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My Research

My PhD thesis is centred on the research question:

What was the role of the WLM in reshaping mental health care in post-war Britain?

Answering this central question will be facilitated via a series of sub-questions:

• When and how did the second-wave feminism develop a critique of contemporary psychology and mental health provision?
• How and why did second-wave feminists nevertheless begin to theorise and subsequently employ tenets of psychology and psychiatry?
• How important was second-wave feminism in the development of community-based mental health provision and new conceptualisations of mental illness, and to what extent did such thinking extend beyond feminism to the wider population?

Answering these questions will facilitate the fulfilment of this project’s central aims.

My research has two key aims. First, it seeks to contribute new dimensions to our understanding of developments in mental health care in late twentieth century Britain and to specifically examine the role of second-wave feminism in this process. We still know relatively little about the important historical transition from institutional to community care in British mental health provision. Second, it seeks to expand the historiography of second-wave feminism, an area currently in its infancy, integrating histories of post-war feminism into a pioneering historiography on 1980s community politics and grassroots activism. The scope and significance of this research extends to present political and social debate. The story of the challenges of integrating a feminist perspective into community-based therapeutic organisations, particularly when petitioning for financial subsidies from external institutions, relates to ongoing debate over values, funding and mental health.

Methodologically, my research applies feminist theory as an analytical tool and takes seriously second-wave views. My work uses oral history interviews with individual feminists extensively, both previously recorded by other historians, and those carried out by myself. There is also much scope to generate original material through oral history and engagement with feminist therapeutic organisations whose histories remain undocumented. I will dissect generalised second-wave attitudes and demonstrate how interviewees interacted with psychological discourses as both feminists and everyday women, countering arguments that feminists did not acknowledge “ordinary” female experiences. Therefore, this research will also incorporate theories of emotional practice and experience, as well as explorations of researcher subjectivity. My research also draws on various written sources, including: feminist publications; medical and psychological accounts of women’s mental health; newspapers and women’s magazines. Given the current exciting renewal of interest in the history of second-wave feminism, and the importance of engaging with its participants while still available, this is an ideal time to be undertaking this research.

Mary Barnes

Mary Barnes and Joseph Berke ©

Red Women

Red Women's Workshop, 1976 ©