The emergence of feminism and its impact on social work practice

This research considers the application of feminist thought in social work practise. Specific areas of consideration include the gap from social workers’ personal acceptance of feminist constructs and their use of such constructs in daily practise, the effects of perpetuation of hegemonic gender roles by social workers, and domestic violence victims perceptions of the effectiveness of social work based on the perspectives of their social workers as considered above. This research further describes a focus group of college social work students who are also domestic violence victims.

It records their perceptions of social workers’ worldviews and the impact of such on service. Conclusions include that there is significant gap between the understanding or acceptance of feminist constructs amongst social workers and its application in daily field practise, that social workers are often likely to perpetuate hegemonic gender roles, and because of such perpetuation view domestic violence situations as individual occurrences rather than part of a greater societal pattern of oppression, and that domestic violence survivors feel best served when work with them uses a feminist theoretical framework.


Feminism and social work have been associated for many years; however, although many social workers personally espouse working from a feminist perspective, the systems of social work still favour work from a traditional or patriarchal perspective. This research, therefore, seeks to first consider findings from previous study regarding this phenomenon and the theoretical frameworks for both social work and feminist thought. In this light of information gleaned from these findings, it became apparent that hegemonic gender roles, a common topic of feminist research, play a relevant part in work with survivors of domestic violence.

Specifically, domestic violence survivors are often directed, either explicitly or implicitly, that their situation is personal and should be considered and dealt with from a personal and pathological perspective rather than applying the tenets of feminist thought that view such situations as manifestations of structural and power problems in our greater society.

This study then seeks to document whether this gap between social work theory supportive of feminist worldviews and social work application of practise exists, and if so, how prevalent a gap it is. This is accomplished through use of a focus group of college students, all of whom have taken at least one course in social work theory and are themselves domestic violence survivors who have been served, to whatever level of quality, by social workers.

Discussions within the focus group involved ideas of gender roles and social worker advocacy of hegemonic gender roles, whether explicit or implicit. The focus group then built on this foundation to consider group participants ‘experiences with social workers and whether they presented an individual / pathological perspective of domestic violence, or whether they presented a perspective that consider the wider influence of society and its systems. This was further related to the effect of such perceptions on the understanding of and service to group participants at the time of intervention.

Literature Review

Feminism has emerged in the past thirty years as a viable worldview. Dietz (2000), quoting Bunch (1980), defined feminism as “transformational politics that aims at the dismantling of all permanent power hierarchies in which one category of humans dominates or controls another category of humans” (372). “In the feminist and empowerment traditions, the personal is political, and individual change and social change are seen as interdependent” (Deitz 2000,372). Feminism contends it is not adequate to simply include women in the world’s political and power systems, as these were designed by and for men and therefore favour a highly masculinised mechanism for responding to issues and require women working within these systems to-do the same (Scott 1988, Moylan 2003).

Simply including women is not enough; society must give women’s experiences equal time and consideration, eventually recasting the very meanings of the topics it considers (Scott 1988). Rather, feminism argues women must be engaged in both the system development and decision-making processes that shape our society (Moylan 2003).

Consequently, one area where feminism has particularly challenged traditional views is in the area of gender roles. For example, Dominelli and McLeod (1989) examine the way in which social problems are defined, recognising gender as particularly important in understanding client groups, and stress egalitarian relationships between therapists and clients. Gender is also an important consideration of social work due to the patriarchal society that still dominates most of our world. This power framework rests on a basis of hegemonic masculinity (Cohn and Enloe 2003).

Connell (1995) created the term ‘hegemonic masculinity’ to describe the valued definition of manhood in a society. He argues that whilst there are multiple possible masculinities in a culture, only one or a few are most valued or considered ideal (Connell 1995). This gender definition is constructed both in relation to femininity and to other, subordinated masculinities, and is used to justify both men’s domination of women, and the hegemonic ally masculine man’s power over other men (Cohn and Weber 1999).

