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The Political, the Emotional and the Therapeutic: The Women’s Movement and Mental Health Activism in England, c. 1969-1995

Historians tracing the influence of feminist ideas on mental health in late twentieth-century Britain have focused on Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) critiques of psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy, as popularised by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. This paper, however, explores how and why some women’s movement members sought to positively apply psychological and psychotherapeutic discourses in order to understand themselves personally and politically, and to develop alternative forms of community-based support for women experiencing mental health concerns.

Drawing on case studies of the London Women’s Liberation Workshop (LWLW) Psychology Group, founded in 1971, and the Women’s Therapy Centre, established in London in 1976, this paper examines the influence of emotion on women’s movement members’ interactions with psychology and psychotherapy. The LWLW Psychology Group drew on psychotherapeutic approaches to uncover women’s negative experiences of feminist practices such as consciousness-raising, therefore highlighting the need for increased emotional support within the WLM.

In oral history interviews, former Women’s Therapy Centre practitioners have drawn on certain emotions to narrate their experiences of working there, describing how feelings associated with excitement and creative freedom inspired their initial engagement with feminist therapy. It is a nostalgia for these emotions that has also influenced their reflections on the Women’s Therapy Centre’s development in the 1990s. Some feminist therapists have associated its purported depoliticisation with a decline in opportunities for individual creativity at the Centre. This paper therefore demonstrates how debates within the WLM were not simply oriented around ideological disputes, but also reflected disparities in how its members experienced Women’s Liberation at an emotional level. These emotional responses have also informed how particular historical narratives of the women’s movement in late twentieth-century England have come to be constructed and disseminated.

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