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Feminist Social Work

Central themes, historical view, four waves of feminism, types of feminism, principles, core aspects, feminism and social work, feminist social work practice approach

Three sections follow:

  1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic

  2. A suggested Practice Approach

  3. A list of Supporting Material / References

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Background Material

An historical view of feminist social work

Social work has had an uneasy relationship with feminism. In some ways, it has always been feminist in that, since its beginnings, it has been concerned with social justice and with the well-being and living conditions of those who have lacked power—and this has often meant women and children. Many of the early social workers were also women—upper- and middle-class women who found adventure in charity work, escaping the confines of their constrained lifestyles by engaging in “good deeds”. But early social work was, in reality, far from feminist in its aspirations or value-base. The upper- and middle-class social workers saw no contradiction in exploiting the working-class women who looked after their households and children while they engaged in “good works”. They also had no qualms about removing children from women who could not afford to look after them in order to give them what they judged to be a “better life”.

As social work became institutionalised through government legislation designed to offer a measure of protection and welfare to individuals and families, social workers became increasingly employed within local government agencies. At the same time, new voluntary agencies sprang up in the 1960s and 1970s with an overtly feminist orientation. At this time, social work and social workers came under attack, accused by feminist sociologists and psychologists alike of neglecting the needs and rights of women; social workers were accused of routinely minimising harm, encouraging women to remain in home situations that were often difficult and dangerous.

However, there were also many social workers at the time who were openly feminist; radical social workers and community workers who sought to bring about change, not only in their work with women, but also in social work with men. Across the world women got together to fight for women’s rights, taking on issues such as rape, women’s education family and domestic violence.

Over time feminism has evolved to the extent where there is often little distance between someone who identifies as a feminist and someone who does not but supports the concept that everyone should be treated fairly. In fact, there may be no single way of being a feminist, just as there is no single way of being a woman. What feminism offers to social work is an opportunity to interrogate the everyday and to ground knowledge in experience; to question the taken-for-granted and disrupt settled ways of thinking (Cree, 2018).

Phillips and Cree (2014) suggest feminism has developed in four “waves”.

  1. First wave feminism (1840s – 1920s) assumed the sexual division of labour, i.e. men and women inhabited separate spheres; the feminism goal was to bring women’s influence into men’s worlds. They believed that women were, in many ways, a higher form of being, more innocent and, at the same time, more virtuous than men. But this form of feminism was oblivious to its classist, homophobic and at times racist underpinnings. First wave feminism involved women (and in some cases, men) gathering together to confront a wide range of practices which affected the lives of women and children, including fighting for the promotion of equal contract and property rights for women; for women’s right to vote; for legislation to protect women and girls from prostitution and slavery; for ‘social purity’ and as part of this, for legislation to raise the age of sexual consent and to criminalise incest; for women’s access to higher education and to the professions of medicine, law and accountancy.

  2. As women’s lives began to be transformed after the Second World War (e.g. experiences of employment and family life; the advent of the contraceptive pill) second wave feminists (early 1960s – late 1980s) became involved in a range of campaigns: for women’s reproductive rights and hence for abortion; for equal rights in employment, education, public and private lives; against rape and domestic violence; against pornography and prostitution. Second wave feminism saw individual, social and political inequalities as inevitably interlinked; ‘the personal is political’ was one of the popular radical feminist slogans of the day. However social work education and practice was gender blind as most service users and social workers were women. Furthermore, there was also a growing recognition of differences between women: women were not all the same, and it became increasingly clear that white, middle class, able-bodied feminists had ignored how poverty, racism, ethnocentrism and sexism create oppression.

  3. The third wave of feminism (late 1980s – 2013?) emerged in the 1990s as a self-critical, diverse and contradictory wave feminism. This reflected postmodern ideas; it allowed for individual choice; it accepted fully the idea that there might be different feminisms and gender was something performed, not innate. It argued that feminism must target men and women; that only then will society as a whole change, for the benefit women, men and children. Feminism was presented as a critical praxis that intersected with other areas of oppression, including those of ‘race’ and ethnicity, age, social class and disability. This is still the situation today, taking us to the present day, and to what has been called a fourth wave of feminism.

