Fearless Foursome

The Women's Project Prepares to Pass the Torch: An Interview

Magazine Issue
November/December 1997
Fearless Foursome

Despite its monumental-sounding name, the Women’s Project in Family Therapy owns no real estate and doesn’t even have a listing in the phone book. In the 20 years that it has been in existence, the Women’s Project has never offered a regular training program, has produced only a handful of monographs, has presented a few dozen public workshops and has published one book that has sold all of 24,000 copies. Why, then, do so many people in the field believe that without the Women’s Project the development of family therapy over the past 20 years is practically unthinkable?

The Women’s Project may owe its resilience and paradoxical success to the fact that it is the product of a high-voltage group friendship that defies easy definition. Rather than having an institutional agenda, it has been shaped by the chemistry between four of family therapy’s most commanding and savvy practitioners—the Women’s Project is what takes place when Betty Carter, Peggy Papp, Olga Silverstein and Marianne Walters take time off from their individual careers as clinicians and teachers to moonlight together as the field’s longest running think tank cum road show cum social protest rally.

Among the lessons they have passed along to their colleagues is how to make a collaboration endure. While they take their feminism seriously, there has been one guiding principle in their work with one another: in Betty Carter’s words, “If you find yourself stuck, it’s usually because you’ve allowed yourself to become terminally sincere.”

It all started in 1977 with Marianne Walters inviting her friend Peggy Papp to colead a one-shot workshop on “women’s issues” at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic, where Walters was then assistant director of the training center. Papp’s first reaction to the invitation was “What women’s issues?” Recalls Papp,  “I really had no idea what she was talking about.” Nevertheless, Papp agreed to take part, and invited two ex-students of hers, Carter and Silverstein, both of whom had recently begun practice having made a midlife decision to become therapists. All were more intrigued by the idea that feminism might have something to do with therapy than confident that they knew how to lead the way. “I was a feminist outside the therapy room, but never inside,” says Carter. “But nobody back then knew what to do with it in the room.”

Their first workshop drew an audience of about 100 and wound up focusing less on therapy than on the women attendees’ complaints about their male bosses and the sexism in their mental health work settings.  “The women talked about how they felt intimidated and not allowed to achieve,” says Walters. “I remember one woman saying,  ‘How am I supposed to be in charge in a therapy session? After all, in the rest of the world, I’m not in charge of anything.'” The four conveners felt they were barely ahead of the parade they were presumably leading. “It was a riot,” says Papp. “All of us were saying different things, constantly contradicting each other.”

One of the biggest issues in preparing for the meeting was an extended debate over the politics of coffee and flowers. “Some of us didn’t want to serve food, because that was the old female role,” says Silverstein. “After all, Bowen and Minuchin didn’t worry about having a nice arrangement of flowers and Danish at their workshops. But come workshop time, there was so much food and so many flowers in the foyer that you could barely get in the door. Marianne just decided to go ahead with it.”

Despite differences in theoretical outlook and clinical approach, Carter, Papp, Silverstein and Walters all found themselves enamored with their group chemistry, as were many other women family therapists eager for female leadership to emerge in a field still dominated by its founding fathers. A few months later, at an impromptu session scheduled at the last minute at the annual American Orthopsychiatric Association conference, some 400 women showed up to hear them. What started as a one-shot collaboration soon became formalized as the Women’s Project in Family Therapy. Together, the four women decided to plan annual workshops that would define a feminist-informed clinical perspective, moving their attention from the professional dilemmas women therapists faced to systemically examining therapeutic issues.

As gender became the hottest, most divisive issue in family therapy in the early 1980s, Carter, Papp, Silverstein and Walters became both revered and reviled as feminist sheroes, bold and brassy women unafraid of ruffling feathers, who openly and publicly challenged the field’s patriarchy and its conventional wisdom. Bringing the ideology of the women’s movement directly into the consulting room, they sought nothing less than to transform the very picture of family life that undergirded the classic family therapy approaches. When they looked at Gregory Bateson and Jay Haley’s double-bind hypothesis, or Murray Bowen’s theory of differentiation or Salvador Minuchin’s concept of enmeshment, they saw not so much a revolutionary new way of thinking about human behavior, but more of the same old sexism done up in fancy terminology. However abstract and evenhanded the theory sounded, they claimed that, again and again, in practice, the family dysfunction was balanced on the back of the mother. Rather than offering an eye-opening perspective on the inner workings of the family, they argued, family therapists were too often guilty of perpetuating the same cultural myths about men and women that got families in trouble in the first place.

