I Small Group Pedagogy Consciousness Raising in Conservative Times
This essay applies some of the historical lessons about feminism to teaching. Long before the consciousness-raising groups of second-wave feminism, women relied on personal networks and separate organizations to support the work of transforming society. In teaching “Introduction to Feminist Studies,”I sought to have the students, both male and female, rely on each other’s insights in small self-reflective groups. Over the years since I began to assign small groups, national politics have become even more conservative, but students enter this class with less fear of feminism than in the past. They also increasingly have adopted the multiple identities associated with postmodern, queer, and third-wave feminist politics. Lesbianism, however, remains a tense subject for many of them.
in the fall of 1988, I began teaching the introductory course in the Feminist Studies Program at Stanford University. “Introduction to Feminist Studies: Issues and Methods” (fs 101) had grown from a small discussion class to a medium-sized lecture course with separate section meetings for sixty-six students. The subject matter ranged from the origins of sexual inequality and the history of feminism to contemporary paid and unpaid labor, race and feminism, reproductive rights and sexuality, and violence against women. Because many of these topics raise both emotional and political sensitivities, I felt that fs 101 required a forum in which students could discuss their personal reactions to classroom learning. Even more than the U. S. women’s history classes I had taught previously, “Introduction to Feminist Studies” permitted, and indeed necessitated, the integration of the personal and the academic.1
In preparing the course, I wondered how I might use consciousness raising (c. r.) in the classroom to achieve this end and whether my 1970s experience of c. r. would work with the more conservative students of the late 1980s.
Previously published as Estelle B. Freedman, “Small Group Pedagogy: Consciousness Raising in Conservative Times,” nwsa Journal 2, no. 4 (Autumn 1990): 603-23. Reprinted by permission of Indiana University Press.
By “consciousness raising” I mean the sharing of personal experience with others in order to understand the larger social context for the experience and to transform one’s intellectual or political understandings of it. Once before, in a women’s history class, I had experimented with the explicit use of c. r. in the classroom. On the day we discussed documents from the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, I spontaneously turned the class into a consciousness-raising session. We formed a circle and spoke in turn about how one article or idea in the readings had affected each of us personally. The experiment took over an entire week of the course, as students shared feelings of both anger and inspiration, revealed personal experiences with sexism on campus, and reacted to the differences that emerged in their views. The evaluations of the exercise were enthusiastic, so the next year, I built a consciousness-raising session into the syllabus. Again, the students reported that they not only understood the historical experience of feminism more clearly but also made important connections between the past and the world around them.
In addition to this and other positive models, I had more defensive reasons for incorporating c. r. into the introductory course.2 The preceding year, a hostile male student had tried unsuccessfully to disrupt fs 101, and at the University of Washington, one male student had placed the entire women’s studies program under attack by claiming that classes discriminated against men. I wanted to forestall such disruptions as much as possible by creating a place outside the classroom where emotional responses might be shared with peers and not simply directed at faculty. Aside from hostile students, I worried about the feelings of alienation that students of minority race, class, ethnicity, sexual identity, or physical ability would experience in a predominantly white, middle-class, heterosexual, and able-bodied classroom.3 Consciousness-raising groups might allow these students to acknowledge their feelings and make personal and intellectual connections between gender and other forms of social hierarchy.
To faculty who are veterans of 1970s women’s studies classes or who work in public universities or small liberal arts colleges committed to teaching, my rationale for incorporating c. r. into the classroom may seem unnecessary. But I work within an extremely elitist university in which pedagogy is rarely discussed and academic advancement depends almost exclusively on scholarship. At this university, opponents of the term “feminist studies” shudder at such a self-conscious reference to the political nature of knowledge and associate feminist scholarship with a political radicalism they consider antiintellectual. Indeed, even a colleague at a feminist studies meeting reacted to
my plans for setting up c. r. groups by warning that it was inappropriate and unprofessional for me to attempt to do “therapy” in my classes.4 Students who signed up for fs 101 in the fall of 1988 arrived in a state of extreme fear of feminism. Most associated the term with an unpleasant militancy and refused to accept the label “feminist” even if they believed in the liberal goals of the movement.
