Women’s Week brought discussions about the roles of men and women to campus, but how can we turn that awareness into a lasting political drive? We can look to consciousness-raising, a political tool of the 1970s women’s movement that should be revived today.
Consciousness-raising came out of the civil rights movement, where black people were encouraged to share their experiences of oppression and “tell it like it is.” The idea as applied to women’s movement is this: While women assume the problems they face, such as unhappy marriages or the difficulty of reconciling a feminine ideal with their own identity, are personal, these have their roots in a society-wide system of oppression. By pooling their experiences and comparing them, women can more fully understand how sexism functions and work against it.
Small groups—around ten people—meet on a regular basis in order to pose questions and share answers. These questions can vary from inquiries into one’s own identity (“Do you worry about being ‘truly feminine’?”) aspirations, (“What do you want to do in life? What kept you from doing it?”) and one’s sense of larger social structures (“How do you relate to women of different classes or races?”). The group then analyzes the responses and draws connections from what has been said.
A few friends and I started our own group earlier this year, and I can say without hesitation that it is one of the best things I have done in college. Consciousness-raising doesn’t just mean critiquing stereotypes; it asks women to take a deep and careful look at what they really want. It is from consciousness-raising that the phrase “the personal is political” arose, and this is one of the practice’s greatest concepts: That what happens in the family or the bedroom is not exempt from scrutiny or “trivial;” that although a setback may feel like a private failure, the conditions that produce it go far beyond the personal; that women can work together to create equality in all spheres of existence, not just those subsumed under the law or in the economy. From our conversations, I have learned of hindrances that I could never have imagined on my own—I was surprised to discover, for example, how strongly the ideal of being a good mother weighs on women my age, despite the expectation that both parents will now share household duties equally.
To be sure, consciousness-raising cannot stand alone as a political endeavor. For one, it does not always allow room for interpretations that do not come out of the experiences of those present. Too much stress on finding commonalities can undermine real differences, differences which are key to inequality. As feminist intellectual Ellen J. Willis wrote in her essay “Radical Feminism and Feminist Radicalism,” describing her own encounters with consciousness-raising, “The emphasis on personal experience tended to obscure and mystify the fact that we all interpreted our experience through the filter of prior political and philosophical assumptions.” I would encourage anyone who starts up a consciousness-raising group to recognize this. But this limitation does not undermine the practice: One cannot begin to sketch the contours of one’s own worldview without laying out the particularities that compose it.
As a result of the practice’s success, the phrase “consciousness-raising” is still used to describe social activism distinct from the original process. Feminist blogs, for example, are sometimes characterized as platforms for consciousness-raising. Indeed, on paper, they perform many of the same functions. They highlight examples of sexism in different aspects of culture and daily life and provide a forum in which women feel safe to share aspects of their own lives.
However, aside from the difficulty of creating intimacy in a virtual discussion, this kind of sharing misses an important aspect of consciousness-raising. Events that try to raise “awareness” or publications that chronicle discrete examples of sexism present each individual instance as a distinct source of short-lived outrage. Consciousness-raising, by contrast, forces its participants to see specific facts or events as part of a larger and intricate system, one that can and must be altered.
Instead of outrage or despair, consciousness-raising creates strong, constructive, and political emotions as well as a drive toward activism and change. Over the past few months, I have felt joy at the intelligence and perception of my peers, excitement at our own capacity for analysis, and anger that despite great advances in women’s rights, so much remains unchanged. Rather than merely create an awareness of the inequalities that dominate our culture, consciousness-raising produces a deeper understanding of why these inequalities persist. This is the first step in thinking how we might overcome them, and it’s an exhilarating feeling! As we look to improve our own lives and those of the people around us, consciousness-raising is a good place to begin.
Madeleine M. Schwartz ’12 is a history and classics concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.