Feminist consciousness-raising groups, or CR groups, began in the 1960s in New York and Chicago and quickly spread across the United States. Feminist leaders called consciousness-raising the backbone of the movement and a chief organizing tool.
The Genesis of Consciousness-Raising in New York
The idea to start a consciousness-raising group occurred early in the existence of the feminist organization New York Radical Women. As NYRW members tried to determine what their next action should be, Anne Forer asked the other women to give her examples from their lives of how they had been oppressed, because she needed to raise her consciousness. She recalled that labor movements of the "Old Left," which fought for workers' rights, had spoken of raising the consciousness of workers who did not know they were oppressed.
Fellow NYRW member Kathie Sarachild picked up on Anne Forer's phrase. While Sarachild said that she had extensively considered how women were oppressed, she realized that the personal experience of an individual woman could be instructive for many women.
What Happened in a CR Group?
NYRW began consciousness-raising by selecting a topic related to women's experience, such as husbands, dating, economic dependence, having children, abortion, or a variety of other issues. The members of the CR group went around the room, each speaking about the chosen topic. Ideally, according to feminist leaders, women met in small groups, usually consisting of a dozen women of fewer. They took turns speaking about the topic, and every woman was allowed to speak, so no one dominated the discussion. Then the group discussed what had been learned.
Effects of Consciousness-Raising
Carol Hanisch said that consciousness-raising worked because it destroyed the isolation that men used to maintain their authority and supremacy. She later explained in her famous essay "The Personal is Political" that consciousness-raising groups were not a psychological therapy group but rather a valid form of political action.
In addition to creating a sense of sisterhood, CR groups allowed women to verbalize feelings they may have dismissed as unimportant. Because discrimination was so pervasive, it was difficult to pinpoint. Women may not have even noticed the ways a patriarchal, male-dominated society oppressed them. What an individual woman previously felt was her own inadequacy could have actually resulted from society's ingrained tradition of male authority oppressing women.
Kathie Sarachild remarked on the resistance to consciousness-raising groups as they spread across the Women's Liberation movement. She noted that the pioneering feminists had initially thought to use consciousness-raising as a way to figure out what their next action would be. They had not anticipated that the group discussions themselves would end up being seen as a radical action to be feared and criticized.