To be able to understand what feminist consciousness-raising is all about, it is important to remember that it began as a program among women who all considered themselves radicals.
Before we go any further, let’s examine the word “radical.” It is a word that is often used to suggest extremist, but actually it doesn’t mean that. The dictionary says radical means root, coming from the Latin word for root. And that is what we meant by calling ourselves radicals.
We were interested in getting to the roots of problems in society. You might say we wanted to pull up weeds in the garden by their roots, not just pick off the leaves at the top to make things look good momentarily. Women’s Liberation was started by women who considered themselves radicals in this sense.
Our aim in forming a women’s liberation group was to start a mass movement of women to put an end to the barriers of segregation and discrimination based on sex. We knew radical thinking and radical action would be necessary to do this. We also believed it necessary to form Women’s Liberation groups which excluded men from their meetings.
In order to have a radical approach, to get to the root, it seemed logical that we had to study the situation of women, not just take random action. How best to do this came up in the women’s liberation group I was in — New York Radical Women, one of the first in the country — shortly after the group had formed.
We were planning our first public action and wandered into a discussion about what to do next. One woman in the group, Ann Forer, spoke up: “I think we have a lot more to do just in the area of raising our consciousness,” she said.
“Raising consciousness?” I wondered what she meant by that. I’d never heard it applied to women before.
“I’ve only begun thinking about women as an oppressed group,” she continued, “and each day, I’m still learning more about it — my consciousness gets higher.”
Now I didn’t consider that I had just started thinking about the oppression of women. In fact, I thought of myself as having done lots of thinking about it for quite a while, and lots of reading too. But then Ann went on to give an example of something she’d noticed that turned out to be a deeper way of seeing it for me, too.
“I think a lot about being attractive,” Ann said. ”People don’t find the real self of a woman attractive.” And then she went on to give some examples. And I just sat there listening to her describe all the false ways women have to act: playing dumb, always being agreeable, always being nice, not to mention what we had to do to our bodies, with the clothes and shoes we wore, the diets we had to go through, going blind not wearing glasses, all because men didn’t find our real selves, our human freedom, our basic humanity “attractive.”
And I realized I still could learn a lot about how to understand and describe the particular oppression of women in ways that could reach other women in the way this had just reached me. The whole group was moved as I was, and we decided on the spot that what we needed — in the words Ann used — was to “raise our consciousness some more.”