Feminist Consciousness-Raising in the 1960s and 1970s

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Photo Credit: Image of civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama with quote “Remember that consciousness is power”, uploaded 18 October 2016 by dignidadrebelde: dignidadrebelde/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

When we think of the 1960s and 1970s, some of the images that come to mind might be tie-dye t-shirts, LSD, civil rights, and The Brady Bunch. Second-wave feminism is also high on the list (like the one of feminists burning their bras which, incidentally, never happened). And additional cliche associated with this movement is the feminist consciousness-raising group.

Consciousness raising (or C-R) is closely linked to the argument “the personal is political”. It was a way for women to connect to one another and to the issues they were facing in the mid-20th century. These groups created a safe space for women to discuss problems that were personal to them, many of them for the very first time. Bear in mind that in the previous era, the Occupation “Housewife” era of the 1950s, women were supposed to have been happy just being housewife and mothers, living in the suburbs, having enough money for luxuries, and focus on serving those around them — they were not supposed to be gathering to talk about what frustrated, angered, and annoyed them. They were not supposed to talk about taboo subjects like sexual satisfaction, abortion, rape, and infertility. But a decade and two decades later, the women’s movement was encouraging them to do just that, and in doing so, pointed toward a bigger picture of oppression for women on a political, social and psychological scale that was much greater than they realized (and, in the 1980s and 1990s, the third-wave feminist movement would realize even greater issues by going global). 

As British feminist Jalna Hamner points out in a short interview here, the C-R groups were really the crux of the women’s movement. In fact, if a woman wanted to be involved in the movement, it was imperative that she be a part of one of these groups. In addition, many groups required that all women speak for a reason. Many women felt isolated and confused about how they felt and what was troubling them, and it was only hearing other women speak of the same problems that they realized their issues were valid and, in fact, stemmed from a much larger framework of oppression. Once women were aware, they could then work toward solutions to these problems.

There was backlash against these groups as well. Hamner mentions the idea of exposing her personal problems to a group of women did not appeal to her, and this was true for some women who preferred their private world remain private. Others pointed out that talking about personal problems was not going to make any political headway. One way of thinking about it is by using the analogy of psychology. I remember when I was in a master’s program at an alternative school in California where the approach to therapy was psychoanalysis (think: Freud), or, “talk therapy”. At the time (the early 2000s), CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) was huge and many CBT psychologists jeered at psychoanalysis because of the same reason people criticized the C-R groups: It was talking, not taking action. A great illustration of this is a scene from the 1975 dark comedy The Stepford Wives. Joanna (Katharine Ross) is anxious to get a C-R group started among the suburban housewives of her new community. But when she arranges for a meeting, the results are hardly what she expects because these women are so embedded in the feminine mystique that their “consciousness raising” turns out the exact opposite of what second-wave feminists would have wished!

The protagonists of the stories in my book Lessons From My Mother’s Life are sort of in between the Stepford wives and the consciousness-raised feminists. They are on the apex of discovering the lives that were supposed to be perfect and fulfilling for them aren’t and are looking toward the future when the women’s movement and C-R groups could free them from the loneliness of having to deal with their issues by themselves. The stories begin with women caught in the net of the feminine mystique and end with their own revelations about where they want to go with their lives and who they want to be. While the stories take place before second-wave feminism got off the ground, they are already looking toward a brighter horizon and a way to consolidate their “something isn’t quite right” feelings.       

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The Feminine Mystique

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Photo Credit: Betty Friedan as photographed in her home, 1978, photo taken  by Lynn Gilbert and uploaded 6 August 2009: LynnGilbert5/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Until now, most of my blog posts have related to the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. I’ve made no secret about the fact that the late 19th/early 20th centuries have always fascinated me, and a lot of my fiction takes place during these time periods.

But I’m interested in other eras as well, especially those relevant to women’s social, psychological, and political position. One of these time periods was the mid-20th century, a breeding ground for the second wave feminist movement which came in the late 1960s. My upcoming book is a second edition of my first published book, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories, and the five stories in this collection are set in the 1950s and early 1960s. All the stories were inspired by Betty Friedan’s feminine mystique, a revolutionary way of looking at femininity at that time.

Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique introduced this concept to the American public. The book explores Friedan’s experiences talking with women in the 1950s. She takes a very comprehensive look at the feminine mystique and the institutions that allowed this image to emerge.     

The idea of the feminine mystique has been defined in many ways, but, for me, it’s the idea that a woman’s biological, psychological, social and spiritual destiny boils down to two things: getting married and having children. There is nothing else outside of these that a woman can, and should, want. In Friedan’s own words:

“[For] the feminine mystique, there is no other way for a woman to dream of creation or of the future. There is no way she can even dream about herself, except as her children’s mother, her husband’s wife.” (p. 59)

I think this is really the crux of the mystique: a woman’s identity, her fulfillment in life, her capabilities, and her intelligence are all tied to who she is in relation to the other people in her life. Her role in life is defined, then, as wife, mother, daughter, granddaughter, caretaker, lover, etc.

You’ve probably heard that the The Feminine Mystique led to the second-wave feminist movement in the late 1960’s. But, as Gail Collins, in her preface to the 50th edition of the book points out, that’s not, strictly speaking, true:

The Feminine Mystique did not create the women’s rights movement. Those commissions on the status of women were started by the Kennedy administration before it [the book] was published, and the Civil Rights Act was being debated in Congress while American housewives were still just starting to pass Friedan’s book around. (Friedan, location 128-132)

From a political perspective, this may very well be true. But I think from a psychological perspective, Friedan’s book did much to bring many “a-ha!” moments into the lives of the women (and men) who read it in 1963, when it was first published, and in the years to follow.

Friedan’s book has been heavily criticized, as any seminal work on gender politics would. For a start, her book is looking at a very narrow population of women: American, white, upper-middle class, and suburban-living. This was also an issue with the second-wave feminist movement — that it was addressing the needs of white middle-class women. The needs of women of color, working class or poor women, older women, lesbians, etc., were left out. In fact, the third wave feminist movement, which began around the late 1980s and early 1990s, was started to rectify this situation, as it strives to include all women and has earned the name “global feminism.” In addition, the book was also criticized for offering one single solution: that women defy the feminine mystique by getting out of the house and having careers. The implication that being a housewife and mother was somehow inferior to being a career women rubbed a lot of women (and rightly so) the wrong way. There were also personal attacks made against Friedan, more of which you can read about here.

My upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, brings to light fictional representations of the feminine mystique (among other themes). The stories are set in the 1950s and early 1960s, before the second-wave feminist movement. In each story, the main character is fighting against the feminine mystique in one away or another. For example, in my story “Fumbling Toward Freedom,” Susan is a nineteen-year-old college student about to marry an upright young man still in medical school. When she attends an exhibition of Circe sculptures by a local San Francisco artist, she finds they show her the consequences of letting love define who she is, so that her rush to get married at so young an age and quit college to become a housewife and mother, becomes less enticing. On the other side of the spectrum, Leanne, in “Two Sides of Life” is a seasoned mother of two grown children whose surprising bond with the wife of her husband’s lab assistant causes her to rethink her identity embodied in the feminine mystique.

Lessons From My Mother’s Life will be out on March 29, 2020. To learn more about the book, please visit this page.    

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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