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Sex and gender

One on one... with Jane Ussher

Professor of Women's Health Psychology at the University of Western Sydney. With online only answers.

22 December 2012

One inspiration
Janet Sayers. When I read her 1982 book Biological Politics as a nascent PhD student I was inspired to engage in critical feminist writing about the reproductive body, which released me from a lifetime of conducting experiments on physiological arousal and performance change across the menstrual cycle – the focus of my PhD.

One moment that changed the course of your career
Valerie Walkerdine asking me to join her in setting up
a Department of Critical Psychology in Sydney in 1997. I fell in love with Australia on my first day, and have never looked back.

One book all psychologists should read
Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1967, Tavistock).

One nugget of advice for aspiring psychologists
Follow your passion – not what’s currently in fashion. Over the years I have been advised not to position myself as a feminist psychologist, not to do qualitative research, and not to research sexuality.
I ignored all of this advice, and seem to have survived.

One thing that you would change about psychology
The focus on experimentation and quantitative methods to the exclusion of all else. Australia and the US are worse than the UK in this regard.

One challenge you think psychology faces
Maintaining relevance in a multimedia world where psychological theorising is popularised and simplified, whilst refereed journal publications only speak to an elite, and can take years to appear in print. Open access journals that offer immediate publication are one obvious solution.

One regret
That I didn’t start painting until I was in my forties – it’s one of my greatest pleasures in life, and a complete antidote to academic research and writing.

One heroine from psychology past or present
Mary Parlee, a US feminist psychologist. I read her 1973 paper ‘The premenstrual syndrome’ as a third-year student and it was a revelatory moment, the first time I felt engaged with psychology as
a discipline. Here was something of intrinsic interest, something that related to my own life, and something written by a woman (when all of my lecturers were men, as were the authors of the work they cited). Most important of all, it was a very smart feminist critique, published
in one of the most respected psychology journals. This paper directly inspired my PhD and subsequent research on the construction and experience of PMS.

One cultural recommendation
I play ‘Everything But the Girl’ very loud when I paint – their whole catalogue, from the early 80s to today.

One reason women
are more likely to be positioned as mad than men Fear of the feminine – and fear of women who transgress femininity.

One alternative career path you may have chosen
My father didn’t believe in girls being educated, and thought I should be a hairdresser. Crime novelist would be my alternative option today.

One thing that makes you laugh
My dog, Barney, trying to catch fish in the shallow water at the beach. He never succeeds but will try for hours at a time.

Online questions only

One of your greatest achievements
My most recent book The Madness of Women: Myth and Experience being nominated for the 2012 Distinguished Publication Award of the Association for Women in Psychology.

One treasured possession
When I came to Australia, I lived for nine months out of a suitcase, so learnt that possessions are not as essential as I had thought. This said, I would find it hard to live without my extensive collection of cook books, the most prized of which is a 30-year-old copy of Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook. I’m now onto my second copy, as the first one is so battered and stained after years of loyal service.

One thing that organised psychology (e.g. the BPS/APA) could do better
Mentoring – linking established and emerging psychologists to provide support and advice. I wish I’d had this when I was younger.

One great thing that psychology has achieved
Providing plausible alternatives to medical models of madness.

One problem that psychology should deal with
The consequences of powerlessness – economic, relational and political. We focus too much on individual cognitive functioning.

One hope for the future of psychology
The gift of foresight – so as not to make mistakes – closely followed by the ability to learn vicariously, avoiding having to make mistakes in order to learn.

One proud moment
Selling my first painting at a local art show.

One final thought
I tried to get to transfer out of psychology as a first-year undergraduate, as it was not what I had expected. I’m very glad I didn’t succeed.