2 – Consciousness-Raising

The next chapter continues the history of feminism. It begins by describing how early feminism took place in what hooks describes as “consciousness-raising groups” – groups of women gathering in homes to share their stories of oppression and discuss how to fight sexism. These groups started initially as a place for women to vent their anger and collectively heal the pain of their oppression. They were places of discussion and disagreement, where approaches to understanding gender exploitation first emerged. It was here that women learned about “patriarchy as a system of domination, how it became institutionalized and how it was perpetuated and maintained.”

hooks explains that feminist thinking soon fought its way into acedemia, in many cases being taught by women who had been part of the civil rights, gay rights, and early feminist movements. Most of them did not have doctorates, but as hooks recounts, many saw the need to gain higher degrees, and saw this “commitment to women’s studies as political action.” But as hooks continues, it is clear that this shift towards academia had drawbacks:

Before too long the women’s studies classroom had replaced the free-for-all consciousness-raising group. Whereas women from various backgrounds, those who worked solely as housewives or in service jobs, and big-time professional women, could be found in diverse consciousness-raising groups, the academy was and remains a site of class privilege.

hooks describes a shift towards the mainstream, that diluted the radical aspects of feminism. She points out that more radical voices were displaced as feminism became entrenched in academia, where not only were “privileged white middle-class women” the majority within the movement, but the “conservative corporate structure” of colleges and universities exerted its influence.

The dismantling of the consciousness-raising group all but erased the notion that one had to learn about feminism and make an informed choice about embracing feminist politics to become a feminist advocate.

hooks points out that the idea that one must examine one’s own sexism was lost from the movement, and a shift occurred towards focusing on male domination and thinking of women as victims. hooks is adament that this is harmful to the movement:

Without confronting internalized sexism women who picked up the feminist banner often betrayed the cause in their interactions with other women.

hooks advocates for a return of the consciousness-raising groups based on the AA model. She also highlights the importance of men’s consciousness-raising groups, and the need to counter the commonly held notion that feminism is anti-male with the explanation that feminism is anti-sexist.

A male who has divested of male privilege, who has embraced feminist politics, is a worthy comrade in struggle, in no way a threat to feminism, whereas a female who remains wedded to sexist thinking and behavior infiltrating feminist movement is a dangerous threat.

She concludes by emphasizing that confronting internalized sexism is a necessary step for anyone who chooses feminist politics, and that the movement will be undermined if we do not begin by confronting “the enemy within.”

As a male with an interest in feminism this chapter was quite encouraging. It clearly and plainly said that men are necessary to feminism. It still sounds like a tough battle for each of us to confront and transform our sexist thinking, something that I imagine does not happen overnight. But what exactly does it mean to “divest of male privilege?” If it means giving up the belief that I deserve that privilege or that it is natural than I’m there. If it means somehow removing that privilege than I’ve no idea what that looks like. Privilege isn’t something you put on in the morning and can choose to leave in the drawer. Yes certainly there are times it is called upon intentionally, but even when you have no intention of wielding you’re privilege it is often foisted upon you by others, and even more often silently hovering over you protecting you from experiences or sensations you aren’t even aware you have the privilege of avoiding.

Do you agree with hooks? Has the need to confront internalized sexism been missing from feminism? What do you notice when you start asking yourself what sexist thoughts or beliefs you might be holing onto?

Previous: 1 – Feminist Politics: Where We Stand

Next: 3 – Sisterhood Is Still Powerful

Series: Feminism Is For EveryBody – Series

Feminism in academia: for better or worse? (Source: Juan Carlos Monge)

Feminism in academia: for better or worse? (Source: Juan Carlos Monge)

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One response to “2 – Consciousness-Raising

  1. I love this woman. Thank you for including this: “A male who has divested of male privilege, who has embraced feminist politics, is a worthy comrade in struggle, in no way a threat to feminism, whereas a female who remains wedded to sexist thinking and behavior infiltrating feminist movement is a dangerous threat.”

    Honestly, I think that sums up the main obstacle that we face nowadays in feminism. It is so easy for people to play the “but that’s not sexist because I have a female friend who says it’s OK” card, because they’re not lying. They have a female friend who upholds the patriarchy–or, actually, they probably have lots. And because privilege is so comfortable, it’s hard for men to be excited about giving it up, unless they can see some consistent indication that it’s the right thing to do. I can count on one hand the conversations I’ve had with my (female) roommate that didn’t have some variation of the phrase, “Men are like this, and women are like that, and there’s got to be some truth in that” in it. She even calls herself a feminist. So this is a huge battle, I’d say.

    And to be fair, I’ve done it, too. I used to subscribe to most of the internalized sexism that hooks writes about. For most of my life, I believed that I was less valuable because I wasn’t thin and beautiful. A woman’s job is to be pretty, so that they can marry young and be supportive wives for the real protagonists of this world: men. I was failing at my job. I assumed that the fact that I wasn’t anyone’s girlfriend at any given time must have been because I wasn’t pretty, and so I would torture myself to look a certain way. When I finally gave up on that nonsense and came to love my body exactly as it was, I (not surprisingly) was so much happier that suddenly people did see me as attractive. Internalized sexism had made me hate myself, and by extension, had made me someone people didn’t want to be around unless it was to exert their domination over me. Not cool. I’m really glad to have found my voice and confidence through being able to see a spade for a spade.

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