In this setting, I feel that the use of c. r. has to be handled carefully, not only for its pedagogical value but also for the political well-being of the course and the program. Even on more liberal campuses, these conservative times might make faculty wary of the explicit use of c. r. groups. I believe that now more than ever, however, we need to confront students’ fears of feminism and social change. As women’s studies courses become part of general education and distribution requirements on many campuses, we can expect more conservative or nonfeminist students in our classes. From my experience teaching fs 101, I believe that c. r. can be an extremely effective way to address the fear of feminism held by many of these students. This essay, then, is an effort to share my own and the students’ experience with c. r. in the late 1980s in order to encourage the careful incorporation of personal experience into academic classes wherever this might be appropriate.
with advice from feminist colleagues, I devised a structure for making c. r. central to fs 101. Required biweekly group meetings supplemented an already demanding course — three lectures, heavy reading, a weekly discussion section, and three papers during the quarter.5 Thus, to make clear from the outset that the groups were not extracurricular but integral to the process of learning, I spelled out on the syllabus the rules for attendance and the format of sessions and I stressed the importance of a final paper evaluating the groups. On the recommendation of several colleagues, this paper would not be graded lest students feel judged for either their emotions or their politics. Knowing Stanford students’ sensitivities about language and politics, I called the process “small groups.” Although I referred to consciousness raising in my lectures, students continued to speak of their “small groups” rather than “c. r. groups.”
The major dilemma I faced, however, was not about naming but about whether to create random groups that would mix students from various backgrounds or to create minority support groups — for women or students of color, lesbians and/or gay men, or disabled, male, ethnic, or working-class students. As much as I wanted to diminish minority alienation, I felt that it was more important for each group to confront the issues of difference with as much firsthand information as possible. In addition, many students had multiple or overlapping identities; constructing separate groups would force them to choose only one basis of support. For these reasons, the groups were formed by a random sorting of names into thirteen sets of four or five students each. (I hoped that the small size, compared to discussion sections of up to twenty-one students, would make scheduling easier, allow students to meet in a dorm room, and help to build friendships.) Each group had to meet five times during the ten-week quarter, for a session lasting about two hours, at a time to be arranged by group members.
I assigned readings for the first session only: Pam Allen’s “Free Space” and Irene Peslikis’s “Resistances to Consciousness.”6 I also recommended a rotating timekeeper, leaderless groups, and an uninterrupted five to ten minutes for each member to speak at the outset of sessions. Suggested topics paralleled the syllabus and attempted to link course readings and lectures with everyday life. The question “How does your personal experience of race, class, and ethnicity affect your response to what you are learning?” followed the lecture on race and feminism and coincided with a required “unlearning-racism” workshop.7 When we studied women and work, the suggested question asked students to relate readings and lectures to jobs, families, and campus life. I left one week open for student topics and closed with a question to parallel our reading of Marge Piercy’s utopian novel, Woman on the Edge of Time: “What one thing would you most want to change about our current world?” Students were asked to keep private journals after groups but not to submit them. The final paper evaluating the groups was to draw heavily upon the journal.8
During the quarter, several incidents on campus, in the community, and in the classroom intensified the importance of c. r. and expanded it beyond the groups and into the lecture sessions. On campus, two white students posted racist slurs in the Afro-American residential theme house, igniting a year-long debate over the action and the administration’s response and heightening awareness of racism. Then, against the backdrop of the Bush – Dukakis campaign, a few anti-abortion activists mobilized conservative women to join Operation Rescue’s blockade of local abortion clinics, while campus feminists formed a prochoice alliance. In the classroom, students responded to the readings on lesbian feminism with such a profound silence that I felt compelled to challenge their homophobia. Borrowing a technique from a colleague at an even more conservative university, I asked students to write hypothetical “coming-out letters” to their parents, drawing on their readings about lesbianism and homophobia.9 At the same time, the students’ presumption of their instructor’s heterosexuality made me extremely uncomfortable about “passing” as straight and raised my own consciousness to the point that for the first time I came out in a classroom as a lesbian.