When the Women’s Project first strode onto center stage, family therapists still aspired to the removed calm of astronomers peering through a telescope. In contrast, Carter, Papp, Silverstein and Walters, all of whom knew firsthand the life of the traditional homemaker in prefeminist, post-World War II America, talked of the family from the inside out. In a field of women struggling to emancipate themselves from old roles, the Women’s Project’s message was a reassuring, “We’ve been there, done that and, sometimes, we’re still there!”

Early on, the Women’s Project developed its own ritual for planning workshops, collapsing the personal into the professional. Camped out in Olga Silverstein’s Manhattan apartment, with its panoramic view of the Upper East Side, the women would schedule two days for themselves and devote the first day entirely to updating one another on their lives and travails. “We talked about everything,” says Silverstein, “our husbands, our divorces, our kids. As we talked, we saw the connection between what we did as parents and wives and friends and what we did as therapists. We saw that all those roles weren’t something that interfered with your professionalism, they made you more of an expert on families.”

Although they could be scathing and combative, the Women’s Project never fit the stereotype of grim feminist crusaders. When they talked in their workshops about the impossible imperatives to be both the perfect mother and the successful career woman, their tone was more knowing and ironic than angry.   The four somehow managed to embody the voice of time-weathered clinical wisdom and the wise-cracking spirit of the sorority sisters, teasing one another about their appearance or their clothes, trading one-liners. Once at a workshop, a participant remarked, “The four of you seem so at ease with yourselves. What do you do when you’re anxious or uptight?” Before anyone else could respond, Marianne Walters grabbed the microphone and replied, “We eat!”

Almost from the beginning of their collaboration, Peggy Papp insisted that the group write a book to establish its professional legitimacy. “I reminded them what Nathan Ackerman used to say:  ‘If it’s not written, it didn’t happen.'” says Papp. For five years, the four women labored to work through their theoretical and clinical differences, critiquing one another’s chapters line-by-line. “It was the craziest, most excruciating exercise you can imagine,” says Carter. “But it pushed us to think through all the critical issues.” The result was The Invisible Web , published in 1988, a book that went beyond dissecting the sexism of traditional therapy to offering practical, nuts-and-bolts approaches to the issues of gender and power in ordinary practice. The Women’s Project still considers the book its crowning achievement.

But the women’s broader achievement has been their role in persuading the field to move beyond the interior of the family to incorporate social and cultural issues into mainstream clinical thinking. One measure of their success is the difficulty of finding anyone today who would dispute their analysis of the blind spots of early family therapy theory or dismiss the clinical importance of understanding the family’s gender politics. For the past several years, all four women have felt increasingly that they have accomplished what they set out to do and it was, as Olga Silverstein puts it, “time to move over and make room for other people.” The Women’s Project has decided to officially disband this December, on its 20th anniversary.

The four women still plan to work together to support Marianne Walter’s new project, the Council on Contemporary Families, an attempt to bring to bear the perspectives of family systems thinking and feminism on public policy issues. All the women remain professionally active and regard the disbanding of the Women’s Project with few regrets. “There’s not a question that our friendship will continue,” says Olga Silverstein. “We’ll keep sharing one another’s lives. Hey, after all, we’re women. We believe in fusion.”

In the interview that follows, the Women’s Project examines the clinical implications of this work and discusses what might lay ahead for the feminist movement.

PN: The first step in any social movement–generating moral passion about the cause–is always the clearest. But once a movement experiences some success and begins to become accepted, the issues often get subtler. Among family therapists, at least, it would be hard to find anyone today willing to utter a discouraging word in public about feminism. In fact, a lot of therapists call themselves feminists whom I don’t think the four of you would necessarily see as allies. What does feminism mean in 1997?