Whilst women are increasingly being included in world systems, the systems themselves still were designed for and operate by and for men. Therefore, women who participate within the system must do so from male paradigm, even if it is sometimes at odds with their own preferences for how to go about dealing with a situation (Cohn and Enloe 2003).
Feminism historically is a “critique of male supremacy, the belief that gender order was socially constructed and could not be changed” (Cott1989,205). Masculinity is often defined as what is not feminine, and femininity as what is not masculine, although understanding the dynamics of one requires considering both the workings of the other and the relationship and overlap between the two (Cohn and Enloe 2003).

Masculine definitions are often based on strength, domination and violence, whilst feminine on weakness, nurturing, compassion and passitivity (Rabrenovic and Roskos 2001). The result is pressure omen adhering to a hegemonic definition of masculinity to view forms of addressing conflict other than a physical or "masculine" response as feminine and a threat to their manhood (Moylan 2003).

The popular concept of gender holds that "masculinity" and "femininity “are unchanging expressions based on the chromosomal male and female bodies (Butler 1990). “Gender is assumed to be ‘hard-wired,’ at least in part” (Hawkesworth 1997). Masculine actions and desires for men and feminine actions and desires for women alone are normal, these masculine and feminine traits are not a matter of choice, and all individuals can be classified as one or the other (Hawkesworth 1997).

However, whilst our society men are considered strong and dominant, and women passive and nurturing, “the meanings of male and female bodies differ from one culture to another, and change (even in our own culture) over time” (Connell 1993, 75). For example, there have been “periods in Western history when the modern convention that men suppress displays of emotion did not apply at all, when men were effusive to their male friends and demonstrative about their feelings”(Connell 1993, 75). “Masculinities and felinities are constructed or accomplished in social processes such as child rearing, emotional and sexual relationships, work and politics” (Connell 1993, 75).

Feminism, however, contends gender is a constructed by each culture, and as a social practice involves the incorporation of specific symbols, which support or distort human potential (Hawkesworth 1997). Gender is created through “discursively constrained per formative acts, “and the repetition of these acts over time creates gender for the individual in society (Butler 1990, x). People learn to “act” like women or men are supposed to; women are taught to behave in a feminine manner, men are taught to act in a masculine manner. This is often reinforced by authority figures, such as social workers. Barnes (2003)cites a number of studies which find social workers often assume the “disciplinary gaze” of notions of “what and how to be woman, “perpetuating traditional gender roles (149). “Armed with rigid codes of gender appropriate behaviours, social workers often sought to regulate and mediate women’s interactions with the social, economic, and political world” (Barns 2003, 149).

Feminism and social work share a number of similarities. Both believe “in the inherent worth and dignity of all persons, the value of process over product, the appreciation of unity-diversity, the importance of considering the person-in- environment, and a commitment to personal empowerment and active participation in society as a means to bring about meaningful social change” (Barrette 2001, 266-267). Similarly, both feminism and social work address multiple approaches to handling situations, challenging the institutionalized oppression common in manpower structures and supporting “the reconceptualization and redistribution of that power” (Barrette 2001, 267).

It follows that one impact of feminism on social work practise is the consideration of issues from a societal rather than personal perspective. For example, this might include viewing a domestic violence situation not from the perspective that the family is dysfunctional, but from the perspective of the society that created the family. The psychology-based focus of clinical social work “often leads to individualizing social problems, rather than to viewing themes the result of relations of power, primarily oppression and abuse”(Deitz 2000, 369). As such, individuals experiencing such difficulties are “taught” that their particular experiences are inappropriate, rather than addressing the systems that created the difficulties in the first place (Deitz 2000, 369).

Nominally and McLeod (1989) re-evaluate social work practice from feminist perspective, considering the functions of social work such as therapy, community interaction, and policy making not from pathological standpoint but from one of defined roles endorsed by societal conditions. As such, they contend that working from feminist perspective allows the social worker to address the causes of social issues, rather than the symptoms played out in individual’s lives (Nominally and McLeod 1989).

One area of difference in social work practise between those operating from a feminist framework and a traditional framework is the concept of distance. Traditionally, the “patriarchal bias against relationality and connection” is intended to lead to “connection without harm, love without power abuse, touching without sexual abuse in psychotherapy”(Deitz 2000, 377). Unfortunately, in practise it often results in “power over” relationships where those receiving services feel “less than” those providing them. “Healing happens when someone feels seen, heard, held, and empowered, not when one is interpreted, held at distance, and pathologies” (Deitz 2000, 377).

