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Pre-2008 Posts

Consciousness-Raising in the Radical Feminist Women’s Movement

Ernestine RoseMalcolm XKwame Nkrumah, revolutionary and visionary leader of GhanaKwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael)Shulamith Firestone, 1973Robin MorganPat MainardiKate Millett, 1977

(Left to Right:  Ernestine Rose, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), Shulamith Fireston, Robin Morgan, Pat Mainardi, Kate Millett)

“We had to adopt the new method which physicians sometimes use, when they are called to a patient who is so hopelessly sick that he is unconscious of his pain and suffering. We had to describe to women their own position, to explain to them the burdens that rested so heavily upon them, and through these means, as a wholesome irritant, we roused public opinion on the subject, and through public opinion, we acted upon the Legislature…

“We have been often asked, ‘What is the use of Conventions?  Why talk? Why not work?’ Just as if the thought did not precede the act!  Those who act without previously thinking are not good for much.  Thought is first acquired, then the expression of it, and that leads to action; and action based upon thought never needs to be reversed: it is lasting and profitable, and produces the desired effect.  I know there are many who take advantage of this movement, and then say: ‘You are doing nothing; only talking.’ Yes, doing nothing!  We have only broken up the ground and sowed the seeds; they are reaping the benefit, and yet they tell us we have done nothing!” Ernestine Rose, 1860, HISTORY OF WOMAN SUFFRAGE.  

“You can’t give the people a program until they realize they need one, and until they realize that all existing programs aren’t … going to reproduce … results.  What we would like to do … is to go into our problem and just analyze … and question things that you don’t understand so we can … get a better picture of what faces us.  If you give people a thorough understanding of what it is that confronts them, and the basic causes that produce it, they’ll create their own program; and when the people create a program you get action.” — Malcolm X, 1964, MALCOLM X SPEAKS.

“Kwame Nkrumah said, ‘Thought without action is empty and action without thought is blind.”  He says, “Revolutions are made by men who think as men of action and act as men of thought.  These are the only people who make revolution.'”– Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), AKWESASNE NOTES, Early Winter, 1974.

Following are excerpts from Kathie Sarachild’s 1968-73 classic essay on consciousness-raising in the Women’s Liberation Movement.  What she says is as fresh and important and necessary today as it was 40 years ago– maybe more. 

To be able to understand what feminist consciousness-raising is all about, it is important to remember that it began as a program among women who all considered themselves radicals. … [“Radical” is a word] that is often used to suggest extremist, but actually it doesn’t mean that.  The dictionary says radical means root, coming from the Latin word for root.  And that is what we meant by calling ourselves radicals.  We were interested in getting to the roots of problems in society.  You might say we wanted to pull up weeds in the garden by their roots, not just pick off the leaves at the top to make things look good momentarily.  Women’s Liberation was started by women who considered themsleves radicals in this sense. …

“I think a lot about being attractive,” Ann said.  “People don’t find the real self of a woman attractive.”   And then she went on to give some examples.  And I just sat there listening to her describe all the false ways women have to act: playing dumb, always being agreeable, always being nice, not to mention what we had to do to our bodies, with the clothes and shoes we wore, the diets we had to go through, going blind not wearing glasses, all because men didn’t find our real selves, our human freedom, our basic humanity “attractive.”  And I realized I still could learn a lot about how to understand and describe the particular oppression of women in ways that could reach other women in the way this had just reached me.  The whole group was moved as I was, and we decided on the spot that what we needed — in the words Ann used — was to “raise our consciousness some more.”

…The decision to emphasize our own feelings and experiences as women and to test all generalizations and reading we did by our own experience was actually the scientific method of research.  We were in effect repeating the 17th century challenge to science to scholasticism: “study nature, not books,” and put all theories to the test of living practice and action.  It was also a method of radical organizing tested by other revolutions.  We were applying to women and to ourselves as women’s liberation organizers the practice a number of us had learned as organizers in the civil rights movement in the South in the early 1960’s.

It seemed clear that knowing how our own lives related to the general condition of women would make us better fighters on behalf of women as a whole.  We felt that all women would have to see the fight of women as their own, not as something just to help “other women,” that they would have to see this truth about their own lives before they would fight in a radical way for anyone.  “Go fight your own oppressors,” Stokely Carmichael had said to the white civil rights workers when the black power movement began.  “You don’t get radicalized fighting other people’s battles,” as Beverly Jones put it in the pioneering essay “Toward A Female Liberation Movement.”

…The methods and assumptions behind consciousness-raising essentially grew out of both the scientific and radical political traditions, but when we applied them to women’s situation, a whole lot of otherwise “scientific” and “radical” people — especailly men — just couldn’t see this.

