The Consciousness-Raising Document, Feminist Anthologies, and Black Women in Sisterhood Is Powerful
Norman, Brian, Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies
When Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met with television executives in 1973, the New York Times described it as a "curious 'consciousness-raising' session." That same week, Kathie Sarachild, Redstockings member and probable originator of the phrase sisterhood is powerful, outlined the "weapon" of consciousness-raising (CR) to the Conference of Stewardesses for Women's Rights. Sarachild cited the Times's remark as testimony to the successes and pitfalls of the women's liberation movement (c. 1967-1975) (1) as its CR model entered national parlance and the highest pantheons of male-dominated institutions. (2) Indeed, the CR group is a hallmark in the rise of the modern feminist movement. Social historians now recognize the widespread influence of CR in American society and political theory, and CR was a central tool for fostering women's collectivity during the Second Wave. CR groups generated an important body of writing--often in the form of the CR document--that played a key role in the movement's print culture, which in turn contributed to its goal of sisterhood.
This article examines one CR document by the Black Women's Liberation Group of Mount Vernon and its placement in a key women's liberation anthology, Sisterhood Is Powerful (1970), to illustrate two crucial aspects of women's liberation. First, I will demonstrate that some black feminists demanded race-conscious sisterhood in the Second Wave, and this group drew on the CR document as a tool to articulate that demand. (3) Second, considering the document's appearance in Sisterhood, I examine the implications for race-consciousness in the movement at large and what women's liberation anthologies and print culture could and could not do for race-conscious collectivity. CR documents joined other ephemeral forms such as position statements, manifestoes, and field reports and more literary forms such as personal essays, short stories, and poems in influential anthologies like Notes from the First Year (1968), (4) Notes from the Second Year (1969), (5) The Black Woman (1970), (6) Voices from Women's Liberation (1971), (7) and Woman in Sexist Society (1972), (8) in addition to Sisterhood. (9) These collections testify to how anthologies create a print-based collective space. As CR documents circulated, women's liberation groups reported to each other, thereby enacting the collectivity for which they called. My thesis is that black feminists used the CR document to position their call for race-conscious collectivity in dialogue with the universalist project of sisterhood but without necessarily excluding other groups--including black men--engaged in anti-racist projects; in turn, the feminist anthology Sisterhood Is Powerful aspired to heed their call but was only partially successful in doing so.
This article joins efforts to re-conceive or re-view the Second Wave, especially regarding race-consciousness. Veteran activists and feminist historians are recognizing more fully the presence and impact of women of color in the early Second Wave. They are rewriting its history with documentary and memoir collections that better capture the spirit, internal debates, and importance of women's liberation. (10) The dominant story of women's liberation has been that the movement fostered women's collectivity by erasing, deemphasizing, or in some way abnegating difference into a sisterhood that inevitably placed white women and their experiences at the center. In this vein, the CR group is painted as a phenomenon largely exclusive to small groups of privileged women who may not be interested in addressing difference. For instance, to introduce young women to feminism in Manifesta, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards note that the CR group was a revolutionary new model to connect politics to women's experiences and to show that women had more in common than not, "but over time CR became marginalized; these exchanges among women happened mostly in their own homes and women-only spaces. …