Thus, for me, as well as for the students, fs 101 took unexpected turns. On two occasions, for example, students raised my consciousness about issues that personally affected them. First, shortly before my lecture on sexual violence, I received a call from an incest survivor in the course who was distressed by the lack of readings on incest. I asked her permission to discuss the call, anonymously, in class and used the episode to talk about my own preconceptions about violence.10 Second, in anticipation of the lecture on women and food, a student volunteered to speak in class about her own struggles with anorexia and bulimia. Her moving, expert presentation provided both personal testimony and information about support groups on campus. Inspired by her offer, I invited other students in the class to speak about their personal involvement with issues we studied. Members of the Rape Education Project did so, and since no students came out in the lecture class, I invited representatives from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance to speak on available student support services.
Meanwhile, students managed the small groups independently. Every other week, I asked for feedback on the groups during the lecture. Although students made few concrete comments at the time, they suggested that the groups were going well and were important to them. Only at the end of the course, after I read the set of sixty-six papers describing and evaluating the groups, did I realize how critical they had been to the educational process. Several students felt that the groups were as important as the class itself; for some, they were “the best part,” and for at least one, “the most personally enriching part of the class.”“ Not every group, however, succeeded in establishing a sense of purpose and facilitating growth. Several groups had difficulty finding meeting times or sharing personal experiences; their members felt disappointed when they compared their experiences with those of the majority of students. Generally, though, papers from eleven of the thirteen groups testified to the power of the small groups for enhancing student understanding of issues raised in class and for contributing to both self-understanding and greater understanding of others.
as they did for second-wave feminists of the 1960s and 1970s, c. r. groups in FS 101 functioned to move students from silence to speech, from isola
tion to community, and sometimes from political ambivalence to political commitment. Once empowered to explore ideas and feelings, a number of students were able to confront personal dilemmas, especially those concerning sexuality and race. As a result, their definitions of feminism expanded. By the end of the course, the majority of students reported that they had shifted from discomfort with the word “feminism” to enthusiastic embrace of the term and its complexity. A few made commitments to political activism. One small group continued meeting throughout the year to support the feminist activism of its members.
Although the degree of change varied greatly, the majority of students reported that initially they had been “skeptical,” “wary,” “a little leery,” “worried,” “nervous,” or “doubtful” about going to these “weird” and “extra” groups. “We all began by saying that we could not possibly talk as long as we were supposed to,” one woman recalled. “We then proceeded to talk longer than that, amazed that we each had so much to say.”
Student papers provide many clues about why the groups offered safety so quickly. For one thing, a supportive environment was especially necessary for members of this class, given the hostility to feminism in the culture at large and the university itself. Even enrolling in a feminist studies course could be stressful. Because many students “met with nervous responses from family and friends over taking the course,” they “found it was helpful to discuss these problems with others” in the small group. Most members of one group thought that “our fathers felt threatened by our studying feminism,” and the students shared their responses from family members.
Male students, who made up just under one-fifth of the class, may have been particularly vulnerable to stigma. A freshman explained at his first group meeting “how difficult it was being a guy feminist,” for “not only did he get badgered by guys, but also he got heat from women who saw his feminist comments sometimes as pickup lines.” Another man discovered from the different reactions of male and female friends “the extent to which” his enrollment “was viewed as a political decision.” The experience of one male student illustrated the extent of male resistance on campus. While distributing pamphlets from the Rape Education Project in his dorm, he was typically asked by men, “Oh, are you going to teach us how to rape?” In another group, every member wrote about an incident that demonstrated firsthand the kind of chiding directed at male students who took feminist classes. While they met at an outdoor eating area, a student described by one woman as “a domineering white male” approached his buddy in the group. Learning what the small group was doing, the outsider “started to tease” his friend, “hollering disbelief.” After one woman accused the intruder of sexism, the group had a forty-five-minute debate on the meaning of the attack, the usefulness of the counterattack, and the way the incident clarified points about oppression made during the unlearning-racism workshop.12
As might be expected, for men the experience of groups tended to be more intellectual than personal. One man wrote that he “felt somewhat alienated” in the group because he did not share the experience of gender with others. Another felt at the first meeting that the issues “did not always seem to affect me directly,” but at a later session, discussions of the readings on the politics of housework engaged him quite personally/3 By the third meeting, he “spoke at length” of the struggle to create an “equalitarian” relationship in living with a woman. At least one man, already aware of being a member of a “targeted” racial group, now saw how gender affected women daily. “I’ve come to realize what kind of stuff women have to go through,” he wrote, “and more importantly, how gender affects me.”
