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nns and FischerThe Counseling Psychologist

© The Author(s) 2011

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The Counseling Psychologist

On the Complexity 40(8) 1149-1163

© The Author(s) 2012
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of Multiple
DOI: 10.1177/0011000012439477
Feminist Identities

Carolyn Zerbe Enns1 and Ann R. Fischer2

This response to J. D. Yoder, A. F. Snell, and A. Tobias (2012) discusses
implications for applying and building on their research findings regarding the
complex feminist identifications found in young university women. Based
on identity scholarship by women of color, it also discusses the challenges of
conceptualizing and studying interactions among feminist and other multiple
identities. Opportunities for richer understanding of the lives of people of all
genders will come from taking into account hybrid and intersectional femi-
nisms and identities and broadening samples to highlight the experiences of
diverse groups of individuals.

gender, multiculturalism, psychotherapy, social justice

On the Complexity
of Multiple Feminist Identities
We are pleased to see the publication of the research of Yoder, Snell, and
Tobias (2012) in The Counseling Psychologist (TCP) because it facilitates
additional thinking about the constructs of feminist identification and iden-
tity development, which have received attention in this journal for several

Cornell College, Mount Vernon, IA, USA
Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL, USA

Corresponding Author:
Carolyn Zerbe Enns, Cornell College, 600 First Street SW, Mount Vernon, IA 52314-1098, USA
1150 The Counseling Psychologist 40(8)

decades. For example, Downing and Roush’s (1985) feminist identity devel-
opment model was originally published in TCP and was followed by a
review of multiple feminisms as applied to counseling, in Twenty Years of
Feminist Counseling and Therapy (Enns, 1993). Ten years ago, a special
issue of TCP examined the impact, implications, and proposed refinements
of the feminist identity development model (e.g., Moradi, Subich, & Phillips,
2002). More recently, Moradi (2005) spoke about advancing and expanding
the study of womanist identity. In preparation for writing our commentary,
we reviewed these previous publications and reactions and found that many
of the strengths, limitations, and concerns identified in these earlier publica-
tions remain highly relevant to the present (e.g., Hansen, 2002; Hyde, 2002;
Vandiver, 2002).
During the past decade, a substantial number of quantitative studies have
continued to explore correlates of feminist orientation and feminist identity
in college women, and Yoder et al. (2012) expand on the depth and breadth
of literature on this topic. More specifically, these researchers have added to
our growing knowledge of feminism by identifying more complex patterns of
feminist orientation than have been articulated in the past and linking these
patterns to psychological wellness and distress.
We are particularly mindful that respondents in this study were predomi-
nantly White women, and this aspect is consistent with many previous stud-
ies of feminist orientation (e.g., Liss, Crawford, & Popp, 2004; Liss,
O’Connor, Morosky, & Crawford, 2001; Nelson et al., 2008; Stake, 2007;
Yoder, Perry, & Saal, 2007; Yoder, Tobias, & Snell, 2011; Zucker, 2004).
Although previous reviewers have identified the limited diversity of research
samples as a concern (e.g., Moradi et al., 2002; Vandiver, 2002), many stud-
ies still rely heavily on White college female samples. The similar social
identities of the participants in the current study might lead some readers to
question whether, despite the authors’ efforts to attend to multiple dimen-
sions of feminism and social justice, the findings of this study add primarily
to feminisms by and for White, heterosexual, young college/university
women. If that is likely, how can we acknowledge and address this concern
most clearly? Following in the tradition of feminist science studies and criti-
cal psychology, Fischer and DeBord (in press) suggest that to meaningfully
and effectively apply research results, we are required to make a faithful
accounting of relevant details. As part of that process, we are called to criti-
cally acknowledge the roles of power and privilege in the research process, in
part by naming the previously “unnamed specificity” in individual studies
and in broad bodies of research. In the case of the current study, as well as
most research on feminist identities and orientations, that unnamed specificity
Enns and Fischer 1151

involves using a very select sample of women to represent “women” in gen-

eral. Thus, we proceed with caution.
Although the sample is quite homogenous, it is nonetheless encouraging
to observe researchers’ efforts to assess dimensions relevant to diverse orien-
tations to feminism. It is a start to include 2 items addressing womanist and
women of color feminist attitudes in a12-item feminist perspectives compos-
ite score, as Yoder et al. (2012) have done. More is certainly needed, how-
ever, as the unique content possibly represented by these two items ultimately
is subsumed under a larger “generic” feminist composite, as will be addressed
again later. In the remaining commentary that follows, we focus primarily on
two dimensions: (a) potential implications of this study for feminist multicul-
tural and social justice practice and (b) recommendations for future theory
and research relevant to social and feminist identities.

