Psychology Month Profile: Dr. Charlene Senn and Dr. Lorraine Radtke, Section on Women And Psychology

Dr. Charlene Senn
Dr. Charlene Senn
Dr. Lorraine Radtke
Dr. Lorraine Radtke

Dr. Charlene Senn and Dr. Lorraine Radtke, Section on Women And Psychology
The CPA’s Section for Women And Psychology (SWAP) creates a community of researchers, teachers, and practitioners interested in the psychology of women and feminist psychology. Today’s Psychology Month feature talks to Dr. Lorraine Radtke and Dr. Charlene Senn about the work they’re doing in this space.

About Dr. Charlene Senn and Dr. Lorraine Radtke

SWAP (Section for Women and Psychology)

The year is 1976. Martha Lear has just coined the term ‘second wave feminism’ in New York Magazine, and that movement is in full swing. In the United States, Title IX has just passed, prohibiting sex-based discrimination at any school that receives federal funding. In Sweden, Group 8 has just been founded, advocating for equal pay, kindergarten expansion, and a 6-hour work day. And in Canada, the CPA is hosting their annual convention at a hotel in Montreal.

There is a different hotel across the street from the CPA convention. While that hotel is unaffiliated with the one where the convention is taking place, the two are connected by an underground tunnel beneath the street. While the convention is in full swing, many women are stealing away, passing quietly through that tunnel to have a clandestine meeting of their own just across the street. These graduate students and untenured feminist researchers are there to present papers - to one another. These papers are on topics relevant to the psychology of women and girls, and they have one more thing in common. When they were submitted to the CPA for inclusion in the convention, they had all been summarily rejected.

This off-site, convention-adjacent meeting became known as the Underground Symposium. Not so much because it was clandestine – there was in fact a fair amount of media attention – but more likely because it was accessed through that underground tunnel between the two hotels. The event was a huge success, where ideas were flowing and the room was overflowing. It was that success that led, four years later, to the designation of an “interest group” known as “on Women And Psychology”. This later became the Section for Women and Psychology, or SWAP – and that is where we are today.

Members of SWAP need not identify themselves as feminist scholars, but many still do. Section chair Dr. Lorraine Radtke certainly maintains the tradition of that origin story. Dr. Radtke is a professor emerita in the department of psychology at the University of Calgary, where she worked for close to 40 years. She says,

“I identify as a feminist psychologist. It’s because I put women and girls first, and I take a critical perspective when it comes to the status quo. I’m focused on social change and improving the lives of women and girls.”

Feminist psychology has changed over the years. One of the biggest ways it has changed is that research and clinical practice is now conducted in an intersectional framework. This means being open to both the commonalities and the differences among women and girls. It also means being attuned to how their social circumstances such as gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and socioeconomic situation affect their experiences. Dr. Charlene Senn is a professor at the University of Windsor affiliated with the Applied Social Psychology program, and she says her research, and that of her colleagues is always conscious of that intersectional framework. She also says that the study of women and psychology is a broader topic than many may think.

“I am a feminist social psychologist – the distinction I feel is important because psychology is seen as being individual, when in fact it’s also concerned with environmental, cultural, and social forces. I teach a graduate course on feminist psychology and the psychology of women and gender. We look at the tremendous work being done by feminist psychologists in so many different fields, where psychology is being transformed by the work that’s happening in those areas.”

SWAP was not limited from the beginning to feminist psychologists, and today has a membership that involves researchers across all fields, students from various departments across Canada, and clinical psychologists, some of whom work primarily with women and girls. Says Dr. Senn,

“Parallel to feminist work, or work related to women and girls, there is feminist research on a variety of topics - masculinities, for example, and a thread of research also looking at the status of women in psychology, looking at things like inequalities in the field. So there is a real variety.”

Dr. Radtke agrees, and says that this kind of wide variety of work from the lens of women and girls’ psychology forms a big part of SWAP’s history.

“In the early years, members of SWAP were very active in the CPA and other professional associations in Canada, pressing for gender equality and for women to be involved. They advocated for changes to ethical standards that would incorporate a sensitivity toward the concerns of women and girls. It has always had an activist side, and to this day SWAP has a Status Of Women Committee to ensure that all genders and all sexes have equality within the discipline and that those standards continue to be upheld.”

It’s because of the broad approach and diverse membership of both the SWAP section and the Status of Women Committee that they were able to collaborate with the Indigenous Peoples’ Psychology section, the Student section, and the Rural and Northern Psychology section to organize a virtual panel at the 2021 CPA Convention to address the findings of the final report of the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and the implications for psychology in Canada. Says Dr. Radtke,

“It was a big collaboration, and very successful. It was decided that they would follow up that panel with a report not only on the panel itself but also with some recommendations. It’s quite an undertaking for a relatively small committee, and they’ll be focused on that in the coming year.” Editor note – as this will be published in February, check back to see if the report has been sent out by then, include an update if it has.

The panel discussion on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women was a central event at CPA 2021, no one had to sneak across the street to have their voices heard. Dr. Radtke points out that progress has been made both in the discipline and in the organization itself.

“Obviously CPA has become more egalitarian. We’ve seen more women presidents of CPA, we see more women serving on the Board of Directors than was historically the case. Although these problems are less significant in current times, there are still a few issues that require attention, for example, the nomination of more distinguished women for CPA awards.”

These issues will never disappear altogether, and there is a lot more work to do for the members of SWAP and psychologists who work in this space. During the pandemic, the jobs of husbands have taken precedence over the jobs of wives – even when the wife is an academic, even when she out-earns her husband – as childcare is still seen too often from a traditionally patriarchal lens. Instances of violence against women continue to rise as too many are trapped at home with their abuser. Dr. Senn’s specialty is campus sexual violence prevention, and she says that when campuses reopen the rates of sexual assault will likely go right back to pre-pandemic levels. In fact, they have not declined since the 1980s.

The field has come a long way since the Underground Symposium, but getting their work acknowledged remains a work in progress. Dr. Senn says, “we still have to push to have the knowledge we have from the incredible research being done by feminist psychologists incorporated more into the mainstream.” She pauses and exchanges a knowing glance with Dr. Radtke. “Including intro To Psych textbooks.”