The ‘F’ word

Heather Davidson is the senior occupational therapy lecturer at the University of Salford. She has a particular interest in feminism and recently led a seminar at the RCOT Conference 2018 exploring the way in which feminism impacts the role of occupational therapy and OTs as individuals. Here, she shares the effect that feminism has had on her both personally and professionally.

So how does feminism impact on me and my work? Supporting women and challenging their oppression is part of my DNA. Subtle adjustments such as flexibility in appointments, an open door approach, celebration of life events and being consistent in response no matter what the circumstances has been important.

Reflecting on the way in which feminism impacts on me as an occupational therapy educator and previously as an occupational therapy clinician I can identify conscious choices to align my feminist stance with my professional position. I uphold the belief that women and men have differences but that their individual characteristics should not be valued differently. I have recognised in all the places where I have worked that women are judged negatively for their ‘femaleness’ and I demonstrate my feminism in celebrating women’s achievements and nurturing women’s self-confidence as it develops.

I can see that I have facilitated a succession of safe spaces for women to be free from judgement, to develop their confidence and skills from a position of strength and acceptance. Early in my clinical career I instigated a women’s group within an in-patient mental health setting to facilitate sharing of experiences in a safe space. I have completed doctoral research using feminist methodology to design leadership development activities, specifically for women, to provide a similar safe space.

Feminism impacts on my academic work in numerous other ways. It has always been important to me that women feel supported whilst completing their studies and should feel understood when dealing with experiences such as pregnancy, caring responsibilities and the ongoing demands of balancing childcare and full-time studies. There are university policies to ensure academic practice is inclusive, but I aim to create an atmosphere on our programme at Salford where women can share their worries and complete their studies successfully. Conveying an understanding of the effort involved for a young mum to arrive at a lecture on time and ready to work knowing her children are safe and happy (or happy enough) can make a difference.

Feminism has also impacted on the words that I use as while studying for a professional doctorate I reflected on the male derivation of key words used in research. Demonstrating feminism in my work includes not using terms such as ‘seminal’ texts preferring the phrase ‘key publications’. I have also reflected on some of the ways a research career can be difficult to navigate for women such as the decision women may face regarding changing or keeping their surname and the impact this may have on their research profile. Not only that, my recent return to my birth name highlighted the absurdity of referring to this as my ‘maiden’ name but importantly the hesitation that some women experience when wanting to change from a married name to their birth name, as the research world appears to have limited capacity to deal with this reality for women.

What is a feminist?

At this year’s RCOT Conference in Belfast I led a seminar titled ‘Feminism and Occupational Therapy… Question, Debate and Reflect’. This followed a request at the end of a workshop “Occupational Therapy – A Feminist Profession? “at the 2017 Conference where the attendees commented that they would like more time to debate feminism and share their views. The 2018 seminar discussed the relevance of feminism to occupational therapy, whether identifying as feminist influences an occupational therapists’ practice and facilitated time to create an action plan for changing or developing practice going forward.

The session began with an overview of feminism considering the question – what is a feminist? I acknowledged that although a textbook definition of a feminist describes an individual who believes in the social, economic, and political equality of the sexes, feminism as a concept is multi-layered and belies a simple definition.

Delegates were asked to consider whether they would classify themselves as feminist and if this had an impact on their practice. Delegates referred to an appreciation of women as service users and their experiences of oppression. Reference was made to articles from Hazel Bracegirdle in 1991 (which started my own journey of exploring feminism and occupational therapy) where women’s identity was explored through consideration of the appropriateness of assigning household tasks to women (in a mental health setting), where that might be the very source of their depression.

Feminism was identified by delegates as relevant in relation to employment and experience of maternity rights. I reflected on the progression of feminism and described five waves of feminism, as referred to in current feminist writing. While there is difference of opinion on the phases through which feminism has developed, the waves of feminism were used, in this seminar, to illustrate the importance of moving forward and avoiding judgement of how feminism may be embodied. I referred to Caitlin Moran and her suggestion that women should laugh in the face of awkwardness and temptation to judge each other and suggested this as a positive way forward for occupational therapists.


The seminar moved on to consider the visibility of the links between occupational therapy and feminism and questioned the lack of identifiable links between occupational therapy, feminism and feminist analysis in published literature.  Describing how a rudimentary search of occupational therapy literature highlights a small number of published works with feminism or feminist in the title prompted the slide titled “WTF” – partly to raise a smile but mostly to engage the delegates in the absurdity of a profession of who are predominantly women (98% of practitioners in the UK) producing less than 20 publications with a feminist focus internationally. The number increases gradually if you widen your search to abstract or subject as you might expect, but this number is still relatively small. Some of those attending the session commented on the difficulty that can be experienced publishing work with feminism in the title in occupational therapy journals, which prompted interesting and heated discussion.

The seminar touched on aspects of theory such as Intersectionality. Intersectionality is a theory introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw and illustrates that women’s lives are an intersection of many things such as gender, race and social environment. Intersectionality has a strong alliance with occupational therapy philosophy focusing on the unique attributes and circumstances of each individual, but importantly it moves this consideration further to highlight the intersection of sources of oppression that may impact upon a woman. The delegates considered where they might challenge oppression in their practice.

Some questions that arose from the seminar that could help OTs consider their own relationship with feminism were as follows:

  • Do you identify as feminist and does this matter to you as an occupational therapist?
  • How does feminism fit with your everyday practice?
  • How can feminism impact on your clinical practice in the future?

The final question at the end of the seminar and this article – so what next? A confident and overt expression of feminism may be one strategy, and focusing on numbers and increasing visibility by increasing published work may be another but also posed the question – does the lack of critical literature highlight a profession that is uncomfortable with discussion from a critical theory perspective?

Heather Davidson is inviting OTs who wish to discuss this topic further to get in touch via Twitter.

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