The Personal Is Political (Feminism, Consciousness Raising, & Spreading Awareness of The Political Issues That Affect Our Lives)
Imagine numerous groups of women meeting weekly, across the United States.
In groups of 8 to 12, they met to discuss the daily hustle and bustle of being a woman in the late 60s.
But this wasn’t some knitting or scrapbooking club. No, this was much more serious.
These discussions sparked the beginning of modern day Feminism, specifically 2nd Wave Feminism.
Now, If you’re not familiar with the different waves of Feminism, you can easily distinguish them by the type of equality they promote; legal vs social equality.
First wave Feminists fought for equal rights under the law. Voting and property rights were just a few of the causes furthered by them.
Second wave Feminists dealt with social issues, like the workplace, family, sexuality, reproduction, domestic violence, etc.
Now, back to the non-knitting club feminist get-together.
These regular meetings of women grew up alongside the emergence of the radical left on college campuses. Ultimately, the women’s movement branched off from the radical left movement.
Well because the radical left routinely refused to acknowledge the plight of women.
In both the SDCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) the emergent women’s movement was derided and ignored.
Apparently, even the SDS thought women were only good for making coffee at meetings.
But hey! No one’s perfect, not even socialistic militant leftists who’s movement grew out of the Civil Rights Movement (hashtag awkward).
Regardless, the women’s movement eventually pulled apart from the radical left. They began to create their own meetings, affectionately called “rap sessions” and “bitch sessions.”
These “sessions” were the beginning of what was to be called CR (Consciousness Raising) groups.
The first major introduction of CR groups was Thanksgiving Day of 1968, with 200 women from thirty-seven states and Canada meeting in Chicago.
This was where Consciousness Raising took off. However, not all feminists were thrilled about it, and in 1969, the Women’s Movement split on the issue. This eventually lead to the Redstockings, a group that would be primarily known as an advocate of Consciousness Raising.
Soon thousands of women all over the nation would be involved in a CR group. But where it gets interesting is in looking closer at what CR was meant to accomplish, and how 2nd wave Feminists used it to great effect.
What is Consciousness Raising?
“Our chief task at present is to develop female class consciousness through sharing experience and publicly exposing the sexist foundation of all our institutions.” — The Redstockings Manifesto, 1969, New York
Consciousness Raising was an interesting Feminist tactic that had an exceptional effect on the women who participated in it.
CR was based on the idea that women weren’t aware of the institutions of oppression that were present in their daily lives. If you could bring women together and get them to discuss issues such as sexuality, family, and the workplace you could make them aware of these oppressive institutions.
Institutions created by a patriarchal society, mind you.
From the beginning, one of the main tenets of CR was that the personal is political.
CR was meant to connect the dots of individual experiences. It was meant to show women that they weren’t alone, and that many of these experiences were shared by others.
By acknowledging and bringing together each woman’s experiences it was believed that it would bring to light the political nature of their problems.
It would “raise their consciousness.”
And it did just that.
CR groups were normally small, consisting of no more than 15 women, who would meet regularly and discuss specific female focused issues. In many cases there were formal questions that the group followed.
Questions ranged from “what were your childhood experiences?” to “what did you think being a woman was going to be?” all the way to heavier topics like sex, marriage, and work.
Most CR groups would have a formal list of topics from which to pick from.
Then, the group would go around the room, letting each woman talk about her particular experiences in relation to the topic. Each woman was given as much time as she needed to talk, without interruption.
Generalizations, stereotypes, theories, and abstractions were discouraged. CR was an inherently personal thing. And the creators of CR didn’t want the overall goal of CR to be affected (or morphed into a therapy session).
CR also wasn’t a brainstorming session about why women were treated this or that way. It was a focus on the personal experiences of each woman.
“The first requirement for raising class consciousness is honesty, in private and in public, with ourselves and other women.” — Redstockings Manifesto
Alongside these rules, women weren’t allowed to question, judge, praise, or advise each other’s testimony.
This was the big difference between Consciousness Raising and therapy sessions.
As the Redstockings Manifesto pointed out…
“Consciousness-raising is not “therapy,” which implies the existence of individual solutions and falsely assumes that the male-female relationship is purely personal, but the only method by which we can ensure that our program for liberation is based on the concrete realities of our lives.”
The National Organization for Women (by 1972, CR had come under their umbrella) further elaborated that Consciousness Raising was meant to develop pride in their gender by breaking down barriers through open and honest communication.
This was political awareness, not some touchy feely psychology session.
The irony was that by fertilizing the seeds of awareness, CR sowed its own downfall.
The Results of Consciousness Raising Ultimately Became Its Downfall
By 1973, over 100,000 women were in a CR group, all across the nation, in almost every major US city.
But by the mid-70s, CR groups had started to disband.
And it was all thanks to the very aims of the Feminist movement: more women in the workforce, taking control of their lives and careers.
As women took more and more responsibility for their career advancement, they had less and less time for CR groups.
CR had effectively elevated women’s consciousness to the point of making itself obsolete.
This change is pointed out by Anita Shreve, who interviewed dozens of women after their involvement in CR groups.
“Consciousness-raising was petering out, victim of a changing political climate, of expanding career opportunities for women, of shifting priorities on the part of the Women’s Movement, and of a subsequent lack of a sponsor. As the country became more conservative, the quest for self-knowledge gave way to the pursuit of self-fulfillment. As jobs opened up for white middle-class women, and as they tried to combine careers with family life, the sheer struggle to succeed at mothering and working left little or no time for meeting with, or even thinking about, other women.
