Many women in the early days of the Women’s Liberation Movement felt bewildered about what it meant to be a woman, what they were doing with their lives and why. Discover how consciousness-raising groups helped participants to discuss their feelings, needs and desires.

Consciousness-raising groups allowed women to discuss their feelings, needs and desires. These included feelings perceived as private, taboo or shameful. In women-only spaces, women explored experiences of sex, abortion, relationships and families, often for the first time.

Jalna Hanmer talks about consciousness-raising groups

Consciousness-raising and campaigning

Feminists who engaged in consciousness-raising (C-R) usually combined this with other campaigning work. Many women active in the Women’s Liberation Movement have emphasised that the point of C-R was to politicise the personal, rather than to personalise the political.

Consciousness-raising was a way of discovering how and what women thought, and building individual and collective resilience: what was meant, at least at first, by ‘sisterhood’. Many women in the early days of the WLM felt bewildered about what it meant to be a woman, what they were doing with their lives and why. However, they strongly recognised political and economic inequalities between women and men, and among women themselves. More practically C-R was a way of ensuring that all women in a group meeting spoke, not just the most vocal, articulate or bold. Democracy was a living principle of the WLM, however difficult and inadequate it proved in practice, and C-R was one way this democracy was put into practice.

Small-group democracy has been a characteristic practice in democratic and utopian movements since the civil war sects in the 17th century, and the late 18th-century political reform movements in Britain, Europe and the USA. C-R also had affinities with the Maoist practice of ‘speaking bitterness’, when aggrieved people were encouraged to talk about their problems at meetings. However, the UK practice was primarily influenced by the American feminist and student movements, where C-R was regularly employed as a method of political activism.

Catherine Hall talks about consciousness-raising groups for women in Birmingham

Criticism of consciousness-raising

Some left-wing activists and some feminists criticised consciousness-raising as ‘navel-gazing’. They argued that time would be better spent tackling wider social problems than discussing personal issues. Supporters of C-R believed, however, that wider social problems are discovered when individual experience is shared. Gail LewisStella Dadzie and Mukami McCrum speak of a general suspicion among black women activists about the more individualised forms of consciousness-raising, particularly when they focused on love and sex, which seemed at times to be a white woman's self-indulgence. In 1971 the Black Women's Action Committee in the Black Unity and Freedom Party wrote about a ‘new and higher consciousness’ that black women could gain through common struggles in this way: ‘Such consciousness must inevitably give the black woman a new “self image”. But of even greater importance is the contribution which this process must make to the black movement in particular and the revolutionary movement in general’ (The Black Woman, reprinted in The Body Politic: Women's Liberation in BritainMichelene Wandor [ed.] London: Stage 1, 1972). This general criticism has also been made by many activists in poorer countries, notably triggering a large debate among African delegates at the United Nations fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. Lewis, Dadzie and McCrum’s oral histories show that these were complex positions. Activists were constantly juggling priorities but, in the long run, personal forms of change have been part of all women’s movements, though not always in the same way. You can hear more about black women’s activism in the Black Cultural Archives’ ‘Heart of the Race’ oral history collection.

Gail Lewis talks about the Brixton Black Women's Group

Sharing personal experience today

In contemporary society the mass media and digital media deal with issues, particularly concerning sex and relationships, through advice columns, chat shows and online social networks to a far greater extent than ever before. In the 1960s this would have been socially very shocking. Do you think that this form of sexual and emotional conversation, arguably a greater freedom to talk openly about such things in the public arena, can be seen as a form of consciousness-raising? Do you think there is any value in sharing personal experiences in this way? How important is context to confession?

  • Sisterhood and After Research Team
  • This article was researched and written by the Sisterhood and After Research Team, who are experts in the history of contemporary feminism and narrative life methods. The team included Abi Barber, Dr Polly Russell, Dr Margaretta Jolly, Dr Rachel Cohen, Dr Freya Johnson-Ross and Dr Lucy Delap. Further information about the team and project is available in the About the project section.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.