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Course of Study:
(COD125) Introduction to Community Development
Title of work:
Social work; themes, issues and critical debates (1998)
Feminist social work pp. 218--228
Author/editor of work:
Adams, Robert; Dominelli, Lena.; Payne, Malcolm
Author of section:
Joan Omre
Name of Publisher:
Macmillan Press 18
Feminist social work
JOANORME Introduction and context
It might be assumed that, because social work is a female profession with its work being predominantly by women with women, it is at
the very least woman-centred, if not totally accepting of feminist
approaches. To assess how far social work has incorporated feminist
analyses, it is necessary to explore feminist theories and to identify
how these have contributed to developments in social work practice.
Research indicates that while the majority of staff employed in
social services are female, a minority of senior management posts are
held by women. Also, women were more likely to be unqualified or
manual workers (Nottage, 1991). Most social work is undertaken
with women, either as clients in their own right or as part of an infra­
structure on which agencies depend to support services. Older
women, women with disabilities or mental health problems and
women in the criminal justice system receive services directly. More
often, women are users of social services in their role as mothers or
carers of older people, those who are sick, disabled people or those
with mental health problems. In the criminal justice system, women
are sometimes the focus of intervention simply because they are part­
ners of delinquent males.
Despite the predominance of women as both providers and users
of social services, a gendered perspective of both the profession of
social work and service provision is relatively recent. Early studies by
men included an historical and contextual approach to women's
employment in statutory social work (Walton, 1975; Howe, 1986) but
did not address the organisation and impact of service delivery.
While acknowledged by the editor to be idiosyncratic, Sex, Gender and
Care Work (Horobin, 1987) attempted to address the differential
responses to women and men, and the constructions of masculinity
and femininity implicit in legislation and policy which impacts on
social work practice. However, none of these could be said to repre­
sent emergent feminist social work theory or practice. Feminist social work 219 The dual focus on women as direct users and as providers of care
and support has led social work to be concerned with the 'condition'
of being a woman, with an emphasis on explanations and expecta­
tions of female roles and behaviour. Traditionally, such explanations
of service users have been gender neutral or have involved stereotyp­
ical views of women and men. Feminist analyses of social work have
argued for greater attention to the conditions which women experi­
ence. For example, the economic position of women has meant that
they are traditionally amongst the poorest in society. Although the
participation of women in the labour force is increasing, their earn­
ings are consistently lower than those of men (Central Statistical
Office, 1995). Also, because of child care and other responsibilities,
when women are not in paid work their entitlement to benefit or their
dependence on male earners means that they constitute the poorest in
society. Such socio-economic conditions often mean that women
become dependent upon social services or are caught up in the web
of service provision and regulatory practices. However, social
workers rarely see the focus of their work with women as the allevia­
tion of their poverty.
Attention to both the condition of being a woman and the condi­
tions that women experience has been a feature of feminist analyses
of social work since the 1970s. Initially associated with the radical
critique (Statham, 1978; Wilson, 1980), a shared concern of both femi­
nist thought and women in social work was the family and women's
role. However, feminism was critical of women social workers, ques­
tioning whether they worked in a women-centred way. It was
argued that opportunities for advice-giving led them, at best to rein­
force roles as carers based on gendered stereotypes, and at worse to
pathologise the women who were in touch with social work agen­
cies, in relation to both their own problems and the problems of
those for whom they had responsibility (Dale and Foster, 1986).
While plotting the treatment of women on both sides of the social
work encounter, and recognising the equal attention to the personal
and the political, Brook and Davis (1985) eschew the notion of
synthesising feminist theory for social work, suggesting that this
would both institutionalise and marginalise feminist theory, thus
negating its dynamism and creativity. This chapter argues that an
articulation of feminist social work has occurred during the past
decade, drawing on substantive feminist theory and providing a
critique of mainstream social work. The contribution has to some
extent been marginalised, but the influence is growing . In providing
opportunities to understand and privilege the experiences of
women, feminist theory has also contributed a reflexivity, a way of
responding to the conditions of women drawing on a notion of a
feminist social work praxis which demands attention from both 220 Joan Orme women and men workers, and sees as its project understanding the
situations of both women and men.
Attention to these issues does not mean that there is a consensus,
nor are relevant writing and research confined to social work litera­
ture. Research in related disciplines (for example, criminological and
psychiatric literature), as well as the traditional social work preserves
of child care and other caring roles, has provided a focus on women's
condition(s), and feminist social work, or women-centred practice, is
now included in standard texts on social policy, welfare and health
care. Work in the area of domestic violence (Hanmer· and Maynard,
1987), child abuse (Hudson, 1992) and women offenders (Carlen and
Worrall, 1987) has implications for social work practice. Dedicated
texts have emerged (Dominelli and McLeod, 1989; Hanmer and
Statham, 1988) identifying what is central and distinctive about femi­
nist social work, providing both analysis and practice guidance.