In addition to feeling conflicted about enrolling in the class, reading about issues such as rape, racism, sexual identity, body types, and standards of beauty proved disturbing to many students. Other instructors had warned me that heightening student consciousness of discrimination and sexual vulnerability often creates emotional stress in women’s studies classrooms. The students echoed this theme in their papers. “We all agreed that [by the] third meeting the class had changed our lives in a profound way; we now felt surrounded by sexism.” Or, as another student explained, “the material in this class was overwhelming, which made it particularly important to have a place to express reactions to it as we went along.”
Anger was a primary reaction to the readings but one that evoked deep conflict, especially for women. At the beginning of the course, many students stereotyped feminists as “angry” and feared being so labeled. The small groups functioned to legitimize anger and make it less overwhelming. “Our first group meeting can be summed up in one word: anger,” a student recalled. “Unfortunately,” she continued, “most of us felt defensive when speaking about feminism, as if we needed to prove something to men, but could not channel the anger into well articulated arguments. . . . We hoped that this class and our upcoming small group meetings would help articulate our thoughts, explain why we were angry, and how we could feel ‘offensive’ by presenting a clear definition of feminism and its goals.” Even a student who was more reluctant to identify as a feminist shared similar feelings: “Being able to air my feelings and hear the impressions of the other women in the group helped me to resolve some of the anger that I formed while reading the materials on violence against women.” Another student recalled thinking that “at last, here were some people who I could talk to about those things that make me angry that no one seems to understand. I felt somewhat empowered.” Speaking about the experiences of the past week “was good for me,” a minority woman wrote, because “I found that I had a lot of unvented anger that I could let loose at these meetings.” One group applied the reading of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas to the problem of anger. Because Woolf “encouraged people to understand the background people are coming from,” a student wrote, she talked of her father’s traditional upbringing. “The group discussion,” she concluded, “helped bring out that I should be angry at the socialization structure that my father grew up in, not merely at my father himself.”14
Finding the support for taking the course and for processing both the knowledge of sexism and the anger it evoked made meetings valuable and a source of growth. One student explained, “As a result of the support I received during the meetings, I quickly began to look forward to them. If I were religious I might say that the meetings were a bit like going to church, in that I felt stronger, more self-loving, and more confident after leaving.” The sole man in another group wrote that he had “the courage to persevere in my studies because I had a support group. I had the drive to share so that I could see reflections of myself in others, even if the reflections had the faces of a different gender.” Drawing on Bernice Johnson Reagon’s ideas in “Coalition Politics,” one student described the small groups as “the ‘room’ that we all went back to in order to discuss strategies on how to change the world.”i5 The ability to feel safe, relaxed, and candid was due “no doubt,” one student suggested, “to the absence of a ta or other authority figure.”
Activism brought its own lessons about feminism. Well into the quarter, one group of five white women devoted a meeting to writing a collective letter to the student newspaper to criticize “examples of sexist humor and negative depictions of women” in a recent campus production. The effort brought out group differences that surprised them. As they struggled “to transform our anger into a well-articulated argument,” the group learned firsthand the difficulties of feminist process and politics. They debated language and strategies, and they discovered their limits when some members were reluctant to sign the letter. “Many of us,” one member explained, “although willing to speak up in a small group, still feared taking a ‘feminist’ stance and being labelled a ‘feminist.’” The group never produced a letter “that satisfied us all,” and at least one member left discouraged. Another woman felt, however, that the “exercise was still an important one” because the group had collectively articulated its feelings, which, she believed, was more important than publishing a letter. “From the standpoint of political consciousness-raising,” a member began her evaluation paper, “we may not have been very effective, but the group was invaluable as a place to laugh and sound off without having to justify our feminist point of view.” Although the letter was never sent, she wrote, “it was a wonderful, and sometimes tense, exercise in coalition-building.” reflecting the feminist politics of the 1980s — when women of color moved feminism from its white middle-class focus to a more inclusive political worldview — fs 101 attempted to emphasize the intersections of race and gender inequality. Along with the readings on race and feminism, the unlearning-racism workshop and campus incidents made race and racism highly charged topics in the class. The small groups offered a potential space for understanding racial difference and patterns of domination. The demographic composition of the groups, however, strongly influenced the tone and depth of their discussions of race. Because three-quarters of the students were white, minorities were either absent or rare in small groups. Predictably, all-white groups had the least insightful discussions; highly unbalanced groups placed the burden of education on the few minority students; and highly mixed groups had the most valuable sessions on race.
