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.
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.
group is the first
place where their
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