Groups of women coming together face to face to share their experiences, be truly heard and take action together has always been incredibly powerful.
We’re in the midst of a moment around sexual harassment and sexual violence more broadly – a time when ‘business as usual’ has cracked open with exposure, awareness and hopes for greater access to justice and change.
We’ve been witnessing a form of consciousness raising in recent times with #metoo exposing shared experiences of sexual harassment and assault that point to a need for systemic change.
There have been strong mixed feelings and different reactions from survivors of sexual assault to the flooding of newsfeeds with #metoo and #ihave. This article provides some tips for those who are triggered by #metoo, noting:
Giving a voice to women who have suffered from sexual violence, and shining a light on the problem, is definitely a good thing… But it’s also important to acknowledge that seeing and hearing about these accounts can trigger memories and emotions of their own traumatic experiences.
Given the limits in trying to do this work online it’s important to have opportunities to explore the issues face-to-face. This is a perfect time to build on the online momentum by holding group conciousness raising meetings.
I’m the lead-facilitator of the WELA (Women’s Environmental Leadership Australia) program which provides three residential retreats per year for women in the environment and climate movements. The program covers a lot of different ground including personal development, organisational dynamics and systemic change.
At our final retreat in October we gave the option of a consciousness raising circle on sexual harassment. It was provided as a concurrent session so women had the option of not participating. Over half of the women present chose to participate and the space was held by my cofacilitator Louise Duxbury who is particularly skilled at supporting emotional expression. Participants found it powerful and appreciated the structured process.
Consciousness raising was a key element of the second wave women’s movement enabling women to recognise that the personal is political. One of the early developers of the model, Carol Hanisch, writes in Women’s Liberation Consciousness-Raising: Then and Now:
Consciousness-raising was a way to use our own lives—our combined experiences—to understand concretely how we are oppressed and who was actually doing the oppressing. We regarded this knowledge as necessary for building such a movement.
The New York Radical Feminist Introduction to Consciousness Raising defines the purpose as awareness of societal oppression; breaking down competition and isolation; and developing pride as women. They outline these steps:
- Select a topic – the second wave women’s liberation movement explored a wide range of topics through consciousness raising, including childhood experiences, sex, sexuality, relationships, domestic labour, motherhood, employment, aging, and much more.
- Go around in a circle – ‘This creates a kind of “free space” where women can talk about themselves in a way they may never have before. It also helps us listen to each other and breaks down competitiveness between us.’
- Always speak personally, specifically and from your own experience – ‘Try not to generalise, theorise or talk in abstractions.’
- Don’t interrupt, except to ask a specific informational question or to clarify a point – ‘If someone else’s experience reminds you of one of yours, you might take notes so that you remember what you might say when it’s your turn.’
- Never challenge anyone else’s experience – ‘Try to accept that what another woman says is true for her, although it may seem all wrong to you. Keep in mind that she may have never had a chance to talk about herself without being interrupted and challenged.’
- Try not to give advice – ‘The purpose of CR is not to solve your day-to-day problems but to help you gain strength through the knowledge that other women share many of your feelings and experiences.’
- Sum up – ‘After each woman has related her personal experience with the topic, the group should try to find the common element and see what conclusions can be drawn. This is one of the most important parts of CR because it is here that we begin to discover the nature of our oppression.’
Read the full guide and check out How to Start Your Own Consciousness-raising Group for more tips. Remember that the 1970s was a time not renowned for trans inclusion so the focus is very much on the experiences of cis-women. However, these groups can work for any shared identities, however folks choose to define those together.
Get a crew together in real life and give it a try!
Photos from Catching the Wave, Photographs of the Women’s Movement by Bettye Lane and Freda Leinwand.