Volume 24 Number 4 
Fall 2014

Remembering Swampscott

Feminism and Community Psychology: Natural Allies Then & Now

Written by Anne Mulvey and Stephanie Riger

University of Massachusetts Lowell, University of Illinois at Chicago


 We were invited by the TCP editors to share reflections on our early days in the field of community psychology as part of the 50th anniversary history series. We are senior members of the field who are feminists and have worked on issues of importance to women since graduate school. 

What was Community Psychology (CP) like when you were in graduate school? 

Stephanie: I began graduate school in 1973 at U of Michigan; the Community program began a few years later when Jim Kelly came to Michigan. White males dominated community psychology in the 1970s and 1980s, most with clinical psychology backgrounds. There are wonderful video interviews online with these men reminiscing about the early days of the field ( Only 5 women appear in these videos: Marie Jahoda, was interviewed individually, and 4 feminists, only 2 of whom were community psychologists, were interviewed together.  The remaining 18 interviews are all with males. That tells you the state of the field at that time. (Barbara Dohrenwend, a major contributor in CP’s early days, died in 1982, long before the interviews were taped in 1996.)

During orientation before grad school began, a professor infuriated me by saying that female graduate students drop out or leave to get married before they get their PhD. degrees.  Every time I felt like quitting graduate school, I remembered his words and was determined to prove him wrong. I tell my students to watch “Mad Men” if they want to get an idea of what life was like for women at that time, although there were a few terrific women on the faculty at Michigan, such as Elizabeth Douvan, who were great role models. Most of the women in CP at that time were grad students who were heavily influenced by feminism and demanded that the field change.

Today the situation is dramatically different. Females now outnumber males as members of SCRA, although awards (e.g., Distinguished Publication Awards) still go overwhelmingly to males (Riger, forthcoming).

Anne: In 1973 I began doctoral work at City University of New York with funding from the National Institute of Mental Health to pursue “urban psychology” in a subprogram led by Barbara Dohrenwend and Mort Bard. They were wonderful role models who encouraged collaboration, critical thinking, and community engagement. (Though I didn’t know it then, men held most leadership positions in CP, received most awards, and were the authors of most publications.)

In 1975 I attended the Austin Conference. My experience in small groups was exhilarating. I was shocked by sexist language and jokes in keynote addresses, all by men, and disappointed women’s issues were not mentioned. I raised concerns that were dismissed (Mulvey, 2008). Barbara encouraged me to seek leadership roles and integrate feminism into CP. I became the Division 27 national student representative. Since there wasn’t much interest in women’s issues, I asked to be liaison to the Society for the Psychology of Women (Div. 35). This helped gain support for feminist initiatives. I credit Barbara’s mentoring with staying in CP.

How did you integrate feminism with Community Psychology?

Anne: Participating in consciousness-raising (CR) and grassroots feminist organizing within the context of the larger women’s liberation movement made my desire for safe, equitable and loving communities seem possible. Connecting the personal and political, trusting lived experiences, and working for feminist change, I experienced hopefulness, possibility, and community. I immediately recognized that CP was compatible with feminism.

I wanted to know why feminism wasn’t visible and valued in CP. I outlined an analysis the week after finishing my dissertation, but it took almost 10 years and encouragement from Barbara and several feminists in CP, mostly students, to finish (Mulvey, 1988). I’ve continued to integrate material from grassroots women’s activism, feminist scholarship, and women studies. I’ve collaborated with women and girls of diverse cultures and circumstances to create small projects and settings where we share stories and work to strengthen ourselves and our communities. Longing for just and loving communities continues to be at the heart of my work and commitment to feminism and CP.

Stephanie: The topics I investigate – violence and discrimination against women – were stimulated by feminism, as it was feminists who highlighted these as social problems worthy of study. Furthermore, feminism has always been concerned with context, as is community psychology. They share a common outlook, considering social structural causes of individuals’ problems as in the famous feminist phrase “the personal is political.”  Furthermore, both community psychology and feminism value social justice and social change, and both are critical of traditional psychology.  Feminism adds to community psychology a focus on gender as well as other aspects of identity, such as race and sexual orientation, that intersect to affect people’s experience.  Together, feminism and community psychology enable a rich analysis of pressing social problems.


Mulvey, A. (1988). Community psychology and feminism: Tensions and commonalities. Journal  of Community Psychology, 16(1), 70-83. 

Mulvey, A. (2008). Reconceiving myself: Challenging conundrums and creating feminist community psychology. Community psychology in practice: An oral history through the stories of five community psychologists [Special Issue].  Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community, 35(1), 11-27.

Riger, S. (forthcoming). Feminism and community psychology: Compelling convergences.  In M. Bond, C. Keys, & I. Serrano-Garcia (Eds.), APA Handbook of Community Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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