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  • Rebecca Esho Greenslade

A Brief Introduction to Consciousness-Raising Groups

 

This brief introduction to consciousness-raising is an edited extract from Rebecca Esho Greenslade’s forthcoming article "Truth-Speaking And Consciousness-Raising: Parrhesia And Feminist Psychotherapy".



The first requirement for raising class consciousness is honesty, in private and in public, with ourselves and other women.


- Red Stockings Manifesto



The development of consciousness-raising groups within the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960’s is usually attributed to members of the New York Radical Women (NYRW), with particular credit being given to Kathie Sarachild who was a founding member of the NYRW and played a central role in the annunciation of consciousness-raising groups. The women’s liberation movement emerged from left-wing politics and the civil rights movement when women began to form their own political groups that addressed gender issues.

 

Proponents of consciousness-raising groups argued that women sharing their problems together enabled them to reconceptualise their problems from a personal to a political perspective, particularly in developing an understanding of the role sexist oppression played in women’s lives. The group format typically consisted of each member taking turns to reflect on a chosen theme, followed by a discussion where the group applied a structural analysis to their personal accounts. This process of sharing experiences enabled women to see beyond the narrative of self-failure and individual pathology (that was often ascribed them by their husbands or psychiatrists) and to reframe their experiences as social and political issues. From a consciousness-raising perspective, this reframing was the starting point for generating collective actions that targeted social and systemic change, where the articulation of individual discontent engendered collective dissent.

Finding commonality within experience gave many women greater confidence and conviction to take action against the individuals and the institutions that were complicit in their oppression. The sharing and examining of personal experience within a consciousness-raising group could therefore become a strategy for collective political action. Kathie Sarachild describes: “Consciousness-raising was seen as both a method for arriving at the truth and a means for action and organizing” (1975, p. 147).  In this respect, as a feminist practice of the self, consciousness-raising implicated self-transformation with the objective of social transformation. Women’s experience of discrimination was not seen as connecting them to an inherent truth about their identity but towards broader social realities that maintain particular injustices. Harriet Perl’s and Gay Abaranell’s (1979) pamphlet Guidelines to Feminist Consciousness Raising emphasise this movement from self to society, or, from personal to political (as some feminists adapted the well-known adage ‘the personal is political’): “… political awareness is the purpose of consciousness raising; personal growth is the gravy; if the focus shifts so that these are reversed, the group is not doing political consciousness-raising” (quoted in McLaren 2002, p. 157).


However, whilst a platform for sharing experiences was attractive to many women, consciousness-raising remained a divisive practice within the women’s liberation movement. Some critics considered the sharing of personal experience to propound individualistic concerns with issues of lifestyle and therefore undermining the political, revolutionary heart of the movement. This critique of individualism extended to aligning consciousness-raising to the aims of psychotherapy, which many considered a normalizing and socially adaptive tool. Another important critique of consciousness-raising has been that the centering of the shared experience of women concealed the differences between them, particularly in relationship to race, class and sexual orientation, what Audre Lorde later referred to as “a pretence to a homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist” (1984, p.116). This pretence was of white women adopting an essentialist, hegemonic position that centred their oppression as women.


To find out more, watch three feminist activists discuss their experiences of consciousness-raising here.  To read about Plan C’s - a radical anti-capitalist organization – more recent experiment with consciousness-raising groups in order to explore and expand their intersectional analysis of capitalism and how it permeates within daily life, click here.  For a draft copy of Rebecca’s article, you are welcome to contact her directly.



 

References:


Red Stockings Manifesto in Notes From The Second Year: Women’s Liberation (1970), p. 113.

Lorde, Audre (1984), ‘Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Women.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Freedom, CA, Crossing Press

McLaren, M. A. (2002). Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity. United States: State University of New York Press.

Sarachild, K. (1975) “Consciousness-Raising: A Radical Weapon”. In Redstockings (ed) Feminist Revolution, pp: 144-150, Random House: New York.





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