The Women’s Movement, having accomplished a preliminary stage of widespread education, moved reluctantly into a period of latency, shifting its attention from CR on a massive scale to activist issues on a smaller one…A personalized form of Feminism, stemming from a basic training gained in CR, has invaded the home and the workplace.
The women who participated in consciousness-raising say they received an invaluable basic training. They developed a fluency about themselves and about women’s issues-rather like the fluency a person who has been in therapy develops. They gained a certain kind of clarity about who they were and what they wanted and what the obstacles were to getting it.
But most of all, they had respect and trust and love for women that great out of that cauldron of shared experiences. Stripping away their preconceptions, they learned to have enormous regard for the struggles of other women, even as they were learning to respect themselves.” — Women Together, Women Alone, by Anita Shreve: page 30–31
In the subsequent years after these CR groups disbanded, most women who were asked about their time in CR were grateful for the experience.
A feeling of enthusiasm for CR was still present in many of the women Anita Shreve interviewed for her book, “Women Together, Women Alone.”
But a feeling of isolation was also present.
CR gave women a new sense of confidence in their abilities, and their ability to take charge of their lives (you know, “fight the patriarchy” kind of stuff).
CR helped solve problems for women, but by giving them this confidence to go out into the world, it also gave them a whole host of new problems.
Not to compare women to children (because I’m not a misogynist, or a douche-canoe), but it’s like moving out of your parents’ house. You’ve grown up, you’re responsible and ready to make a life for yourself.
You’re no longer a child, with no awareness of the outside world or the responsibilities you’ll have to take on. You’ve become an adult.
But this new found independence creates more problems. Yes, you only answer to yourself, but you have to figure out all the issues of being an adult that used to be overseen by your parents.
This is what many of those formally in CR felt like. They had accomplished so much, but felt isolated, due in part to their family and career successes.
For more on Feminism, I encourage you to read 1970s Feminists & Their Issues With Motherhood, and The Feminist Movement is Doomed to Fail. In one, you’ll get a deeper understanding of why Feminists are sometimes at odds with motherhood. The other provides a rundown the aspects of the movement that will lead to its destruction.
The Idea Behind “The Personal is Political”
“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, quoted by Susan Brownmiller in In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, page 21
There’s a reason why it’s called “Consciousness Raising.” It’s meant to raise your conscious awareness of how oppressed you are in society.
“The personal is political” is what makes consciousness raising so powerful. An early Feminist advocate of CR, Carol Hanisch, wrote in 1969 that what’s important in CR is getting rid of “self-blame.”
This is what differentiates CR from therapy, and what makes it so powerful. By stating that “the personal is political” you switch the blame from you to outside forces. The blame then rests on institutions, men, society, social norms, etc.
“The personal is political” is a realization that the problems facing you aren’t of your own making. They’re part of a bigger political problem. A problem that affects all women.
Now, this worldview can lead to unhealthy places.
Not all issues are political. And making every issue a political one can make the problem worse.
No one likes the politically obsessive pundits who see a political issue in every pop music video.
After a while you just shut down and yell “who gives a shit!?!?”
But this worldview still holds water, even today.
The Personal IS Political (Now More than Ever)
It’s visible in the Feminist movement (characterized best by the Feminist outcry over how men position their legs in subway trains, known as “manspreading”). But I think it’s also a facet of libertarianism’s talking points.
Not to mention, it can be an effective tool for us, liberty lovers.
Here’s what I mean.
The government affects almost every aspect of society, right?
The responsibility that each individual has over their own life is constantly intervened in by the government.
This makes your life quite obnoxious to live sometimes.
Now, add all the economic hampers that the government places on you indirectly. Think of inflation, rising food prices, barriers to entry, sucky cable companies, government monopolies, safety regulations that don’t protect you, etc.
In a lot of ways, your personal issues are political.
This blurred line between the personal and political is all thanks to a burgeoning bureaucracy.
And if we can tap into this blurred line, we can help our friends, neighbors, and family to realize that it’s not “their fault.”
It’s the government’s.
This is not to say that the responsibility is lifted off their shoulders. No, it’s still your job to change things.
But it helps to realize that if it wasn’t for the Federal government, our phone companies would be a heck of a lot better.
What proved effective for the Feminist movement in the 60s can be used effectively for our movement.
The great thing is, we already utilize this form of activism.
We do it by discussing the effects of government regulations and policies. We do it by pointing out how government has screwed with American’s marriages, how they drive the cost up of certain goods by imposing tariffs, and how they keep Comcast in business…
Yeah, that last one really does suck.
Regardless of how you feel about 2ndwave Feminism, there’s something to be said about connecting the personal to the political.
As Carol Hanisch notes toward the end of her paper, The Personal is the Political…
“It’s true we all need to learn how to better draw conclusions from the experiences and feelings we talk about and how to draw all kinds of connections. Some of us haven’t done a very good job of communicating them to others.”
In this day and age, one of the best ways to convince someone that the smaller the government is, the better, is to raise their consciousness.
By raising their awareness of how the government intrudes, and messes with their life, you plant a seed in their mind.
A seed of critique.
A seed that continues to remind them that they’re not to blame.
Oftentimes, when it comes to the issues that permeate daily life, intrusive politicians and bureaucrats are to blame.
So what do you think about consciousness raising? Do you think it’s an effective tool that can be used to open people’s minds to the intrusiveness of government? Also, have you seen this type of activism being used? Please comment below!