The all-white groups tended to focus on the shared experiences of women and on nonracial differences between members. A man in one of these groups regretted its racial composition. Although he enjoyed the comfort and intimacy of his group, he realized that it “felt more like a womb than a coalition,” in the terms of Reagon’s article. Had the group been more diverse, he felt, members would have been forced to deal with differences in other ways. Often, these groups sought ways to resolve their discomfort over white privilege, with some interesting results. For instance, one white student used the concept of “simultaneous oppression” in her own way. Rather than referring to the multiple and simultaneous oppression of women of color (by gender, class, and race), she took the term to mean that white women were both oppressed and oppressors. With this interpretation, she identified through her gender with subordinate groups, while she accepted responsibility for her position of racial dominance.
For both mixed and all-white groups, the themes of white guilt and feelings of helplessness recurred in the papers.16 White students in a mixed group felt immobilized by the realization, as one wrote, that “at one time in our lives we are all the oppressor.” “Our group teeters on the brink of an intellectual abyss,” she wrote of the unsatisfactory conclusion. “We say nice things to each other and depart.” Or as the one black member of the group put it, the white women “all admitted to feeling guilty for being white.” Another white member acknowledged that recognizing difference within feminism “was really very eye-opening and made some of us feel as though we had been pretty spoiled and blind.” Similarly, a white woman in another group commented after listening to a Chicana describe the dual effects of racism and sexism: “It was hard for the white people in our group to accept that we would never be able to truly identify with the minority women’s experience.”
The racial imbalance in mixed groups placed a special burden of explanation on black, Asian American, and Chicana members. “It seemed that [X] and I, who were the two people of color in our group,” wrote one man, “did most of the talking on the subject of racism.” The woman to whom he referred illustrated the educator role when the group discussed Betty Friedan’s attitude toward housework. Other students, she explained, “felt sorry for housewives,” but since her own mother had been on welfare and then struggled in a service job, she longed for “my mom to be a housewife and to live in a house like the ‘Brady Bunch.’ ” The man in the group shared with her “the alienation minority children feel when they are taught by the media to value a white middle-class lifestyle over their own.”
Other women of color reported the frustrations they felt when placed in the role of racial educators. When the four white women in one group “all looked to” the one black member to discuss race, “she turned the question around” by asking her classmates if “we would all have the same response given our similar whiteness.” In another group, a woman of color learned that her white classmates were surprised when she spoke of the internalized racism that leads to straightened hair and plastic surgery among minorities. “Although it hurts to have these things go unnoticed,” she reflected, “I was encouraged by their acknowledging that when you have a prevalence of white, blond, blue-eyed skinny models, dolls, and characters in story books, these facts should not be shocking.”
The most successful discussions of race — that is, the ones that elicited deep responses, as well as conflicts — occurred in the most diverse groups. A group with two minority women, two white women, and one white man achieved a degree of safety in discussing difference and racism. As the Chi – cana member wrote, the group “seemed to me to be a microcosm of the feminist movement — where people work for many of the same goals for
differing reasons.” Having made her “ ‘foreign’ experiences and ideas accessible to people through small group,” she now felt ready to “move to this next stage of a potentially more hostile environment” in the world at large.
These episodes reflected the dilemmas of mixed groups. On the one hand, these groups did the most to educate white students and sometimes helped alleviate their guilt. In the process, they risked relying on students of color as racial educators who explained differences among women rather than addressing the deep personal and structural barriers to race equality. On the other hand, the few minority students in these groups learned a great deal about white attitudes toward race and how these attitudes affect them personally. Given the race and class stratification of our society, students of color will no doubt confront these views throughout their lives; small groups can serve as testing grounds for clarifying their responses. Overall, the racially mixed groups worked at identifying the dilemmas of difference better than the all-white groups, but they would have been even more effective if they had a greater proportion of students of color. That way, the minority students would feel less isolated and less targeted as racial educators. At a more racially mixed campus or in a course with greater minority enrollment, groups could go even further in raising consciousness about racism. In this setting, mixed groups can go only so far toward exploring the relationship between gender and racial inequality.
