Women Talk Back! Feminist Student Society
Consciousness-Raising as a Guiding Principle
Consciousness-raising, often known as ‘CR’, is a method of feminist activism which involves using women’s lived experience to generate a wider structural analysis of the status of women under patriarchy. It is usually done in small groups, in homes or community spaces.
CR arose at the beginning of the second-wave of the Western feminist movement, as many women who had been politicised through mixed leftist groups in the early 1960s left due to the dismissal and trivialisation of their concerns by men in the groups. Consciousness-raising was a central part of the newly-formed Women’s Liberation groups and began to reveal the extent of women’s exploitation and appropriation under capitalist patriarchy. Groups sprang up across towns and cities, advertised in feminist periodicals such as Spare Rib and through word of mouth.
Consciousness-raising allows women to identify concrete experiences of structures of domination and subordination in their own lives and in their relationships to others. Meetings are structured around four guiding processes, first proposed by Pamela Allen. These are: opening up, sharing, analysing and abstracting (see image below). These processes allow women to engage in the truth of their lives, as they live through it. Consciousness-raising, working from ‘the ground up’, differs from traditional patriarchal methods of knowledge-creation. In doing so, the personal becomes political, and systems of power - so often white and male - are exposed.
The Legacy, Challenges and Future of Consciousness-Raising
It is clear that consciousness-raising inspired much of the feminist theory and militancy that emerged during the 1960s through to the mid-1980s. Women - many for the first time - were beginning to articulate a vision of themselves that was not in relation to men. Whilst CR groups often served as a source of emotional and practical support for each other, they also presented women with new possibilities for radical social change and alternative ways of living and acting.
Through studying the legacy of consciousness-raising in the second wave, several questions emerge. A central challenge for contemporary groups is their ability to honour differences between women as a source of power. Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde observed that as the focus of many original groups was on identifying and tackling misogyny, women did not often face the impact of the persistence of racism, classism and heterosexism between women within and outside of the feminist movement.
Another question to consider is what consciousness-raising today intends to achieve. It is argued that to avoid being limited to relatively small groups of middle-class, urbanite women, the vision of consciousness-raising must extend beyond the tendency to psychologise women’s individual relationships to oppression, and instead seek to identify the hierarchical social relations that govern capitalist, patriarchal societies, leading to action and change.
According to feminist scholar Catherine Mackinnon’s words, consciousness-raising ‘moves the reference point for truth and thereby the definition of reality as such’. Given the current political climate, it is clear that for women, this is no more sorely needed than today. It is up to us to create a new world, starting by speaking up, by talking back to the patriarchal powers that so badly want to suppress our voices.
 Scottish feminist writer Claire Heuchan has written extensively on the persistence of racism within mainstream and radical feminist movements in the UK today.
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