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Feminism and multiculturalism: parallels and intersections.

Increasingly, the psychological literature has begun to address both feminist and multicultural concerns, although these fields have rarely incorporated each others' diverse and vibrant ideas. This article explores the connections between feminist and multicultural psychology, and encourages the profession to more fully embrace and affirm both theories and traditions.


"Multicultural and feminist psychology, despite considerable shared values and perspectives, have long existed in parallel universes. Commonalities in the history, values, theories, and practices of feminist and multicultural psychology have been present since the very beginning. Both literatures developed from overlapping social movements that were actively challenging society's racist and sexist biases. During the last 30 years, however, psychology scholarship has imitated life. Just as the civil rights movement and the women's movement have had difficulty forging meaningful and enduring alliances, the feminist and multicultural psychology communities have remained mostly separate and isolated, regardless of their common goal of transforming psychology into a more inclusive profession.

The history of multicultural counseling and psychology offers interesting and important patterns that warrant exploration. The focus of multicultural issues within psychology and counseling has varied significantly over time. The advent of the civil rights movement in the early 60s saw the beginning of "an era of revolution, change, and growth in the counseling profession" (Jackson, 1995, p. 8). As society became more reflective about its treatment of different racial groups, so too did the psychology profession. The literature initially focused on the lack of culturally sensitive therapists and culturally responsive forms of therapy.

Early writings in the area of multicultural psychology often addressed the issues and perspectives of specific racial groups in an effort to incorporate the voices of People of Color. This attention on consciousness raising and culturally relevant content was meant to increase the multicultural sensitivity and cultural knowledge of counselors and psychologists. However, some professionals expressed concerns about how emphasizing racial group differences might reinforce stereotypical thinking (Speight, Myers, Cox, & Highlen, 1991). To address these concerns, constructs such as racial identity and acculturation have become significant research areas. Acculturation and racial identity emphasize how individuals make meaning of their culture, thus reducing the temptation to assume that all members of a cultural group are the same.

Multiculturalism, which is often defined as having an appreciation and respect for various cultural groups (Pope, Reynolds, & Mueller, 2004), has become an enduring issue in the counseling literature. Some psychologists argue for a more inclusive definition of multiculturalism to include gender, sexual orientation, and other cultural groups (Fukuyama, 1990; Myers, Cox, & Highlen, 1991; Speight et al., 1999), whereas others fear that broader definitions weaken efforts to eradicate racism (Carter, 1995; Helms & Richardson, 1997).

More recently multicultural counseling competence has become a cornerstone of the multicultural psychology literature. Multicultural scholars and practitioners are working to make the psychology and counseling profession more accountable (i.e., having the multicultural counseling competencies adopted for use by members of the American Psychological Association, D'Andrea et al., 2001). Multicultural psychology emphasizes the need for psychology training programs to more deliberately address multicultural issues (Constantine & Gloria, 1999). The increased visibility of multicultural issues has affected a wide range of psychological issues, from counseling to assessment to training (Constantine, Ladany, Inman, & Ponterotto, 1996; LaFromboise & Foster, 1992; Ridley, Li, & Hill, 1998).

Feminist psychology has followed a similar path in its evolution and development. In the late 60s, as addressing gender issues and understanding sexism became an important social movement, the psychology profession began to explore the limited and biased knowledge base (Crawford & Unger, 2000). This exploration discovered how women and their issues were rarely researched and that most mainstream theories were developed from a male point of view. Early studies established how gender role expectations created limitations for women and had a strong impact on women's mental health. Some of the studies indicated that when women behaved in more stereotypically feminine ways, they were often less healthy (e.g., dependent); conversely, when they acted in more stereotypically masculine ways, they were viewed as deviant and inappropriate (Broverman, Vogel, Broverman, Clarkson, & Rosenkrantz, 1972; Gilbert, 1992). These realizations led to an extensive renaissance of gender studies that continues to the present day, in which new research and theories focusing on women have been developed. According to Crawford and Unger (2000), "psychology has developed new ways of thinking about women, expanded its research methods, and developed new approaches to therapy and counseling" (p. 3).