whatever progress the lesbian and gay movement has made since the 1970s, for most Stanford students, lesbianism remains a frightening topic. In signing up for fs 101, a woman student said she risked being labeled “the feminist dyke.” Another woman told her group she “felt funny because people who knew she was taking the class would think of her as a lesbian.” The association of feminism with lesbianism ran deep among students who brought to the class strong prejudices about homosexuality. Several expressed their religious opposition to gay sex or, in response to viewing the film Choosing Children, to lesbians or gay men raising children. Even liberal students wanted to distance themselves from homosexuality by defending feminists against the label of lesbianism.
Not surprisingly, the coming-out letter challenged the class enormously, and students said it proved to be “harder than we had thought.” Everyone expressed discomfort about doing the assignment. Students who had thought they were tolerant of lesbians and gay men found themselves hiding the assignment from roommates; some wrote “ ‘Fem-Stud Assignment’ across the top in big letters” in case friends passed by as they wrote. In the words of one student, we “were continually worried that somebody was going to look over our shoulder and misinterpret what we had written.”
The small group following the letter-writing assignment was, for many, “by far the most tense of the quarter.” One of the most highly political groups seemed to spend little time discussing the letters. One member was reportedly “speechless” and “couldn’t imagine how others managed to do it.” Another woman became “very depressed” writing hers, and for telling reasons: “I knew my parents would go off on another fit, and that once again I had to face the fact that their love and financial support is conditional.” Fear of parental disapproval loomed large in the discussions and helps explain the tone of so many of the letters, well summarized by a freshman who wrote critically that several members of his group had made “a total emotional plea to their parents telling them of their misfortune and asking for acceptance.” The members of another group “all agreed that it took a while to finally get around to actually saying ‘I am lesbian’ ” — a term that many letters avoided altogether.
However difficult, the exercise, and especially the group discussion of it, brought home the depth and the costs of homophobia. “If we feared so much that someone might find our letter, did that indicate that we were homophobic?,” one student asked. The discussion of the letters led another group to realize that “by denying our feelings of homophobia, we were only perpetuating them.” It also helped to undermine homophobic responses. During the discussion of hiding the assignment, for example, one woman said she “gradually realized that my fear of being stereotyped wrongly had greatly diminished since the beginning of the course.”
For other students, the assignment brought homosexual feelings to the surface. The group discussion forced one man to “think about my own homophobic fears — did I harbor those feelings because being homosexual is not being a man?” In another group, the question “Have you ever thought about being homosexual?” produced “some defensive reactions.” At least one woman admitted to the thought but found that she could not “envision a sexual relationship” with another woman. In response to the question, another woman contemplated her unsatisfactory relationships with men and wondered if she might be lesbian. At that point, she recalled: “Two of the other members looked like they thought I was going to come out right then and there and didn’t know what to do, and the other member looked grateful that I had responded to her question honestly, and did seem to sincerely understand my confusion at the time.” The speaker found it a “rewarding moment” because she was not ostracized for her honesty or her suspicions about her sexuality.
If the coming-out assignment created the most tension, it also seemed to have had the most consciousness-raising effect. In one group, a woman who had recently “stopped identifying. . . as heterosexual” rated this session as the “best meeting” because it “produced the most consciousness raising.” Other members (a straight man and two straight women) agreed that it was the “most rewarding,” in part because the letter gave a “concrete experience” about which to relate feelings and “a bonding experience” for students who struggled with the assignment. In several groups, attitudes toward coming out seemed to have changed for many students. One group member “concluded that many more people would come out if there weren’t such a stigma in society. We admired those who are strong enough to.”