Deitz (2000) finds that social workers often institutionalize a “power over” stance from professional training and discourse that constructs the identities of clients as somehow disordered, dysfunctional or impaired. “Whether between parents and children; physicians and patients; social workers and consumers of services; Whites and Blacks; or heterosexuals and lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered persons, power over relationships give the dominant partners or group the right to define the meanings of subordinates’ experiences (including their resistance)and thus their opportunities for self-affirmation” (Deitz 2000,373).This creates professional relationships that ignore the environmental, historical, and social contexts of the problem, discount people’s strengths and resilience in assessment and intervention, and lead “to the objectification of people as diagnoses, rather than to empowerment” (Deitz 2000, 370).

“The keys to empowerment in feminist micro practice are reconnection and transformation through political activity; survivors of oppression and abuse experience reconnection through relationships based on mutuality, collaboration, and trustworthiness” (Deitz 2000, 376).

Theories from social work, psychology, and particularly developmental psychology describe empowerment as primarily a process, with the personal transformation of the individual becoming empowered at its foundation (Carr 2003, 8). Barriers to empowerment and problems of disenfranchisement caused by powerlessness are primarily political, rather than psychological. Powerlessness is defined as the inability to effectively manage one’s emotions, knowledge, skills, or resources; it is “derived from the absence of external supports and the existence of ontological “power blocks” that become incorporated into a person’s development” (Carr 2003, 13).

As such, many survivors also work to reconnect to others in their communities, often seeking political activity that “emphasizes the empowerment of others, such as by organizing Take Back the Night marches or speak-outs, volunteering for crisis hot lines, seeking legislative changes, or becoming social workers or human service professionals” (Deitz 2000, 376).

For example, feminist work with abuse survivors “emphasizes the relationship between abuse and oppressive social relations (Deitz 2000,374). On the other hand, the dominant clinical social work approach to oppression and abuse relocates the problem of oppression in victims. Psychological theories are typically employed, which “locates pathology in individuals, rather than in oppressive relationships and systems, and considers the long-term effects of oppression to be symptoms of individual pathology” (Deitz 2000, 374). Unfortunately, whilst many social workers have been exposed to or even personally support operating from a feminist framework, the systems in which they work prevent them from actively utilising feminist insight in their daily practise.

Research Plan

This research seeks to study the prevalence and impact of traditional and feminist practitioner constructs from the perspective of those served. Specifically, a focus group study will be conducted with a group of college students, all of whom are currently studying social work and therefore have some concept regarding social work practice, feminist and traditional worldviews. In addition, all students in the focus group will have experienced domestic violence and have been provided the services of a social worker in some form during their teenage years.

Three areas of discussion will be undertaken by the group. These will be provided to individual group participants in writing several days before the group in order for students to have time to consider what they would like to share regarding their opinions and own experiences. The first group activity will involve creating definitions of “masculine” and “feminine” from the perspective of a typical social worker based on the students’ teenage experiences. Students will then be asked to discuss where, if at all, they personally feel they and their family members who were involved in the domestic violence situation(s) “fit” regarding these preconceived definitions.

It is anticipated some students will have been uncomfortable with societal constraints they or their family experienced as teenagers. As all are studying social work, they are also anticipated to make more connections between societal power issues, hegemonic gender roles, and their influence on domestic violence than a focus group without such background. The third area of discussion will centre on how the students’ perceptions of their social worker(s) understanding of gender roles influenced their and their families reception of adequate service.
The researcher will both tape record and take notes on the group discussions. Data gathered from the group will then be compiled and analysed. In addition, students from the focus group will be given the option to write a response to the group activity, if they so desire. These will be further included in the group data.