Similar to multicultural psychology, feminist psychology initially focused on consciousness-raising. Making women visible in the psychological literature was paramount to changing the perceptions and practices of psychologists and counselors. Raising awareness about gender-role socialization and its impact on women was part of intensive efforts to make the psychology profession more sensitive to the concerns and realities of women, including the ways in which psychology often has pathologized women's behavior and minimized their experiences and perceptions. In addition to focusing on sexism within psychology, gender-related research is continually expanding. The field of feminist psychology with its philosophy, theories, and alternative research methods and models, has been defining and refining itself for the past 30 years. Working conferences, such as the first National Conference on Education and Training in Feminist Practice in 1993, have been developed to supplement inadequate training programs in counseling and psychology and to create a cohesive agenda for feminist practice (Worell & Johnson, 1997). Moreover, there has been growing attention to training issues and offering opportunities for psychologists and counselors who want to develop expertise in gender issues and feminist practice (Fassinger & Richie, 1997; Worrell & Johnson, 1997).

exploring multicultural and feminist psychology

The parallel histories and similar paths of feminist and multicultural psychology are clear. Both grew out of social movements and challenged the status quo within the psychological profession. By addressing dissatisfaction with traditional treatments and creating extensive literature bases devoted to understanding the issues and concerns of White women and People of Color, multicultural and feminist psychology have been catalysts for change in both theory and practice. Yet, despite these similarities in history, approaches, and values, feminist and multicultural psychology have remained mostly separate and disconnected fields.

There have been efforts to build connections and find common ground between these fields. For example, some psychologists have implored the profession to incorporate multiculturalism into mainstream feminist theory and practice, and vice versa (Brown, 1994; Comas-Diaz & Greene, 1994). Although some authors have effectively addressed these issues, feminist psychology continues to be criticized for its difficulty in making feminist psychology relevant to and meaningful for all women, especially women of color (Bowman et al., 2001). Such marginalization also occurs in multicultural psychology, where addressing gender differences and feminist principles is rare. There also has been little written that challenges multicultural psychology to become more gender sensitive (Fassinger & Richie, 1997).

If psychology is to truly change and become a profession that affirms cultural diversity in theory and practice, there is a need to reconceptualize both feminist and multicultural psychology, and to build a case for genuine unification and transformation of these fields. Such radical change may not be possible using the current approaches that focus on re-educating feminists and multiculturalists on the value of each other's perspective. A fresh perspective on building alliances and creating new opportunities is necessary for integrated analysis and meaningful coalitions. Exploration of the unique contributions and core constructs of feminist and multicultural psychology is necessary before a true alliance can be created. By examining the strengths and gifts of both traditions, it may be possible to build a stronger and more unified alternative to mainstream psychological models.


In reviewing the feminist psychology literature, there are certain key beliefs and perspectives. Feminist psychology is unique in that it was developed from a grassroots base rather than from an academic perspective. According to Worell and Johnson (1997), feminist practice grew out of the emerging needs of women who were actively participating in the grassroots feminist movement. This approach further emphasizes the feminist value of honoring the experiences and perceptions of women (Brown, 1994; Worell & Reimer, 1992).

Another core belief of feminist practice is the notion that the personal is political, which means that everything that affects women on an individual, personal, or intrapsychic level is shaped or created by the political realities of gender role socialization, sexism, and oppression (Brown, 1994). Taken a step further, this notion suggests that all aspects of psychological practice have incorporated sexist assumptions and practices that impact women and men.

Social transformation and advocacy is also a central tenet of feminist psychology. Feminist practice has actively advocated for changing society rather than the individual. From a feminist perspective, personal liberation cannot occur without social transformation including altering the core assumptions and structures of the psychology profession (Brown, 1994). A logical extension of these beliefs is the importance of addressing issues of power in a therapeutic relationship. By acknowledging the inherent power imbalance in therapy between counselors and clients, feminist psychology emphasizes the importance of forming egalitarian relationships and empowering clients to take control of their lives. This process and relationship focus is meant to serve as a model for egalitarian relationships in general (Worell & Reimer, 1992).


These core beliefs of feminist psychology are very compatible with the unique contributions and gifts of the multicultural psychology movement. According to Pedersen, Draguns, Lonner, and Trimble (1996), there is a "significant role played by culture in all aspects of psychological practice" (p. ix). Multicultural psychology emphasizes an awareness of one's culturally learned assumptions about specific cultural groups and core beliefs and practices of the psychology profession. Such cultural assumptions shape our views of (a) ourselves and others, (b) what constitutes normal behavior, and (c) the appropriate rules and expectations for a counseling relationship (Pedersen, 1997).

Etic and emic are two key multicultural constructs that address the importance of how one makes meaning of the cultural norms of different groups (Mio, Trimble, Arredondo, Cheatham, & Sue, 1999). An etic approach refers to studying a cultural group from outside its system, which often leads to an emphasis of universal characteristics or behaviors. The emic approach observes a cultural group from its members' point of view. An emic or "culture specific" perspective has led to the study of the importance of traditional non-western and indigenous methods of healing (Lee & Armstrong, 1995). These alternative approaches to healing challenge the core assumptions and practices of American psychotherapy.