Walters: With some exceptions, anyone choosing to declare her- or himself a feminist in these backlash timesis an ally. But today’s feminism is, naturally, a more complex and varied movement than the consciousness-raising/equal rights 1970s era when we began. The debates today range from reproductive rights, to postmodern angst, to cultural diversity, to the politics of race, to queer theory and on and on. In 1997, feminism is more far-reaching, if sometimes less radical, than 20 years ago.

Carter: I totally agree, but for me, the problem isn’t everybody calling themselves feminists but the reverse. What annoys me to pieces is hearing women say, “Well, I’m not a feminist, but . . .” For some women, feminism has become a dirty word. So they’re saying, “I’m not a man-hating-foaming-at-the-mouth lunatic, but, ” and then they say something feminist, or they’re a C.E.O or have achieved something they never would have if it hadn’t been for feminism. Some people still think that if you’re a feminist that means you hate men and are against marriage and children.

PN: It seems to me that part of the hostility you’re referring to has to do with the rhetoric of feminism. Movements mobilize people by using a language that heightens their sense of grievance and indignation at injustice. But after 30 years of the modern women’s movement, hasn’t some of the overheated language of feminism outlived its usefulness?

Walters: No, not really. Maybe it needs to be ever more descriptive, contextualized, linked to the everyday-ness of women’s experience. But anyway, “man-hating,” “bra-burning” and such was never our language. That sort of language was imposed on us.

Carter: The jargon of feminism can strike many people as melodramatic. If you use an expression like “oppression,” for example, you immediately lose much of your audience because it’s full of nice guys who think they would never “oppress” anyone if their life depended on it. Or when you use the word “privilege” people think you’re saying that they’re spoiled brats who don’t deserve the life they have. So rather than talking about people being “oppressed,” I use words like impoverished, constrained and limited. I’ll sometimes say, “Because of my white skin privilege, I . . . ,” but I’m referring to me, not to anybody else.

PN: Let’s put all this into the context of clinical work. A basic tenet of feminism is that men experience more social privilege than women. How, as therapists and feminists, do you challenge the power inequities in a couple without alienating your male clients?

Silverstein: I don’t buy into the idea that men have all the goodies. While it is certainly true that “men” as a social class (at least white, middle-class men) are privileged, it is hardly true that the individual men we see in practice are so privileged. And although men feel more pressure and maybe even have greater opportunity for success, they also experience much greater fear of failure, along with greater social isolation and loneliness. Feminism is a social and political ideology that includes all of us–men and women.

Papp: In my work, I try to help men become more aware of the inequities and then convince them they’ll gain something by changing them. They generally want a better relationship with their wives, so I focus on their beliefs and behaviors that stand in the way of achieving their desired goal.

PN: How do you do that?

Papp: There are many different ways, depending on the situation. But I’ll describe a case in which there was a very common problem. Both spouses worked full time at equally stressful jobs. The wife complained bitterly that her husband came home every night and “spaced out,” leaving her to take care of the children and run the household. The husband was very surprised at his wife’s accusations, as he prided himself on being a “modern, liberated husband.” He felt his wife was overly emotional and overly anxious, crediting their disputes to “temperamental differences.”

The first thing I did was suggest they go home and read Arlie Hochschild’s The Second Shift—a book that Betty Freidan says every woman should give to every man. It describes the way both men and women in two-career couples manage to justify the inequalities of their relationship rather than challenge the status quo. Besides reading the book, I asked them to make a list of the tasks each performed at home after work and bring it to the next session. This was my way of challenging the discrepancy between the husband’s belief that they had an equal relationship and the reality of the situation. There’s nothing like seeing something in black and white. He was very disturbed by the book because he saw himself in it. He said, “I realize most men perform very badly in the second shift, and I guess that would include me.” The wife said it was the most depressing book she had ever read because “it shows how women rationalize and justify all the junk in their lives so they can keep from rocking the boat.” Her list of tasks performed was as long as Santa Claus’s Christmas list. The husband forgot to do his—surprise, surprise. However, after seeing his wife’s list, he did agree to take over some of the tasks on her list.

PN: What prevents this guy from experiencing you as being in league with his wife to change him?

Papp: Well, first of all, I didn’t make him defensive by confronting his “liberated husband” stance directly–the book did, the list did, his wife did.

PN: You’re saying he was motivated to change his ways just so he could maintain his image as a liberated husband?

