A Solution-Focused Approach to Feminism

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, when I worked as a crisis counselor, one of the therapeutic approaches that I used was Solution-Focused Therapy. As the name implies, it is focused on solutions rather than problems. As with any approach, it should not be considered the only option or even the best option in any situation. Sometimes an exploration of the problem one is experiencing is helpful but for short-term crisis counseling, this is my go-to approach. It is goal-directed and future-oriented. For these reasons it is also used in other disciplines and should be considered as an approach to social justice and activism as well.

One assumption of a solution-focused is that people are experts in their own lives and have some idea about what would make their situation better. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a feminist who doesn’t believe women are the experts about women’s lives and the ways they can be improved. Often the struggle is figuring out how to verbalize a vision for a better life and identify steps we can take to get closer to that vision.

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One option is to look for previous solutions. Think about times when issues of gender equality were less of a problem. We aren’t looking for times in history when there wasn’t a patriarchy—that’s not realistic—but there have been moments when the situation in society shifted. One example would be in America during WWII when women took on jobs that were left vacant by men going to war. By 1945, 25% of married women worked outside the home. This was the era of Rosie the Riveter and unquestionably a step forward for gender equality.  

Once that moment has been identified, think about what it was that lead to it and how that might be replicated. In the Rosie the Riveter example, it was a societal necessity that leads women to the workforce. When considering future-oriented feminist solutions we should be discussing ways to create situations in which society needs to allow gender equality. The goal is to identify what has worked in the past then adapt and replicate it for the current situation.

Another approach is to look for exceptions. This is subtly different to looking for previous solutions. In this case, we would be looking for times a problem could have occurred but didn’t. Are there times when women could have been more oppressed but weren’t? What was different about this time? How do we replicate it?

As I said, a solution-focused approach isn’t the only answer. Often success comes from using multiple approaches. Being present and future-oriented, a solution-focused approach doesn’t explore the origin of the problem. In feminism, it is necessary for us to understand the history of patriarchal power as well as the supporting systems like white supremacy. That history and understanding are critical to the overthrow of these systems. When we are using our solution-focused approach in partnership with that education we will be looking forward to asking ourselves what we’ll be doing tomorrow, next week, and next year that will indicate we are making progress.

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A solution-focused approach also uses scaling questions to help focus on what is working. In our feminist activism, we might identify rape culture as a problem we want to address. We would ask ourselves where do we see our society on this issue with 1 being the worst it could be and 10 is the complete abolishment of a rape culture. Let’s say we decide we’re at a 6. The next question is to ask ourselves, “what makes it a 6 and not a 5?” Maybe our answer is that there are laws against rape and that at least in some circles “rape culture” is an acknowledged problem. So how do we get from a 6 to a 7? We build on what got us from a 5 to a 6: let’s increase the efficacy of the laws and widen the understanding and acceptance of the concept of “rape culture.”

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My favorite solution-focused question is the Miracle Question. If tonight, while you were sleeping, a miracle occurred and all the gender equality issues were resolved when you woke up in the morning what would be your first small sign that would make you realize a miracle had occurred and gender inequality had been solved? The follow up to this first question is “how would you behave differently?” Then ask yourself if you are able to behave in any of those ways now.

For me, one of the first signs of a feminist miracle would be that men weren’t taking up extra space on the subway. If that were the case, I wouldn’t feel the need to take up less space on the subway. That is something I can do now. It’s uncomfortable for lots of reasons but if I take up the space I need, maybe men would limit themselves to only the space they need.

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Solution-focused therapy, like many other therapeutic approaches, reminds people that they only have control over their own behavior. You can’t change someone else’s behavior but you can change your own in a way that encourages others to change theirs. We see this every time there is a boycott. We are changing our behavior (not buying a product) in hopes that it will encourage the company to change their behavior.

There are several other solution-focused questions that the feminist movement can benefit from including how have you managed thus far? How have you prevented things from becoming worse? These encourage us to highlight our own resiliency, power, and determination. Let’s look at the successes we’ve had and find ways to replicate them.


Article by Claire Ryder

VERVE Operative USA & Humanitarian Activist