• May Mundt-Leach

Still Talking Back: young feminists speak about the importance of consciousness-raising

A small group of women, mainly students, stand together outside the university chaplaincy. It is gone 11pm, and the campus is quiet. They hug one another in turn, bidding their goodbyes before filtering off in twos and threes into the night. They walk home, full from servings of tea and homemade cake, reflecting on the evening’s discussion.

It might have been something another woman said. A phrase she used, an analogy about her life that they’d never heard before. Or perhaps it was the pause, the collective intake of breath, after a woman who was often silent, told her story for the first time. Either way, for the women tonight, something may have shifted inside of them. A root, lodged firmly in the soil, has been unearthed.

Such roots, deep and tangled underneath the surfaces of our lives, cannot be unearthed alone. The women are part of a weekly consciousness-raising group, a feminist practice originating in the late 1960s at the beginning of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the US and the UK, which is experiencing a contemporary revival after a period of dormancy.

Meetings are organised by Women Talk Back! Feminist Student Society, formed in September 2018 by women students at the University of Bristol. Every Sunday evening, a wide variety of women - young and old, students and non-students - meet on campus to discuss the issues important to them. Meetings are female-only, publicised on social media and are free to attend. Horizontal decision-making is key, and women choose what topics they would like to discuss through a democratic vote. Newcomers are welcome at every meeting.

Earlier this year, I interviewed five regular participants - Dawn, Sophie, Anna, Jade and Laura* - to learn more about their experiences of feminist consciousness-raising in today’s political climate. Here are some excerpts from those conversations, edited for clarity and precision.

(*all names have been changed)

May: What motivated you to start coming to the CR group?

Anna: It seemed like the kind of thing I wanted but didn’t know I could have. You read about women having done CR [consciousness-raising] in the past, but it feels like something that’s quite far removed from the present, so it was really exciting when I found it. I like the idea of talking about things that affect us and talking about things in a more serious way. I had so many self-esteem issues because of my sexuality. I went to [another university society] and I just remember thinking, how is everyone here so happy? We didn’t have any opportunities to talk about the trauma of what it’s like to be gay or bisexual, or all the difficult things about womanhood.

Jade: I remember thinking women should have more rights than they do and the way women across the world are treated is awful, but I don’t think I had that much interest in feminism before coming to university. My friends at home and university are feminists but they are not so actively involved in groups like this and we don’t often have long discussions about it, so that’s why I wanted to join.

Dawn: I had tried to find feminist societies within the city, so I found some websites and things, but they were not very active - I didn’t feel like I was going to ever see someone face to face, which was one of the things I kind of wanted. Online, it’s harder to know who you’re talking to. When you see somebody in real life, it gives more of a sense of connection. I saw the event on Facebook inviting women to come and talk back, and I thought well let’s give it a go, it won’t hurt.

M: What does feminist consciousness-raising [CR] mean to you?

Sophie: It makes me think of the Women’s Liberation Movement. We’re connected to the women that did that first. I really like the idea of women getting together and doing things for themselves in a safe space where you can say whatever you want and you get support. I think talking is such a powerful thing.

J: The topics that we talk about like pornography, we all know it’s there, but I’d never delved into what’s going on behind the scenes. When I’m reading, for example, an article that’s been shared on Facebook, I only spend 5 or 10 minutes on it. The difference with CR is that we can spend two hours on the subject. You’ll start having a very different opinion and knowledge about that situation. You can develop a better argument what you believe and what should be done about it. It’s understanding something that you wouldn’t necessarily have put your consciousness towards [before]. CR says let’s talk about the gritty things that sometimes people don’t want to talk about.

D: It’s a tricky question, because to me [CR] sounds a bit like, ‘I know better, you’re doing something wrong you haven’t even realised and I’m here to tell you that you need to wake up’. But it’s true, because we do not necessarily understand things in the same way before and after we’ve taken part in this kind of exercise. When we are living our lives separate from other women, and we get these experiences of common misogyny, we don’t pay too much attention to it in the same way. Having a space where we share how we feel, we see how other women are feeling, then we know, ‘okay, so it’s much worse (laughs) than I thought it was’. There is, at the end of the day, an actual consciousness-raising…

Commemorating International Day of Ending Violence Against Women on the 25th November 2018

M: What have been the advantages of participating in CR?

D: Here I’ve had the opportunity to share my experience as a brown woman, and claim my voice and say well this happened to me, so people know. Not to exoticize the experience of not being European or white, but to remind us that we do need this revolution, that there’s sometimes a sense that we now are in an equal society, and that’s a lie (laughs), we’re not. Having the platform to say actually no I’ve experienced this, or I know for a fact that on the 20th January, 87 women have been killed in my country, tells you a lot about the violence against women. I think it’s important to have these conversations where we remind us of the otherness.

S: When you reject dominant ideals in any way, it can be very isolating, like it’s you against the world. Having the group is really good as it allows you to see that there are other women out there who are doing and thinking the same as you and you’re not crazy for doing all these things. You realise you’re not alone. It makes you feel more confident in your own ideas.

