of “ideal Bryn Mawr student” because the student may not be viewed by society as one of those “strong, independent, and productive women” (Dalke and Mullaney, 8). In order to challenge these structures, one must draw awareness to the issue of mental illness and take action to make the Bryn Mawr a more accessible place for those with mental illness.

            One of the efforts of make Bryn Mawr a better space for students with mental illness, as mentioned by Dalke and Mullaney, was founding a chapter of the organization “Active Minds” to create “a dynamic and interactive community that could replace the normative public discourse about strength and autonomy with discussion about shared vulnerability” (Dalke and Mullaney, 8). While a good idea to create a “safe space” for students with mental illness, it was not without its challenges, namely that it was found to be “very difficult to talk openly about feeling weak, frustrated, vulnerable, tired, irrational” (Dalke and Mullaney, 8). However, there were other efforts in place to improve Bryn Mawr for students with mental illness, such as “creating a documentary…featuring students and faculty talking about their experiences with mental illness on Bryn Mawr’s campus” (Dalke and Mullaney, 8). These efforts are concrete examples of how to raise awareness and change the stigma surrounding mental illness on Bryn Mawr’s campus, helping people to realize that mentally ill Bryn Mawr students are still Bryn Mawr students.

The issue of temporality is a major one of accessibility when considering the problems that arise with the mentally ill in a school or workplace. For the mentally ill, “time-based measures of achievement are problematic, as is our attachment to and understand of time that undergirds such measurements” (Dalke and Mullaney, 13). Barbara Hillyer reflects the expectation of a certain level of productivity in her book Feminism and Disability, as she notes that the circumstances of the disabled “strongly affect their adaptation to society’s usual pace” as well as “provide special insight into the nature of time in our society and its relationship to the very high value we give productivity” (Hillyer, 47). A concept that can be used to combat the problematic issues that arise from normative temporality is the concept of “crip time,” a type of temporality that accommodates a person’s disabilities and recognizing how their disability affects their productivity, or it can be used “to signal interventions into such programming: accommodations” (Dalke and Mullaney, 15). Changing the concept of temporality in order to accommodate those with disabilities may seem like a formidable task, but students with mental illness have to deal with the formidable task of adjusting to normative time every day, something that they may not always be capable of doing.

            Looking outside of the academic microcosm of Bryn Mawr, the question remains: how is mental illness viewed in the feminist theory? In Elizabeth J. Donaldson’s “The Corpus of the Madwoman: Toward a Feminist Disability Studies Theory of Embodiment and Mental Illness”, the romanticization of the character of the “madwoman” as a symbol of “women’s rebellion” (Donaldson, 100) and the medicalization of mental illness are analyzed. Donaldson looks closely at the figure of the “madwoman” in literature, particularly in the character of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre. One interpretation of Bertha Mason is as a “rebellious woman subverting the patriarchal order by burning down her husband’s estate” (Donaldson, 100). This can be initially viewed as a positive disruption of the stereotypes surrounding mental illness using feminist criticism, seeing it as a subversion of social norms in a patriarchal society. However, Donaldson warns that this is “madness as a metaphor, not mental illness in the clinical sense” (Donaldson, 101). In addition, it should be noted that mental illnesses vary greatly and they all manifest themselves in different ways. Where Bertha’s “madness” caused her to bring destruction to a patriarchal structure, my anxiety may cause me to seem weak in the face of confronting the patriarchy.

Donaldson notes the importance of attention to the issue of mental illness in feminist disability studies. “A feminist disability studies theory of mental illness that includes the body…and mental illnesses as physical impairments, would be a timely and productive way of developing discussion of madness/mental illness within women’s studies scholarship” (Donaldson, 102). In addition to this, she draws attention to the “nature of corporealization (and of medical language) while simultaneously thinking of bodies (and of mental illness) as real” (Donaldson, 111). Mental illnesses are often dismissed by others in society because they may not be thought of a “real” due to the fact that (though they may be neurobiologically present) they are not as “visible” as a physical disorder. This makes mental illnesses, as opposed disorders to the rest of the body, seem to some like “it’s all in your head” and “not legitimate.” While the medicalization of mental disorders can remedy this misconception that mental disorders are not “real” by making the perspective of mental disorders more physical, it also works within the assumption that something must be corporeal in order to be real.

