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Jane Ussher

Training Location(s):

PhD, Bedford College, London University, (1986)

BA (Psychology), Exeter University, (1983)



Primary Affiliation(s):

University of Western Sydney, (2002-present)

University College London

Sussex University



Media Links:
Professional Website

Dr. Jane Ussher at the University of Western Sydney

Interview

Psychology's Feminist Voices Oral History Transcript

Video

Oral History Excerpt on YouTube: On the Centrality of Gender


Biography:

 

Career Focus: Women's health; sexuality; gender; subjectivity; identity in relation to the reproductive body and sexuality; gendered issues in cancer caring.


 

Ussher first discovered feminism in the early 1980s after her undergraduate degree in the United Kingdom.  Much of her early exposure came through fiction, as she devoured feminist and lesbian novels by American women, which she describes as being "all a bit alien" to women living in England.  Ussher began a PhD program directly after her undergraduate degree, but it was not until the end of her doctorate that Ussher feels feminism began to have a direct influence over her work as a psychologist.  For the majority of the 1980s, her personal life and convictions were quite separate from her academic work.  There did not seem to be much possibility or opportunity for integration. 

 

In the first year of her PhD, Ussher became involved in organizing the Psychology of Women Section (POWS) of the British Psychological Society.  She describes this time as passionate and hedonistic, with a lot of vegetarian food being consumed, because "everyone was vegetarian".  POWS was also a space to develop many important relationships with other feminist women in psychology. Like many other feminist organizations, without a blueprint to follow POWS struggled to find a way to structure itself while remaining true to feminist principles.  While POWS provided an important space for feminism within academic psychology, feminism still felt separate from her academic life.

 

A pivotal moment for Ussher came while she was working on her PhD research at Bedford College, London University.  At the time she was exploring Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS) using an empirical methodology that supported many of the existing ideas.  When she read a paper in the 1973 Psychological Bulletin on PMS by Mary Parlee she had a 'click' moment where she saw the possibility for conducting research using feminist analysis.  This, along with her involvement in establishing POWS, allowed Ussher to carve out space to build a career in feminist psychology. 

 

After reading the paper by Parlee, Ussher felt that she could have an impact.  For the first time in psychology she felt passionate and inspired!  In understanding that PMS was not just biological, but socially and culturally situated, she approached her PhD supervisor about revising her project so that it was an explicitly feminist dissertation.  Her supervisor (whom she still holds in high regard) advised that she complete the project as it was and adopt the critical framework after she was awarded her PhD.  Following his advice, after graduation Ussher published her first book, The Psychology of the Female Body, which was essentially a reaction against her own doctoral research. 

 

Her first teaching position was at Sussex University, a "small-l" liberal university in England, that embraced gay and lesbian rights, as well as feminism.  The university was established in the 1960s and had retained its socialist, multi-disciplinary roots, which promoted teaching seminars and not lectures.  Ussher describes her time there as "being in heaven", and she worked to develop a Psychology of Women course that was taught in small groups.  She was similar in age to many of the students and remembers feeling excited and engaged. 

 

Unfortunately this experience was followed by a move to University College London (UCL), which Ussher describes as "a very straight, very male, traditional, old psych department ... just completely the opposite [of Sussex]".  Despite her clinical training she was hired as a social psychologist at UCL, and there she integrated feminism into the classroom, noting "I got away with it for years until we had a couple of male external examiners who came in and said 'this isn't social psychology'.  It actually coincided with me leaving the department."  When speaking about discrimination she has faced in Psychology, she recalled: "Over the years, subsequently I've thought 'God if I was, you know, a heterosexual, married and doing memory research, none of that would have happened'.  But then, I wouldn't be in Australia now and I'm happy with that."

 

Before her move to Australia, Ussher was feeling burnt out; she felt she had to work twice as hard as men to prove the worth of her work.  Between striving to publish more and receive more grants than her male colleagues, there was not much to distinguish life from work.  Ussher also struggled with how to be a feminist mentor to students and what boundaries to have in place.  One of the most difficult experiences of her career leading up to her relocation was a student's reaction to critical feedback she had given her.  The student launched a complaint that ended up being taken up by the National Press, ensuing in false accusations about Ussher's sexuality. 

 

Currently Ussher works and conducts research at the University of Western Sydney in Australia.  The move to Australia was a welcome one and coincided with a larger life shift.  Ussher feels that she has finally found work-life balance and has learned to be a "good enough" mentor.  In her advice to future feminist psychologists, Ussher stresses the importance of following your passion:  "Do what you're passionate about.  Don't compromise too much.  Most of us have to compromise at certain levels, but be aware when you're compromising and put the breaks on when you think you're compromising too much.  Believe in what you're doing and do what you believe in and you'll do well."

 

In reflecting on her own career, Ussher acknowledges that there have been times when she has not followed her heart, and has instead completed mainstream work to appear "legitimate".  Ironically, this mainstream work is not the work Ussher is best known for.  Ussher is cited and quoted and influential where she has followed her own heart.

 

by Jenna MacKay (2010)
To cite this article, see Credits

 


Selected Works:

 

Ussher, J.M. (2011). The madness of women: Myth and experience. London: Routledge.

 

Ussher, J. (2010). Are we medicalizing women's misery? A critical review of women's higher rates of reported depression. Feminism & Psychology, 20, 9-35.

 

Ussher, J.M. (2009). Madness and misogyny: My mother and myself. In J. Reynolds, R. Muston, T. Heller, J. Leach, M. McCormick, J. Wallcraft & M. Walsh (Eds.), Mental health still matters (pp. 78-80). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

 

Ussher, J.M. (2009). Sexual science and the law. In A.L. Ferber, K. Holcomb, & T. Wentling (Eds.), Sex, Gender & Sexuality (pp. 377-416). New York: Oxford University Press.

 

Ussher, J.M. (2008). Reclaiming embodiment within critical psychology: A material-discursive analysis of the menopausal body. Social and Personality Compass, 2(5), 1781-1798.

 

Ussher, J.M., & Sandoval, M. (2008). Gender differences in the construction and experience of cancer care: The consequences of the gendered positioning of carers. Psychology and Health 1-19 23(8) 945-963.

 

Ussher, J.M. (2006). Managing the monstrous feminine: Regulating the reproductive body. London; Routledge.

 

Ussher, J.M. (2005). The meaning of sexual desire: experience of heterosexual and lesbian girls. Feminism and Psychology, 15(1) 27-32.

 

Ussher, J.M. (2004). Postnatal depression: A critical feminist perspective. In M. Stewart (Ed.), Pregnancy, birth and maternity are - A feminist perspective. Butterworth Heinemann.

 

Ussher, J. M. (1989). The psychology of the female body. London: Routledge.


Photo Gallery:


Video(s):

Interview with Jane Ussher: The Centrality of Gender

Interview conducted on July 20, 2007 by Leeat Granek in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

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