A: One of the things I like is the sense of continuity, that women used to do this in the 1960s and 1970s and we’re still doing it now. It’s disheartening that we’re probably talking about a lot of the same stuff as they were, but it’s important that we should still have those spaces. It’s really nice to know that at the end of the week I’ve got somewhere I can go and we can just talk about things as women. I remember after the first meeting we had on a Sunday night, the next morning I just remember walking around, going to classes and I felt like I was in on a secret. I’d never been in an intentional feminist space before which was explicitly women-only, and it felt really magical. I just remember thinking, wow, I’ve got this now and I will have it in the future. So that’s a really nice thing to have and it’s nice to know that you’re a part of it.

M: Why is it important to you that the group is female-only?

A: If it weren’t explicitly for women, then what would we talk about? Even if we’re just talking about periods…would I have those conversations if there were guys in the group? I probably wouldn’t. It gives us a purpose, even if there are differences between us, that’s the thing we have in common.

S: Where there’s men around, I’m more conscious of how I come across. I think that has a big impact on how women go about their daily lives because it’s all about accommodating them and thinking, I won’t say what I think because they won’t like it and they’ll kick off. Women-only spaces are so important because I don’t think in everyday life women are allowed to say whatever they think, even if they then change their mind or if it comes off badly. It’s much more freeing. I think it’s powerful that we’re all being proactive and building relationships with each other without the presence of men.

J: If it was mixed, it would change the flow of the conversation and it would change the atmosphere. There are different problems going on. In our group, we can all understand what it is to feel the threat of rape, to know what it’s like to have the burden of periods when you are at school and how it affects you sometimes, yes, sometimes biology and our bodies do dictate how we live our lives. Being female only, there is more of a shared understanding about certain issues.

M: Have you ever found CR less than positive, or even difficult, at times?

S: We’re discussing things that are quite depressing at times, in the way that we’ve all been treated, and it is always really difficult hearing stories from women that you love and what they’ve gone through. I think it’s important, but it can get quite intense.

D: I know some of the things that happened to me were hardcore, to say the least. I haven’t overcome all of the negative consequences of them in my own life, so I didn’t feel like I could or should burden everyone else in the group with my own stuff. So [in the beginning] I was watching myself, trying not to slip out more than I needed to say so it was not traumatising for other women.

J: There’s definitely an emotional investment in there which in the short term it can be draining, but it’s worth it for what it gives you…it gives you more of an incentive in the long run to keep on raising your voice, contributing to the conversation, going to the groups because there’s a reason for it.

M: Since doing CR, have you experienced changes in your perceptions of society?

Laura: Oh my god, yes (laughs). Once you see it you can’t unsee it. Everywhere I go and everything I do…once you see the way that men have power and control over everything in the world, and the whole world is built for them, and they are entitled to whatever they want because that’s the system that we’re living under, the patriarchy. I look back and I’m like, wow I was naïve, yeah. The rose-tinted glasses are off.

A: It requires you to connect the dots. It’s really interesting to find out that despite there being differences between us, there are things that everyone not only experiences but also has quite a complicated relationship with. By looking at in a structural way it’s easier to be critical of it. It’s difficult realising that something you’re used to is harmful. Maybe don’t want to confront that fact. It’s important that in our group we can say that yes I feel like this, and I feel like this because of such and such.

Hearing someone else express their opinion helps you to realise what you think about it if you haven’t given it much thought before. I remember when we were talking about body hair, and one woman was saying that when she hadn’t shaved, she got more racialised comments, and that was an aspect that I hadn’t really considered before. It’s useful sharing our experiences because it helps to complicate things. You can think, oh maybe I could choose to stop shaving but maybe for other people, it’s not that simple. We’re able to analyse things more deeply but we’re also able to by hearing what other women have to say from different walks of life, it allows us to look at it from different angles.

M: What about in your own life? How has your relationship to other women changed?

J: I am more outspoken than I was before. I can see that other women’s reactions in the group. They are starting to build their confidence speaking in a group situation. You start to get used to that feeling, that I’m amongst ten other people, I’m the one talking, everyone’s looking but I’m still talking and putting this argument out there. That’s so much better than perhaps never having had that experience before. I think women should do it more.

A: One change since I’ve started coming is that I’ve made more of a concerted effort to read more feminist texts which has been nice. It’s given me an extra push to purposefully seek out feminist literature which I hadn’t been doing much before.

L: I feel more a sisterhood with women, day to day. I didn’t really realise it before consciousness-raising. I didn’t think we were all connected in the way that we are. I wouldn’t say I’m a political person either, but this is where I get that in my life. At school I was always randomly put in classes with boys so it’s also been so nice to be friends with women. I feel we’re evolving as people and I don’t want that to stop. Every week I become a bit more of the person I’m meant to be. I guess I’ve been thinking about getting together as a group outside of university, join forces with other women and continue it until we’re old grannies sitting in a circle (laughs).

D: In the past I remember I used to go, women shouldn’t be doing this, they shouldn’t be doing that, whereas now I know why they’re doing it. Now I know that what is needed is not just to tell them, oh wake up, he’s a bad person, but to change the whole system so they have somewhere to go. Not just the women suffering from domestic violence but all women. We are so alienated. We need this consciousness-raising so we understand that we deserve better, that the things that we’ve been told are all lies, and there is a life ahead of us.

S: I respect women a lot more, even women that I don’t know very well. I can just look at them and think I’m sure they’ve gone through something like this. Having that kind of awareness, I think it makes you want to be more empathetic. A lot of what patriarchy does is try to alienate women from each other, and that’s why I think consciousness-raising is really empowering because we’re fighting against that and making something really special.