Conscious Raising Meetings
In the Old Left, they used to say that the workers don't know they're oppressed, so we have to raise their consciousness. One night at a meeting I said, 'Would everybody please give me an example from their own life on how they experienced oppression as a woman? I need to hear it to raise my own consciousness.' Kathie was sitting behind me and the words rang in her mind. From then on she sort of made it an institution and called it consciousness-raising.
– Anne Forer
Kathie Fairchild is often credited with starting the feminist consciousness-raising meetings of the 1970s in the United States. They were an opportunity for women to talk about what it meant to be a woman and to discover that their experiences were not unique to them. On the contrary, what most women found was that these experiences, which she had thought indicated something was wrong with her, were nearly universal and suggested there was something wrong with the system.
Fifty years after the height of the women’s consciousness raising meetings in the United States, there is a resurgence in similar activities, including Verve’s Prosecco Think Tanks. To get a better idea of this history I interviewed feminist and activist Susan Early about her experiences in the original feminist consciousness-raising meetings.
I don’t know how I first heard about consciousness-raising meetings exactly except that it was like a single spark starting a wildfire. It just became a part of the national conversation that women were having. Books about feminism played an important role in spreading the word. One on one conversations. It was very natural. I do remember a general feeling of subversiveness that was very attractive. It was just so bold at that time that it was hard to resist for some of us risk takers.
It was so startling to listen to what women had to say, not only about their own experiences and what was troubling them but what they had to say about what they were hearing from other women. It was very direct and honest. That also is a challenging environment because, as you know, a lot of time people don’t appreciate direct conversations. But it was possible to do that. I’m sure there are we some people who were uncomfortable or turned off by it or not ready for it, but I don’t believe anyone walked away without thinking.
It doesn’t apply to everybody necessarily but I would say to most of the women it did and the bonds that were forged were really strong. They were interchangeably called Women’s Support Groups and the idea of support was really crucial—being supportive of each other and that’s where we started to feel the strength of our collective muscles.
We didn’t deliberately say [what action do we take next] but it was what turned out to be a natural step in the conversation. We talked and now what can we do about it? Where can we start? I guess we could call it experimental efforts to organize around specific issues or needs but taking the lessons, applying the lessons in the real world was important to many of us.
When women first got the idea that we could talk to each other and that we SHOULD talk to each other, in some ways, it was like a book club but many of the book clubs I’ve been to are an excuse to socialize. The consciousness-raising meetings were almost born out of a desperation for a dialogue. The ones I went to were wide open to who could participate. We met in people’s homes. People a from all walks of life- not just the counterculture—businesswomen, political types, people who work in the home. I do remember the rooms getting pretty crowded with women.
The conversations were similar to what I’ve experienced in women’s group therapy sessions except the consciousness-raising meetings didn’t have facilitators. They were experiments in non-facilitated conversations. We just went wherever the wind was blowing through the room. We started to see ourselves in each other. The lessening of feeling isolated was really important and most of us were not used to speaking up and in particular were not used to verbalizing about our biggest insecurities which it turned out we all shared. Since we didn’t talk about them with each other outside of these group meetings we didn’t know we weren’t alone.
As the conversations evolved it was an opportunity for many of us to start finding our own voices. Shattering the illusion of being in an isolation chamber. We started taking more responsibility for each other—each other’s wellbeing. Out of these groups often came Women’s crisis organizations and other things, political or not. It helped give us sea legs that kind of sent us on our way. I still look back on those meetings as being a really crucial part of my own development of self-awareness and self-confidence.
It was a hands-on approach to just practical everyday living experiences. Because those are often the battles that are not addressed but that are very insidious and undermining of self-confidence. So there was never an experience that was too insignificant to talk about.
Peer pressure is a benign way of saying self-policing. Women do that very well. It makes it much easier for men- they don’t have to spend as much time policing women if they do it themselves. Taking away the freedom of choice is a way of policing a woman’s behaviour… and these groups can help expose that.
We owe an incredible debt to the women who had these early uncomfortable conversations. They led to much of the progress for women we’ve seen over the last fifty years. I think the only way we can repay that debt is to continue the work because as anyone who has been to a Prosecco Think Tank knows, we’re not done yet.
Article by Claire Ryder
VERVE Operative USA & Humanitarian Activist