Papp: No, that would be too intellectual. It was mostly the positive response from his wife as he began to take over more responsibility. She became more relaxed, more fun, more affectionate and more sexual, which was what he had said he wanted. Many therapists think the domestic area is superficial and they want to get beyond it to the “deeper” issues. I believe talking about everyday household responsibilities brings forward the deeper issues because they are a microcosm of the couple’s gender beliefs about how men and women should function together.

Carter: The biggest problem in family therapy is finding ways to convince men that change is in their own interest.

Walters: “Challenging power inequities” is not quite my vision of what I do in therapy—that’s more what I do as a political activist. As a therapist, I work to destabilize a small system whose structure is socially sanctioned. I do this by making explicit, as soon as possible, that a couple shares a common belief system. This comes as a surprise—they thought they disagreed on almost everything! Well, they don’t. They totally agree on one basic tenet: that when it comes to emotional relationships, child care and family life, she can and he can’t. The kicker is that this mutual belief system is good for him and bad for her. No matter how much she nudges and he protests, this belief system keeps them both in their place. And, in spite of all the talk about family values, we know real power has never been located there. His place in the world is maintained by being ineffectual in the family; her place is maintained by believing fervently in his emotional vacuity. So he’s from Mars and she’s from Venus. Anyhow, once I’ve confronted this common belief system and served up lots of cognitive dissonance, we can go to work on helping Mars become a familial mensch, while Venus stops protecting him with her angst.

Silverstein: One of the basic assumptions that all four of us share is that men are perfectly capable of nurturing, expressing their feelings, being tender and being in touch with other people’s feelings. And  women are capable of being very assertive, taking charge of their lives, being organized and so on.

Papp: In our depression project, we found that men often came out of their depression when they got in touch with their wife’s feelings, which totally goes against the conventional wisdom of the field. There was one man who had been suicidal and hospitalized, and whose wife was hysterical and about to leave him. He had also run up enormous bills and done a lot of other irresponsible things. She said, “I can’t stand it anymore.  I’m doing all the work, and he’s just running up bills. Meanwhile my father’s dying in a hospital. I can’t take it anymore.” So we said to the husband, “We’re concerned about your wife. She seems like she’s really on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Can you mobilize yourself to help her?” And he said, “Well, yeah. I’m in terrible shape, but maybe I could.” So we listed all of her problems on the board and said, “Are there any that you could help her with?” And he said, “Well, I could go with her to visit her father in the hospital.” So he went with her and he had a transforming experience. While he was sitting there waiting with his mother-in-law and sister-in-law, he reached out and comforted them. He had never done that before. And then he began to comfort his wife. Later he said, “You know, all my life, I’ve kept my feelings in. I’ve been afraid to ever reach out to anybody else because I felt that I didn’t have anything worthy to give anybody else.” The way he got in touch with his feelings was by first getting in touch with somebody else’s feelings.

Carter: I do something a little different. I believe that for many men, feelings have first gotten cut off and blocked in their relationship with their parents. I always talk to them about jamming the faucets off because their father didn’t come to their baseball games because he was working, and their mother was backing off because that’s what mothers thought they were supposed to do: “If you think how hard you had to work to jam those faucets off, no wonder it’s difficult to get those rusty valves open now that your feelings are supposed to flow.” And then I give them various tasks related to the parents to “get the faucets open.”

PN: Like what?

Carter: Well, I often begin with the relationship with their father, because men have a romance about their relationships with their fathers. They’ll say they wish they had a closer relationship with their fathers, something they don’t say about their mothers, which actually was the close relationship that they lost. So I start with the father. If the father sounds like he is alive and kicking, I might give them nonthreatening ways to approach their father, like “Ask him about this difficulty you’re having with your son.” If the father is dead or sounds like he’s among the living dead, then I may have him do it by letter, and bring the letter in. And I keep pushing and pushing until the letter gets more and more open. After we’ve done even just a little with the father, the guy often feels the emotional impact. Then I shift to mother, which is a tougher deal, but that’s where the real payoff comes. I’ve had any number of turned-off, shut-down men who, when they finally did go back to the mother that they were maligning or ignoring or whatever, found her eager to respond and to validate them. It is such an intense emotional experience that it often changes the man’s whole way of relating to everyone.