Another central construct found in the multicultural psychological literature is racial identity, along with other cultural variables such as acculturation. These variables allow individuals to make sense of their cultural experiences, and affect their perceptions of self and others (Carter, 1995; Helms, 1990). Such "knowledge, which is clearly applicable to women and the study of gender, highlights the importance of emphasizing meaning and identity over group membership. This means that the ways individuals view their race and gender are probably more significant than whether they are male or female or Caucasian or Native American.

finding commonalities and building alliances

Although there are strong differences between feminist and multicultural psychology, there are many commonalities and intersections in their visions, beliefs, and practices. From their inception, the most powerful connection between these two fields was a genuine desire to change the status quo within the psychology profession. Their approaches over the past 30 years have been similar (i.e., both initially focused on content and consciousness raising), and each has evolved toward an emphasis on training and educating future generations of psychologists in ways dramatically different from traditional professional training. Although both feminist and multicultural psychology have emphasized socio-political analysis, their focal point has been quite different. Feminist psychology has often focused on analyzing uses of power within society as well as within the therapy dyad as a central aspect of its socio-political analysis (e.g., Brown, 1994). Multicultural psychology has more recently adopted a multicultural organization development perspective as its socio-political frame of reference, thus moving beyond the individual or therapy dyad (e.g., Sue, 1995). The primary goal of both multicultural and feminist psychology perspectives is to reshape psychology at the most basic structural level so that multicultural and feminist values, theories, and practices become mainstream.

Because of these strong similarities and common goals, why then do these two movements continue to operate independently and have difficulty fully incorporating each other's worldviews and practices? The barriers that impede a genuine coalition between multicultural and feminist psychology may have less to do with their unique literature and more to do with differing worldviews. In particular, even among those who support an alliance between these perspectives, there is a tendency to be more fully aware of one perspective. It is more common to find a feminist psychologist with multicultural leanings or a multicultural psychologist with feminist inclinations than to discover someone who is fully versed in both fields. Both literatures are quite vast which may make it unreasonable to expect that one can be an expert in both fields. However, having a firm grasp on content may be less important than being firmly in touch with the common philosophies and core values that unite these two fields.

The largest barrier to unification may be the same as it is in the sociopolitical world; people who challenge oppression daily are often so embattled that they focus more on "fighting the fight" than actively looking for allies. Some multicultural and feminist psychologists work so hard to change the status quo within the profession, as defined by their specific field that they may not realize how very focused their perspective is. Creating an alternative conceptualization of psychology requires a change in behavior and worldview for all involved.

Changing one's worldview is a lot more difficult than it seems. The first step is becoming aware of what we believe and how deeply embedded our beliefs are. Elizabeth Minnich (1990) has written very powerfully about the importance of decontextualizing our views. Sexism and racism, even among multicultural and feminist psychologists who want to combat all forms of oppression, are often so deeply ingrained that we are not even aware of them. The irony is that most multicultural and feminist psychologists already know how to deconstruct dominant views and identify ways in which psychology has internalized racist and sexist ideas or values. Thus, the primary questions are: What stops multicultural psychologists from fully embracing the centrality of gender? Why do many feminist psychologists have difficulty moving beyond a cognitive connection to the importance of race and culture? Even when individuals acknowledge the significance of other issues, often the personal connection and commitment to challenging oneself or the profession is not there.

Infusing multiculturalism or feminism into psychology is not merely about learning new information. Discovering more about White women or People of Color is not the way to achieve some new psychology. Despite the efforts of many committed professionals, true multicultural and feminist inclusion is still in its early stages. Building something transformative within psychology requires a fresh and multifaceted approach. According to Reynolds (1997), "it is not enough to value diversity and change: we must gather the knowledge and tools that will allow us to transform our beliefs into action" (p. 214). Some scholars have identified the need for an organizational perspective to create meaningful change in psychology (Ponterotto, Alexander, & Grieger, 1995; Reynolds; Sue, 1995). Multicultural organization models have been suggested for both psychology and higher education (e.g., Pope, 1995; Sue, 2001).


One such model, the multicultural change intervention matrix (MCIM), was developed to put multicultural organization development beliefs and strategies into action (Pope, 1993). This same model also can be used to blend the philosophies, theories, and practice of feminist and multicultural psychology in order to change the field of psychology. Although other writings have explored the in-depth aspects of the MCIM as a transformative tool (Pope, 1993; 1995; Reynolds, 1997), the focus here is on the conceptual model and what it offers for transforming psychology.