Only two students came out in their groups. In one case, a gay man was relieved to find that he was “among pretty gay-sensitive people.” The group later turned to him to tell them what was and what was not “offensive” in their behaviors and whether their fear of having their coming-out letters seen constituted homophobia. Accepting the educator role, he both criticized and reassured his peers. “We all sort of agreed,” he wrote, “that this was another form of homophobia but acknowledged too, that individuals are forced to make choices under duress in a deeply homophobic society.” In another group, a woman cataloged the responses when she “told the group that I am a lesbian.” “Unfortunately, the person who I expected to have a negative reaction had to go to a funeral. . . . One seemed unimpressed. . . . One asked me what lesbians looked like, was obviously uncomfortable, but made a very noble attempt to pretend that she wasn’t, and the other felt very comfortable and proceeded to ask me lots of questions.” The discussion shifted when this same student also revealed that she was an incest survivor and explained that she was not alone among Stanford students. Group members, she reported, “were more shocked by this than the lesbianism, and had
a hard time dealing with it___ As for myself, I didn’t think I could deal with
talking about either subject without being honest about it. I also felt I owed [it] to other lesbians and to other incest survivors to speak out.” In the small group setting, she was able to do so.
Just as all-white groups had more superficial discussions of race, the overwhelmingly heterosexual groups often began with the question of homosexuality but soon moved to the general topic of sexuality and relationships.
In two of the women-only groups, the coming-out discussion turned to comparable fears of rejection or exposure among straight people. “Just as gay people are expected to be ashamed of their sexuality, fat women are supposed to view their weight as a transitory state,” explained one student. Another group moved from discussing lesbians’ fear of rejection by their families to memories of their own childhood rejections by other girls and the lasting fear of being different. The parallels gave them insight into homophobia in the absence of firsthand accounts from lesbian or gay male students.
I was surprised by how few lesbian and gay male students either took this class or came out in it; fear of disclosure by association with feminism may have kept them away or in the closet. Nonetheless, the predominantly straight groups learned more about homophobia than they had expected, in large part due to the letter-writing assignment. Despite their resistance, once students tried on a homosexual identity, they had at least a glimpse of the firsthand experience that was missing in most groups. Forced to identify with the sexual minority, students seemed to confront their homophobia more personally, and with less guilt, than they confronted their racism. Thus, although the presence of minority students within groups did not necessarily raise consciousness dramatically, an assignment that encouraged personal identification with minority vulnerability had strong potential to do so.
during the first lecture of the quarter, before I distributed the syllabus, I had asked each student to write a paragraph or two about how they defined and reacted to the term “feminist.” The overwhelming majority of the class described the goals of liberal feminism positively but found the label “feminist” too frightening to adopt for themselves. At the beginning of the small groups, students addressed these feelings. “All of us stereotype a feminist negatively,” one black woman explained, “that is, as a militant person.” One student summarized the reaction to feminists voiced by members of her small group: they “hated men,” “did not want to appear attractive,” and “were radical and rebellious.”
In analyzing their prejudices in class discussion, many students credited the media with shaping their image of angry, militant feminists. I would add that Stanford’s student culture not only emphasizes the importance of being attractive to the opposite sex but also encourages conformity to a model of self-satisfaction (the “no one has problems at Stanford” syndrome, as a counseling center flier labels it). In this atmosphere, political rebelliousness— especially when it addresses personal issues rather than, say, U. S. foreign policy— can be dismissed as a sign of personal failure.
I sensed from the student papers that the small groups were perhaps the most critical element in the process of unlearning earlier stereotypes. “I used to think that all feminists were either lesbians or militant man-hating women,” wrote an Asian American woman. “After taking this class, I am proud to say that I am a feminist and I also do not hesitate to inform others of my feminist views and beliefs.” Similarly, another woman confessed that “I’m quite sure that I wrote one of the least flattering definitions of and reactions to feminism at the beginning of the quarter” and “would certainly never have said that I was a feminist.” During the course, she had adopted a definition of feminism that made her able to identify with the term: “A feminist recognizes differences between men and women, but does not always value either male or female attributes and qualities more than the other.” She concluded her paper by embracing a new identity: “Now all I have to do to know how I respond to the word feminist is to look in the mirror and see someone whom I respect and like very much.” One male student shifted from “a negative gut reaction” to a positive one: “I now consider myself a feminist, which I hadn’t even considered before the class.” Another man reported, “For the first time, I openly consider myself a feminist — with pride.”
