Last year, W.W. Norton & Company published a new textbook called Psychology of Women and Gender (2019). The book is notable for its thoroughly feminist orientation – authors Miriam Liss, Kate Richmond, and Mindy J. Erchull made it a point to cover a wide array of feminist research and commentary on psychology and scientific epistemology, to write with critical attention to their own social locations, and to create a resource that sheds the veils of neutrality and objectivity that often shroud textbooks. PFV Project Director Alexandra Rutherford had the chance to catch up with Richmond and Erchull at the 2019 Association for Women in Psychology Conference in Newport, Rhode Island, and ask them some questions about their process and intentions in writing this book. In the interview, Richmond and Erchull spoke to what makes their textbook unique, and the ways that feminism informed not just the content of the textbook but also the entire process of writing it. We wanted to share some of our favourite bits from the interview, so read on for some excerpts that go behind the scenes of Psychology of Women and Gender!
We asked Richmond and Erchull about the personal importance that writing an explicitly feminist textbook held for them. This was Richmond’s reply:
I wanted a more focused attention on feminist theory and women and gender studies. For me it was really important that everyone at least started with the same language and so having a focus on feminist theory gives the students the capacity to be critical of our own field, which was something I think the previous books didn’t pay enough attention to. I think that’s the gift of women of color and intersectionality, the idea that it’s not just that we have to critique the status quo or hegemonic patriarchy, but we need to be looking at the ways in which we replicate power and oppression. I think our book asks students to do that.
We also talked about the challenge of writing a textbook about a movement that is often seen as no longer necessary, or as running counter to science. What would it be like to introduce feminist psychology to students who may only know feminism in the context of suffrage or the 1970’s Women’s Liberation Movement, or to endorse a textbook that takes a political stance in a discipline that otherwise sees itself as “objective”? Erchull had the following to say:
I think that [feminism] is needed now more than ever – not just this course and not just in psychology. I think that critical evaluations of the state of our culture, the forces at work in our lives, in psychology, sociology, literature … I think these are so important and I think that the fact that I hear more now than I might have 15 years ago when I started teaching that – why do we need this anymore, we dealt with this – well no, we haven’t and there’s huge amounts of data that show it’s not fixed. It might be different but it’s not fixed, it’s not done, we have work to do, we don’t have equality, we still have tremendous inequity based on privilege along many axes. I think that giving people the tools to critically evaluate the systems that they are a part of is more important now than ever.
I think there was a high school recently in my community that wanted to offer an intro to women’s studies course and the school board voted it down because they felt that why do we need this course, it’s ideological. What our book does well I think is present feminism not as a monolithic but a cannon, a school of thought that helps us answer certain difficult questions and that is not unique to “women’s issues” but it is a lens in which we can ourselves use but also our students can use to approach questions like climate change, domestic violence and sexual assault, immigration policies, gun violence.
One crucial point that came up in our conversation was that feminism not only infused the content of the textbook, but in fact undergirded the entire collaborative writing process. The authors discussed how important it was for them that the writing was embedded in sensitivity to each others’ personal lives, and that their purpose was to support each other in matters beyond the goal of publishing a book. As Richmond described:
It was not lost on me that all three of us during the process of writing this book had a major, significant life event happen to us, all of which involved our roles as being women. My daughter was diagnosed with cancer three months after we signed the book contract. Miriam lost her mother in the middle of the writing and Mindy had to do caregiving with her mother. So it’s not lost on us writing a psychology of gender book that all of us are involved in significant care giving. What that meant and what that is referring to where we had to readjust was that in the process, every one of us said “I can’t do this anymore.” And two others said “No we’ll rally, we’ll write your section, take care of your mom, take care of your daughter and we’ll come back to it.” That’s what I mean by a relational aspect of this book, especially as women authors. Your work is never detached from your life.
In addition to backgrounding the writing of the book, feminist considerations also went into choosing the content that would be included in the book, and conceptualizing how it would be represented. Richmond alluded to that process in our conversation:
One of the greatest lessons of qualitative research is this idea of standpoint – I think we took those seriously after every chapter, we used Pamela Hays’ ADDRESSING Model which looks at age, disability, race, socioeconomic status, Indigenous heritage, nationality, and gender to look at ourselves and ask how our social identity factors on those areas influence the decisions we made about what we incorporated and what we didn’t. Then we did an audit of every chapter to go through and say whose voice is here and whose isn’t, and that was not just in terms of studies, but also in terms of authors. We were trying to be intentional.
Erchull also mentioned a bit about their process selecting images for the book with diverse representation in mind:
We cared a great deal about [having representative imagery] and we were very happy that Norton, our publisher was willing to both support our vision for that and put the time and money into it that was necessary to make that happen, as some of the representation we were asking for was harder to find because textbooks are largely working with other stock images or news images and some of what we were looking for wasn’t readily available in those formats. And sometimes we hit a wall and had to rethink what we would want. They were very good about trying to help us think about how to still represent a very diverse array of women in terms of many dimensions even if that meant that we were looking for different types of art than what we had originally thought of.
If your curiosity about this book is piqued but you aren’t a student or educator, have no fear – according to Erchull, she and her colleagues intended the book to be accessible to individuals outside the academy:
You know what my fear is about this book? I want this information to be given to the general public and I fear that the only folks who are going to read this are students who are enrolled in college and there’s just – I mean we have spent 4 years reading the entire field of literature and there’s so many nuggets of helpful information and people are doing such interesting clever studies and theoretical models and it feels unfair. I mean I am so excited to teach this in my college class and yet I’m fully aware that the folks who go to college are a privileged group and how, and what I would say to your readers and to us and to my students is “How do we get this information out? How do you make it accessible?” And that’s actually something Miriam [Liss] brought to our team. She’s very good at translating scientific research into everyday language and I think we absolutely have to get better at giving this work out. If it only sits in a textbook, we’re in trouble.
To close off, I’ll let Richmond give voice to the importance of teaching psychology of women and gender from a feminist standpoint:
I think of bell hooks’ theory of liberation and the idea that when you give someone language to describe what they’re living, it enlivens them, it gives them new meaning, it gives a sense of purpose and so much of the curriculum is not reflective of the lived experiences of students who are marginalized. So when you say, “Here is a book with over 3000 references that legitimizes your lived experience and gives you credibility and gives you power,” that is your self-efficacy, self-worth, dignity, a sense of being human, and that to me is everything that education needs to be.
Tal Davidson is a PhD student in the Historical, Theoretical, and Critical Studies of Psychology program at York University. His current research explores Ecopsychology as a framework that combines social and ecological justice with personal healing and psychotherapeutics. He is also a project manager at Psychology’s Feminist Voices, and has been involved with the project since 2012.