How an ancient technique ignites grassroots activism today.
“Ladies! Circle back up for our final exercise. And, please, bring your compacts. We’re going to be celebrating our beautiful bodies by looking at our vulvas!”
This is how Amazon’s new show “Good Girls Revolt” kicks off its second episode: with a visit to a consciousness-raising meeting. The “Mad Men”-esque, female-centered drama tells the story of News of the Week, a fictional publication for which the men in the office report the news and the women exist to be of service to the men. The show is inspired by Lynn Povich’s book by the same name, which chronicles the true story of the 46 women who sued Newsweek back in 1970 for their right to write for the magazine.
Back to the consciousness-raising meeting: A group of women gather in an apartment to discuss the intersection of their work lives and sex lives and, presumably, to inspect their vaginas with hand mirrors. It is at this meeting that ACLU lawyer Eleanor Holmes Norton floats the idea of a lawsuit: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids employment discrimination on the basis of gender, and Norton believes the women of News of the Week have a case.
From isolation to empathy
Consciousness-raising meetings play a big role in “Good Girls Revolt,” which is appropriate because such meetings have been described as the “backbone of the Women’s Liberation Movement.” During the 1960s, there was an overwhelming feeling of female isolation?—?only 38% of American women worked at the time, so there were limited opportunities for them to come together and unpack their personal problems. Consciousness-raising meetings gave women the chance to share personal stories about health concerns like abortion and birth control, and to speak openly about the oppression and sexism they encountered both at home and in the workplace.
These meetings were also a key part of grassroots feminist activism: They allowed women to brainstorm creative ways to advance the movement and to bond with and inspire each other. The meetings were largely ungoverned; rarely was there a formal leader and the emphasis was on allowing everyone to speak about their own experiences free from judgment or interruption.
Talking circles throughout history
Consciousness-raising didn’t originate with the feminist movement. These gatherings or “talking circles” have been used to help govern and make decisions throughout human history. They are inspired by techniques used in southern Africa, pre-monarchal Europe and?—?most notably?—?by First Nations in North America. Indeed, indigenous people used talking or “council” circles to such great effect, they eventually led to the Iroquois Confederacy, the oldest continuous democracy in the world.
In her book, “My Life on the Road,” Gloria Steinem talks about a trip she took to India after college, where she experienced talking circles firsthand:
“It was the first time I witnessed the ancient and modern magic of groups in which anyone may speak in turn, everyone must listen and consensus is more important than time.”
The feminists got the idea for consciousness-raising meetings from another marginalized group: Talking circles were a crucial part of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-to-late 50s and early 60s. Black churches and their religious leaders played a critical role in mobilizing and organizing their parishioners. Church was a place where black congregants could safely “testify” and express their grievances. Black religious leaders then used this feedback to help shape and articulate the messages of the Civil Rights Movement.
Talking circles go rogue
These days, talking circles still exist, but they’ve taken on a more modern form: secret Facebook groups. Women create these groups as an outlet to share their stories and experiences, away from the eyes of those who might refute them. Like the talking circles and consciousness-raising meetings that came before, these Facebook groups are capable of creating real change.
In the fall of 2015, women in Los Angeles’s comedy community used a private Facebook group as a safe place for women to come forward and speak out about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault within the scene.
The Binders is an invite-only group that gives female and gender-non-conforming writers a space to network and bounce ideas off one another.
Pantsuit Nation, an invite-only, mixed-gendered group of over three million people, was used in the run-up to the 2016 election as a place where Clinton supporters could swap stories and safely cheer on their candidate, without fear of being trolled.
Talking circles have also found success within schools. Organizations like Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth work to reduce punitive justice in favor of open communication. When problems arise, students, teachers, parents and relevant administrators sit in a circle and pass around a personal object. Only when a person is in possession of the talking piece is she or he allowed to speak.
This technique, which borrows heavily from First Nation traditions, has been incredibly effective?—?according to a UC Berkley Law study, RJOY’s 2007 middle school pilot program reduced suspensions by 87%. The program also helped cut back on violence and expulsions, while increasing graduation rates and test scores. Most importantly, the program trains middle school students to facilitate their own conflicts through communication and empathy. Similar approaches have been attempted in schools in New York, Chicago and other cities across the country.
Women in Revolt
On March 23rd, 1970, the 46 Newsweek women held a press conference to announce that they were bringing a lawsuit against the publication for gender discrimination. The date of the press conference was timed to coincide with the release of a new issue of the magazine?—?the cover story was called “Women in Revolt;” it detailed the rise of the fledgling feminist movement. Since the magazine mandated that no female employees were allowed to write, the story was written by a female freelance writer.
The success of the Newsweek lawsuit and similar civil rights wins can be traced directly back to talking circles. When people sit in a room and truly listen to one another, the potential for increased awareness is immeasurable. And when we take that awareness and transform it into action, that’s when the world starts to change.