Silverstein: I work with the past a lot, too, but I don’t assign specific tasks. Instead I’ll connect the way the man is with his wife and the way he was with his mother. I’ll talk with him about how he first learned to be in a close relationship with a woman and whether it’s working for him now.

PN: So you begin with the mother?

Silverstein: Oh, yes, definitely, because I believe that the basic essential relationship in which a man cuts off emotionally is the one with his mother. He has been socially mandated to do that–as she has been to encourage that. We live in a culture that elevates the autonomy and independence of men and boys and then expects closeness and intimacy in marriage. It doesn’t make sense, does it?

Walters: So do you hear our different ways of working? In the early days, this used to drive us nuts, until we realized how much ideology we shared. Being firmly planted in the present, I intervene on a microlevel, amplifying the smallest interaction between the couple in the session that uncovers an experience of emotional competence, especially with him.

PN: Asking husbands and wives about the power differences between them can be a tricky business. What are some of the more helpful ways you’ve found of bringing those issues into a session?

Carter: Raising the issue is the easy part. But changing the unequal power structure, that’s rooted in his work and income and her mothering, means a drastic shake-up of the whole system. She wants much more of his time and for him to be more involved in the family. He agrees that would be wonderful, but it isn’t possible. Should he cut back and risk his job? Should she work more to compensate for the lost income if he does? Can she earn enough to do that, given her lower earning power and the high cost of child care? Can they reduce their life style and expenses significantly enough to permit less work and less income? They both resist these enormous changes usually–and nothing in our society helps them make such changes anyway. The relatively few who do are very pleased with their new lives. But most couples just settle for a reduction in conflict or symptoms, or even smaller adjustments, like listening more to each other or speaking to each other in a more respectful way–what I call “emotional climate control.” But when there is no change in the basic family structure, “feeling better” doesn’t last, and so they keep coming back to therapy or they get divorced. I know this sounds pessimistic, but I’m just not satisfied with the amount of real change I see, even when clients are satisfied.

PN: But again I wonder where the leverage for change is when it comes to power differences in a relationship?

Carter: There really isn’t a lot, apart from finding some way to help the man see that he’s missing out on a lot emotionally.

Silverstein: I think you’re making too much of the power differences. Women are not powerless in marriage. We haven’t even defined our terms here. Power in an intimate relationship is not the same as on the battlefield or the Senate floor. The leverage for change is the same as in monopoly–what do you gain for what you give up.

Walters: The leverage is in the fundamental desire for human connection. In a small system, no matter how culturally skewed, we have to make contact with that desire. So if a couple is in therapy, we already have some evidence of this. If there are children, you can enter there. People will do emotional handsprings for their kids that they won’t do for each other. For instance, if there’s a school problem and dad has opted out, I’d say something like, “David, I know how much you care about and value education. My guess is you’re backing off because you feel unsure of what to do. You’re not even sure you could make a difference. Well, you can.” Of course, I’m not talking here about keeping a marriage together for the sake of the children.

PN: Why not?

Walters: Because I work with relationships, not marriage. Marriage is the institutionalization of a natural occurrence: two people who care about each other wanting to share their lives. Actually, the legal strictures and social sanctions of marriage often impede that wonderful impulse. So, folks may come to me about their marriage, but I stay with the relationship—even if it’s about divorcing.

Carter: It is not your job as a therapist to decide whether these two people should stay together or these two people should part. That’s a decision they need to make. You make a decision about your own marriage at home. So when clients ask me, “What do you think? Can we make it?” I say, “Yes, if you want to. And no, if you don’t want to. It’s your decision.” I have seen the most dysfunctional marriages held together by the strongest glue that you could ever dream of. And I’ve seen yuppies get a divorce because someone dropped a pin on the rug.

PN: So far we’ve been talking about implementing feminism in the consulting room. But I’d like to ask each of you what was the hardest part about applying feminism in your personal life.

