Marianne Walters and the Women's Therapy Movement

How One Woman Brought Feminist Insight into Clinical Practice

Mary Sykes Wylie

Family therapist Marianne Walters, who died on February 21, 2006, at the age of 76, didn't invent a brilliant new therapeutic paradigm, publish a large and magisterial body of research, or establish her own unique school of clinical practice. Her name never had quite the instant brand recognition associated with some of the founders of the field---Nathan Ackerman, Salvador Minuchin, Murray Bowen, Virginia Satir, and the other immortals. A housewife and mother (who dutifully followed her economist husband around from one academic posting to another for years), she didn't even become a family therapist until she was nearly 40.

Yet, Walters probably had as great an impact on the overall clinical zeitgeist of family therapy, in her own way, as any of the master theory-builders and gurus. Along with her three comrades in arms---Betty Carter, Peggy Papp, and Olga Silverstein---she formed The Women's Project in Family Therapy in 1977, what family therapist Carol Anderson called "the first, biggest, longest-running feminist road show." It was a combination feminist think tank and SWAT team, which, in public workshops all over the country, challenged the underlying sexism in some of the most basic notions of family therapy. Largely at Walters's continued prodding, the four went on to write The Invisible Web, the first book to focus on women's relationships in the family and, more important, on how to bring feminist insights into daily clinical practice.

In these days, when no therapist would admit to not supporting feminist principles, it's almost impossible to resurrect the mix of excitement and outrage Walters engendered, as much because of her truly formidable personality as her unflinching challenge to the male hierarchy.

Walters had an almost uncanny talent for instantly connecting with clients as if she'd known them forever and somehow startling them out of their funk into a radically new, far more creative and helpful, view of their own dilemmas. Not remotely interested in therapeutic neutrality, she was always fully herself---to be so was part of her working credo. "I'm Jewish," she said, describing one consultation, "so I say 'mazel tov' to this client, instead of 'congratulations'---it's a way of identifying myself and establishing a relationship with the person I'm talking to."

The Making of a Radical

In 1954, Walters got her M.S.W. degree and took a job as a clinical social worker at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic (PCGC), while it was still under the influence of psychoanalyst Otto Rank. Walters took some satisfaction from the fact that she preceded by 10 years Salvador Minuchin to the clinic that would become almost synonymous with his name and his pioneering family therapy techniques.

Not formally trained in family therapy, Walters took to it immediately and quickly became a luminary in her own right. Jay Lappin recalls that when she did supervision, it was if she were "holding court, and people felt lucky to be there." Walters loved the dynamic, politically charged atmosphere of the clinic. "The therapeutic approach seemed so progressive and Sal's politics appealed to me a lot," she recalled. "We'd practically close down the place to go on peace marches.”

The Making of a Feminist

For Walters, the bloom began to leave the PCGC rose in the mid-1970s, when it began to dawn on her that, however "radical" family therapy seemed, the field was, in her words, "primitive" when it came to women. Gradually, as feminist thinking suffused the cultural atmosphere, she realized how few women were in executive-leadership positions at the clinic, that almost all the major figures in the field were men, and that many women therapists had a hard time confronting men in therapy, much less in their clinics and agencies. Most damning, it seemed to her that the vaunted interventions of family therapy existed in a social vacuum, completely ignoring the real circumstances of women's lives.

According to a well-known story, in 1978, Walters asked her friend Peggy Papp to co-lead a workshop about women and therapy. Papp, in turn, recruited two smart colleagues and former students, Betty Carter and Olga Silverstein. The first workshop, held at PCGC, drew nearly 100 participants, who began to explore what family and couples therapy that included women's experience and consciousness might look like.

A few months after the PCGC meeting, at the annual meeting of the American Orthopsychiatric Association conference, Walters, Papp, Silverstein, and Carter decided to hold an impromptu gathering on women's issues and therapy. When they went to the room scheduled for the event, they found it jammed with nearly 400 people. Soon after that, The Women's Project in Family Therapy was born, which kick-started a national movement that ultimately transformed the field.

At some point, the friendship between the four collaborators became as important as the work. After Walters moved to Washington, D.C., and started the Family Therapy Practice Center, one of the first free-standing family-training programs to be run by a woman (Betty Carter's was the first), they continued to meet in Olga Silverstein's New York City apartment. The four would spend the first day updating one another on their personal lives---marriages, divorces, kids. "As we talked, we saw the connection between what we did as parents and wives and friends, and what we did as therapists," Silverstein remarked in a 1997 Networker article about the Women's Project. "We saw that all those roles weren't something that interfered with your professionalism. They made you more of an expert on families."

In a profession often known for its avoidance of conflict, Walters will be remembered as an indefatigable fighter who'd go toe-to-toe with anybody on behalf of what she thought was a fundamentally important principle or idea. As Jay Lappin puts it, "That's why I was so shocked when I heard she'd died. I just couldn't imagine Marianne losing a fight to anyone or anything."

This blog is excerpted from “Larger Than Life". Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Parenting | Couples

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