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Posted in: Feminism

Published on Apr 23, 2020 by Phyllis Chesler

Published by Phyllis Chesler

Reparations for Women, APA, 1970


I was studying what women really wanted from psychotherapy. I planned to present my findings at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association (APA) in the fall of 1970. For a year, we’d been organizing what became the Association for Women in Psychology (AWP).

I no longer remember exactly how many cofounders there were of the AWP—there were at least eight or ten of us—and there we all were, at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association. While I loved psychoanalytic thinking, I had also been wondering about how few mental health professions had ever helped female patients and how, in fact, they had further abused them by punitively labeling, overly tranquilizing, sexually seducing, and hospitalizing them involuntarily; administering shock therapy, lobotomizing them and, in general, viewing women as “hysterical,” too emotional, promiscuous, depressed, too passive—or too aggressive, and as ugly, old, angry, fat, or incurable.

AWP decided that Dorothy Riddle and I would speak for us. I threw away my prepared speech. I knew this was the moment, the absolutely right time, to expose the practitioners of mental illness as the unenlightened sexists that they were, not the liberators they imagined themselves to be.

Two thousand—mostly male—psychologists had gathered in Miami. Dorothy and I mounted the stage. The faces in the audience were dutifully attentive, a bit bored, perhaps uneasy. Our group was new, and they had no idea what we were about to say. I spoke first. I was in something of an altered state when I demanded reparations for the mistreatment of female mental patients and, in so doing, positioned women’s struggle for freedom in relation to the struggles of other oppressed groups. I detailed the ways in which the mental health professions had psychiatrically stigmatized women, poorly serving them and totally misunderstanding them. I spoke without hesitation because I had been steeped in feminist and psychoanalytic ideas for many years. Maybe I’d been preparing for that moment all my life.

“Have you ever tested a woman for mental health and declared her mentally healthy?” I asked them. “Have you ever treated a rape victim, an incest victim, a battered wife with both understanding and respect?”

I then demanded $1 million—little enough—in reparations for the harm done to women and for the purpose of establishing an alternative to a psychiatric asylum. “Let’s think of it as a halfway house for women on the run or as a station on a new kind of under- ground railway.”

The crowd went crazy. And then—most delicious of all—I began to hear psychologists muttering, “These women have penis envy.”

I laughed and vowed never to return to the APA until or unless we got the reparations.

I started writing Women and Madness on the plane from Miami to New York. The next day I learned that my fiery little speech had made international headlines. My words were in South America, Europe, Australia, the Middle East, and all over the United States. My phone was ringing, publishers were calling. They wanted me to write a book.

Click here if you want to read how the NYT covered AWP’s two speeches.


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