Significantly, feminist approaches are now addressing working with
men (Cavanagh and Cree, 1996).
In the discourse of social work theory, feminist social work is
described alternatively as a movement to raise consciousness and
give women control of their lives (Howe, 1987) or as an analysis of
oppression and modes of empowerment- for women (Payne, 1991).
Such descriptions identify limitations of feminist social work theory
for women who are providers and users of social work services. This
chapter will, therefore, attempt to identify the contribution that femi­
nist theories have made to social work practice, defining or clarifying
distinctions between, for example women--centred and feminist prac­
tice. In doing this, it will address the critiques of feminist social work
practice, arguing that it has both provided a commentary on main­
stream social work and contributed to practice developments which
have enhanced the profession of social work. Feminist theories for social work
Feminist thought and its relevance for social work practice has been
construed in a number of ways, but there are points of congruence
between, for example, liberal, Marxist, radical and socialist
(Wearin� 1986) and liberal reformist, separatist and socialist (Dale
and Foster, 1986). In these analyses of the 1980s, there was agree­
ment about the source of women's oppression, described alterna­
tively as men or patriarchy. During the 1990s, postmodernism has
precipitated a challenge to this analysis. The separate and cohesive
category of women has been reframed by some feminist authors
who argue that, to avoid essentialist ·notions of femininity and
denying class, cultural and other differences, diversities within the · Feminist social work 221 category 'woman' have to be accepted. If there is no single category
'woman', there can be no single category 'man' (Butlet 1990). For
social work, this has created both a crisis and a development. Some
see postmodernism as part of a (white) male academic backlash
against feminist thought and action (Hester et al., 1996). Others see
it as an opportunity for feminism to inform working with men, to
challenge masculinist assumptions and to recognise the oppressions
of patriarchy rather than expecting women to change their own
conditions (Cavanagh and Cree, 1996).
This moves us ahead rapidly, but identifying the diversity of
thought at this point helps to reflect on the correlation between femi. nist theory and social work practice. Any form of theorising is of
limited value to social work if the understandings gained do not
inform ways of intervening in the lives of service users to bring about
some form of positive change. For feminism, the challenge is to iden­
tify how the analysis of both the nature and the source of women's
oppression assist in addressing issues of empowering women
through social work practice and interventions. Liberal critiques
Liberal feminist approaches were concerned with equal rights for
women and working towards equality opportunity to choose, seeing
oppression as structural. linked to women's participation. This ignored
the fact that,. for some women, the actual choices or alternatives might
be limited by, for example, a lack of child-care facilities. More funda­
mentally, the organisation of state welfare institutions such as benefit
systems, housing policies and social services departments militates
against any real opportunities for women to participate, if that is their
choice. A more pertinent analysis reflects the failure to recognise the
different experiences of women and the different oppressions precipi­
tated by class, race and sexuality {hooks, 1984a).
Liberal strategies for intervention, while being criticised as individ­
ualist, short term and reformist, were attractive to social workers
working constantly with the need to produce immediate solutions and
imbued with a history of individual casework as a method of interven­
tion. They focused on structural change but continued to regard
women in their traditional roles and fulfilling caring functions. Radical critiques
A more radical approach had two sources. Marxist feminism criti­
cised orthodox Marxism as having ignored the particular position of 222 Joan Orme women and argued that, whilst women and working-class men
share a domination based on a class system, emphasis on monoga­
mous marriage and the underpinning of the patriarchal family a s
th e economic unit o f society further affected womenfs situation. The
welfare state sought to keep women in the role of housewife,
mother and carer, and, as employees of that welfare state, social
workers themselves were purveyors of the repression of the state
(Wtlson. 1980).
Marxist feminism drew attention to the oppressive function of
individualised casework which pathologised women's problems,
seeing the cause of their personal or socio-economic problems a s
being within th e women themselves, their incapacity to>manage
resources or their propensity for depression being directly related to
biological explanations, accepting an essentialist construction of
definitions of gender. Women were assessed in isolation from inter­
personal and interfamilial dynamics; their social situation and
support networks were not considered. They were seen as the cause
of the problem and the source of the solution if they were consid­
ered at all.
Suggestions for practice include setting up collective sel£-help
organisations which would evolve out of consciousness-raising,
leading to collective political action outside state welfare provision.
These suggestions confused women social workers who, at one level,
agreed with the meta-analysis but wondered how to proceed in day­
to-day practice when confronted with the immediate and urgent
problems of women as wives, mothers and carers, defined within the
welfare state and who, as Wtlson rightly identified, have their powers
and resources prescribed within the welfare state.