Silverstein: I married very young, right out of high school. I was, literally, a child bride. I thought my husband, Fred, knew everything. He had graduated from college. He was a grown-up (22) and he was my big brother’s best friend. I elevated him (as his mother had before me). When my oldest child went to college, I had a crisis. I burst out of my cocoon. I got my high school diploma—that’s a story in itself—and enrolled in college. Fred was confused. Where I had depended on him for everything, now he couldn’t tell me anything. Things were rocky for a while, but got better gradually. I think it was a relief for Fred to give up playing “Me Tarzan, you Jane.” I know from personal experience that men are not only capable of change, but often unhappy in the old situation. Fred tells me that my changes have enriched his life. When I went to work, he was relieved of the awesome responsibility of not only supporting his family, but being the one who was supposed to know what to do. He was more than happy to share responsibility. It wasn’t easy for either of us. I know that change is hard, even if it’s for the better. On my first trip away from home, I prepared and froze a week’s worth of meals. I rationalized it, but looking back, I realize that I was reluctant to give up what control I had. He couldn’t cook, could he? Of course, he’s a good cook now, and enjoys it. I do, too.

Papp: Well, Olga had to deal with the problems of a traditional marriage. I had to deal with the problems of an untraditional one, because I was married to a famous man—Joseph Papp. So I not only had to cope with his reaction, but the reaction of a public that worships heroes and disapproves of wives who don’t. I remember the looks of disbelief and disdain I would receive on opening nights when I would try to leave before 3 a.m. because I had to get up at 6 and get the children off to school before an 8 o’clock appointment. I was not supposed to have a life of my own. You see, when Joe and I first married, we both agreed that he had the answers to every question in the world, and at that point that was fine with me, because I didn’t feel I had the answer to any. But then, when the women’s movement came along and I went back to social work school, I began to come up with some of my own answers, and this changed our contract. It was not permitted. So, the turning point in both the marriage and my professional career actually came on the same evening. Joe was to receive his 27th award. I had already been to 26 awards banquets, and so I decided to go to Boston instead to attend a workshop on family sculpting. And that, essentially, was the end of the marriage and the beginning of a career for me. I  knew I had to make a choice between centering my life around a famous man or striking out on my own. It was an agonizing decision. My mother said, “How can you leave him, he’s handsome and famous.” I said, “But mother, I’m unhappy.” She said, “Why do you have to be happy?” I never regretted my decision to divorce. I felt I had taken a giant step forward because I had faced my deepest fears and I had conquered them.

Carter: Sam and I are newlyweds compared to Olga and Fred—we’ve only been together 38 years. My revolt started early in the ’60s—”What do you mean you want to go back to work? What do you mean you want a career?” We managed somehow or other to survive that. But when I went back to social work school and began to get more involved in the profession, things really got hilarious. I remember feeling incredibly nervous before the first major presentation of my career–God knows where it was or what it was about–but jerk that I was, I called Sam just before I was going to speak:

“Hi, honey.”

“Hi, honey. I’m calling from wherever. How are you?”

“Well, I’m better . . . now.

Our traditional roles were so strongly entrenched in the system that something happened in the early days every time I went anywhere to give a presentation—he got sick or something dramatic happened. I felt so wrong, I felt so bad, yet, unconsciously, I also felt so mad.

Silverstein: I had the same experience. I was about to make this big speech at Williams College when I got a message from the main office. “Call your husband. It’s important.” And I say to myself, “Oh my God. Something terrible must have happened.” I rush to the phone and Fred says, “Where are the keys?” I wanted to kill him.

Walters: I was married to a really good guy for 24 years—got married at 20, divorced at 44; was the very model of a good faculty wife—poured tea brilliantly; and had perfected the art of learned helplessness. After our divorce, I’d call Hart if a light bulb didn’t work, and he’d ask, “Have you changed the bulb?” I’d say, “Honey, how do you do that?” Oh, lordy, what an act! Anyway, on the professional level, I thought it was great to work “under” a male leader; be sort of second-in-command; not have to wheel and deal or have the “buck stop” with me. The hardest, and yet one of the best, experiences for me as a feminist—both personally and professionally—was to risk being on my own. So leaving the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic and setting up my own institute in Washington, DC, was a major life transition, especially knowing that whatever happened would be on me. When I’d panic, I had us–and family and friendship networks—and a new way of thinking about myself as a woman.

PN: Therapists have been accused in recent years of encouraging a culture of grievance in which everybody blames their problems on somebody else and sees him- or herself as a victim. How do you deal with “victims” in your practices?