Data collection involved four means. Prior to the group starting, each participant was given a questionnaire (see Appendix 3) to gather basic demographic information. The questionnaire also asked for brief summary of their abusive situation. Regarding data collection of the group proceedings, as described above the focus group session was tape-recorded and the researcher took notes to supplement the recording of group discussion. The recorded sessions were then transcribed into print form, with research notes added in at the chronologically appropriate points of the transcription to provide a more complete written overview of the focus group discussion. In addition, group participants had an option to write a response the group to be included in the group data.

Four participants wrote responses, which were considered with the group data following analysis of the focus group discussion. Participants were provided with the three areas of group discussion several days prior to the actual focus group meeting. They were not given any directions or guidance regarding the optional written responses to the group activity.

Data analysis first involved dividing and coding group data. Responses to the first topic of discussion were divided into three categories: those representing a traditional worldview, those representing feminist worldview, and those that did not clearly represent either worldview. From these groupings, overall findings regarding the worldviews typically experienced by the group participants were summarised. This was then further compared with the definitions of traditional gender roles identified by the group.

Data from the second topic of discussion were also broken down into those representing a traditional worldview, those representing feminist worldview, and those that did not clearly represent either worldview. It was important to then note participant perceptions and emotional responses to these coding, and in which worldview grouping they and their families were reported to feel best served and empowered.

Data from the specific discussion regarding service were then similarly analysed, and combined with previous findings to present a picture of the impact of traditional versus feminist worldviews on social work practise, emphasising work with teenage domestic violence survivors and their understanding of gender roles in society.
It was anticipated at the conclusion of such research, a view could be asserted as to whether feminist perspective has a significant impact on the practise of social work as it is currently undertaken and whether this impact, if any, leads to improved service.

As the focus group involved a relatively small number of participants(nine total) and data from their interactions were primarily qualitative in nature, it was decided not to perform any complex statistical analysis on focus group data. It was felt that such types of analysis would neither reveal findings that could be considered statistically significant nor provide a more accurate understanding of the issues under consideration than a more qualitative analytical approach. In consideration of space and relevance portions of the discussion were used to support conclusions in the findings and analysis sections of this dissertation, whilst an overall summary of the most relevant portions of the discussion are included in Appendix2.

Implementation Project

Nine students meeting the criteria laid out in the research plan agreed to participate in the focus group. They were primarily organised by one group participant, who had discovered other domestic violence survivors through classroom discussions and through participation in a survivors’ group in the local community. All nine students were currently studying social work or had taken at least one social work course as part of a related course of study, such as education or criminal justice. There were six women and three men, ranging in age from nineteen to twenty-seven. Racially, seven were Caucasian, one was Black, and one was Asian.

All present as coming from upper working class to middle class backgrounds. All had experienced domestic violence as teenagers, making their experiences fairly recent and therefore providing a relatively current depiction of social work practise. Five students (three women, two men) had been removed from their biological parents at some point during their teenage years. All had been involved in interventions into the family by a social worker representing either a government organisation, or in the case of one woman, a local church.

Some of the participants previously knew each other and were somewhat aware of each other’s experiences, which should be considered in group analysis. Five regularly participated in a survivors’ support group in the community. One man and one woman were cousins. In addition, two of the men had known each other as teenagers from intervention through the school system.

Jennifer, a twenty-four year-old Caucasian woman, was chosen to be the moderator, as she had been the one who had assisted the researcher by arranging for most of the participants to become involved in the study. The group then moved almost immediately into discussion of the topics provided. The group had been provided a whiteboard for its use, which Jennifer implemented to organise individual comments and ideas.

It is surmised that the easy manner with which the group undertook the discussion was based on the fact that they were all students and therefore used to having study groups, group discussions, and the like, and that all of them had at least publicly shared their experiences previously, either as part of a classroom discussion or survivors ‘group, or both, and were therefore more comfortable in engaging in such discussion than might be typical for a focus group dealing with such experiences.

Findings and Analysis

The first finding of this research is that the majority of social workers in service or domestic violence survivors to not consistently employ feminist constructs in practise, despite the likelihood of having been exposed to such constructs. This manifested itself in three significant ways. First, families were overwhelming dealt with as individuals with problems. That is, the abuser was described as making poor choices or having some type of pathological issues that led to his or her decision to abuse (in one participant’s family, both parents were abusive).