The limitations of Marxist concentration on class and the
economic system as reflecting patriarchal underpinnings led some
feminists to establish a radical perspective which identified the
source of women's oppression as the social institution of gender. For
social work, the recognition of sexual politics (Firestone, 1971; Millet,
1972) resonated because it emphasised the role of male power in
interpersonal relationships within the family, which contribute to
women's sense of personal and economic inferiority and helpless­
ness. This analysis facilitated the identification of, and attempts to
understand, domestic violence and sexual abuse. It also challenged
heterosexist assumptions of state services which were predicated on
women being in relationships with men. However, the solutions,
which revolved around separating out from men, were of limited
value to women in social work, both workers and users, who were in
relationships with men and might have neither the inclination nor the
means to ascribe to personal or political separatism.
- Feminist social work 223 Socialist critiques
It is because of its acceptance of both class oppression and male priv­ ilege as an explanation of women's oppression, seeing patriarchy and
capitalism as interrelated, that socialist feminism is identified as
giving a fuller analysis of the position of women in the context of
social work (Dale and Foster, 1986; Wearing, 1986). In keeping in
mind both class and gender, socialist feminism highlights the major
forces of society which contribute to the powerlessness of women.
Women social workers are subject to the same oppressive forces as
the women with whom they are working. This can be· a source of
collective power but can also mean that the women workers are as
powerless as the women with whom they are working. In acknow­
ledging that socialist feminism allows women to explore their
common and contradictory interests, Dale and Foster prepared the
ground for the analysis of women-centred practice in social work
(Hanmer and Statham, 1988).
Feminist social work practice
Early attempts to develop social work practice based on feminist
analysis recognised that women had been absent from social work
discourse (Hale, 1983). In identifying women's inequality in relation
to men, the initial focus for social work had to be at the micro level­
the enhancement of female clients' lives. Raising consciousness,
changing assumptions about, and perceptions of, women whilst
acknowledging structural oppression were themes reflected in
prescriptions for women-centred practice. These included codes of
practice which recognised the power of the social worker in indi­
vidual interpersonal relationships (Hanmer and Statham, 1988) or
those which focused on constructing an anti-sexist environment and
mode of service delivery (NAPO, 1990). Maintaining a focus on the
individual, interventions often provided services for women in their
role as mothers and/ or carers, for example mother and toddler
groups or prisoners' wives groups. A more sophisticated analysis of
feminist contributions to social work recognised that there had to be
moves beyond the individual as the focus for intervention and
change. Feminist social work requires the creation of social conditions
more reflective of feminist aims (Dominelli and McLeod, 1989). It is in
this approach that feminist social work has made its greatest contri­
bution to social work practice by articulating debates about power
and its use and abuse in interpersonal relationships. Work in the area
of child abuse has highlighted that abuse can take many forms and
can be perpetrated by both women and men, but that interventions 224 Joan Orme must empower those who are oppressed, without any assumptions
about the necessity or the therapeutic value of certain kinds of
familial arrangement (Hudson, 1992). It is this concern for the way in
which services are offered, as well as the actual services provided,
which is the hallmark of feminism. For example, Carlen's work on a
feminist jurisprudence starts from a recognition that women are
adversely treated by the paternalism of the criminal justice system. In
arguing for the appropriate treatment for women, she recognises that
dehumanising and punitive custodial sentences are not appropriate
for women or men (Carlen, 1989 ). For men to become less violent,
there needs to be less violent treatment. Such approaches are not
unproblematic. The urge to punish those men who have been violent
to women and children, and the tensions brought about by finite
resources which precipitate the need to choose between services for
women and those for men, are not ducked by feminism. In putting
them firmly on the agenda, feminist social work has been both influ­
ential, but also subject to criticism. Issues
The most consistent criticism has been that adopting a separatist
approach detracts from the need to permeate all practice. Feminist
social work has been described as a form of crude reductionist soci­
ology, with contradictory theories which create a hierarchy of oppres­
sion imposed by a form of ideological imperialism (Sibeon, 1991). In
concentrating on the oppression of women, feminist social work is
accused of avoiding or negating class, race and ,the-imperative to
work with men. It has also been suggested that insights into-causes of
oppression do not necessarily clarify how to intervene;"tl:iat feminist
theory has not informed social work practice (PayneA991). However,
as we have seen, this is not the case. Whilst early women-centred
practice focused on women's experiences, feminist approaches have
provided substantive critiques of all social work activity., �
The challenges, however, presented to workers by both women­
centred practice and feminist social work practice should not be
underestimated. Early critiques of social work by feminists were
said to be simplistic in failing to recognise the care I control
dichotomy present in much of social work practice (W", 1990). For
example, women-centred practice presented -an analysis that
women are oppressed, and that, to avoid further oppression, social
workers must accept women's accounts (Hanmer and Statham,
1988). In arguing that women do commit acts of violence and abuse,
and girls do sometimes fantasise, Wise "(1990) suggests that unques­
tioning acceptance is naive and simplistic and can lead to essen- Feminist social work 225 tialist interpretations of male I female behaviour which disadvan­
tage women in all aspects of life. For example, arguing that women
should always have custody of children could be seen to be reaf­
firming the myth of the naturalness of motherhood and explana­
tions of depression which concentrate on the negative experiences
of women, and fail to valorise women's strength. This does not
mean that women should be blamed or punished, or that women­
only facilities should not be provided. It is possible to listen to what
women have done but to accept them, to recognise and work with
inconsistencies, uncertainties and contradictions which are part of
women's lived experience. This experience includes that, for good
or for ill, women are in social situations where their needs have to
be balanced against the needs of others, especially children, or that,
because of socialisation or social situations, women experience
conditions which severely limit their capacity to change.
