It’s been awhile since the phrase “consciousness-raising group” found itself on the front page of the New York Times. But there it was, in Jodi Kantor’s recent piece on the new “Lean In” circles Sheryl Sandberg plans to unleash on us, along with her new book, next week. The mention came with a hint of snark, of course, Kantor not being able to resist remarking that such groups were “of yore.” No doubt much of the audience missed the faint sarcasm of the phrase because to them it’s a mere statement of fact: This stuff is outdated. Which would feel like more of a burn if the people sniffing at history had the faintest idea of what a consciousness-raising group really was, or what it meant at the time.
The party-line history always gets told the same, oversimplified way. A few women gathered in a room in 1967 or so, and began to talk about things. It was a technique they’d borrowed, depending on who you ask, from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or Maoist revolutionaries. Being a grassroots sort of affair, precise origins were never the point. The anger was the point. Their complaints, these women in living rooms found, could largely be laid at the feet of men; they began to call themselves feminists; newspapers wrote profiles of these groups as light trend pieces. Mimeograph machines across the nation begin to burn up, photocopying guidelines which urged, among other things, that “Sisterhood is a warm feeling!” and “No men allowed at women’s consciousness—raising sessions this year; maybe next year.” Women reported having the experience, transcendent because it felt new, of finding other women with the same problems they had: faked orgasms, bad marriages, broken professional dreams. “Having learned to see the world through men’s eyes, one suddenly began to view life through the eyes of a woman,” as Ruth Rosen, the author of The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America, put it, “and that woman was you.”
It isn’t hard to see the addictive power of that, but like most highs it didn’t last long. By the mid-1970s the trend had died out. The founding of organizations like NOW gave everyone more organized, public outlets for energy, time and, yes, anger. Add to that the groups that gave themselves names like New York Radical Women and Redstockings and my favorite, WITCH (standing in for Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) and rather wrote themselves out of history. Pretty soon we moved into an age where transcendence had to be tinged with irony to feel at all honest, and that kind of earnest bonding stuff began to bother us. Too radical, too rigid, too middle class, too annoying: You may take your pick of retroactive objections. Our post-hoc embarrassment has come to stand in for history, regardless of the real reason.
We do not give our ancestors enough credit. Consciousness-raising groups were not the pseudo-Marxist communist boot camps those names suggest, top-down vehicles full of dogma and hostile to dissent. The style of debate was something more raucous, self-reflective, and intelligent than most presidential debates of the last half-century can claim. Read Jane Kramer’s 1970 New Yorker profile of one of the original groups—it uses pseudonyms, but Hannah, for example, is Shulamith Firestone—and you will find the women in it debating ferociously among themselves about the things women will perhaps always argue about: the cleavages between “older” women and the rest; the way (at least for straight women) a need for men might hit one, all political principles aside, “at five in the morning.” One finds them arguing already about the lack of clarity of their jargon—“Ugh. Don’t use ‘dialectic.’ Use something like ‘analysis.’ ” And expressing not a little bit of frustration with each other, as when Hannah/Shulamith’s missing a meeting brings up a discussion about her “suffering a lot of guilt about being ambitious,” a sentiment which we certainly comes up in contemporary writing about women and their work.
Perhaps just as important as the nuanced discussions inside those rooms is the fact that even women sympathetic to the groups gave voice to their conflicted feelings about them. The Kramer piece is a case in point. Along with the coy pseudonyms, the arguments are simply quoted full-bore, as though Kramer expects the audience to find this all sort of silly to begin with. (Letting people talk themselves into foolishness is a time-honored journalistic technique.) In a 1996 essay, she reflected on the whole experience of witnessing and writing about such a group in an era where the editorial wisdom at the New Yorker held that “radical feminism was something analogous to an odd smell or a kinky preference—something too intimate, too embarrassing, to identify and expose.” Kramer internalized some of that, it seems, and admitted that she’d judged the women harshly, originally. But rereading the profile 26 years later, she “was struck by how easily and honestly the women had talked, despite their fights, despite their differences.”