Notes of a Feminist Therapist, by Elizabeth Friar Williams. New York: Prager Publishers, 1976.
Several years ago, my sister and I confided in one another that neither of us had ever known a feminist we liked. Neither of us could identify with the militancy of the movement, the partial insights passed off as truth, the self-righteous anger, the pseudo-snobbishness towards females who did not pounce on men who addressed them as “ladies,” or, God forbid, girls.
A few years later, I was willing to admit that, like it or not, part of who I thought I wanted to be — particularly in relationship to men — I did not want to be at all, but had been taught to want, because I was a woman.
Elizabeth Friar Williams, in Notes of a Feminist Therapist, transforms broad generalizations about cultural influences and sex roles into specifics, based on a lifetime of therapeutic work with women.
What is a feminist-oriented therapist? She is “a therapist who believes that it is healthy rather than neurotic for a woman to explore ways of living that do not primarily involve caring for or ‘servicing’ other people except as a genuine expression of her love for them and in reasonable proportion to the care and services she arranges to receive from them for herself ” (her emphasis).
The point is not to give up the roles of wife or mistress or secretary or mother, but to avoid power imbalances that prevent the woman from assuming other roles that will allow her to care for her partner or children out of love, rather than out of a dependency upon them to create her identity.
Williams describes problems rooted in the past, problems with new ideals, and the work involved in transitions.
What are some of the problems rooted in the past? Largely, what women were taught as children: “to believe that permanent (married) love is the reward of perfect, approval-seeking little girlhood.” From birth, they are trained to build an identity around the man in the house, whose name they carry and whose social status and reputation influences others’ behavior toward them enormously. Therefore, as adults they seek men’s approval and attention as their most important source of self-esteem. They learn compliance, passivity, and “manners” which reinforce what Williams calls two major problems with today’s women: their romance about their purity and spirituality, and their suppression of anger. The concept of service to others is directly related to this — the noble servant’s ego ideal, the angel eager to sacrifice and suffer silently, to mother or support with uncomplaining deference.
At the beginning of the book, Williams emphasizes that it is an appropriate goal for every woman to know, “and I mean know exactly and in every way,” how she is making herself available for emotional victimization, if she is. “She must see that she almost always has a choice, and like it or not, she may have to confront aspects of her own acquiescence in her victimhood if she is to feel her true potency.” Williams confronts the moral superiority many victims derive from their oppressed position, and points out that to give up a miserable life for a better one might mean giving up the right to punish, and revealing to an oppressor that he or she is not needed so much after all, and what they “did” to her wasn’t so horrible either. “Obviously, the person whose feeling of worth is based on martyrdom and on an ability to arouse guilt in others has a powerful manipulation scheme underway.”
So who’s healthy? Williams’ definition of a “healthy” woman depends a great deal on her ability to support herself in work that gives her a sense of competency. “If she is unskilled and inexperienced, she cannot feel free from economic dependency (and therefore emotional dependency) on someone else.” To ignore this is to avoid a fact of adult life that every man accepts: the necessity of paying one’s way in the world.
The book by no means dwells on romantic relationships alone. Other themes are motherhood, loneliness, depression, defensive roles women play, the phobic woman, the “hysterical” woman, women’s “fidelity,” women’s gossip about men, nonsexist childrearing, women’s secrets, and more.
While maintaining a professionally detached and sometimes highly clinical view of women and what they may bring to therapy, Elizabeth Williams does not hesitate to discuss her own life intimately, including the gaps between her ideals and her reality. This balance gives the book an integrity with strengths and weaknesses laid bare, which I appreciate.
But what I appreciated the most was the recurring message: women conspire to be manipulated and used while simultaneously controlling others in subtle but equally manipulative ways, and neither behavior is necessary, to be who we are. There are no enemies, except ourselves.