The disappearance of defensive reactions to feminism recurred as a final theme in the small group papers. “Now I really consider myself a feminist, it has become a part of who I am. I am not defensive about it. The word has lost its negative connotations,” wrote one woman. In another group, a feminist studies major explained that “now more than ever, when I hear or see the word ‘feminist’ I feel proud. Most of my defensive reactions are entirely gone and I feel positive and connected with the title and its meaning to me.” Yet another student felt that she “no longer need[ed] to back away from this name or label. I no longer need to put it in quotes.” More rare was the student who expressed a commitment to advocating feminism in public, such as the woman who declared feminist studies as her major and said she felt “very relieved that I have exorcised most of my fears about defending [feminism] publicly.”
The final paragraphs of the papers often spoke of pride and even joy in the students’ transformation into feminists:
When I see the word “feminist,” I feel like celebrating and crying at the same time. I feel a sadness because I know that many people will react to it negatively. . . . I also respond with a feeling of happiness because I know that through education, the incredible ideas of feminism have and will break through the negative stereotype. . . .
Now, when I see or hear the word feminist I invariably respond positively. I feel a bond with the person it is directed toward, and proudly feel a renewed women-centered identity.
When I hear the word feminist, I think: this is a person I want to get to know.
To be sure, when I see or hear the word feminist, I respond with a proud, warm, connective feeling. I myself am a feminist and it’s nice to know that I have sisters and brothers who are the same.
Another student echoed this student’s historical insight: “I now understand why feminist consciousness-raising groups in the 1970s were so effective in generating women’s energies.”
While most students claimed a greater willingness to identify as feminists, to themselves or to others, and a more complex definition of feminist constituencies and goals, others addressed the limits of their politics. Unlike the generation that initially adopted c. r. in an era when radicalism was fashionable, today’s students shy away from any taint of political rebelliousness. “Even after having taken this class,” a woman wrote, “I have yet to conquer my enduring uneasiness with the word ‘feminist.’ . . . I do still feel a deep and vague discomfort with the word. . . and continue to have difficulty saying ‘I am a feminist’ ” because of the connotation of “radicalism, rebelling, and a touch of ‘man-hating’ that I am not yet able to accept or overcome.”
In a different way, other students expressed how, by the end of the course, they had become acutely aware of their political limitations. As one woman of color reported of her group, “Each of us were entrenched in our inner conflict about our own capitalistic desires and urges.” The most frequent conflict women addressed concerned standards of beauty. “We agreed that since taking this class we have often felt like complete hypocrites as we put on our makeup,” one white woman revealed of her group. “I grapple with my difficulty of redefining beauty,” wrote another woman; “perhaps I need to accept my silly definitions of beauty as dictated by the society I live in.” The challenge of differentiating between the messages of the culture and their own beliefs confounded the members of this woman’s group, as it did other feminists of the 1980s. The free classroom copies of MS magazine drove
home the point — today’s political feminism came packaged with contradictory messages extolling traditional femininity and consumer capitalism.
Whatever the limitations of student political consciousness, this experiment in the use of small group, personally based learning proved even more rewarding than I had anticipated. I agreed with the student who wrote that while she “expected these consciousness-raising sessions to change each of us, the rate and degree to which it occurred surprised and inspired me.” Small groups had clearly played an important role in allowing internal, emotional shifts to occur gradually in students who had been resistant to feminism. Although the purpose of the groups was to enhance classroom learning and not necessarily to achieve political conversion, the two seemed to happen simultaneously. The intellectual challenge of readings, discussions, and papers certainly contributed to the process, but c. r. provided something that traditional academic work could not: a safe space for discussing personal differences and connecting these differences to gender inequality. Given the complexity of feminist identity that emerged in the 1980s, as well as the negative stereotypes of feminists that persist among students, c. r. offers a unique method for learning the very things feminism espouses.
Finally, in addition to emphasizing the importance of c. r. as a form of pedagogy and urging its adoption in other classes, I want to credit the students in this course with making c. r. work. Those who were willing simply to enroll in fs 101 at a campus that was generally hostile to feminism had to be exceptional students. Revealing their own fears of feminism, their anger and guilt about racism, and their discomfort with homosexuality took courage and entailed risks. The requirement of attending c. r. groups may have motivated change, but the students themselves made possible the personal and political growth that their papers document. For a feminist teacher, their learning has been an inspiration and a source of faith that feminism will survive, even in these conservative times.
small group pedagogy
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