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Feminist Social Work Practice

Abstract and Keywords

Feminist social work practice is based on principles derived from the political and social analyses of the women's movement. As a practice approach, feminism emphasizes gendered analyses and solutions, democratized structures and processes, diversity and inclusivity, linking personal situations with political solutions, and transformation at all levels of intervention. Feminist practice is in concert with a multisystemic approach; it complements and extends strength-based social work. It requires of the practitioner, regardless of method, to be relational and open to other ways of knowing and understanding.

Keywords: feminism, women's movement, empowerment, social work practice, gender issues

Feminist social work practice broadly encompasses intervention knowledge and skills based within and informed by the political and social analyses of the women's movement. Feminism provides a critical lens through which social workers understand, and then work to ameliorate, the concerns and issues primarily of women. Feminist theory also suggests new processes for working with women, processes that in turn influence other practice paradigms.

Defining Feminism

Although there is considerable debate within feminist scholarship as to what constitutes feminism, there are several themes common across most definitions. First, it is assumed that collectively, women have been and continue to be denied power and privilege because of gender norms, roles, responsibilities, and assumptions. Second, it is structural inequality that shapes the position and standing of women, not personal actions or individual circumstances. Third, it is inherently activist in orientation, concerned with “challenging women's subordinate (or disadvantaged) status in the society at large and in their own community” (Gluck, 1998, p. 34).

Feminism is not, however, a monolithic ideology, perspective, or movement. Since feminism's reemergence in the 1960s, several ideological streams developed. Within each, different visions, assumptions, processes, strategies, and outcomes were articulated, and were, to varying degrees, integrated into social work practice (White, 2006). Table 1 summarizes the most widely recognized perspectives—liberal, radical, socialist, cultural, and womanist (for an excellent account of the historical development of these feminist streams, see Echols, 1989). Today, variations of liberal and cultural feminism have the greatest influence on feminist practice.

Yet although feminism is “pro-woman,” it should not be equated solely with women working with other women on issues of concern only to women (Hyde, 1996, 2005). First, female-dominated organizations or activities are not feminist when they impose or support patriarchal gender norms and values. Phyllis Schafley's Eagle Forum, which was a largely female membership organization, sought to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment and further solidify traditional male and female roles. Second, men as well as women can be proponents and beneficiaries of feminism. Recent gender scholarship, influenced significantly by feminist theory, focuses on the constraints of stereotypic male roles and the high price that men pay when they step outside the confines of these expected roles (Connell, 2005; Edin, 1998). Finally, the issues that are addressed do not have to be quintessentially feminist ones (for example, sexual violence, pay equity). Women have been and continue to be involved significantly in social change campaigns that concern neighborhood safety, environmental racism, public education, or labor; it is the empowering processes and outcomes of such collective actions that make them feminist.

Table 1 Feminist Perspectives, Explanation of Women's Inequality and Oppression, and Examples of Strategies


Primary Causes of Inequality and Oppression of Women

Strategies or Actions


Denial of access and opportunities due to sex-role stereotyping or structural barriers or both

• “Let us in”—integration of women

• Legal remedies to secure and extend women's rights (for example, employment and education equity legislation)


Concept of “sex caste”—women subordinated because of male supremacy and cultural patriarchy

• Modeled after black power movements

• Consciousness-raising

• Collectivist or consensus orientations to power

• Politicized approach to alternative services (for example, rape crisis centers, health clinics)


Intersection of gender and class, specifically in disparities resulting from labor market and other economic structures

• Social protest, with emphasis on economic issues especially for poor and low-income women (for example, welfare rights)


Societal denial and repression of women's inherent, and superior, ability to nurture

• Create and sustain separate spaces and own culture that would promote female biology as the basis of women's power

• Entrepreneurial ethos that promotes “women as women” (for example, women's bookstores)


Intersection of race and gender, with emphasis on unique “double jeopardy” of women of color

• Combination of strategies that address needs of women of color

• Critiques of racism within feminist analyses and practices

Regardless of perspective, feminist practice addresses myriad issues that affect women differentially than they do men. These include sexual violence, education and employment equity, child and elder care, reproductive and sexual health, pension and retirement benefits, poverty and income maintenance, mental health access, and the rights of sexual minorities (see Peterson & Lieberman, 2001). Even though women have made substantial gains in the last decades, critical issues and problems remain. Consider these facts about women in the United States:
  • Women are more likely than men to be in or near poverty, with the risk significantly increased for single mothers, older women, and women with no postsecondary education.

  • In 2005, women earned 77 cents to every male dollar; for African American women it was 71 cents and for Latinas it was 58 cents. If equal and comparable pay equity was achieved, it would cut the female poverty rate in half.

  • Women are 58% of all social security beneficiaries 65 and older, and 71% of all beneficiaries 85 and older; social security makes up 55% of older women's income, compared with 39% for older men.

  • Every day in the United States, 4 women die as a result of domestic violence; women are 10 times more likely than men to be a victim of violence by an intimate partner.

