What follows is the text of a pamphlet about how to start and run consciousness-raising groups, written in 1972 by Marge Piercy and Jane Freeman for the Cape Cod Women's Liberation organization. In response to many requests from WMST-L readers, Lynn Freeland of Northwestern Michigan College re-typed it to make it available online.To find out what other WMST-L files are available on the Web, see the WMST-L File Collection.
I. Why can't we have men in the groups?
We have all heard a great deal from men in the course of our lives about what they think women are or should be. It is time to examine ourselves. Because men and women have different amounts of economic and social power in the society, our behavior and often our interest differ. Often the women who most need the support of a group are those who would be least able to get a word in edgewise with aggressive and articulate men. If a man involved with a woman is present, she may modify what she says to please, mollify, or to score points with him. We often find ourselves unable to take seriously groups consisting only of women, because the society does not grant us dignity: "hen parties," "just us girls," "kaffe-klatches," "gossiping with the neighbors," and "picking each other apart" are the common images of women in groups. One thing a consciousness-raising group can do is change the way women relate to each other.
Many of us can't discuss sexual or emotional events, marriages or past experiences honestly if men are present. Imagine the problem of a woman trying to discuss a feeling that she must pretend orgasm, in a mixed group. Often a discussion of sex in the presence of a man becomes a form of flirtation or competition. Women cannot find out what we have in common except in a group, a group we take seriously and that consists of other women.
II. Why don't we have a leader?
For most of us our responsibilities have been focussed on home and family. We have not had the opportunity for decision-making or leadership. We all need such experiences. If we don't have a leader, we can all go through the strains, tensions and fulfillment of accepting personal responsibility for making something work. All of us need to be spokeswomen for our feelings. We believe each of us, given the chance, can fulfill the function of leader. And if one woman is "the leader" the others will never get the chance to learn what each can do.
But sometimes we so much fear leadership that no one takes responsibility for something the group has decided to do. We can be so uneasy about having even temporary structure that no one feels she has the group's permission to be the one to call a meeting or place an ad in a newspaper. When there is a need for a spokeswoman or for a project coordinator or chairwoman, the role can be rotated. No one should ever be forced to take on a role that makes her uncomfortable, but public speaking and writing and talking to people become easy only with practice. We can work in twos to give each other support when we falter or are stuck.
III. What's the difference between an encounter group and a consciousness-raising group? Aren't they both doing therapy?
A women's group ideally supports rather than negates a woman's identity. By sharing feelings and experiences, we find what we have in common and feel less weak and less alone. However, the aim of coming together is not to adjust each other to the way things are. We don't believe that we have trouble being "good women" or "fulfilled women" because we're neurotic. We believe there's something wrong with those roles we're supposed to spend our lives acting out. A feminist believes that it isn't the case that we're too stupid or too inept to live up to our programming, but that the programming is destructive.
Consciousness-raising groups resemble therapy groups at times because personal experiences are discussed and some meetings get emotionally heavy. Further, the group may help a member to change behavior, if she decides she wants the change. The group may offer emotional support in our struggles, but the direction of the change is not usually toward adjustment. We are trying to learn to communicate and to move away from viewing our "neuroses" as personal problems to perceiving them as social issues. For instance, when we go around the room talking about how each of us feels about her appearance, and we hear every single woman expressing the same dissatisfaction with her body or her personality (my breasts are too small, too big, too flabby, my stomach is too round, my legs are too thick, I'm too loud, too quiet, etc.), we begin to realize we are dealing with something larger than a personal hang-up. The consciousness-raising group aims at changing our heads and our behavior but also at preparing us to change the attitudes of society and the structured roles that women, men and children must play today.
IV. What's the difference between a consciousness-raising group and a women's studies, or a discussion group in general?
The consciousness-raising group is personal and political. It is not a study group discussing ideas abstractly, removed to the intellectual plane. The direction of the group is determined by the women in it. The group is oriented toward actual change and has to deal with real life situations and real emotions and real problems. Women who are best at summarizing abstract ideas may have a hard time talking about their feelings and their fears.
