What on Earth Is Consciousness Raising?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
March 6 2013 11:04 AM

Raise My Consciousness

An appreciation for the groovy all-women rap sessions of yore.

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That sort of meta-reflection was even present in the more ambivalent writings about consciousness-raising. In 1973, when Nora Ephron wrote for Esquire about having joined a group (irritatingly not available online but in her collection Crazy Salad) she did so with more than a whiff of apology—but it seemed to be more for herself and her particular group than the ideas of the whole. She lied to friends about joining because she wanted to write about the groups journalistically, “[t]he disinterested observer, and all that.” But: “The real reason I joined had to do with my marriage.” It was in trouble, and Ephron longed to talk about it, and the group she joined had shifted into therapy gear. It was, she said, a “running soap opera.” And like any soap opera, the intimacy it offered was, at best, of an ersatz kind, valuing confession for confession’s sake, missing the political message, if there was any. Yet the ending of the column is timid: “I don’t mean to write a wholesale attack on consciousness-raising.”

There were, of course, wholesale critics like Joan Didion, who wrote a long takedown of the women’s movement with much sarcasm about the “litany of trivia” dredged up by these “rap sessions.” But even she had to admit that it was a “a key technique in the politicizing of women who perhaps had been conditioned to obscure their resentments even from themselves.” And that was the fact the critics couldn’t get around, the one that no one in the long history of ridiculing and sneering at the rhetoric of the early women’s movement could, was that it has never mattered so much what women came up with in these circles. It was the existence of the circles at all that made them whatever “revolution” they were. The women who joined these groups found in them, for the first time, a forum where not only were they allowed to speak, they were listened to and validated. That this resulted in some controversial, even nutty ideas, is just par for the course. Correct me if I’m wrong but gatherings of men, from the plazas of Athens to the Senate floor to the boardrooms of Goldman Sachs, hardly ever produce perfect, fully-realized philosophies either, and they often produce crackpot disasters (like subprime mortgages).

One consequence of adopting “the radical notion that women are human beings,” as a British feminist memorably put it, is that you have to accept that, as such, women have things to say about (to use an earnest word) humanity, that are worth saying. And though there were always women, like Didion, who wanted to claim that they got there on their own, that they knew from the beginning that their vision of the world was worth asserting, others were less fortunate. And the others are not always hidden in kitchens and suburbs. “I think it was their speaking out, the audacity of that, that changed my life and, because of it, my daughter’s life,” Kramer would write of that group, even though by the time she sat in that living room she was already a New Yorker staff writer for six years, with a celebrated stint at the Village Voice already under her belt.

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One of the curious ironies of all this is that of course it’s the daughters now who are now called upon to attend the Lean In circles. And the daughters were heretofore presumed to be the ones who never questioned their right to speak. Born Didions, you could say, except that somehow young(er) women aren’t living up to that promise, statistically, at the higher echelons of leadership. It turns out that there are still other layers of confidence to be explored.

To be fair, the particular way in which the circles are structured, in that document the Times dug up, do echo certain of the old guidelines. In particular: “Share experience, not advice,” which was a commonplace rule of the groups “of yore.” Where the document seems less aware of historical precedent, other than its continual adherence to a corporate-speak every bit as alienating as deep-movement jargon, is in its presumption that the thing needs leaders and curriculum to educate, in “module” form, its participants. Because it doesn’t even matter whether Sandberg’s advice to working women is “right” for all women all of the time. The real discovery of having your consciousness raised was never that you’d be handed tools; it was the discovery that the only real leverage you get, in life, is yourself.

Which young women seem already to be figuring out. As of this writing, I’ve already been invited to a group inspired by Lean In, but which already shows signs of self-assertion: We’ve agreed in advance that we’re ditching the whole time limits thing, and probably the modules too. I don’t know that such a group will be regaled with tales of all the orgasms I’m faking, or push me into pamphleteering, precisely. But it’s hard to imagine, given all the drinks I’ve had with women over the years, about their troubles making their lives as professionals in what does still very much feel like a “man’s world,” that we won’t find plenty to talk about, anyway.

Michelle Dean is a writer and recovering lawyer in New York. Follow her on Twitter.