  4. The fourth wave of feminism (2008 onwards?) evolved with the rise of social media as it created an opportunity for feminist debates and resistance. Many of second wave issues are echoed in fourth wave voices but there are different issues partly because of the evolution of new cultures around sexuality, work, reproductive technologies, communication technologies and the marketisation of all that is feminine. The new social media-based feminism is inclusive of diverse sexualities and cultures. There is a desire to demobilise the power of one gender over another and shame sexist and violent behaviour wherever it is found. Equality remains at the centre of this fourth wave because inequality is often the root cause of disadvantage, vulnerability and oppression, and is directly related to the loss or lack of power to make choices, exercise freedom and live life with dignity. This fourth wave, while being more ‘men friendly’ has placed key feminist debates back on the public agenda and to a public more widely educated about these debates than at any time before.

Types of Feminism

Cree (2018) suggests there is no single way of being a feminist, just as there is no single way of being a woman. This is evident by the number of types of feminism that have developed and still exist. The literature includes descriptions of cultural, conservative, womanism, liberal, radical, socialist, and post-modern feminists.

Cultural feminism sees gender as the fundamental division among humans, more fundamental than class, race and other sources of inequality. Cultural feminists celebrate those aspects of womanhood they consider superior to, or more valuable than, opposing aspects in men, e.g. nurturing and altruistic versus competitiveness. The development of knowledge through emotion and intuition is valued. Many cultural feminists are interested in the development of a specifically woman-centered religion or spirituality which would free minds from patriarchal chains. Women are assumed to be non-violent and in tune with the earth. Generally, cultural feminism seeks to coalesce feminists and eliminate splits among women. To accomplish these goals, they use claims of universalism and downplay differences, including very important differences such as racism, experienced by some, but not all women (Enge, 2013; Saulnier, 2000).

Conservative feminism maintains men and women have a different nature and different capacities. This results in men and women taking different, but complementary, roles. Conservative feminists see little reason for men and women to engage in tasks inconsistent with their natures (Enge, 2013).

Womanism recognises poverty, racism, ethnocentrism (evaluating others according to one’s own standards/culture) and sexism as creators of oppression. The focus is on advocating for the specific concerns of women of colour by examining the creators of oppression with a single struggle needed to overcome them (Enge, 2013; Saulnier, 2000).

Liberal feminism is based on liberal philosophy, that describes society as being composed of separate individuals, each competing for a fair share of resources. Liberal feminists point out that society violates the value of equal rights in its treatment of women, primarily by treating women as a group, rather than as individuals. Liberal feminism is based on the assumption that there are no basic differences in the nature of men and women and that people of both genders have the same potential for achievement. Liberal feminists accept ‘male traits’ (e.g. aggression and domination) and work to achieve equality within them; they encourage women to behave more like successful men. They achieve this by educating women in the skills needed to be successful in the capitalist and patriarchal society. However, they often fail to examine the de facto inequality in distribution of men’s rights by race, socioeconomic and other factors (Enge, 2013; Saulnier, 2000).

Radical feminists characterize society as patriarchal; it has been constructed in a way that accrues a disproportionate share of power to men through a division of labour based on gender. The patriarchal structure privileges men through the complex political manipulation of individual identity, social interactions, and structural systems of power. Women’s personalities and their sexuality are seen by some radical feminists as having been constructed to meet men’s needs, rather than women’s. Women are conditioned to serve men. This psychology of sex role conditioning accounts for women’s apparent complicity with patriarchy, evidenced in their subservient behavior. Sexism is described as a social system designed to give men power over women (Saulnier, 2000).

Socialist feminists believe that inequality is rooted in both patriarchy and classism. Physical needs are met through the workplace (production) and business owners control the ability to meet these needs. Social needs are met in the home (reproduction), and men control the ability to meet social needs. In trying to meet both these needs, women often face dual exploitation: they are exploited in the workplace by receiving low wages and then exploited in their home life by high expectations for childcare and housework, with no monetary rewards. The goal of socialist feminists is to take and meet the physical and social needs of both men and women in a spirit of mutual respect thereby ending the oppression of women and meeting the needs of both men and women (Enge, 2013).

Postmodern feminists seek multiple ways to deconstruct the culturally construed ideology of male superiority. The tasks of postmodern feminist theorists are: (1) to articulate feminist viewpoints of society; (2) to analyse how women are affected by the social world; (3) to examine the role of power and knowledge relationships in shaping the ways women think about the social world; and (4) to imagine ways in which the social world can be transformed (Saulnier, 2000).

Principles common to feminist approaches (Gilmore, 2015)

The personal is political: An individual’s unique experience can only be understood by referencing the political, social, cultural and economic contexts in which it occurred.

Both process and product are valued: The way that people go about their daily living, the tasks they engage in and the approach they take, is just as (if not more) important than the end product or goal.