Implications for Practice

The current study reveals positive relations between feminism and optimal
mental health, providing additional support for the mental health benefits of
a feminist orientation (see also Saunders & Kashubeck-West, 2006). During
recent years, feminist counselors and teachers have increasingly emphasized
the importance of considering feminist identity as it interacts with and is
modified by other aspects of personal and social identity (e.g., Enns &
Byars-Winston, 2010). For example, the American Psychological Association’s
(APA; 2007) Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Girls and Women
encourage psychologists to “identify the social group memberships of girls
and women, the extent to which they accept or deny these members, their
experiences of oppression and/or privilege within the context of these mem-
berships, and their abilities to resist confining or oppressive messages”
(p. 961). The guidelines go on to note that gender and related identities (e.g.,
feminism) vary in salience across ecological contexts and time, depending on
a person’s other multiple and intersecting identities (e.g., race/ethnicity,
sexual orientation, age, class, religion, health, and disability), and various
experiences with privilege and oppression. As noted by Shields (2008), iden-
tities “mutually constitute” (p. 302) each other; thus, identities such as
“feminist” are likely to take on meaning in combination with other person-
ally relevant identities. The behaviors and priorities of an individual may
also fluctuate, or move between the background and foreground, depending
on the challenges a situation may elicit. Yoder et al.’s (2012) study focuses
primarily on feminist identities, including a bit of attention to feminist
1152 The Counseling Psychologist 40(8)

identities that are attentive to ethnicity/race dimensions of experience. These

feminist identities represent one of many identities that may be relevant to an
individual, and practitioners (including therapists, researchers, and teachers)
are encouraged by APA’s multicultural guidelines (APA, 2003) and guide-
lines for working with women and girls (APA, 2007) to be attentive to mul-
tiple dimensions of identity.
Social identity assessment activities, which frequently include feminist
and gender issues, are designed help clients and students clarify the meaning
and implications of their experiences relevant to socialization, privilege,
oppression, multiple identities (e.g., ethnicity/race, sexual orientation, gender/
sexism, age), education, work, relationships, and other life realities (see
Enns, 2010, for a sample of tools for conducting such assessment). The pat-
terns of feminism and well-being identified in this study can be helpful in
thinking about specific aspects of social identity assessment and intervention.
Experiences of sexism or gendered racism (e.g., Thomas, Witherspoon, &
Speight, 2008) may trigger increased awareness of oppression, anger, and/or
psychological distress, which may contribute to an individual’s decision to
seek counseling or engage in activism. The “awakening feminism” dimen-
sion identified by Yoder et al. (2012) is consistent with previous findings that
the “revelation” of sexism is often associated with distress (e.g., Fischer &
Good, 2004; Moradi & Subich, 2002). This heightened sensitivity to oppres-
sion may contribute to greater openness on the part of a client or student to
exploring socially unjust personal experiences and power differences in rela-
tionships and institutions, and participating in consciousness raising or criti-
cal consciousness activities that reveal how external circumstances contribute
to distress or wellness (Daniels, 2007). The “justice entitlement” beliefs asso-
ciated with the “awakening feminism” dimension may also motivate indi-
viduals to participate in collective social action and spend time with reference
groups that contribute to the development and maturation of social justice
beliefs. As suggested by Yoder et al., such activities are likely to contribute
to personal and collective empowerment, which may then facilitate move-
ment from an “awakening feminist” perspective to an “established feminist”
At the same time, however, we would like to comment on the concept of
“awakening” as part of a hypothesized feminist identity process. Although
this is central to Downing and Roush’s (1985) revelation phase of feminist
identity development (and the Feminist Identity Composite-Revelation sub-
scale used by Yoder et al., 2012, to measure it), some have argued that, in
effect, revelation may be a luxury afforded by White privilege. For example,
Barbara Smith (in Smith & Smith, 1981) suggested:
Enns and Fischer 1153