Reading books and literature can be useful, but mainly for getting started, introducing new ideas, or getting launched again when the group has stalled. More and more women are writing about their experiences and struggles. We want to stay in touch with each other's ideas, battles and programs. We have much to learn from each other.
I. You might start by discussing something everyone has read, to get over the initial awkwardness.
II. Try talking about what each woman imagines feminism to be. Or what each expects -- hopes and/or fears -- to get out of the group.
III. Personal histories can be shared, what each woman does, her living situation, how long she has been interested and how each found out about the group.
IV. Each woman can briefly describe her background. We all have childhoods: they influenced us but are less threatening to discuss than recent events.
V. Whatever we start with, one simple method is to "go around the room." Each woman talks in turn. That way no one is passed over. It is vitally important that every woman speak.
After the first meeting, you might want to choose topics in advance. Some groups do, some do not. You might proceed by "going around" and seeing what people need to discuss that evening. You might discuss some external event that relates to women. Topics your group might want to discuss include:
CHILDHOOD MOTHERS FATHERS GOAL CONDITIONING MENSTRUATION DATING SEXUAL EXPERIENCES MARRIAGE DIVORCE SEXISM IN EDUCATION JOB DISCRIMINATION CHILDBEARING CHILDREN'S SEX ROLES EXPERIENCES IN THERAPY AMBITIONS RAPE GOSSIPING VIOLENCE ANGER ATTITUDES TOWARD OTHER WOMEN FRIENDSHIP ABORTION OUR OWN BODIES FEAR OF BEING RIDICULED GAY WOMEN FEAR OF BEING ALONE THE POLITICS OF THE WOMEN'S MOVEMENT RELATIONSHIPS TO OTHER OPPRESSED GROUPSWHAT IF ONE OR TWO WOMEN DOMINATE THE GROUP?
You should talk about the problem openly. Perhaps you could use poker chips or pieces of paper for tokens: every time anyone talks, she has to spend a token. This has worked quite well in some groups. We can also try having a rotating chair so that every woman takes a turn, in turn.THE MOST IMPORTANT GROUND RULE IS NOT TO ABUSE TRUST
No one in the group should ever repeat what the other women say -- not in bed, not at the table, not on the phone. If you live with a man, he will usually ask you what the group talked about. Often he is seeking reassurance. If you _want_ to, there is no reason why you shouldn't tell him what _you_ said. But never, never repeat what other women said. The easiest way to destroy a group and injure other women is by gossiping about what we have heard. Groups cannot function if each woman goes home and tells the man or woman she lives with what she may have heard from other women in the group.
If two women live together, experience seems to indicate they would be better off in different groups. A relationship as close as being lovers or mother and daughter with another woman in the group can keep us from using the group as we might otherwise -- it can inhibit what we discuss.OUR GROUP CAN'T SEEM TO GET MOVING. WHAT'S WRONG?
Nine out of ten groups start awkwardly, with long silences. When we know each other better as women, those silences go away naturally.
Sometimes women come once and don't return. For the first five or six meetings we may have women who are new to the group. It appears that nothing is going forward. Awkwardness remains. Frequently some woman arrives who wants to argue with everybody else about why women's liberation is silly and unimportant, and a great deal of group time is used rehashing that argument. Then she may go away and not come back.
Perhaps after the first couple of meetings, we should suggest to such a visitor that she observe the group functioning and join in the general discussion, rather than taking up the time of the whole group by arguing the question of whether it should exist.
Getting underway is a straggly process and we must all be patient. If what we were doing was easy, we would not have to bother. Eventually, sometimes not till a month or six weeks later, we have a stable group and begin to talk to each other openly, to relate to each other as women and to discover that what we had thought of as our private hang-ups are no more individual than having two eyes and one nose, but are issues common to every woman in the room. There we begin.CLOSING THE GROUP
When we have eight to ten women, some of us decide to stop taking in women at every meeting. Soon we will be too big and people will feel lost and drop out. This isn't an iron rule: none of these are, except for keeping confidence. We should get into the habit of asking our group before bringing other women. After functioning for a while, our group may feel it can take in new women again. On the other hand, if someone in our group is going through bad troubles, she might not want to have someone she doesn't yet know well, present at that particular meeting. New women should be integrated into the group. At least part of a meeting should be spent introducing yourselves and giving some history of the group. With each new woman confidentiality should be stressed.