  • Access to legal abortion has steadily eroded. Currently, 87% of all U.S. counties have no abortion provider; national legislation (as well as in many states) limits later term abortions even if the woman's life is endangered.

  • Women are twice as likely as men to experience clinical depression; less than half of these women receive treatment.

  • Women of color have significantly higher maternity-mortality rates, and sharp increases in STD and HIV infection rates; they also contend with more limited access to reproductive health services (National Organization for Women, 2006).

These, and other, realities for women inform the development and implementation of feminist practice.

Core Principles of Feminist Social Work

Feminist practice transcends all arenas of social work intervention, from micro to macro. Well-developed feminist approaches have been articulated for clinical, group, organization, community, policy practice, and collective protest methods (see, for example, Abramovitz, 2006; Bricker-Jenkins, Hooyman, & Gottlieb, 1991; Charles, 2000; Cohen, 2003; Figueira-McDonough & Sarri, 2002; Hyde, 1996, 2005; Mizrahi, 2007; Mizrahi & Lombe, 2007). On the basis of this work, as well as historical and contemporary efforts to address the concerns of women, core principles of feminist social work practice can be identified (see Figueira-McDonough, Netting, & Nichols-Casebolt, 1998; Gutierrez & Lewis, 1999; Peterson & Lieberman, 2001; White, 2006). These core principles are as follows:

  • Gendered lens: An understanding that societal dynamics and relations shape, and are shaped by, gendered roles and responsibilities. With respect to practice, this means that the status and experiences of women need to inform the identification, analysis, and solution of problems, as well as the processes used. It is tempting to think that since women are the majority of social work practitioners and clients, the profession automatically incorporates gendered analysis into interventions. This principle, however, speaks specifically to understanding the power dynamics generated by gender norms, expectations, and behaviors, not merely women working with women.

  • Personal is political: One of the most famous slogans of the women's movement, this principle links the individual experiences of women with broader societal structures and trends. In order to understand and make this connection, the seemingly “mundane” aspects of what it means to be female and male, and how these roles are socially reproduced, must be deconstructed. This examination then informs the change process. One strategic implication of this is the demystification of knowledge that women are “experts” in their own lives and that problem analysis is built on shared experiences. Narrative development and consciousness-raising are primary tactics in understanding and examining societal problems and concerns, and the impact that these concerns have on individuals. Practice is centered on facilitating and acting on these understandings.

  • Democratized structures and processes: Within feminist practice, the ways in which a goal or objective is achieved is often as important as the actual achievement. Attending to the process of practice, from a feminist perspective, means facilitating collaborative styles such as consensus decision-making and delegation or rotation of tasks. Structures, such as collectives or “flattened” hierarchies, are put into place to support such cooperative processes. While this principle has greatest relevancy for the development and maintenance of programs and organization, it also pertains to the broader dynamics of networking and relationship building as central components in practice. The value of egalitarianism as critical to feminist social work is underscored. Commitment to this principle necessitates attention to process as well as product. This, in turn, can result in a tension between how a project unfolds and the outcome of the effort.

  • Inclusivity and diversity: While understanding the gendered dynamics essential in feminist analysis and practice, it is not the singular factor in comprehending the patterns of subordination and oppression in the United States and other countries. Feminism has become increasingly committed to the elimination of all forms of oppression and the facilitation of full participation by bridging differences. This necessitates working toward the understanding of social problems and solutions through perspectives other than that of white, middle class women. It also requires the close examination of the ways in which various forms of privilege are manifested in practice efforts (no matter how well-intentioned the efforts are).

  • Transformational: Recognizing gender subordination does not mean that women are merely included in status quo arrangements, which are then left unaltered. Feminist practice seeks, and contributes to, basic structural and cultural changes in terms of gender roles, norms, and status. Moreover, it challenges the manifestation of other oppressions, such as racism, homophobia, ageism, or classism, and thus, is “transformational because it involves a vision of a society that does not exist and sees social, political, and economic change as necessary for that vision to be realized” (Martin, 1990, p. 184).

These principles can have a powerful influence on practice, as the following examples suggest:
  • A clinician would work in partnership with individuals and families, helping them understand how the presenting issues or problems are connected to larger societal dynamics informed, at least in part, by gender.

  • A group worker would facilitate groups in a way that advanced shared leadership, collective consciousness-raising, and mutual aid with attention to gendered communication patterns and roles.

  • An agency director would promote organizational structures and procedures that supported team-building, participatory decision-making, open governance, and minimized hierarchy, and would institute mentoring programs and other supports to enhance opportunities for members of subordinated groups (for example, women, people of color, and people with disabilities).

  • A community organizer would emphasize empowerment-oriented processes, promote democratic and inclusive development strategies, and facilitate leadership development particularly among underrepresented group members.

  • A policy analyst or practitioner, in the institutional arena, would help reveal the gendered realities of social problems, such as the feminization of poverty or the many ways in which the state attempts to regulate the lives of women.