There is a political savvyness, I don’t know what word to use, canniness—

some difference in attitude I think between Black and White feminists.
I think what it is, is like the surprise factor. There is virtually no Black
person in this country who is surprised about oppression. (p. 114)

Therefore, an “awakening feminism” dimension such as that identified in

Yoder et al.’s (2012) canonical analysis may make more sense for the White
university students they sampled than it would for women of color asked simi-
lar questions. But we note the enormous variation in backgrounds and life
experiences making up the also-too-broad grouping of “White university
women,” many of whom have had extensive experience with oppressions.
Although associated with positive psychological health, the “established
feminism” pattern identified in this study was found to be associated with
“compromised agency,” suggesting that persons described by this pattern
may experience limited optimism about the value of direct involvement in
social justice activities, in part because of limited social change despite
decades of struggle. Similarly, Daniels (2007) notes that “synthesis” dimen-
sions of feminist identity may be associated with cynicism about social
change in the wake of ongoing social injustice and recommends interventions
that focus on helping clients transcend a type of “group think” (p. 345) that
can sometimes accompany feminist identification, and explore “untapped
dimensions” (p. 345) of the self that can contribute to more differentiated and
integrated understandings of and involvement in social justice.
A third dimension of association was identified as “woman-identified tra-
ditionalism,” which conveys a sense of connection with other women and
moderate levels of self-esteem but also neutrality toward feminist beliefs, the
acceptance of traditional roles of men and women, and lower levels of auton-
omy. In light of these findings and suggestions from the counseling literature,
it appears appropriate for counselors and educators to be aware of this dis-
tinctive pattern and to convey respect for these clients or students, while also
carefully and gently raising questions about the meaning of gender and cul-
ture in individuals’ lives. Given the compromised individual autonomy asso-
ciated with this pattern, it would also seem important to help individuals with
similar patterns to clarify personal goals and direction. It is possible that the
young women represented here (median age of 19) had encountered limited
life experiences that might facilitate reflective contemplation about the mean-
ing of gender and other social identities in their lives. Thus, it also seems
possible that with more life experience, reflection, and exposure to social
justice perspectives they might move toward awakening or established femi-
nist worldviews. Similarly, Zucker and Bay-Cheng (2010) quoted Duncan’s
1154 The Counseling Psychologist 40(8)

hypothesis that within the United States, age may bring challenging life
events that spark questioning of the pervasive but unspoken norm of indi-
vidualism surrounding mainstream American culture. This may then set the
stage for an increased focus on collective well-being.
Although the study’s findings provide intriguing insights about relations
between well-being and feminism, they raise additional questions. Would we
see similar patterns emerge in surveys of women during their middle or later
adult years, among a sample consisting primarily of women of color, among
samples of women who did not have the privilege of attending university or
college, or among women with diverse sexual orientations? Although the
associations between feminism and mental health revealed in this study are
promising and can contribute to greater confidence about the benefits of fem-
inist identity, additional explorations that help clarify paths and trajectories
of feminist beliefs in interaction with multiple identities of people of all gen-
ders are crucial. We also encourage researchers to explore meanings and pat-
terns of feminist orientations for individuals with disabilities of various
kinds, for those from rural backgrounds, and for transgender, gender-queer,
or gender-nonconforming individuals.