If our group gets too big, we should not be afraid to split into two. That is not rejecting each other. A group that is too big doesn't work. Some women don't get a chance to talk.COMMITMENT TO THE GROUP
No group will work if the women in it don't take it seriously and make an emotional and intellectual commitment. Women should come every week. If you really cannot come, you should call. Putting social engagements, plays or movies first indicates the member is not taking the group seriously. However, missing a meeting in order to get a better perspective on the group or just to rest from what hopefully is an involving process must be respected. We do need to be honest about why we are not attending.
Not speaking up when we disagree is something women are conditioned to do, but a habit that means that what's said in our group won't really deal with our own ideas and that we are being dishonest with ourselves or other women in our group. It is better to say that we disagree or feel differently. We don't have to attack each other just because we have different experiences or perceive some thing differently. But we must honestly try to communicate, or we will once again have many silences, and those silences will hide doubt and hostility.
Since we are often used to talking things over with friends but not so used to functioning in groups, we have a few bad habits that can hurt us. Often instead of being open with the woman we disagree with, we tend to discuss the problem with one or two women in the group we feel friendly with. That serves to cut the group into blocks and to assure that the misunderstanding or disagreement will never be cleared up or worked through. Sometimes we make our own women's groups unresponsive through an unwillingness to put effort into really trying to work problems through. Even in cases where we will never agree, to discuss our differences in the group gives us a chance to learn from them.
We have a lot of profound reconditioning to do, all the while subject to insults and intimidations and casual put-downs every day. The problems are enormous and it's easy to get discouraged. Our groups don't always function well, but we have to stick through the rough times and invest some faith in ourselves and other women in order that things can change.HOW WOMEN SOMETIMES THREATEN EACH OTHER IN CONSCIOUSNESS-RAISING GROUPS
We all know through experience what repression does to us, how it makes us frightened, unsure of our ideas and unable to act. Discovering our repression is painful and creates mistrust and anger as well as joy and high energy. We must use this energy to confront ourselves and others. We don't want to turn this anger inward to hurt ourselves. Anger turned inward is often experienced as depression. Sometimes women become angry with other women in the group who remind them of themselves, or their past selves. We have to try to be conscious of these feelings, although we are not in a group to act our encounters with each other, but to give support. Sometimes anger is misused by being turned against other members of the group, rather than against those who have actually hurt us, or against the institutions that are holding us down and denying us a fair chance.
We must try to express our negative feelings directly but carefully -- not by a frontal attack or by gossiping or putting the other women down when they are not there, but by honestly explaining what the problem is. Often we can get past that uneasiness and mistrust into a better sense of what the other person is like, and that is often not what we had imagined.
We can learn from each other's lives at all ages, and we must try not to focus discussions just on women with children, or just on women who are married, or just on women living with women. We need to be sensitive to clues we give each other about how we are feeling, especially if those clues indicate a woman feels put down, withdrawn or unable to talk. We can become bored or restless when an evening's discussion centers on a phase of life we think is behind us, or one we have not yet experienced. We have to learn to respect our differences.
We sometimes experience differences as an attack. A woman who has children will hear a woman who has decided to have none saying so, and will see it as an attack on her choice. A woman who is happy in a monogamous relationship may feel criticized when another woman talks about her none exclusive relationships. Every woman should feel that she can talk honestly and be received with respect, no matter how different her life is from the other women in the group. We are too divided from each other by small differences that have little to do with our basic situation.