Feminist theory takes a very real place in helping those with mental illness. Feminist therapy is a direct way of using feminist theory to help people cope with mental illness. Laura S. Brown, in her book Feminist Therapy, says “Feminist therapy has as its superordinate goal the empowerment of clients and the creation of feminist consciousness” (Brown, 29). Feminist therapy tries to understand that clients exist in a system of oppression, which can affect their problems. Feminist therapy understands the client’s experiences as existing in “four realms of power—somatic, intrapersonal/intrapsychic, intrapersonal/social-contextual, and spiritual/existential” (Brown, 31) all at once.

The somatic realm is the client’s experience involving the body; to have somatic power is to keep the body safe and healthy (Brown, 32). The intrapersonal/intrapsychic realm is the client’s experience within one’s own mind; to have intrapersonal/intrapsychic power is to have a realistic and healthy relationship with oneself (Brown, 32). The intrapersonal/social-contextual realm is the client’s experience with other people; to have intrapersonal/social-contextual power is to have healthy, respectful relationships with other people, as well as oneself (Brown, 32). The spiritual/existential realm is the client’s experience with their reality; to have spiritual/existential power is to respond in a healthy manner to “existential challenges of life” (Brown, 32), understand one’s own identity, and be aware of social realities. Keeping these four realms of power in mind helps to make feminist therapy holistic and shows the extent to which it can apply to mental illness.

One of the main tenants of feminist therapy is that “patriarchal systems surrounding most human life intentionally and unintentionally disempower almost all people” (Brown, 34). This is an important approach to have, as a person’s social, economic, and racial background as well as gender and sexual identity all play a role in how a person lives, and are all things to consider when treating someone who is mentally ill. Someone may be disadvantaged by patriarchal systems, exacerbating their illness or making it difficult to treat. For example, a person dealing with discrimination regarding their gender identity due to the patriarchal structure surrounding them at work or at home may have their mental illness worsen due to the discrimination. That is why creating an accepting space in which all aspects of a human being and their experience is important when treating mental illness, which is what feminist therapy recognizes. Because of the nature of feminist therapy, it allows feminist therapists to work with “an extremely broad range of people, in each instance finding how the core constructs of feminist practice are applied to the unique needs an characteristics of these diverse groups” (Brown, 103).

However, feminist therapy is not without its faults and challenges. Though feminist therapy aims to create a space in which the therapist and patient can speak without patriarchal influence, it does not change the fact that the therapist still exists in a patriarchal world outside of the therapy sessions. This can lead to an accidental imposing of patriarchal standards on the patient, going against the goal of feminist therapy. Brown notes that, for this reason, “feminist therapists must be continuously alert to the ways in which they are pulled out of a stance of client empowerment” (Brown, 95). A feminist therapist, therefore, must understand the patriarchal structures that exist in order to avoid imposing them on their patients.

Another challenge faced by feminist therapists is being viewed as credible within the psychiatric community. According to Brown, feminist therapists “frequently encounter colleagues who are dismissive of this model due in part to its political roots, but also due to the alleged lack of evidence for the theory” (Brown, 95). Part of this bias against feminist therapy is a misunderstanding of what feminism is. It is misunderstanding that feminism only exists in order to push a certain political agenda, but feminism is much broader than that. It is a way of viewing the problematic structures that human beings face every day, and challenging said structures to improve the quality of life for oppressed people in our society. This idea can be very applicable to therapy, as people with mental illness may have issues with accessibility due to the problematic structures that exist in society. Feminist therapy can help clients understand these problematic structures and be able to cope with (or even challenge) life in said structures.

Liz Bondi and Erica Burman take a closer look at the problematic structures that affect women in terms of mental health in their article “Women and Mental Health: A Feminist Review.” They criticize the notion of the psyche as an individual, as opposed to a group, concept, saying “the emergence of the domain of the individual psyche as a site for self-reflection and regulation owes its origins to particular socio-cultural and historical conditions that themselves inscribe particular gender relations and inequalities” (Bondi and Burman, 7). This could be a result of the lack of recognition of problematic social structures, putting the responsibility on the individual to cope with the disadvantages they face in society as opposed to analyzing the problems within a patriarchal institution and challenging current power structures. Bondi and Burman go on to say that the “fact that within western societies mental health is understood to be an individual attribute…speaks volumes about modern western societal structures and relationships” (Bondi and Burman, 7). This stems from the notion of mental health not being considered “real” enough to be a major concern.

