Laura S. Brown, PhD

By Ciera V. Scott, MS, counseling psychology doctoral student at the University of Georgia

“I did not plan to be here, at this place in my career. This is just the accidental consequence of following my passion and doing what I love.”

brown-lauraEmpowering. Compassionate. Effervescent. Witty. Ambitious. Erudite. The aforementioned words hardly begin to capture the magnificent spirit embodied by Laura S. Brown, PhD, the first out lesbian president of the Society for the Psychology of Women (SPW). Brown served as SPW president from 1996 to 1997. Her career as a feminist psychologist spans nearly 40 years and serves as the foundation of her present feature in our Great Leaders Series.

Brown was raised in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, as the oldest of three children from a family of Eastern European Jewish descent. She graduated cum laude with her BA in psychology from Case Western Reserve University. Brown proceeded to earn her MA and PhD in clinical psychology from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

It was during her postbaccalaureate training that Brown initially became involved with Div. 35. She joined the Association for Women in Psychology (AWP) during her second month of graduate school in 1973. Brown hosted AWP's second annual conference while serving as committee coordinator in 1976.

Legendary SPW trailblazers such as Florence Denmark, PhD, and Nancy Felipe Russo, PhD, also closely nurtured and mentored Brown during her days as a doctoral student and early career professional. She reveres Carolyn Wood Sherif, PhD, SPW president from 1979 to 1980, as the person who granted her first official job within the division. In 1977, Sherif had called upon Brown to manage an initiative spearheaded by Sherif called “The Open Symposium.” She also fostered Brown's innate talents as a budding feminist psychologist and social justice advocate.

Brown identified her being bestowed SPW's Carolyn Wood Sherif Award in 2004 as the pinnacle of her professional career. She described this honor as “the capstone to the career of a feminist psychologist,” noting that she was the first clinical practitioner who was not an academic to receive this accolade. Brown accepted this award on the heels of publishing her transformative tome, “Subversive Dialogues: Theory in Feminist Therapy,” 10 years prior.

Brown actively integrates the Hebrew concept of “Tikkun Olam,” which means “healing the world,” throughout her psychotherapy, consultation, outreach and, most prolifically, her written publications. Her authorship and editorial acuity are credited in over 10 professional books and more than 140 additional publications that include impressive additions to feminist scholarship such as “Personality and Psychotherapy: Feminist Reappraisals” (1992), “Rethinking Mental Health and Disorder: Feminist Perspectives” (2002), and “Feminist Therapy” (2010).

Brown was powerfully influenced by the work of Hannah Lerman, SPW president from 1984 to 1985. She revealed that Lerman's work entitled, “A Mote in Freud's Eye: From Psychoanalysis to the Psychology of Women” (1986) greatly shaped her personal and professional identity as a feminist psychologist and, most importantly, her development of theory in feminist therapy. She credits Lerman as the first feminist therapist to propose a structure for a theory of feminist therapy.

Brown posited that “thinking and being a feminist has to permeate everything that you do.” This viewpoint has positively impacted her approach in serving trauma survivors, conducting psychological assessments, and providing consultation for psychology professionals working in the legal system.

Brown also recognizes Adrienne Smith, PhD, one of psychology's first out lesbian feminist therapists, as a central figurehead in her development as a writer. Smith was central to Brown's ability to be out as a lesbian in psychology from very early in her career development, as she modeled how to balance the then rampant homophobia in the profession with integrity. Brown cited Smith for inspiring her with the following words—“You have something important to say. Write it down and publish it.”

Brown's extensive list of written works serves as a testament of her personification of this outstanding advice. When asked about her writing process, Brown shared this insight—“The way that I write, it is like a cognitive pregnancy. I let the thing grow, and when it is ready, it just pours out.”

“As practitioners, we are important contributors to the scholarship of feminist psychology,” Brown emphasized. Brown highlighted that SPW consisted primarily of academics at the beginning of her professional career. This discrepant reality of the time fueled her commitment to inviting more feminist practitioners into the division during her term as SPW president.

Brown depicts feminist psychology as the study of “how gender and power are affected by everyone's intersecting identities.” She has been immensely honored by myriad professional organizations for her work regarding multicultural competency, trauma, feminist therapy theory, and LGBT issues.

She was the recipient of Div. 44's Distinguished Professional Contributions Award in 1990. Additionally, she was lauded with the Society for Clinical Psychology's Award for Distinguished Contributions to Diversity in Clinical Psychology in 2009.

Brown has also been honored as a fellow with Divs. 35, 44, 45 and 56 amongst many others. As a brilliant ode to her personal mentors, Brown received Div. 29's Distinguished Contributions to Teaching and Mentoring Award in 2013. From her role as founder and director of the Fremont Community Therapy Project in Seattle, Washington, to her individual mentoring relationships with students and peers alike, Brown exemplifies servant leadership.

Brown charges early career feminist psychologists to pass the torch, sharing that it is never too early to begin mentoring future leaders in our midst. She stated that doctoral students should actively engage in mentoring undergraduate and master's level psychology students. “Honor your mentors by becoming a mentor,” she proclaimed.

With respect to historically oppressed communities, Brown acknowledges that our sociocultural identities play a major role in our conceptualizations of our personal trauma experiences. She stresses that “when we come from a heritage that has an overabundance of trauma, it creates certain kinds of vulnerabilities and certain kinds of resilience.”

Brown honors this concept through her clinical prowess and numerous publications regarding cultural competencies in trauma treatment. Most notably, her work entitled, “Cultural Competence in Trauma Therapy: Beyond the Flashback” (2008) has become a pivotal cornerstone within feminist psychology's scholarship surrounding this topic.

Brown is newly married thanks to marriage equality having been voted into law by the citizens of Washington State. She now lives with her spouse, Lynn, in Seattle. She currently enjoys serving clients full-time in her private practice while providing psychotherapy, consultation and her proficiency in forensics to individuals requesting her vast expertise.

Other Great Leaders