Whole areas of women’s lives were declared off limits to discussion.  The topics we were talking about in our groups were dismissed as “petty” or “not political.”  Often these were the key areas in terms of how women are oppressed as a particular group — like housework, childcare and sex. Everybody from Republicans to Communists said that they agreed that equal pay for equal work was a valid issue and deserved support.  But when women wanted to try to figure out why we weren’t getting equal pay for equal work anywhere, and wanted to take a look in these areas, then what we were doing wasn’t politics, economic or even study at all, but “therapy,” something that women had to work out for themselves individually.

When we began analyzing these problems in terms of male chauvinism, we were suddenly the living proof of how backward women are.  Although we had taken radical political action and risks many times before, and would act again and again, when we discussed male chauvinism, suddenly we were just women who complained all the time, who stayed in the personal realm and never took any action.

Some people said outright they thought what we were doing was dangerous.  When we merely brought up concrete examples in our lives of discrimination against women, or exploitation of women, we were accused of “man-hating” or “sour grapes.”  These were more efforts to keep the issues and ideas we were discussing out of the realm of subjects of genuine study and debate by defining them as psychological delusions.

And when we attempted to describe the realities of our lives in certain ways, however logical — for instance, when we said that men oppressed women, or that all men were among the beneficiaries in the oppression of women — some people really got upset.  “You can’t say that men are the oppressors of women!  Men are oppressed, too!  And women discriminate against women!” Now it would seem to go without saying that if women have a secondary status in the society compared to men, and are treated as secondary creatures, then the beneficiaries would be those with the primary status.  

There was no denying, though, that we ourselves were learning a tremendous amount from the discussions and were finding them very exciting. From our consciousness-raising meetings was coming the writing which was formulating basic theory for the women’s liberation movement.  Shulamith Firestone, who wrote the book The Dialectic of Sex, Anne Koedt, who wrote the essay “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,” Pat Mainardi, who wrote the essay “The Politics of Housework,” Carol Hanisch, who wrote the essay, “The Personal is Political,” Kate Millett, who wrote Sexual Politics, Cindy Cisler, who led the ground-breaking abortion law repeal fight in New York, Rosalyn Baxandall, Irene Peslikis, Ellen Willis, Robin Morgan and many others participated in these discussions.  Most of us had thought we were only beginning to have a radical understanding of women — and of other issues of class, race and revolutionary change.

The people who started consciousness-raising did not see themselves as beginners at politics, including, in many cases, feminism.  Yet they intended consciousness-raising as much for themselves as for people who really were beginners.  Consciousness-raising was seen as both a method for arriving at the truth and a means for action and organizing.  It was a means for the organizers themselves to make an analysis of the situation, and also a means to be used by the people they were organizing and who were in turn organizing more people. Similarly, it wasn’t seen as merely a stage in feminist development which would then lead to another phase, an action phase, but as an essential part of the overall feminist strategy.

…One of the exhilarating and consciousness-raising discoveries of the Women’s Lieration Movement has been how much insight and understanding can come from simple honesty and the pooling of experience in a room full of women who are interested in doing this.

…For instance, the aim of going around the room in a meeting to hear each woman’s testimony, a common — and exciting — practice in consciousness-raising, is to help stay focused on a point, to bring the discussion back to the main subject after exploring a tangent, to get the experience of as many people as possible in the common pool of knowledge.  The purpose of hearing from everyone was never to be nice or tolerant or to develop speaking skill or the “ability to listen.”  It was to get closer to the truth. … The purpose of hearing people’s feelings and experience was not therapy, was not to give someone a chance to get something off her chest … that is something for a friendship.  It was to hear what she had to say.  The importance of listening to a woman’s feelings was collectively to analyze the situation of women, not to analyze her. The idea was not to change women, was not to make “internal changes” except in the sense of knowing more.  It was and is the conditions women face, it’s male supremacy, we want to change.

… The idea of consciousness-raising was never to end generalizations.  It was to produce truer ones.  The idea was to take our own feelings and experience more seriously than any theories which did not satisfactorily clarify them, and to devise new theories which did reflect the actual experience and feelings and necessities of women.

Nor does consciousness-raising, as some have implied, assume that increased awareness, knowledge, or education alone will eliminate male supremacy. …  With greater understanding, one discovers new necessity for action — and new possibilities for it. Finding the solution to a problem takes place through theory and action both.  Each leads to the other but both are necessary or the problem is never really solved.

The purpose of consciousness-raising was to get to the most radical truths about the situation of women in order to take radical action; but the call for “action” can sometimes be a way of preventing understanding — and preventing radical action.  Action comes when our experience is finally verified and clarified.  There is tremendous energy in consciousness-raising, an enthusiasm generated for getting to the truth of things, finding out what’s really going on.  Learning the truth can lead to all kinds of action and this action will lead to further truths.

Read Kathie Sarachild’s essay, Consciousness-Raising:  A Radical Weapon, here.




One thought on “Consciousness-Raising in the Radical Feminist Women’s Movement

  1. I heart Heart and CR.

    Posted by Edith | June 29, 2006, 5:23 am

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