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.

A young American woman holds up a sign as she protests for women's rights in front of the Federal Trade Commission headquarters while policemen look on during Richard Nixon's inauguration weekend, Washington, DC, January 18-21, 1969. Her sign reads 'Judge women as people not as wives.
A woman protests for women's rights in Washington, D.C. during Richard Nixon's inauguration weekend, Jan. 18-21, 1969

Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images

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of the audience missed the faint sarcasm of the phrase because to them it’s a mere statement of fact: This stuff is outdated.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.”

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.

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 senior writer at Gawker and at work on a book about female intellectuals. Follow her on Twitter.