Consciousness Raising: Safe Spaces or Backseat Feminism? How the 60’s brought forth a mass of groups that gave women safe spaces to share, discuss ideas, and express themselves.
Consciousness-raising refers to groups of people who met up during the Women’s Liberation Movement in the late 1960s. These support groups allowed women to discuss personal experiences and feelings in a safe environment with other women, which over time would develop their understanding of feelings of unhappiness being linked to their oppression. These groups allowed feelings and thoughts to be shared that were considered private or taboo too, such as sex and abortion. It allowed women, who perhaps were overwhelmed with what it meant to be female, to meet like-minded people and build resilience together.
These gatherings, which could be informal meetings and open discussions, shared responsibility among its members to create an environment where all experiences were equal. It meant that everyone got to speak and share their thoughts, rather than run the risk of only having confident individuals run the floor. This was purposely in contrast to the strict hierarchies and rule following of the government, which was seen as masculine. In general, consciousness-raising groups were one of many women’s liberation groups fighting for equality for women. Communities would also create their own consciousness-raising groups as it allowed gay communities and non-white communities to meet and challenge their realities with their peers. For lesbian groups, it helped establish friendly social networks and allowed people to challenge gender roles and ‘come out’ to others in a safe environment. However, some lesbians did not want to be involved in formal groups as if seen, they risked verbal and physical abuse from the public. Newspapers even refused to advertise lesbian groups or events until the late 1970s.
For Maori women, groups were formed to challenge politics and encourage health and culture, such as The Māori Women’s Welfare League (MWWL). Another example was Te Hui Wahine which allowed Maori women to discuss equal rights and the need to stop selling land as a reaction to the restrictive European laws.  On the other hand, for some Maori women consciousness-raising and liberation groups, in general, were more of a ‘white middle-class movement’ that was a diversion for bigger challenges Maori people had – such as the judicial system, education and land rights.
Across the world, consciousness-raising groups were attacked for focusing on personal issues rather than wider social problems. Among some black women activists, they criticised some of the consciousness-raising groups of focusing too heavily on love and sex – becoming a ‘white woman’s self-indulgence’. Some liberation groups also called women in consciousness-raising groups ‘living room feminists’ and argued their tactics wouldn’t help bring change. Consciousness-raising was one of many forms of liberation groups that fought for equality. In particular, these groups allowed people to challenge the status quo and develop an awareness of identity in a safe environment – where many women may have felt like they had a voice for the first time.
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Published: August 6th, 2021
Last Modified: November 10th, 2021
Cite as: Lisa Cooke, “Consciousness Raising”, Womens History of New Zealand, Last modified November 2021, https://womenshistorynz.com/conciousness-rasing/