The transformational nature of feminist social work, as opposed
to women-centred practice, is to recognise the contradictions and,
through a process of individualisation, accept that being a woman (be
that a black woman or disabled woman) is part of the person-in­
environment perspective core to all social work practice which
resonates with the feminist claim that the personal is political
(Collins, 1986). What is significant and has to be worked with is how
individual women experience their situation. To tell a woman user
she is oppressed is no more liberating than labelling her as depressed,
unless there are ways of changing the situation. Having recognised
the dilemmas and clarified the accounts, it is also necessary to be
open about the social control contained in the social work role. This
control often emanates from the legislative framework which rein­
forces gendered stereotypes or appears to circumscribe the work that
has to be done. Such constraints are not unique to feminist social
work, as Braye and Preston-Shoot discuss in Chapter 5 of this
volume. Feminist social work, along with other paradigms for
empowering practice, has sought to critique both the process of
framing the legislation, and the interpretation of that legislation into
service delivery (Dominelli and McLeod, 1989).
What is important, therefore, is the way in which situations are
worked with, the praxis which incorporates feminist analysis. It is
appropriate for feminists to intervene to protect vulnerable people,
whoever they may be. The notion of praxis requires feminists to be
part of the debate about acceptable standards of conduct, ensuring
that these are not constructed on stereotypical gendered lines and
arguing for the inclusion of users, especially women who constitute
the majority of users, in the decisions (Wise, 1990). Hence feminist
social work contributes to the transformation of social and struc­
tural relations. 226 Joan Orme The substantive issue for feminist social work is, therefore, to gain
recognition as a force within social work, as a theory or set of theories
contributing to an understanding of social work - as paradigmatic
ways of understanding patriarchal culture (Collins, 1986) -or as a set
of specific practices which differ in some way from other theories and
modes of intervention without becoming marginalised (Dominelli
and McLeod, 1989; Hudson, 1989).
Despite support for gender issues in the social work education
curriculum (Phillipson, 1991), little progress is being made in social
work training. Gender is often considere<f only in the context of anti­
discriminatory practice, with no specific training on gender aware­
ness, or any permeation of the curriculum with understandings of
specific oppressions of women, nor as a specific social work practice
(Kirwan, 1994). The twin themes of commonality and diversity
explored in feminist social work literature (Hanmer and Statham,
1988) are not always helpful. Recognising commonalities can be expe­
rienced as treating women as an homogenous group, reinforcing
notions that women are the source of, and solution to, the problems
they experience. Acknowledging diversities between women and
users, and arguing that these should be transcended, denies the
power relationship between these groups of women (White, 1995).
Whilst recognising commonality as a way of expressing empathy
(Hanmer and Statham, 1988), doing so raises crises over shared infor­
mation. Lesbian women workers, in particular, may feel unable to
disclose or share information about themselves for a variety of
reasons. That feminist social work approaches have not permeated all
practice is evidenced by (a lack of) appreciation of diversity. One
study, of pro-feminist women workers, found that the traditional
labelling of client groups persisted. Women as clients were identified
predominantly in the child-care field, with no acknowlegement of the
specific needs and oppressions of older women, women with disabil­
ities or those with mental health problems (White, 1995).
Social work needs to respond to the richness of feminist theo­
rising. Exploration of feminism as an ontology (Stanley, 1990) recog­
nises that not all women share the state of being, nor does the state of
being exist in relation to something essentially female, but to the
social construction of 'women'. This construction, and the oppres­
sions identified within the construction, recognises many forms of
women's existence or condition which are incorporated in it, and
indeed challenges the universalism of the social construction, thus
allowing for the separate and different experiences of black women,
lesbian women, disabled women and older women, for example, to
be explored within and contribute to such a notion of ontology. More...


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