Questions and Priorities for the Future

The findings of this study provide us with a refined understanding of femi-
nist identity, particularly as experienced by young, White, heterosexual
women. Frable (1997) noted that identities based on social category systems
are “fluid, multidimensional, personalized social constructions that reflect
the individual’s current context and sociohistorical cohort” (p. 139). As a
result, the types of findings revealed in this study, like most other studies
relevant to identity, represent a snapshot in time. It is possible, for example,
that the patterns of associations related to feminist orientations found in this
study reflect the impact of salient events experienced during a semester.
Other clusters of attitudes and beliefs might emerge during another week,
semester, or year. Frable added that although we have moved toward “richly
textured theoretical conceptualizations” (p. 139), our research methods pose
challenges to capturing the complexity of experience. In the following
sections, we address further some of the challenges of moving toward
approaches that capture the complexities of 21st-century feminist multicul-
tural identities.
On building a more representative psychology of women. Writing this com-
mentary has reminded us of Yoder and Kahn’s (1993) influential article,
which focused on the challenges of creating an inclusive psychology of
Enns and Fischer 1155

women and the danger of establishing White women’s experiences as norma-

tive and the standard against which other women’s experiences are measured.
Subsequent research has demonstrated that this is a real threat, given that
members of even arbitrary and fictitious groups are perceived as more agen-
tic and powerful when their group is presented as the referent or standard
(Bruckmuller & Abele, 2010). Although Yoder et al. (2012) are careful to
avoid any comparisons that might reinforce “White women as the norm”
thinking, the fact that a substantial number of studies about correlates of fem-
inism rely primarily on samples of White women may contribute to unin-
tended tendencies to view White women’s experiences as the “standard.”
Generalizations based on the study published in this issue should be made
cautiously to avoid overly narrow views of what feminist identity and its
interactions with other identities may mean. As a result, it will be especially
important to examine the types of questions and hypotheses raised in this
study with diverse groups of women (Moradi et al., 2002; Vandiver, 2002).
Our comments should not be construed as negating the value of feminist
identification in the lives of women of color or the potential relevance of
many of these findings for diverse groups of women. For example, Cole and
Zucker (2007) found that Black women gave themselves higher ratings on
feminism than White women, while they also rated traditional feminine
behaviors as more important than did White women. Another study (Reid &
Purcell, 2004), which focused on a diverse group of women (6% White),
found that exposure to feminism was associated with a sense of common fate
with other women and self-identification as a feminist. As another example,
Saunders and Kashubeck’s (2006) study, in which 47% of the participants
represented diverse non-White ethnicities, found positive relations among
feminist identity development, instrumental and androgynous gender roles,
and psychological well-being. White (2010) has documented the many ways
African American individuals bridge theory and practice in everyday femi-
nism as well.
The studies cited above add much to our understanding of feminist orien-
tations among women of color. However, there is always more to the story of
research findings than can be summarized in a short article. A foundational
question not often addressed in such quantitative studies is that of measure-
ment equivalence across groups. Does it make sense to interpret higher or
lower scores on quantitative measures of “feminist” orientation or identity in
roughly the same way for individuals with different life experiences? It may
make more sense when the questions lean toward the behavioral, but proba-
bly not as much in the cases of attitudes and beliefs, as much of the research
on feminist orientation represents. When making methodological choices, we
1156 The Counseling Psychologist 40(8)

encourage researchers to reflect on what they truly want to know and on the
cultural and other contextual assumptions embedded in those preferences
(see Harnois, 2005, for a sample unpacking of assumptions). Similarly, we
benefit from asking ourselves what we perceive as available research tools,
why they are available, what the implications are of choosing or modifying
them, and whether we are willing to create tools to more fully reflect the
experiences we genuinely seek to understand (Fischer & DeBord, in press).
On complexity and intersectionality in feminist and womanist identity theory
and research. One of the strengths of this study is related to efforts to gather
reactions to six approaches to feminism. However, of the six complex sys-
tems of thought that are briefly assessed by the short 12-item Modified Femi-
nist Perspectives Scale (Henley, Spalding, & Kosta, 2000), most approaches
(with the exception of women of color feminisms) can be referred to as exten-
sions of second-wave, “grand” theories of feminism (Jaggar, 2008) that seek
to provide comprehensive analyses of women’s oppression. More recent
feminisms can be referred to as “locational” feminisms (Enns, 2010) because
they speak to the shifting identities, oppressions, and privileges of individu-
als in diverse contexts, providing more modest, intersectional, and situational
renditions of feminism. Most quantitative instruments designed to assess
feminist thought as well as feminist identity were developed 15 to 20 years
ago (Fischer & DeBord, in press) and do not reflect the more recent, rich
complexity of feminist multicultural thought, including multiracial, postcolo-
nial, critical race, queer, transnational, and third-wave perspectives. Thus,
what appears initially as a strength may also represent a limitation of this
study, mirroring the limitations in conceptualizing and sampling in the
broader literature on feminist identity—limitations we two authors have sim-
ilarly replicated in aspects of our own work. Feminist multicultural theories
increasingly speak about the impossibility of parceling out components of
experience related to identities such as race, class, gender, and sexual orienta-
tion, and note that one set of experiences (e.g., racism) often modifies or
become fused with another experience (e.g., sexism; Cole, 2009; Shields,
2008). It is not possible to conceptualize a person’s feminist identity without
also thinking about her or his racial identity, White identity, socioeconomic
status, sexual orientation, or other identities that are meaningful to a specific
individual. Yet, models of social identity, including feminist identity devel-
opment, tend to focus on a single identity.
One example of the complexity and intersections of gender and race is
evident in a series of qualitative studies about African American and White
women’s experiences as firefighters (e.g., Yoder & Aniakudo, 1997; Yoder
& Berendsen, 2001). Although White and African American women shared
Enns and Fischer 1157

