Some general guidelines evolved over time and were shared among groups. They included a conscious decision to exclude men to avoid domination. As well, it was important to hear from all the members and to stay focused on one topic. As each women shared with the group her experience of oppression, the other participants were encouraged to avoid invidious comparisons or judgments on what was said. Hearing women's stories was not for the purpose of therapy, it was to listen to what women had to say and to collectively analyze their situation, not analyze the women themselves. Women in these groups were considered equals and as each woman spoke she was allowed to complete her statement without interruption. As the topics for discussion were raised, such as their experience of work or childrearing, an analysis was made of who and what would have an interest in maintaining the oppression of women.

A small but insightful book, Free Space, written as a collective effort by a San Francisco consciousness raising group, offers a powerful commentary on the process (3). This group discovered that consciousness raising was not about solving personal problems, but about developing an ideology out of which a program would emerge with its roots, but not its totality, grounded in a solid understanding of women's condition.

The process was both painful and exhilarating, and elicited the understanding that theories which could not be rooted in concrete experience were not useful; and for the concrete to be understood, it must be subjected to the process of analysis and abstraction. In their analysis of the "free space" of consciousness raising, the San Francisco group noted four distinct phases: opening up, sharing, analyzing, and abstracting. The ongoing nature of these phases was emphasized with one phase never really being completed before the next is begun.

Opening up
This is the beginning phase of the group in which trust and intimacy are developed. Feelings are acknowledged as feelings and no judgment is made. For many women, the group is the first place where their feelings and experiences are not ridiculed. The group shares a commitment to confidentiality, regular attendance, and arriving on time.

For many
women, the
group is the first
place where their
feelings and
experiences are
not ridiculed.

The initial phase of opening up answers the need for expression, but the emphasis then shifts to one of sharing and teaching one another. At this time, the understanding of the common nature of women's problems begin to develop, the need for collective action appreciated, and the myths about women's inferiority and male superiority challenged.

Once the group collects the raw data, the next step is to analyze the why and how, and to develop the strategies for fighting women's oppression. This phase moves the group toward objective analysis of the concrete experience, but this is difficult because women operate so much within the subjective realm and are, at times, so isolated. Also during this phase married women began to develop identities independent of their spouses and children. Other sources of information such as studies and books are introduced, but always tested against the women's own experiences. Free Space emphasizes that this stage of analysis should follow the first two, guided by the principle of seeking answers from women's experience and not from any preconceived theory.

This phase did not occur until the group had been meeting for over a year. They described it as the purest form of free space in which the totality of the nature of women's condition is appreciated. With this synthesis of analysis, a vision of potential develops. Out of this holistic view of the oppression of women comes the ability to make decisions and establish priorities regarding the problems to work on and strategies to develop.

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