The Sexist History of Psychology and Mental Health

Psychology is a young science but it has some dark and mysterious streaks in its infancy. Although we are now living in times where sexism is recognized as a problem in healthcare, this was not so frequently the case even 50 years ago.

If you’re a woman who has been told to toughen up when you talk about menstrual pain or you have been told that your mood is unreliable and your emotions are unreadable because you’re a woman, then you know what I’m talking about. Science is supposed to be an objective inquiry into the nature of things and people around us, but it has hardly been objective. Scientists have carried sexist notions learned from patriarchy and religion into their work. And then they used biased samples and examples to prove their assumptions.

For example, the history of science is known for its obsession with gender differences. One hilarious concept is the idea of measuring the brain and declaring women’s brain and therefore, women, as inferior because it had five ounces less compared to the male brain. What all these brilliant men forgot is that brain size is relevant to body size and since women had smaller body size, a bigger brain would actually be a hazard in infancy years. A lot of natural sciences made these assumptions and proved them in a skewed way for quite a long number of years.

Psychology as a science had a late start. Secondly, women had started studying psychology and their entry into the field also coincided with first-wave feminism in the United States. This ensured that psychology as a science could not function in its sexist assumptions as long as other sciences had. However, that does not mean that no damage was done. There are scores of studies that just documented women’s inferior performance on tasks but did not take into account the fact that men had more exposure and more practice, which definitely affected the performance.

Perhaps this attitude should come as no surprise since one of the important male figures in psychotherapy, the man who bought psychological principles to the clinic, was quite sexist himself. Here I am of course referring to Mr. Sigmund Freud, a well-renowned Psychologist and Sociologist. He gave further limelight to an age-old assumption that “hysteria” experienced by women is actually a symptom of a wandering womb and the solution to this is to have more sex (within marriage of course) and have children. His understanding of human psychology was from very sexist, the male perspective which ignored the female experience altogether. Donna Stewart, M.D., a professor and chair of women’s health at the University Health Network, explained, “Freud was a man of his times. He was opposed to the women’s emancipation movement and believed that women’s lives were dominated by their sexual reproductive functions.”


Karen Horney was the fierce female psychoanalyst who challenged him. Freud said that young girls tend to have “penis envy” which is them feeling sad for not having a symbol which would give them much happiness and status in the society. Horney pointed out what women can do physiologically in carrying a pregnancy to term, giving birth and suckling infants, is far more enviable than the male ability to pee standing up.  


Since Freud and many of the other important founding members of psychology and psychotherapy had a medical background, they suffered from the same problem which medicine does – it assumes the male body as normative or ideal and any deviations from it are considered problematic. It does not have specific models for women, as a base to understand their problems from. For instance, with regards to sexual disorders, the normal sexual cycle is from the male body and point of view. And this is then used to judge women who do not orgasm fast enough, whereas as we know that their sexual arousal cycle works differently.

“His understanding of women was notoriously inadequate, but he did make great steps beyond what was understood about women when he came on the scene. It was very unusual in Freud’s time even to acknowledge that women had sexual desire, much less to say that the repression of their sexual desire could make them hysterical,” explained historian Peter Gay.

A lot of things in a man’s body or a woman’s body depend on the neurotransmitters or simply the chemicals that are secreted by the brain into their blood which makes them behave in a certain manner. However, it shouldn’t be the cause for differentiating and questioning the potential of intelligence or that of physical ability that any of the genders carry.

Today, the sexism is seen in a psychiatrist who advises that the girl’s emotional problems will be solved if she gets married. Or, that listening to her husband and in-laws is the only way she can be good. This is absolutely not true.

Research more about your body, about how your brain works, what are these chemicals doing to you. You do not need a man to cure you of any mental state, it is You who has to cure yourself and stand out from those who deem you a damsel in distress without a prince charming. Tell them you are your own Prince Charming.

What can we do about it? Call out a mental health professional if they are being sexist to you. Make sure that you spread the word to other prospective clients and make your voice matter.


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