oliva m espín

My Fifty Years of Feminist Psychology

By Oliva M. Espín, PhD

March is Women’s History Month. This year marks some significant milestones for me. The Department of Women’s Studies at San Diego State University, where I worked for a number of years while also teaching at CSPP, is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. This is the oldest Women’s Studies Department in the country, which means it is probably the oldest academic unit in the world dedicated exclusively to studying women’s issues. I have spent the last fifty years researching, writing, and teaching Feminist Psychology, not all of them in Women’s Studies or at CSPP. But wherever I have lived and worked, Feminist Psychology has been my focus.

Fifty years of “doing something” invite serious reflection on what that work and, indeed, all my professional life has entailed. 

At CSPP/Alliant, I have taught variations of this theme and directed multiple dissertations that also studied variations of Feminist Psychology. From “Psychology and Psychotherapy with Women”, a course that I created and taught at the San Diego campus, to courses with strong content on women and migration that I taught at the San Diego and San Francisco campuses, Feminist Psychology has been at the center of my involvement at CSPP and it has been the focus of my contact with students of different ethnic, racial, and class backgrounds. My presentations at conferences and my research and writing have also been mostly focused on this topic. 

I have always believed in psychotherapy’s potential as a tool of restorative justice, a topic that continues to be explored by feminist therapists. However, psychotherapy’s potential as a tool for transforming sociocultural structures remains vastly unexplored. We know that individual psyches are constituted by cultural forces and power relations within a society. We know that much psychological distress that brings people to therapy is socio-culturally based. Transformations in the fabric of power relations and cultural values imply transformations in individual consciousness. Likewise, through psychotherapy, those wounded by oppression can become empowered to change socio-historical conditions. As individuals increase in personal integration, they can more realistically assert autonomous action upon the social environment. Through psychotherapy, increased responsibility for personal life increases the ability to respond effectively to societal pressures. Psychotherapy is more than a self-centered activity. It is a political act, whether we acknowledge it or pretend not to be influence by anything but a blind objective science. My theoretical perspectives and my practice, teaching, and research have been grounded in feminist and Latin American psychologies in conversation with more traditional theories in the field. These perspectives have sustained my belief in the restorative justice value of all psychotherapy. 

In the words of Psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró, one of the six Jesuit priests, murdered by government sponsored death squads together with their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador in 1989, “If it is not the calling of the psychologist to intervene in the socioeconomic mechanisms that cement the structures of injustice, it is within the psychologist’s purview to intervene in the subjective processes that sustain those structures of injustice and make them viable.” Feminist psychologists share this perspective and believe that because the personal is political, all psychotherapy work with both women and men has consequences that go beyond the individual, regardless of our theoretical perspectives.

At this point in history, women of all ages partake of the benefits created by feminist movements, even if they are not consciously aware of it. The success of social transformations lies, precisely, in their becoming part of everyday life as something so self-evident that it does not need questioning. But, the danger of some successes is that the struggle that produced the achievements is forgotten or minimized. And, also, that it creates the illusion that everything is now solved. 

Women’s position in Psychology and in society has experienced impressive transformations in the last fifty years, but that does not mean that everything is now perfect. There are issues to solve, questions to answer, and goals to achieve for women in Psychology and in the world at large, in this country and beyond. We entered this profession because we wanted to help others and alleviate human suffering. Our clients’ mental health is dependent on our incorporating a deep understanding of the impact of social/historical/cultural circumstances on individual lives and giving our clients the tools to transform those forces. To do it fully incorporates in our work the best of our profession can offer. To do less compromises our professional and ethical responsibilities.

For my part, although I am not practicing any longer and I am also retired from teaching, I continue to write. To my previous books on women and migration, I have recently added a book that is close to my heart because my spirituality has always been at the core of who I am. This new book is entitled, “Women, Sainthood, and Power: A Feminist Psychology of Cultural Constructions.” I am now presenting the topics included in this book at several professional conferences, such as Association for Women in Psychology and APA, as well as in other venues and enjoying myself in the process. I do not have another fifty years ahead of me, but I still believe in doing my two cents effort to leave the world a better place than how I found it. I trust all CSPP psychologists are engaged in this same task.

About Dr. Espin

Oliva M. Espín is Professor Emerita in the Department of Women’s Studies at San Diego State University and the California School of Professional Psychology of Alliant International University. Dr. Espín was a pioneer in the practice and theory of feminist therapy with women from different cultural backgrounds. Her most recent books are Gendered Journeys: Women, Migration, and Feminist Psychology (2015) and Women, Sainthood, and Power: A Feminist Psychology of Cultural Constructions (2019).

cover of women sainthood and power book

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