Past Voices and Present Voices: Feminists Making a POW in the Now

By Katherine Hubbard

One of the most wonderful things about Psychology’s Feminist Voices is its resurrection of the voices of women from the past. These women, until now, have so often been forgotten in histories of Psychology. Their stories, their narratives and their reflections are so informative and help to flesh out and contextualise our understandings of the discipline in rich and important ways. The calls for more diverse voices and for further marginalised experiences has grown. These calls have been somewhat answered by projects such as the I am Psyched! exhibition which presents the contributions that women of colour have made to the field. The mining for marginalised voices is ongoing and is a global historical project that I fully support. My own research has explored some of the women who led queer feminist lives in early British Psychology. Their words remain just as important today as they were in the early 20th century. They contextualise a discipline which looked quite different to the one I am part of today; they are the experts of this history I explore.

Yet, alongside these voices from the past it is important to consider the voices of the present; those feminist psychologists working in the here and now. This blend of historical and present thinking gives us the potential to see where we, as feminists, have come from, and where we have to go. Where in the past have we struggled, resisted, and fought? How were these battles for equality won? And, importantly, who actually won and which women were left on the side-lines?

Together with Dr Rose Capdevila (Open University) and PhD student Lois Donnelly (University of Worcester) I am looking at people’s engagement with the Psychology of Women Section (POWS) of the British Psychological Society (BPS). Specifically, we’ve been asking POWS members and people who attend POWS events, to reflect on what the Psychology of Women Section means to them and what they would like to see in its future. POWS was first established in 1987 and had a turbulent beginning: the BPS initially rejected the application for the Section. This was the first time an application had been rejected. It was on the basis that the Section was ‘too political’. The term ‘feminist’ in the Section’s name was also rejected and debate continues as to whether the ‘F word’ should be in the name and if the BPS would allow it. Wider engagement with POWS is much larger than the Section itself as demonstrated by its Facebook discussion group. Its history is fascinating and the aim of the 2017 conference was to look both backwards and forwards on its growth as a reflection on the past 30 years. It was at this conference we presented our initial findings of how people in the present thought about the past and the future of POWS.

Our preliminary results showed that time spent with other feminist psychologists is described as rewarding, affirming, and ‘like coming home’. There is a certain amount of celebration and rejuvenation in events like the annual POWS conference. These days spent exchanging knowledge, presenting and engaging with the most contemporary feminist research is massively rewarding. It was also described as welcoming, supportive and good for early career academics. POWs was viewed as a part of a movement and a community, sometimes outside of mainstream Psychology. The conference in particular was described as ‘inclusive’, ‘nurturing’ and as a form of self-care. Overall, there was an overwhelming sense of positivity towards POWS and many people are devoted to its continued efforts to diversify Psychology and challenge androcentricism. One participant summed up POWS thus:

“It’s feminist, which is essential for our androcentric discipline but also intersectional and more concerned with getting out of the ivory tower than much of psychology.”

Alongside these positive exclamations of POWS, there was also several calls for a more radical looking future. Individuals questioned whether more could be being done to assist more marginalised women in Psychology and beyond. It was felt we, as a privileged bunch of academics, have the positions from which we can make real change. The requirement to foster greater relationships between academics and activists was also clear. This was also added to by some of the themes which emerged around the challenges that POWS face. One of these was accessibility. How can we make feminist Psychology more accessible, more visible, and more valued? Again this harked back to the issues around the ivory towers of academia and privileged positions. In all, those we spoke to wanted a more radical future for Psychology and a greater recognition of the political and the personal.

It therefore seems that although much has changed in the past centuries since Psychology was established as a discipline in Britain and elsewhere, the feelings of feminist psychologists have remained remarkably similar. We certainly enjoy and rejoice in the movements made so far by the women before us and next to us, but we want more. We want more inclusivity, further recognitions of women’s work, we want greater visibility for those who continue to be forgotten.

Note: The Psychology of Women Section has recently changed its name to the Psychology of Women and Equalities Section.

Author Bio

Dr. Katherine Hubbard is a historian of the medical and social sciences with a particular interest in feminist and queer histories. Trained as a social psychologist, she adopts a particular critical, perspective in analysis of objects of psychological and sociological interest. She engages with questions surrounding the influences and loops on and from the social sciences, as well as those surrounding ‘truth’ within the philosophy of science. Her additional research interests are in sexuality, gender, essentialist beliefs and graphic novels and use quantitative, qualitative and historical methods.