The power of the personal: keeping consciousness-raising alive.
Janet L. Freedman's book on feminist consciousness-raising (CR) groups is ultimately about the power of personal storytelling among women in safe and supportive spaces. Both listening to a story and telling one's own are acts of courage that, as CR groups have shown, may lead to personal growth and a richer understanding of and empathy for others. In six information-packed chapters, Freedman celebrates all that the CR experience can be and shares what the groups have meant in her life.
"Consciousness-raising was the gateway to activism," Freedman writes early in the first chapter (p. 16); she continues a bit later, "Involvement in a CR group made it impossible for me NOT to become an activist" (p. 17).
The way Freedman weaves together her own CR experiences with other women's memories of CR is one of the most compelling aspects of this work. It is clear that the material is close to her, and some of her interviewees are members of a group she has belonged to since 1984, but she reaches far beyond her own experiences and those of her network. The book is complemented by an impressive list of sources, including both fiction and non-fiction. This meshing of research and personal enthusiasm gives the book a special magic.
Freedman sets out to trace "the origins, principles, and enormous impact of consciousness-raising," while also calling for a renewal of CR (p. 1). She begins with providing a historical review of CR from the 1960s and 1970s, in Chapter 1 ("Consciousness-Raising: The Mother Lode") and also includes some practical information on length of meetings, how to start a group, and possible topics groups could discuss. Readers interested in starting a group may find additional "starter" discussion questions in other chapters helpful.
Chapter 2 ("Right Livelihood: Working as a Feminist") focuses on working women and economic issues and the collective activism that can be ignited when women talk about struggles in the workplace.
Chapter 3 ("Only Connect: Technology, Consciousness-Raising and Feminist Activism") looks at both the "promises and perils" of the internet and technology as they relate to feminist activism (p. 53). Freedman explores a wide range of topics here, including sexism in online gaming, cyberfeminism, blogging, and the easy access of feminist materials and websites.
Although Freedman gives many examples of the positive impact technology makes on feminism, she writes, "I've answered the question posed at the start of this chapter--can technology offer a new and perhaps even more powerful model for achieving feminist social transformation?'--with a resounding MAYBE" (p. 74). She doesn't shy away from her contradictory beliefs about the internet's impact on feminism.
In Chapter 4 ("I and We: Consciousness-Raising, Mutual Aid and Participatory Democracy"), Freedman explains that the personal and political are intertwined and that the feminist CR model contributes to a more productive, equal democracy. "I think the answer to a lack of participation in a democracy," she writes, "is more democracy--authentic involvement in the shaping of organizations and institutions" (p. 96).
In the discussion in Chapter 5 ("Consciousness-Raising in the Classroom and Beyond") of women's studies programs and the classroom environment, Freedman reflects on the impact of her own experiences when she had the opportunity of merging "feminist theory and practice in daily experience" (p. 127). CR in the classroom, she believes, can help link theory and practice once the personal is valued.
The final chapter ("Spirited Woman") moves the reader out of the physical world of technologies, politics, and the classroom, into the inner world, reflecting on the spiritual experiences that CR groups can provide. Quoting Barbara Eve Breitman, Freedman writes, "It was a presence that empowered and emboldened. It was creative and erotic. We felt filled with knowledge and vision. We experienced healing and were pointed toward justice. We sensed that collectively and in extended community with other women engaged in similar endeavors, we were giving birth to a new vitality, creative and conscious" (p. 131). She goes on to give examples of the power of CR groups in Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, Unitarian, and other religious settings.
Freedman concludes with optimism for the future of consciousness-raising groups: "I am heartened by the fact that the practice seems to be returning to this country" (p. 186). Close to me in Los Angeles is a relatively new but flourishing organization called the Women's Center for Creative Work (WCCW), founded in 2013. In addition to CR groups, it holds feminist storytelling events, women's dinners, feminist book club meetings, and various other women-centered community events and workshops. As I read Reclaiming the Feminist Vision, it struck me that the WCCW is an example of the spirit and importance of CR that Freedman writes about. CR is very much alive today. Freedman's work will be an excellent resource for those carrying it forward.
[Stacy Russo is an associate professor/ librarian at Santa Ana College and the editor of Life as Activism: June Jordan's Writings from The Progressive (Litwin Books). Her current project is Wildland: Interviews with Women from the 1970s/1980s Southern California Punk Rock Scene (Santa Monica Press, forthcoming).]
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|Title Annotation:||Reclaiming the Feminist Vision: Consciousness-Raising and Small Group Practice|
|Publication:||Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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