Academic journal article Communication Studies

The Rhetorical Functions of Consciousness-Raising in Third Wave Feminism

Academic journal article Communication Studies

The Rhetorical Functions of Consciousness-Raising in Third Wave Feminism

Article excerpt

"Third wave" feminism is a phrase commonly used among feminist scholars today to distinguish among earlier periods of feminist activism. (1) As an emerging feminist movement, the third wave is still in the process of defining itself and acknowledges that it is both similar to and different from previous waves of feminist thought and activity. For example, consciousness-raising, a rhetorical strategy utilized extensively by feminists in the 1970s to give voice to women's experiences, remains an important part of developing feminist awareness today. For many feminists and other social critics, consciousness-raising is central to the process of creating a critical awareness of our culture. Although some studies have addressed the rhetorical functions of consciousness-raising, (2) little attention has been paid to the ways in which the process of consciousness-raising has evolved and been adapted by contemporary feminists.

Kathie Sarachild is credited with developing feminist consciousness-raising as a small group process in the early 1970s (Rosen, 2000). Although "second wave" feminists did not invent consciousness-raising, it was a rhetorical strategy that they deliberately cultivated to enable women to share personal experiences of gender discrimination in conversations and meetings designed specifically for these purposes. Sarachild's (1970) original conception of consciousness-raising entailed women who met in small groups to share their experiences through personal testimony in order to relate to one another and generalize experiences. Consciousness-raising, although conducted in these informal groups, included organizers who encouraged each woman to contribute her own experiences. The groups then discussed forms of resisting oppression, actions, and organizing new consciousness-raisings groups (Sarachild, 1970). The Redstockings Collective (1970) argued that this process was a way to unite women so that they could understand that their individual experiences were not isolated events and to eliminate self-blame. Kamen describes second wave consciousness-raising as a process where women "learned to ask new questions about themselves, built self-esteem and a sense of entitlement to opportunity, gave names to their common experiences and discovered that they were not alone. Consciousness-raising was a foundation for change ..." (1991, p. 4). Consciousness-raising for women was rooted in recognizing personal oppression (Sarachild, 1970; Rosen, 2000).

Karlyn Kohrs Campbell's 1973 groundbreaking article, "The Rhetoric of Women's Liberation: An Oxymoron," describes a consciousness-raising process designed to address affirmation "of the affective, of the validity of personal experience, of the necessity for self-exposure and self-criticism, of the value of dialogue, and of the goal of autonomous, individual decision making" (1973, p. 79). Although consciousness-raising usually occurred in small groups, other forms of sharing individual experiences such as essays, articles, and lectures also contributed to the process of consciousness-raising. (3) Consciousness-raising allowed women to bridge their separation or address the fact that their lives were often under the control of their husbands, fathers, or male employers (Campbell, 1973). Women often had negative self-images, in part because of their lack of voice and subordination to men (Campbell, 1973). Furthermore, Campbell contends "Because oppressed groups tend to develop passive personality traits, consciousness-raising is an attractive communication style to people working for social change" (1989, p. 13).

In most accounts, the rhetorical strategy of consciousness-raising has been defined as a small group process. For instance, Cheseboro, Cragan, and McCullough define consciousness-raising as "a personal, face-to-face interaction which appears to create new psychological orientations for those involved in the process.... the personal face-to-face interaction technique is selected because it is consistent with the radical revolutionary's belief that shared personal experience should generate political theory and action" (1973, pp. …

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