As such, the abuser was described from psychoanalytical standpoint by the social worker(s), and his or her behaviour labelled as individually deviant.

The survivors of the domestic violence situations, particularly them others, as the majority of abusers from the groups’ experiences were male family members or boyfriends of the mother, were also reported tube consistently dealt with from an individual perspective. In this sense, their behaviour was also reported to be categorised by the social workers involved as unhealthy, pathological, and coming from some sort of unresolved personal issues, such as low self-esteem.

In the case of only one participant did the social workers involved in either intervention or therapy consistently relate the domestic violence situation to broader issues of oppression, societal power structures and the related hegemonic gender roles, or patriarchal norms of society. It is of note that this participant received service from progressive women-helping-women organisation, rather than a traditional government-organised social work programme.

Group participants also repeatedly described their family situations as unhealthy, and they certainly were, but from the perspective that both the abuser and abused were reacting or displaying emotion inappropriately, rather than that the motivation or norming behind the behaviour was at fault. For example, Trent described his mother as drawn to violent, alcoholic men. “She always seemed to go for these guys that didn’t know how to express anything except by breaking stuff, yelling, hitting, you know.” His further descriptions of his mother’s ‘boyfriends indicated an assumption that if these men had been raised with or taught proper means of dealing with their frustrations and emotions, the abuse to him and his mother would have been lessened or eliminated.

This idea was supported by at least one social worker, who suggested counselling for Trent, his mother, and the then boyfriend as one possible way of addressing the abusive situation.

Several participants did bring feminist theory and thought into group discussion, pointing out, for example, that dominance or aggression by men in any form was unhealthy, and questioning why it was only seen as unhealthy by most of the social workers they had encountered, and bothers they knew in the community, when physical violence was actually involved.
There was a related discussion, albeit brief, about the unwillingness of neighbours, relatives, and others in the community, such as members of the same church, to intervene in the domestic violence situation.

Participants indicated their perception that whilst this was often due to a fear of getting involved or knowing how to help the situation, there were repeated occurrences in everyone’s experience where an unwillingness to intervene derived from others’ implications that the man of the house had some right to choose the way in which the household operated, or that he had a right to discipline his wife /girlfriend and children as he saw fit. Wendy reports hearing an aunt state “Well, it’s his family, their kids, she wants to stay with him, “and dismiss the on-going violence as therefore an acceptable family lifestyle, or at least one in which none of the rest of the family should be expected to intervene.

Participants then acknowledged this and several other systemic situations that perpetuated their abuse, such as reluctance of authority figures to continue questioning when initially told nothing was wrong, and unwillingness of police to intervene repeatedly.

Similarly, regarding gender roles, discussion indicated a belief by most participants that their social workers believed a traditional stereotype of what was appropriate behaviour for a man and a woman, and that these behaviours were different. There were reports of acceptance of physical response as an appropriate masculine reaction, but the level of physical response not being considered appropriate. Male participants were encouraged to talk about their experiences, but report never being given permission to express fear, or an emotional response such as crying.

One male participant reported starting to cry as part of a group experience, and being discouraged rather than encouraged to continue, whilst female members of the group were allowed to and even supported in such emotional expression. There were similar reports of various hegemonic ally feminine expressions, such as crying, fear, and nurturing behaviours, being supported and encouraged by social workers for male family members but not female, as well as an acceptance or assumption of weakness on the part of adult females who chose to remain in an abusive situation.

The discussion then moved to the effect of traditional and feminist perspective on social work service. Participants overwhelmingly reported feeling better served when social workers sought to empower them and their families. This did usually involve practise of methods derived from a feminist view, such as the use of reflective journaling and support groups, as well as encouragement from the social workers tithe mother that she could, indeed, survive and prosper outside the domestic violence situation, that she did have the inner reserves to address the situation and move to a healthier lifestyle, and that societal pressure to be with a man, either as a romantic partner or as a father / father-figure for children was not necessary for successful life. Participants also report feeling personally empowered by such encouragement, and therefore able to support their mothers in attempts to leave relationships.