marginalization and token status and were on the receiving end of inadequate
instruction and hostility, African American women reported these issues as
more persistent. The intersection of race and gender was also seen in race-
based stereotypes, resulting in White women’s treatment as fragile individu-
als who were seen as needing paternalistic overprotection and African
American women’s more frequent treatment as beasts of burden. Quantitative
research studies have also focused ways in which the interactions of race and
gender may be experienced or fused as gendered racism (Thomas et al.,
2008), ethgender discrimination (King, 2005) and racialized sexual harass-
ment (Woods, Buchanan, & Settles, 2009). Given the fact that “isms” related
to gender and race can mutually constitute each other, feminist identities
informed by the mutual enrichment of gender and race/ethnicity also merit
additional exploration through both qualitative and quantitative methods.
Although intersectionality and multiple identities have received substan-
tial attention in recent years, researchers who study social identity develop-
ment models, including feminist identity models, have sometimes been slow
to incorporate these trends. Several previous alternatives, the multidimen-
sional identity model (Reynolds & Pope, 1991) and optimal theory (Myers
et al., 1991), represent efforts to conceptualize identity development in
response to multiple identities and oppressions. Revisiting these models may
be useful for incorporating greater visibility to intersectional concepts and
multiple identities.
In the future, we recommend centralizing theories that emphasize multiple
identities and using research approaches that lend themselves to exploring
intersections. For example, the feminisms of Latinas provide rich detail about
living on the borders and boundaries between identities associated with the
multiple and shifting identities such as language, immigrant status, religion/
spirituality, nationality, cultures, race/ethnicity, and other facets of experi-
ence. These feminisms speak about skills for creating of bridge and border
identities that allow individuals to engage in differential consciousness,
depending on the survival skills needed in a given situation, and to live flex-
ibly at crossroads between identities (Anzaldúa, 1987; Hurtado, 2001, 2010).
The notion of border and hybrid identities may have relevance for many
groups of women, exemplifying how placing women of color at the center of
inquiry can provide useful frameworks for thinking more flexibly and cre-
atively about all women.
As another example, the concept of “two-spirit” identities claimed by some
Native American individuals “encompass[es] all aspects of who we are, includ-
ing our culture, sexuality, gender, spirituality, community, and relationship to
the land” (Wilson, 2008). Intertwining experiences with gender, race, and
1158 The Counseling Psychologist 40(8)