Power has been and can still be an oppressive force for women: Feminism seeks to empower and provide choices for women to enable positive change in their lives.

Dualisms should be de-emphasised: Feminism seeks to de-emphasise dualisms (male/female, black/white, good/bad, right/wrong, rational/emotional, and so on) and look more for a unified, comprehensive approach.

Difference is valued: Our social system is intolerant of difference. Feminist theory reconceptualises difference as a positive and enriching thing to be celebrated rather than a justification for oppressive behaviours and fears.

Feminism is a world view: People committed to feminism tend to allow feminist thinking to impact on all aspects of their lives.

Core aspects of feminism

Women grow up in an oppressed, patriarchal society; feminists have a goal of addressing the social problem of patriarchy to help people in need. Feminism challenges gender oppression and strives for equality and human rights for all women, drawing on a rich and diverse body of knowledge and activist practices. Feminists often quote the slogan “the personal is political” to illustrate the idea that an individual’s unique experience can only be understood by referencing the political, social, cultural and economic contexts in which it occurred. The ‘person-in-environment’ perspective is also prominent in the feminist approach. That is, how a person’s ability to cope with stress is influenced by factors such as social functioning, environmental problems, mental health problems and physical health problems (Enge, 2013; Wendt & Moulding, 2017).

Alston (2018) draws attention to three core aspects of feminism:

  • Feminism is gender sensitive.

  • Feminism seeks to understand the structural and social factors that shape women’s experiences and lead to gender inequality.

  • Feminism is a women-centred approach to address policies and structures (e.g. violence, power and patriarchy) that disadvantage women.

Feminism and social work

Feminism has a dynamic and central role in contemporary social work. Feminism has moved away from assumptions of women as a relatively uniform and unified group with similar interests and problems. Instead, feminism now theorises difference and the contextualised experiences of women, men, and children. But at the same time, within this complexity and diversity, there are key principles, knowledge bases, and practices that are shared by feminist social workers including a commitment to social justice, the importance of a critical and reflexive stance on social work, and the valuing of personal experience as political (Wendt & Mourling, 2017).

There is no singular feminism and no common feminist identity (Seymour, 2012). Without solid understanding of a broad range of feminist theories, social workers will be poorly equipped to solve the social problems of women (Saulnier, 2000).

Feminist social workers shift the focus of personal problems to the outer world, where so often the cause lies. They place the structures and processes affecting clients at the centre of social work practice. Feminist social workers emphasise that people are both victims and survivors of wider influences, and through political and communal strategies, change can be achieved (Alston, 2018; Harms, 2007).

The feminist approach to social work is based on the assumption that problems of clients are within our societal structure, which is patriarchal and oppressive to women, whereby women become less equal. The goal of this perspective is to create a society that is equal for both men and women. Feminist social workers link women’s personal experiences to expected sex-role norms, oppressive social structures and discriminatory practices (Enge, 2013).

Practice Approach

The central themes from the above background material can inform a practice approach for social workers.

  1. Social work has always had feminist undertones because it often deals with women who are experiencing less than ideal living conditions, often through being exploited by others and the system.

  2. In recent years social workers have become more radical in their approach, seeking to empower women to change their lives in numerous areas. This has not just been at an individual (micro) level but at a community, national and global (macro) level.

  3. Disrupting unjust, but settled, ways of both thinking about and treating women has become a central theme, together with challenging inequality. Inequality is directly related to the lack of power to make choices, exercise freedom and live life with dignity.

  4. There is no single way of being a feminist, just as there is no single way of being a woman (or man). This has given rise to a number of types of feminism, e.g. cultural, womanism, liberal, radical and socialist. These approaches share common principles:

    1. Individual experience should be viewed against political, social, cultural and economic factors—the personal is political.

    2. The process, not just the product, is important.

    3. Empowerment and providing choice are central.

    4. Dualisms (e.g., right/wrong, rational/emotional) should be de-emphasised—seek a middle ground that values difference.

  5. Empowering people to recognise and address patriarchy in its many forms is a core aspect of feminist social work. This supports the core values of social work: social inclusion, social justice, human rights and improved quality of life for disadvantaged groups.

  6. Feminist social workers shift the focus of personal problems to the outer world, where so often the cause lies. They place the structures and processes affecting clients at the centre of social work practice.