Carter: What I often do is say, “Well, I hear that you’re very upset, and those are terrible circumstances you’re describing. And now, what steps have you been taking to deal with them? I know you’ve been trying.” And, of course, often they haven’t. But I try to shift the focus to, “Now, how are you going to move on in life?” Or if the pain is relatively recent, like a spouse having an affair, I say, “Well, there will be, then, some kind of a raging, grieving period for you, probably, before you decide how you want to change things. How long do you think that period will take?” And when they tell me, I nail them down and say, “Oh, four weeks. Fair enough. Here’s what you should do to intensify it. Write in your journal and do this other homework and we’ll meet in four weeks and you’ll be ready to move on.” I think the narrative people are right about the need to tell yourself a different story about your life when you feel stuck. So after they are finished with their grieving and writing in the journal, I say, “Good. Now write me an essay about your life in which this difficult time is behind you, describing how you overcame this and what new stage in your life you’re moving on to.” And I make them actually go home and sit down and write that down.

Walters: Of course, if you’re working with a woman who has suffered from abuse, or domestic violence or—God forbid—rape, it’s a very different thing. The horror of being victimized must not only be validated, but joined in a full and mutual consideration of what to do about it now –not only on the emotional level, but also legally and in terms of advocacy networks and support groups. On the emotional level, there also needs to be a focus on how the client resisted, how she’s helped herself, how she’s coped, any success she’s had in dealing with this physical and emotional assault.

Carter: It’s very important to distinguish between people who have truly been victimized and those who are overdramatizing.

PN: Where do you draw the line?

Carter: Well, for one thing, there is an evaluation of objective circumstances. Being raped or being a Holocaust survivor is not the same as a boyfriend breaking up with someone just a week before the prom.

Walters: Incest is, obviously, a devastating experience; but it can be turned into a lifelong identity as a victim. It’s as though the total sense of powerlessness leaves a person with only that identity as a power base. I consulted with a young woman who had endured sexual abuse from a stepfather from the time she was 8 to about 14. She’d had a couple of hospitalizations and several years of therapy. She was minimally employed part-time, living alone and receiving some welfare. Her self-definition as a victim was the abuse and she rigidly and defiantly held to the position that she didn’t know why she did anything and couldn’t do anything other than what she was told to do. Every question I asked she responded with, “I don’t know.” So I began to focus on how she chose the blouse she was wearing; I figuratively followed her around her house as she got ready to go to work that morning. “So you open your closet door. How many blouses are there?”

“I don’t know.”

“One, two, five?”

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe you keep your blouses in a drawer?”


“So they’re hanging in a closet?”



“I don’t know.”

“Are they all the same color?”


It was one of the most painful things I’ve ever done with a client. I just went after and after her about choosing the blouse. And finally, she haltingly told the story of choosing the blouse and even, reluctantly, granted she had a color preference. As she left the office, she said to me, “You’re really a bitch.” I thought that was the most wonderful thing a client ever said to me! She could choose. She could rage.

PN: So as teachers of therapists, how do you prepare your trainees not to fall into the trap of rescuing their clients?

Papp: I always tell trainees, “You are not responsible for solving your clients’ problems—they are. You are there to help them find a way to do it. Don’t try and come up with interventions or answers. Just look for the beliefs or behavior that are standing in the way and help them to change them.”

Silverstein: The working principle is that the past is important in order to understand the present, but you can’t get stuck there. You have to move on. Each of us is very future-directed in our work. I help my trainees examine their basic assumptions about relationships, their own as well as their clients’. It’s too easy to communicate one’s own attitude. I ask questions such as, “How do you see the function of a therapist? What’s the function of theory in the work?” The longer I practice the more convinced I am that the person of the therapist is the most important single factor in the work.

PN: You have all come such a long way. And now after 20 years, you’ve decided to disband the Women’s Project. What’s the most surprising thing for you at this stage of your careers?

Silverstein: That so much has changed in the world—space travel, computers, advances in medicine—yet troubled relationships are much the same. Couples still struggle to understand each other. Children still rebel. On a personal level, I’m pleasantly surprised that we’re all more or less still on the road, doing workshops, teaching. I just rented new office space and I’m back pretty much full time. We keep growing, questioning—all four of us. I think we’re better therapists now and, hopefully, we’ll keep growing.