In applying the MCIM to the efforts of multicultural and feminist psychology to find common ground, it is vital to use concrete examples in order to make the model more accessible and meaningful. Conceptually, there are two primary dimensions of the MDIM: (1) the level of intervention; and (2) the target of intervention. It is these dimensions that provide the framework necessary to conceptualize and create deep and lasting institutional change (Pope, 1993).

The MCIM identifies two levels of intervention: first- and second-order change (Pope, 1993). First- and second-order change was initially explored within the family systems and cognitive psychology literature (c.f. Lyddon, 1990). First-order change was conceptualized as change within a given system that did not alter the fundamental structure or practices of that system (Pope, 1993). In other words, even if psychology programs require multicultural or feminist courses, the core theories or practices of the profession are not likely to change. Bringing in racially diverse faculty or students into an academic or training program represents important and necessary change. However, if these diverse perspectives are not involved in an organizational restructuring process requiring that new missions, goals, and outcome measures be created, the effects of such important demographic changes are inherently limited.

On the other hand, second-order change fundamentally alters the structure and practices of a system. Such changes involve paradigm shifts such as "a radical transformation in the way in which the group is viewed and defined, a change in processes which transforms outcomes" (Pope, 1995 p. 242). From an educational perspective, this means moving beyond incorporating new content information and instead creating opportunities, through intensive, interactive, or experiential interventions, for a shift in worldview. Second-order change suggests the importance of intentionally and systematically evaluating the values, theories, and practices of psychology within an individual academic program or professional associations and creating goal directed initiatives that focus on changing those core values and practices.

Another central tenet of the MCIM is that effective change should target three levels: individual, group, and organization (Pope, 1993). The first target of change, the individual level, would include those individuals committed to feminist and multicultural psychology who want to blend those fields and influence the larger profession. Clarifying how individuals make meaning of and understand themselves, their worldview, and the worldviews of others is a vital part of creating change on the individual basis. Thus, it is vital for feminist and multicultural psychologists to truly understand, on a personal level, what race, class, gender, and other meaningful social identities mean to them and how those constructs influence their view of psychology. Such self-awareness is necessary for individuals to acknowledge and unlearn any biases, deconstruct assumptions, and create alternative perspectives. Although there are barriers to creating individual and internal change, individuals must examine themselves before they can effectively assist others or the profession in their own change process. Such a process of self-examination does not have an end goal. Rather, it is the process of self-exploration itself that has value and importance in creating lasting and ongoing individual change.

Linda James Myers (1988) has articulated the importance of making our world view more holistic and optimal. In the United States, the dominant reasoning is dichotomous, which leads to "either/or" conclusions. We often define things not by what they are, but by what they are not. Therefore, we classify ourselves as either feminists or multiculturalists; it is sometimes difficult to truly accept that both are possible. An alternative conceptual system, based on Afrocentric principles, utilizes diunital reasoning (the union of opposites). In such a worldview, it is possible to draw "both/and" conclusions and not assume that more of one thing automatically means less of something else. Such reasoning is sometimes so hidden that it is often difficult to unlearn core assumptions. Minnich (1990) and others (e.g., Freire, 1970; hooks, 1994) have offered alternative perspectives that help us to uncover our assumptions and connect with others more so than the dominant worldview appears to encourage.

In addition to focusing on change on the individual or intrapersonal level, it is important to focus attention on the second level, the group or interpersonal level. The group level might include individuals who are professionally involved in both feminist and multicultural psychology. Understanding how both formal (i.e., professional) and informal groups work separately and with each other is important (e.g., how formal groups like professional task groups or informal groups which often involve individuals who come together just by their interests and identity relate to and perceive each other). Exploration of these relationships and group dynamics (e.g., how feminist groups address multicultural issues and how multicultural groups acknowledge gender issues) can help clarify the barriers that prevent unification. Influential feminist writers (e.g., Lorde, 1984; Reagon, 1983) have articulated the importance of building alliances across cultural and ideological differences. In fact, transformation may be, at its core, about people and relationships (Reynolds, 2001).

Some individuals view building alliances with others who are different and who may view the world differently as a path to individual transformation. Bernice Johnson Reagon (1983), in writing about coalition building among feminist women exploring their differences, stated that we must constantly build alliances with those who are different from us and whose worldview may be threatening to us. Reagon warns that such dialogue is not easy:
   Coalition work is not work done in your home. Coalition work has to
   be done in the streets. And it is some of the most dangerous work
   that you can do. Some people will come to the coalition and they
   rate the success of the coalition on whether or not they feel good
   when they get there. They are not looking for a coalition; they're
   looking for a home! (p. 359)

She further stated that if it feels comfortable, it is not true coalition work. It is possible that the process of talking about and working through differences is what can lead to individual and group transformation. Perhaps the more invested we are in our relationships with others who are not like us, the more likely we are to understand who they are and maybe the more willing we may be to change ourselves.