Feminism’s application within social work has become more nuanced over time resulting in social workers using feminist theories to inform policy and practice in fields of homelessness, refugees, mental health, child wellbeing, domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, ageing, and disability. Furthermore, social workers are drawing on a range of feminist ideas to open up conversations about working with Aboriginal communities, engaging and working with men, and recognising sexuality as part of social work practice (Wendt & Mourling, 2017).

Feminist social workers intervene at both micro and macro levels. They utilise the skills of counselling but also strive to bring about social, structural and cultural change. To achieve both these aspects social workers establish equality with people and, by working in partnership, become allies of people. The emphasis is on challenging power imbalances with the personal inherently seen as connected to the political. The relationship can be considered a short-term resourcing or longer-term collaboration rather than a therapeutic relationship (Enge, 2013; Harms, 2007).

McDonald (1988) suggests the following counselling skills are important for feminist social workers.

  1. The social worker should believe in the potential of women and have an awareness of how this potential has been thwarted by stereotyped sex roles.

  2. What the social worker hears, observes and understands is filtered through the worker’s value system—a unique combination of both feminist and professional values and knowledge.

  3. There will often be a deliberate ‘use of self’: of values, thoughts, experiences, opinions, and reactions. This approach helps foster a sense of unity between women.

  4. The social worker strives to develop an egalitarian relationship with the person, being aware of the inherent power imbalance that will naturally be present. The worker strives to redistribute power between worker and client by being warm and supportive, a 'real person', friendly yet not necessarily overinvolved.

  5. ‘Female’ characteristics should dominate—empathy, nurturance, sensitivity. It is important to revise the bases by which women commonly evaluate themselves, bases which devalue behaviours and characteristics commonly associated with the feminine. Assertiveness should be promoted as a skill to be used.

  6. The feminist paradigm focuses specifically on the 'here and now'. It is oriented to the present, to specific situations which women clients are experiencing. Emphasis on the past as opposed to the present exacerbates previous experiences of powerlessness and dependency. The worker is interested in social oppression and action that may be taken to overcome this, not ‘intrapsychic dysfunctioning’.

  7. Feminist interviewing acknowledges ‘the personal is political’. Experiences are defined not as a result of collective faults but as a function of women’s collective social status. Furthermore, women are encouraged to take collective action in response to their collective problems, e.g. self-help groups or political action for social change.

In addition to the microskills of counselling, Harms (2007) suggests three core practice skills for feminist social workers.

  1. Using validation: Reflecting skills are used to affirm someone’s telling of their story and their perceptions of what has occurred. Naming what has occurred is an important first step. Questioning, reflecting and statement skills should focus on the wider structural and cultural dimensions of experience, not only the personal dimensions.

  2. Encouraging a process of consciousness raising: Storytelling followed by analysis, developing strategies and subsequent action can help in consciousness raising. This process raises awareness of the wider social, structural and cultural issues.

  3. Engaging in transformative action: While individual counselling work might be an important step in building insight and strengths for a person, connecting through group or community work is seen as the ultimate step to recovery as the problem resides not with the person, but in a wider social context. Workers may bring people together to agitate for social change, for community activities. Ultimately the focus is on collective action rather than individual responsibility.

Supplementary Material / References

Alston, M. (1990). Feminism and farm women. Australian Social Work, 43(1), 23-27.

Alston, M. (2018). Working with women: Gender-sensitive social work practice. In M. Alston, S. McCurdy, & J. McKinnon (Eds.), Social Work: Fields of Practice (3rd ed., pp. 3-18). Oxford University Press.

Cree, V. (2018). Feminism and social work: Where next for an engaged theory and practice? Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 30(3), 4-7.

Enge, J. (2013). Social worker’s feminist perspectives: Implications for practice. Social Work Master’s Clinical Research Papers, 173.

Harms, L (2007). Working with people: Communication skills for reflective practice. Oxford University Press.

McDonald, C. (1988). Social work interviewing and feminism. Australian Social Work, 41(2), 13-16.

Phillips, R. & Cree, V. E. (2014) ‘What does the ‘Fourth Wave’ mean for teaching feminism in 21st century social work?’, Social Work Education International Journal, 1-14. doi:10.1080/02615479.2014.885007

Saulnier, C. (2000). Incorporating feminist theory into social work practice: Group work examples. Social Work with Groups, 23(1), 5-29. doi: 10.1300/J009v23n01_02

Seymour, K. (2012). Feminist practice: Who I am or what I do? Australian Social Work, 65(1), 21-38, doi: 10.1080/0312407X.2010.520088

Wendt, S., & Moulding, N. (2017). The current state of feminism and social work. Australian Social Work, 70(3), 261-262.


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