spirituality, Lillian Comas-Díaz (2008) describes a mujerista, womanist model

of Spirita. This spirituality is cast as “protest, resistance, and r/evolution” (p.
13). A notable feature of this model is its starting point in intersectionality
rather than in pasting together concepts from separate identity models. In
describing the model, Comas-Díaz contrasts elements of Western feminist
spirituality with Spirita, suggesting that the former has been more focused on
individual liberation, while the latter reflects an emphasis on collective libera-
tion. Returning to the Yoder et al. (2012) study, we were happy to see that the
authors have addressed a version of this key distinction. Yoder et al. deliber-
ately teased apart personal entitlement versus justice entitlement, roughly
analogous to individual liberation versus collective liberation raised by
In the Yoder et al. (2012) study, personal entitlement and justice entitle-
ment were significantly though not strongly related. Zero-order correla-
tions and structural coefficients from the canonical correlation also
demonstrated that these two types of entitlement were related in different
ways to aspects of feminist identity and well-being, suggesting overlapping
yet distinct concepts. Yoder et al. reflected, “Personal entitlement, devoid of
justice entitlement, may also further signify what is troublesome about
[woman-identified] traditionalism—which may reflect a willingness to ben-
efit from collective connections to women in self-serving, rather than in
sociopolitical-serving, ways” (p. 1122). While coming from the context of a
study with White American university women, this statement also connects
with conceptualizations of feminism from very different cultural contexts.
For instance, Jing Yin contends that Asian cultural values can be uniquely
facilitative of social justice, given the imperative of collective well-being. In
articulating both Confucian-specific (Yin, 2006) and broadly Asiacentric
(Yin, 2009) feminisms, Yin argues that a strong sense of responsibility to
others is essential:

Through the principles of ren [humanness, from Confucianism], com-

passion [from Buddhism and Hinduism], and ummah [community,
from Islam], Asiacentric feminists can articulate and cultivate a con-
sciousness that is rooted in genuine concern and care for women
(indeed for all human beings) at personal and societal levels. The
interhuman regard associated with these concepts not only invokes
empathy and compassion for the suffering of women (or the inability
to endure their suffering), but also propels a social order to eliminate
such agony. (Yin, 2009, p. 83)
Enns and Fischer 1159

Returning to methodological issues, we remind readers that qualitative

approaches, such as those that are informing multicultural psychology
(Ponterotto, 2010), hold promise for studying complex hybrid identities and
enriching our theoretical frameworks. Uses of a critical incident approach,
which has been used to explore social justice orientation (Caldwell & Vera,
2010), or phenomenological approaches, which have been used to explore
multiracial identity (Miville, Constantine, Baysden, & So-Lloyd, 2005),
serve as two examples of qualitative explorations of complex identities. Both
Cole (2009) and Hurtado (2010) provide suggestions for using empirical,
quantitative methods for furthering our understanding of intersectionality.

Concluding Thoughts
We appreciate and have learned from Yoder et al.’s (2012) contributions in
posing thoughtful questions to capture some of the complexity surrounding
women, feminist thinking, and well-being. At the same time, as a community
of scholars, we still have a road ahead. Butler (2000) noted that even when
our theories emphasize multiple identities, it remains difficult to decenter
White women’s experiences and place diverse groups of women at the center
of inquiry. If, for example, we can successfully shift our orientation and
move scholarship and research about women of color and intersectionality to
the foreground, we have the potential to more fully transform our knowledge
and practices, and we have the potential to “raise our awareness and under-
standing of the experiences of all women either implicitly or directly” (p.
177). In other words, the complex forms of intersectionality, oppression,
privilege, and power experienced by groups of women with multiple identi-
ties may help us recognize new dimensions of experience and can lead to an
enriched set of constructs for thinking about the lives of all women. Given
the fact that White female college/university students are overrepresented
among the persons who are most readily available as research participants in
academic settings, moving in the direction proposed by Butler will require
those of us who conduct research to invest substantial time, energy, and
creativity in pursuing new alternatives.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.

The authors received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publica-
tion of this article.
1160 The Counseling Psychologist 40(8)


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Carolyn Zerbe Enns is a member of the Psychology Department and contributor to
the Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies programs at Cornell College in Iowa. Her
writing and research activities focus on the application of feminist and multicultural
theory to psychotherapy, pedagogy, and other aspects of psychological practice.

Ann R. Fischer teaches in the Department of Psychology at Southern Illinois

University, where her research primarily addresses diversity issues (especially gen-
der, sexuality, ethnicity, and culture) as related to power, identity, and prejudice. She
has taught a wide range of undergraduate and graduate courses and would like to
spend more time playing piano. See