Several examples of alliance building have occurred within psychology in an effort to create bridges between multicultural and feminist philosophies and goals. Greene and Sanchez-Hucles (1997) and Bowman et al. (2001) have written about their experiences at two national conferences creating connections with others around issues of multiculturalism and feminism. Despite the openness to diversity that attendees expressed at both conferences, there continue to be challenges in making the collaboration between feminism and multiculturalism work. The values and desire for unification are genuine yet most professionals continue to be limited by current thinking. Freire (1970) and Lorde (1984) emphasized the need to unlearn traditional ways of thinking, which continue to fuel oppression and erect barriers between people. For example, the ongoing discussion about how to define multiculturalism illustrates both the challenges and necessity of thinking about old problems in new ways. Because race has been deemed unimportant for so long within the psychology profession, many professionals committed to combating racism balk at the notion of expanding the definition of multiculturalism beyond race. Moreover, including many aspects of human diversity (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion) into this definition without exploration or dialogue is not a solution when the unique histories, experiences, and realities of the various groups necessitate understanding each group separately. Embracing diunital (i.e., "both/and") thinking and transforming our assumptions are necessary if we are to move forward to new understandings and dialogues. In other words, it is possible to embrace both race based and universal definitions of multiculturalism. Using the analogy of Audre Lorde, we cannot use the master's tools (which in this case might be dichotomous thinking) to dismantle the master's house (which is more dichotomous thinking).

There are growing reasons within counseling psychology to sense that some of these barriers and limitations in our thinking and relating to one another are beginning to dissolve. In 1999, the first National Multicultural Conference and Summit, involving several divisions of the American Psychological Association [e.g., Division 17 (Counseling Psychology), Division 35 (Society for the Psychology of Women), and Division 45 (Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues)], offered an excellent example of what Reagon (1983) was describing. Because "one of the first steps in building coalitions for successful multicultural change require(s) clear and honest dialogue" (Sue, Bingham, Porche-Burke, & Vasquez, 1999, p. 1064), the Summit sponsored an event entitled "Difficult Dialogues" to facilitate challenging conversations about issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Such difficult dialogues have continued each year as the Multicultural Summit reconvenes and attempts to build bridges. Recently, the 4th National Counseling Psychology Conference, held in March 2001 in Houston, Texas, helped to focus and re-invigorate an emphasis on social action in counseling psychology that included strengthening and expanding the profession's understanding of diversity (Fouad et al., 2004; Speight & Vera, 2004).

Working through tensions that occur when individuals build alliances across differences must be continued, even when it is difficult. According to Greene and Sanchez-Hucles (1997), "when we practice authentic diversity we enhance the efforts of feminist psychology to transform the discipline of psychology" (p. 198). In addition to these efforts, which often focus on individual and group transformation, there is a strong need for the third target of change, organizational and systemic change that focuses on the broader profession of psychology. By building effective coalitions and alliances between multicultural and feminist psychologists, these professionals can more effectively work together to challenge the larger field of psychology. Such efforts are already occurring within the American Psychological Association, wherein coalition groups are addressing issues of accreditation and ethics that affect People of Color, White women, and lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. Extending our theory, research, and practice to incorporate a social justice agenda, as suggested by Vera and Speight (2003), is another way to ensure that psychology becomes increasingly more inclusive and affirmative. More challenging will be the efforts that attempt to influence how the profession defines psychological reality, such as determining what is "normal," describing an "effective" therapeutic relationship, and identifying meaningful and relevant therapy content.


It will be important for future writings to articulate specific ways that feminist and multicultural approaches may be blended across professional contexts and roles. For example, the integration of multicultural and feminist psychological perspectives in theory, research, training, and clinical practice may help both of these areas to more fully consider and comprehend the intersection of multiple sociodemographic variables in the lives of a broad range of culturally-diverse individuals. Such understanding may ultimately contribute to both feminist and multicultural psychologists' ability to work effectively with the populations they serve.


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Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Amy L. Reynolds, Counseling Center, Buffalo State College, 1300 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, NY 14222; e-mail:

The authors are deeply indebted to the Diversity/Multiculturalism Work Group from the 1998 Advancing Together: Centralizing Feminism and Multiculturalism in Counseling Psychology conference in Ypsilanti, Michigan, which was sponsored by the Division 17 Section for the Advancement of Women in the American Psychological Association. Their hard work, great ideas, and commitment to multiculturalism and feminism provided the inspiration for this article.
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Author:Reynolds, Amy L.; Constantine, Madonna G.
Publication:Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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