Consciousness Raising on the Women’s Pages

Kathie Sarachild was a powerful voice in the fledgling women’s movement of the 1960s. She coined the phrase Sisterhood is Powerful. She held the Women’s Liberation banner aloft at the protest of the 1968 Miss America Pageant. She gave the keynote speech when the New York Radical Women held a “burial of traditional womanhood” at a counter-protest during the 1968 Jeannette Rankin Brigade. And she was a powerful leader in the consciousness-raising movement that became a defining aspect of Women’s Liberation. In a 1973 talk, she recalled that when the idea of “consciousness raising” first surfaced during a meeting, she didn’t think much of it. But as Ann Forer expanded on her ideas, Kathie changed her mind:

And I just sat there listening to her describe all the false ways women have to act: playing dumb, always being agreeable, always being nice, not to mention what we had to do to our bodies, with the clothes and shoes we wore, the diets we had to go through, going blind not wearing glasses, all because men didn’t find our real selves, our human freedom, our basic humanity “attractive.” And I realized I still could learn a lot about how to understand and describe the particular oppression of women in ways that could reach other women in the way this had just reached me. The whole group was moved as I was, and we decided on the spot that what we needed – in the words Ann used – was to “raise our consciousness some more.”

And so a critical activity of the women’s movement began. Women gathered in meeting rooms or homes, in groups large and small, sometimes with coffee or drinks, often with children in tow – but always without men – to describe their lives. For many, this was the beginning of an awakening to the condition of being female in America – there was the famous “click” as the stories of others cast a disturbing light on their own lives.

This was the cutting edge of the movement. Many of these women embraced the “radical” label. Their talk of male chauvinism led to accusations of man-hating. Their meetings were labeled as bitch sessions. It might be hard to see a place in this consciousness-raising movement for the writers and editors of traditional women’s pages. Those pages that included recipes, girdle ads, club notices, and engagement announcements.

But that kind of belief seriously underestimates those newspaperwomen. No, they sometimes didn’t see themselves as feminists. They wrote with great knowledge about tulle bridal gowns. Many still wore white gloves when reporting on club events. But in their own way, they were as radical as Kathie Sarachild as she lifted the Women’s Liberation banner at the Miss American pageant.

These editors and writers of the women’s pages contributed to consciousness raising in several ways.  As journalists, their most fundamental goal was to report the news, and report it they did. In 1969, Ellen Goodman was a reporter for the women’s section of the Boston Globe and she was sent to cover an early meeting of Cell 16 – a radical group advocating a separatist agenda. The press was being excluded from the meeting, so Ellen snuck in. She recalls:

I remember being conscious of being there as a journalist and the interloper, and I remember covering it as a scene story, because it was. There was a lot of karate and a lot of “up against the wall.” And yet there was a kernel of having been introduced to some of the ideas previously more civil rights concept that was very appealing to me.

The story was published on the front page of a Sunday edition with a one-word headline “Women.”

Via headlines like this and basic reporting, women’s writers were taking the radical ideas of consciousness raising groups into the homes of women across the country. And women’s writers and editors also wrote more personal accounts of encounters with feminism. Maggie Savoy wrote movingly about the women’s movement in her Los Angeles Times columns. Marie Anderson dropped issues about women’s struggles into her typically light “Monday Musings” columns and wrote to a reader in 1969 that “I do keep plugging away at this business of trying to become accepted as a person, not a sex, and I think eventually there will be changes.”

Perhaps the most noteworthy work of women’s editors in consciousness raising, though, took place off the newspaper pages and in the communities those newspapers served.

In 1957, before Betty Freidan wrote The Feminist Mystique, before consciousness-raising was a term of either freedom or derision, when Kathie Sarachild was just 14 years old, Vivian Castleberry began to hold “homemaker panels” as part of her work as women’s editor of the Dallas Times Herald. Women were invited to attend “a full day program where we can learn how you manage your life, and maybe help you learn from other women who are equally involved, some of the things that you want to do with your life.”

Consciousness raising, 1950s style.

The panels continued for 25 years. Somewhere along the way, as Castleberry’s “feminism grew,” the name was changed to women’s panels. And there is little doubt that consciousness was indeed raised at these newspaper-sponsored meetings. Castleberry remembers:

If they ever participated, they were never the same again because we talked about what our potential is in this world. We talked about where we need to hold power. Where we need to take the power that we have, how to use it, how to increase it, how we include other women. We’re always, I always struggled for inclusiveness.

Newspaper management wanted to be sure that traditional homemakers were included in the panels, and Castleberry was always sure to oblige. “Every year I would very carefully pick her. At least one. Sometimes more than one. Every year we would just blow her mind. And she would go away wondering what hit her.”

Meetings like this were promoted by communities and newspapers across the country. In 1971, my mother wrote a column about a similar gathering in Michigan:

The teach-in was conceived and designed by women and had a community campus for its setting. The women came from all around – students, housewives, and career gals braved some of the worst blasts of winter to find their way across a frozen campus to the discussion spot. They aired their ideas and frustrations and hopes for a better life. And most decided the meeting was worthwhile.

Consciousness raising, 1970s women’s section style.

So, yes, in many ways these editors and reporters were as radical as Kathie Sarachild. They understood that liberation would begin with an understanding of “the realities of our own lives.” On the pages of the newspaper and in their community activities, they opened eyes and moved the women’s movement forward.

But … as women straddling that world split open by women’s liberation, it was hard for these newspaperwomen to totally let go of old values. They weren’t particularly strident. They weren’t about to embrace a separatist philosophy. And they maintained a sense of humor about it all. Here’s how my mother ended that column about the blizzard-beset community teach-in:

This newspaper’s young reporter was a bit delayed in returning, and we were beginning to feel concerned. When she finally showed, one of the men asked if she was liberated. “Yes, I guess so,” she said, “but I was stuck in the snow in the parking lot and couldn’t find a man to get me out.”

So here this, ye emancipated. When we say liberated, we mean from snowdrifts, too.

Thanks to the Women in Journalism Collection at the State Historical Society of Missouri and to the Washington Press Club Oral History Project – these archives of primary source material are invaluable.

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