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 Personal is Political

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Photo Credit: Feminist symbol (Venus symbol with clenched fist, first used in the 1960s), created 8 August 2006, author unknown: Hill~common-swiki/Wikimedia Commons/PD Ineligible

In one of my recent blog posts, I brought up one of the slogans associated with the second-wave feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s: “The personal is political.” But what does this slogan really mean and why was it so important to the movement at that time?

These words weren’t just a catchy phrase but a political argument. If we recall, the goal of 19th and early 20th centuries suffragism, women were specifically fighting for their right to vote. They had a very specific agenda. By the time the 1960s rolled around, the issues surrounding women’s rights were much more complex and needed to expand. Women weren’t fighting for just their political right to influence laws and policies. These things were often very closely related to their lives and the lives of everyone around them. They touched upon very personal issues, such as reproductive rights, rape, domestic violence, and abortion. Feminists argued these issues should not be kept out of the public sphere, as they affected not only the women personally involved, but other women and future generations. In other words, these weren’t just the problems belonging to one individual woman or group of women. They were problems relating to a world that sanctioned sexual oppression and discrimination. To solve them took fixing the whole system, one woman at a time.

Exactly where the phrase “the personal is political” came from is difficult to pinpoint. Some identify its origin in an article written in 1969 by activist and writer Carol Hanisch for a book of feminist writings published a year later. But Hanisch herself denies the phrase came from her and, instead, credits the editors of the book, Shulamit Firestone and Anne Koedt for coming up with the slogan. But these women also denied that the phrase originated from them. They insisted it really belonged to the thousands of women in consciousness-raising groups who used the term to describe their own revelations regarding their personal and collective oppression.

As I was writing (or, rather, rewriting) the stories of my latest book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, which touch upon themes of Betty Friedan’s the feminine mystique and the crumbling of the happy and fulfilled American housewife ideal in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it struck me how the slogan “the personal is political” is almost a slap in the face to the separate spheres of the 19th century. A new generation of women were insisting that, rather than two separate arenas in life, the private (for women) and the public (for men), one was enmeshed in the other, and the problems of the private were the problems of the public and vice versa. The walls that had kept 19th century women pent up in their own world without a voice were crumbling and continue to crumble even today.

If you would like to know more about the stories in Lessons From My Mother’s Life, you can find out about them and order your copy of the book here.      

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