Does “consciousness raising” exist today? I recently asked a group of second-year and third-year law students that question. Their answer was a resounding and collective, “Yes.”
In Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, Catharine MacKinnnon describes consciousness-raising groups as the means by which women came to discover their commonalities during feminism’s “second wave”:
[W]hat may have begun as a working assumption becomes a working discovery: women are a group, in the sense that a shared reality of treatment exists sufficient to provide a basis for identification – at least enough to begin talking about it in a group of women. This often prearticulate consensus shapes a procedure, the purpose of which becomes to unpack the concrete moment-to-moment meaning of being a woman in society that men dominate, by looking at how women see their everyday experience in it. Women’s lives are discussed in all their momentous triviality, that is, as they are lived through. The technique explores the social world each woman inhabits through her speaking of it, through comparison with other women’s experiences, and through women’s experiences of each other in the group itself. Metaphors of hearing and speaking commonly evoke the transformation women experience from silence to voice.
What my students cited as examples of contemporary consciousness-raising bore little resemblance to Professor MacKinnon’s description, however. As “consciousness-raising” experiences, the students cited blogs, CAKE parties (as in A Piece of Cake: Recipes for Female Sexual Pleasure) and informal conversation. They were very clear that apart from CAKE parties, today’s “consciousness raising” takes place in mixed-gender environments. Today’s consciousness raising does and must involve men, my students insisted.
This coeducation of consciousness raising is consistent with Rebecca Walker’s warning over 10 years ago. In her Introduction to the anthology To Be Real Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism (1995), Walker wrote:
[I]f feminism is to continue to be radical and alive, it must avoid reordering the world in terms of any polarity, be it female/male, good/evil, or, that easy allegation of false consciousness which can so quickly and silently negate another’s agency: evolved/unconsciousness.
Inclusive non-polarity has immediate emotional appeal. It allows us to live comfortably with our compromises. Our relationships with particular men — as boyfriends, husbands, lovers, friends, brothers, fathers, mentors and colleagues — coexist with our understanding that men as a group exert privilege over women as a group. But in the contemporary quest for an inclusive feminism, we have lost opportunities, outlets, groups, relationships in which we as women can share our experiences with and of other women. Consciousness raising as Professor MacKinnon described it is an atrophied feminist method that we should reinvigorate.