People in Western society often consider “public health” to be a major concern in terms of physical safety, but fail to include mental health in that definition. To consider mental health as a part of public health as a whole would be a major step in making institutions more accessible for people with mental illness. In order to do this, people must first consider that mental health is not just a matter of individual health, but of societal health as well. Taking responsibility for mental health as a society not only would help improve accessibility in current institutions, but also challenge these institutions to be accessible in other respects to people that are normally left oppressed by current Western power structures. Improving accessibility for people with mental illness in society is important for society as a whole.

Part of the oppressive structure within mental health treatment is the limited personal scope of those working in the field of mental health. Bondi and Burman state that “hierarchies produce a predominance of white, middle-class men in positions of seniority in the most prestigious professions…including psychiatry, psychoanalysis and clinical psychology” (Bondi and Burman, 10). The lack of representation of women, people of color, and people of lower-socioeconomic status working in high-ranking positions in the mental health field poses a problem for people oppressed by these hierarchies who suffer from mental illness. While these “white, middle-class men” may be qualified, they hold a position of power and privilege over their clients by virtue of this, making it difficult to maintain an egalitarian relationship between patient and therapist. They are removed from their client’s experience even more than usual due to their privilege and power. Encouraging more diverse representation of women, people of color, and people of lower socio-economic status in the mental health field can help to establish better trust between client and therapist as well as understanding the relationship between oppression and mental health.

The feminist criticism of the mental health system does not end with the current power structures in place, but also with many ideas of how to help clients in therapy, which work off of many problematic ideas of women and mental health. Bondi and Burman question the “overvaluation of autonomy and independence within therapeutic frameworks” and how it “privileges culturally masculine and westernized qualities at the expense of women’s relational and situational identifications” (Bondi and Burman, 20). This is problematic from not only a feminist standpoint, but also a mental health standpoint. To prize certain ideals in personality and to ask the mentally to take on those ideals because that is what is socially acceptable is unfair to the client. Helping people with mental illness cope with their problems should not be done by helping them to assume traits that Western society deems ideal.

Feminist theory and criticism, when combined with disability studies theory, unravels the stigmas attached to mental illness, challenges institutions to become more accessible, redefines what we consider as effective therapy for those with mental illness, and reveals what it really means to have mental illness and be a feminist. Though the common idea that a feminist is a “strong, independent woman” who never shows any signs of weakness, people with mental illness who may not always be well enough to display these traits have a place in the feminist movement as well. Using feminist therapy to help people with mental illness and using feminist theory to challenge institutions that oppress people with mental illness is an important step in making institutions more accessible to people with mental illness. It is also important to understand that people with mental illness may operate on a different temporality than those without mental illness. Feminist theory understands that “crip time” may be a necessary measure in accessibility.

            Feminist theory and disability studies theory may not fully solve the social issues that people with mental illness face in the near future, but these are important lenses to look through to understand the issue and change the structures in place. Understanding is half the battle. Through understanding, we can change the stigma surrounding mental illness, the way mental illness is treated, and accessibility for people with mental illness.


Works Cited

Bondi, Liz, and Erica Burman. "Women and Mental Health: A Feminist Review." Feminist Review 68 (2001): 6-33. JSTOR. Web. 17 Dec. 2013. <>.

Brown, Laura S. Feminist Therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2010. Print.

Dalke, Anne, and Clare Mullaney. On Being Transminded: Disabling Achievement, Enabling Exchange. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2013. </exchange/system/files/private/DalkeMullaney.pdf>.

Donaldson, Elizabeth J. "The Corpus of the Madwoman: Toward a Feminist Disability Studies Theory of Embodiment and Mental Illness." NWSA Journal 3rd ser. 14 (2002): 99-119. Web. 16 Dec. 2013. <>.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. "Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory." Gendering Disability. Ed. Bonnie G. Smith and Beth Hutchison. New Brunswick, NJ and London: Rutgers UP, 2004. 73-103. Print.

Hillyer, Barbara. Feminism and Disability. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma, 1993. Print.