In the 1970s, many women participated in “consciousness-raising” circles in which they discussed the impact of sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia on their lives (though not necessarily using those terms). In discussing their experiences as women living in American culture, they found that issues they thought were individual were in fact collective. Many women hated something about their bodies, and found that they were not alone—most women felt they fell short of the cultural standard. And, most vitally, through shared experience women learned that sexual assault, rape, and domestic violence were widespread, and that talking about it could help them create systems and laws to protect victims and stop perpetrators. Those consciousness-raising discussions were a catalyst for change, and we need them—or something like them—for the next push toward equality. Fortunately, we’ve already got it goin on—online.
Third-wave feminism has been all about the blogosphere. The Crunk Feminist Collective, Jezebel, Feministing, Femininiste, Racialious, Latina Feminista—feminist discussion is alive and well online, and has been for a while. And this online activity has a physical component, people with feet on the ground who are fighting to protect women’s rights. This has been true, in one form or another, since the 1990s. What’s different now is that feminism and its issues are starting to seep into mainstream discussion via a version of consciousness-raising that, at its best, leads to activism:
- Writing and Blogging: Each time a blog post or article “goes viral” because it speaks to something many women experience or yearn for, we are affirming ourselves and calling out sexism, even if we don’t necessarily use those words.
- Campaigns: Some people are getting seriously organized out there. Miss Representation’s #NotBuyingIt campaign has had quite the effect, as has The Brave Girls Alliance’s #BraveGirlsWant. There’s a petition circulating for truth in advertising. And there are groups galore that are fighting sexism and racism and working to empower girls and women, both online and off.
- Mainstream Discussion: From having it all to leaning in, from Miley Cyrus to Beyonce, we are talking about feminism and what it fights against. Each time a mainstream discussion is steeped in the assumptions of privilege, many writers point out that privilege, and discuss the ways in which racism, classism, and homophobia create barriers in their lives.
- Political Discussion: From marriage equality to equal pay to rape culture and violence against women, we are living in a time of political turmoil about how we see gender roles, and the turmoil is only going to heat up.
- Feminist Discussion: American feminism has always been led by white, heterosexual, middle-class women, many of whom pushed aside the concerns of women of color, lesbians, and poor women. The current feminist movement is repeating this pattern, as is clear from the discussions around the #solidarityisforwhitewomen and #believesurvivors hashtags. The next push toward equality must be truly inclusive. The catalyst for change will not be a discussion of white women and work, but instead a discussion of the barriers that limit all women’s lives, restricting men’s lives in the process.
This online activity has had some wonderful results—we’ve seen a reduction of sexism in some advertising (most notably during the Superbowl) and an uptick in national discussion about what women can accomplish and what a family really looks like. But this is just the beginning.
The most substantive move we’ve had toward equality has been the removal of laws against gay marriage. That change is coming slowly because of the legal work of years by people whose lives are directly affected. Discussion has mattered here a great deal—it always matters, in helping people to understand their own perceptions and the perceptions of others. Consciousness is the first step, but conscious action is the next one.
As we awaken from the slumber that patriarchy encourages, we must remember the purpose of our awakening—to bring equality. We can’t bring it if we’re endlessly debating what is sexist or racist, or if we allow discussions of privilege and power to derail or restrict activism. We can’t bring it if we think that the only tool of change is the market—the market has always been a tool of backlash, and will remain so, at least in part, unless we insist otherwise as we continue to respect free speech. We can’t bring equality if we are preoccupied with the symptoms, rather than the causes, of inequality.
It is my hope that our virtual consciousness-raising will move to the next level soon, and that more of us will join the people with their feet on the ground, walking toward change. Because it is time to bring it.