Class or ethnic differences can create static. Some women are more emotional, louder, less inhibited in feelings and choice of words and expressions. Other women may see these women as "violent" emotionally. More expressive women in turn may feel the group is trying to make them act more middle class, more traditionally feminine. Women who easily get angry and shout may be punished by the rest of the group, who might, if they thought about it, like to do something with their anger sometimes besides turn it into depression or brooding.
We are not, as we have been repeatedly told with words, gestures, actions, advertisements, pictures, movies, signs, living only in order to be acted upon. If we disagree with something in our group, we need to say so. The worst that can happen is that another woman will disagree, perhaps with anger. This does not mean we will be thrown out of the group.
Quiet women may trouble others also. Other members may feel that women who don't speak, don't like what is happening. Quiet women may make more verbal women feel uncomfortable or fear they are talking too much. We should try to find out why some of us do not talk. If it turns out that someone really has nothing to say at the time or wants to listen, fine. But perhaps the more verbal women have not been encouraging, and have left the quiet women out of the discussions. The only way to find out what someone is feeling is to ask. We don't want to coerce each other into talking or not talking. We want to make each other feel comfortable contributing. At the same time, a few women cannot and should not keep the group going. If this is happening, it should be talked about.
Some topics create anxiety. If we sense a woman who is distressed wants to talk more and is waiting for help, we should give that help. But we should not coerce each other. If someone is pushed into talking about a topic before she is ready, the chances of ever getting to talk openly about it in a manner useful for her and everyone else are lessened. Our small groups are places where we can learn to feel that what we have to say and give is worth something, and therefore so are we.RELATING TO OTHER GROUPS
We are all part of the Feminist Movement throughout the country and across the world. There are few formal membership organizations, but most consciousness-raising groups and project groups relate through some umbrella organization in their area.
Our umbrella is the Bath-Brunswick Women's Center. We consist of consciousness-raising groups, project groups and concerned individuals. We meet the second Thursday night of the month. Each consciousness-raising group should ask one or two of its members to be a liaison to the Center Committee which meets irregularly on Sunday nights. The Center Committee is working now on setting up courses and study groups at the Women's Center, getting out a newsletter, reaching new women. We need help in staffing the Center and providing the funds to keep it running. Perhaps your consciousness-raising group may decide to work on a project together and will want to use the Center, or perhaps you have your own ideas for projects and ways to use the Center.
We can work on creating new institutions to serve our needs -- day care centers, women's centers, cooperatives. We can find meaningful work -- work that we feel good about, that has some relevance to our lives. We can force changes in the policies of hospitals, libraries and schools. We need to meet with each other to share our ideas, get support and productive criticism for our projects.
For many of us it will be a long time before we feel comfortable acting politically. Not all women will want to work in the Women's Movement. We should encourage each other to live, work and act in our own best interests.
Still, consciousness-raising groups are intended to be more than discussion groups, for in order to be a movement for change, we have to act as well as talk. What is the satisfaction in raising our consciousness if that is only to increase our awareness of an oppressive society and an intolerable living situation - that only increases our frustration. The more we look at our lives, often the angrier we get. But when we begin to make changes around us, we can use that anger and energy to tear down and to build. We can find solidarity with each other, friendship, closeness, and we can have the pleasure of reaching out to other women and bringing them into new groups and new projects where we can help each other to grow. The more there are of us, the stronger we are. The more of us there are, the more we can change what has hurt us and what will continue to hurt women of all ages until we have at last remade our world.
Unlearning to not speak Blizzards of paper in slow motion drift through her. In nightmares she suddenly remembers a class she signed up for but forgot to attend. Now it is too late. Now it is time for finals: losers will be executed. Phrases of men who lectured her drift and rustle in piles: Why don't you speak up? Why are you shouting? You have the wrong line, wrong answer, wrong face. They tell her she is womb-man, babymachine, mirror image, toy, earth mother and penis-poor, a dish of synthetic strawberry icecream rapidly melting. She grunts to a halt. She must learn again to speak starting with _I_ starting with _We_ starting as the infant does with her own true hunger and pleasure and rage. Marge Piercy
For more information about WMST-L
WMST-L File Collection