Carter: I really want to retire from all these schedules and deadlines, but I’m still so much in love with the ideas in our field that are really about finding meaning in our lives.

Walters: That things have changed so much and yet, in some respects, so little. I’m delighted that women’s issues have become a part of our thinking and theory. Then, some therapist will show a tape where a mother is blamed or put down or ignored or even humiliated, and much of the audience will not even notice; they’ll be focused on the mechanics of the intervention, as if there weren’t people being acted on–people whose sex and race and age and class and . . . whatever . . . need to shape the intervention. It makes me so angry and disappointed.

Papp: I’m surprised at the deluge of new books coming out on couples that are still using the same old jargon about “communication,” “closeness,” “intimacy” and “trust” without any mention of how the social context militates against attaining these. How can a wife feel “close” if she comes home every night from a stressful job and does 70 percent of the housework and child care? What happens to “intimacy” when she is too tired and resentful to have sex? And how romantic can a husband be when he is about to lose his job?

PN: What’s your impression of how the younger women in the field are carrying on the work that you and other feminist leaders started?

Carter: Well, the younger feminist leaders are carrying on wonderfully—helping the field come to grips with multiculturalism and differing sexual orientations. But some of the young women entering the field today seem to take feminism for granted. They say things like, “I know in your day you had to struggle over the role of women,” as if it’s all over now.

Walters: What they bring is the perspective of women who have not had to struggle out of the traditional lives that we four led, but are exploring and reporting on lives that reflect the changes feminism has brought about–two-career families, single parenting by choice, gay families and especially the expectation that work and family belong to both men and women.

PN: As both therapists and women, what do you see as the next step for feminism?

Silverstein: The women’s movement is bogged down with the enormous backlash of the religious right. But we also have to be vigilant in our own field, where I think the gains are often in danger. Our major national organizations are espousing “family value” themes. We know what those buzzwords mean. Too much is taken for granted. We need to recognize reaction. Does family mean the old nuclear family? Do we support new relational forms? Do we recognize a single mom and her children as a family?

Papp: I believe the greatest enemy of feminism today is complacency. We have the illusion of equality without the reality, and it’s hard to fight the illusion. I actually think the backlash will prove to be the stimulus for the next push forward. When women begin to sense the danger to themselves and their families in some of these retrograde movements, like the repeal of the no-fault divorce law, they’ll, hopefully, mobilize to fight against them.

Walters: We’ve accomplished a lot, but need to do some new “consciousness-raising” in our field and be more alert and responsive to the backlash. And we, as family therapists, need to have a stronger collective voice in addressing these issues. And I hope everyone has as much pleasure doing it as we four have had these many years!

Carter: Well, I’ll say what I’d like to see ahead for feminism: I’d like to see men join in partnership with us to change society. The three main problems for the family today, besides poverty, are the unequal participation of men at home, the inflexibility of the workplace and the growing number of hours of work for both men and women. And these are all connected—to each other and to the run-amok “market values” that have been unleashed since the end of the Cold War. If this is “winning,” we’re choking on it.

The way things are now, since women are left to struggle alone against society’s antifamily values, sooner or later they find that they don’t have the power to change society themselves, and so they turn to personal attempts to beat or escape the system by divorcing or avoiding marriage and child rearing altogether, or getting caught up in career craziness themselves or giving up work that they love to stay home with the children. In a functional society, some women would make some of these choices, but women en masse wouldn’t feel driven to them by forces outside themselves.

So, I’d like to pass the torch to younger women and men to join together and do whatever it takes to save their families by insisting on the changes in society that will support them. These would be concrete things, like reorganized workplaces and high-quality, low-cost child care, and psychological things, like changing the definition of “masculinity” so that men wouldn’t have to be social “failures” or put their jobs at risk to be really involved husbands and fathers—and so women would know that they could work, and have a marriage or relationship and help raise children, without doing three full-time jobs. I think that to do the work of changing society—which is organized and controlled by men—we women could use some help. Anyway, I’m ready to take to the streets again.


This article originally appeared in the November/December 1997 issue of Psychotherapy Networker.





Rich Simon

Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.