  • A social movement activist, on the societal level, would help articulate the connections between personal problems and broader structural trends so that a political solution could be generated, while being mindful that the voices of women and other oppressed groups be heard through coalitions and other collective strategies.

As these examples suggest, feminist practice is in concert with a multisystemic approach from micro through mezzo to macro practice; it complements and extends strength-based social work (Figueira-McDonough, Netting, & Nichols-Casebolt, 1998; Peterson & Lieberman, 2001). It requires of the practitioner, regardless of method, to be relational and open to other ways of knowing and understanding. Given the attention to gendered, and other, forms of oppression and subordination, feminism provides a much needed politicized context for social work.

Feminist Practice Trends

Feminism is dynamic, and as such, feminist practice is continuously evolving. The inherently reflexive nature of feminism has resulted in an ability to respond to new situations, including threats, as well as the revisioning of analyses to better reflect the historical and contemporary realities of all women (Mohantry, 2003; White, 2006). Three trends can be identified as having particular relevance in the further development of feminist social work.

First, feminist practice needs to continue to grapple with the infusion of race, class, nationality, and other social categories into gendered accounts. Feminist theory risks reifying gender, without careful attention to other social milieu. Yet to fully understand the dynamics of gender means attention to the ways in which all cultural attributes shape, and are shaped by, one another. This goal of becoming more multicultural should not be the task of lesbians, women with disabilities, working class women, or women of color; all feminists need to embrace this by developing multicultural efforts and conceptualizing multicultural practice frameworks. Similarly, and arguments of American uniqueness aside, the conditions of U.S. women need to be placed within a broader global context so that more robust theoretical frameworks on the status and progress of women can be delineated (Basu, 1995; Mohantry, 2003; Newell, 2000). These efforts need to be extended to sustaining international feminist efforts through education, advocacy, coalition-building, and mutual aid.

Second, feminist practice needs to continue the development of gendered analyses and actions, as opposed to limiting its scope to “women helping women.” While women are the primary practitioners and beneficiaries of feminism, a gendered framework can reveal how men who do not fulfill the masculine norms and dictates of society are penalized. This is clearly seen in the realm of social policy. When low-income or poor men deviate from the “breadwinner” role, they are marginalized by the welfare state. These men are not able to find services and often are subjected to public humiliation; the current welfare state is designed to keep these men subordinated. What Connell refers to as “the patriarchal dividend,” which privileges men, is available primarily to those men who enact traditional gender roles (2005). Conversely, men who enact nontraditional gender roles, such as stay-at-home dad or male child-care workers, elementary school teachers, and even direct practice social workers, are denied the full value of this “dividend.” More nuanced gender analyses can inform practice with both women and men.

Success on these two points will aid significantly in countering the third trend—the escalating political, economic, social, and religious conservativism in the United States and abroad (Abramovitz, 2006; Hyde, in press; Mohantry, 2003). Since the late 1970s, the Christian right has made steady inroads into political, educational, medical, and employment arenas in the United States. In other countries, religious fundamentalists have seized power and installed their own regimes, with often brutal consequences for women (see Basu, 1995; Boonprasat-Lewis & Fortune, 1999; Newell, 2000). While women, especially in western democracies, may seem to enjoy more freedom than women in earlier decades, far too many women locally and globally suffer under repressive conditions. In the United States, for example, access to reproductive health service has been denied and dismantled. Legislation and court decisions make it increasingly difficult to gain redress in matters of employment discrimination. Despite the claims of public officials, welfare “reform” has had devastating consequences for many poor women and their families (Abramovitz, 2006; Feldt, 2004; Hyde, in press). Sexual violence against, and the “honor” killings of, women continue, especially in war zones (Boonprasat-Lewis & Fortune, 1999; Newell, 2000). Economic globalization has created new forms of economic suppression and marginalization for women, especially immigrants without legal protections (Chang, 2000; Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2004). While these issues are framed on the macrolevel, there is significant, ruinous fallout for individuals and families. One's mental, physical, and spiritual health, life opportunities, and sense of worth are tied directly to these concerns.

Feminist social work practice is a holistic framework that ultimately calls for the healing of all levels of society. It embraces and advances key elements of social change within social work, most notably empowerment and the elimination of oppression (Figuerira-McDonough, Netting & Nichols-Casebolt, 1998; Peterson & Liberman, 2001; White, 2006). Rather than being viewed as obsolete, feminist perspectives can enrich one's practice while simultaneously calling on social workers to address problems that affect most people in their towns and across their nations. Feminist social work practice, in its many forms, provides a powerful means to enact social work's commitment to social and economic justice.


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                                                    Further Reading

                                                    Center for Women Policy Studies.

                                                    Feminist Majority Foundation.

                                                    Jane Addams Peace Association.

                                                    National Organization for Women.

                                                    Off Our Backs.

                                                    Third Wave Foundation.

                                                    Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice.

                                                    Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.