From their own study in social work theory, focus group participants were able to briefly discuss the ramifications of the patriarchal societal power structure on a woman’s decision to stay in a violent situation. One issue brought up included the perception that society will view a woman as a failure and undesirable if she does not have aromatic relationship with a man in her life. A number of women participants in the group reported feeling similar pressure to maintain romantic relationship with a man in their life, regardless of their other commitments or interests, and an expectation that they would not be successful women if they did not ultimately get married and have children.

When questioned by other participants, the three male participants reported not feeling such pressures. Another issue raised was the mothers’ perception that they needed a father figure to successfully raise children, particularly boys. This was perpetuated in the life experiences of group participants even though the men occupying these roles were viewed by the male participants as destructive, rather than constructive, influences. Issues of supporting disciplining children and managing household operations were also indicated, as was the financial support provided by the bitterer. The group indicated all these issues were societal, rather than individual, and lack of addressing of them affected the effectiveness of the social services they had received.

Overall, the participants were generally positive about at least one social worker with whom they had a relationship during their teenage years. Participants typically felt feeling most encouraged and best served by those social workers who did not present themselves as being distant or above the participants and their families, and who did not overly emphasise their family’s issues from a perspective of individual dysfunction. These findings indicated that a feminist interactive construct, which avoids “power over” methods and practise is perceived to be most effective by domestic violence survivors.


It is recommended from findings of this study that social workers are first provided greater exposure to and training in feminist methods and theory as it relates to their practical, day-to-day practise. For example, all participants reported some positive experiences in response to reflective methods such as reflective journaling and survivor support groups. Considerations of ways to more greatly include such methods in typical practise are therefore indicated.

Of greater concern are the systems in which social workers operate. Whilst most of the social workers in these focus group participants ‘experiences had some familiarity with feminist theory or methods, as indicated by their emphasis on empowerment or use of specific strategies, there is something within the government-sponsored social services structure that prohibits practise truly based on feminist tenets. A sharp contrast was provided by the young woman served at a progressive, private service, where feminist theory was the obvious framework on which service was based. She was by far the most positive about her experiences and workers, and reported insights, understanding and empowerment to change not consistently reported by other focus group participants.

It therefore recommended that more research be pursued as to what factors constrain social workers from functioning from a more feminist framework. Issues such as time (many social workers have far more people to see and serve than they would like to have, or often feel they can serve effectively), lack of material resources such as appropriate space, lack of effective training, or discouragement in such regards from supervisors or others in power. Specifically identifying relevant factors could then form a framework for progressing with change in social work practise within a typical government service organisation.

It is further recommended that individual social workers consider what constraints they personally work under, and what constraints they place upon themselves as a result of the greater power structures of our society. Becoming aware of personal bias regarding traditional gender roles, for example, would assist the individual social worker in providing a more empowering and less conscripting environment in dealing with those they serve.

The participants in the focus group, for example, agreed they were given issues to think about by the group interaction, and that greater consideration of pressures to conform in society and the assumed power of males would be items that, through analysis, could improve their social work practise. Similarly, becoming more cognisant of the far-reaching influences of patriarchy and accepted oppression of women in our society would also provide foundation from which social workers can both educate their clients and move them and others towards political action to correct such systemic issues.


In conclusion, whilst feminist theory and constructs have made evaluable impact on social work practise, those being served believe they would be better served by a greater inclusion and reliance on such practises. Social workers may personally or professionally espouse feminist framework, but are less likely to employ it in practise. This deprives both them and their clients of the most beneficial service.

Social workers need to become more focused on relating the experiences of individuals to the broader power structures in our society, and dealing with their experiences in the context of these structures rather than as individual or pathological difficulties. Social workers, particularly in domestic violence situations, need to be cognisant of the effect of hegemonic gender roles on perpetuating such violence, as well as their own conscious or unconscious subscription touch roles.

In short, feminism has made a valuable impact on social work practise, but could still be employed even more effectively to not only address the problems of individuals, but to work towards eliminating the patriarchal systems of oppression in our society that make situations such as domestic violence so common place.


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