How often are you in the company of people with whom you can be completely yourself?
In this fast-paced world, it’s easy to get swept up in our never-ending to-do lists and forget the importance of taking a step back—taking time to focus on ourselves and surround ourselves with people who can support, inspire and motivate us to be our best.
Feminist activist and best-selling author of Revolution from Within, Gloria Steinem believes women’s groups can be a place for slowing down, and provide a way of being together that allows us to tap into our own inner strength and wisdom. Ultimately, the best tool we have to manage life’s challenges is the strength of community.
In the late sixties and early seventies, women’s consciousness-raising groups that were inspired by both those examples, especially by the civil rights one, spread into a national honeycomb of small groups. Women told the stories of their lives, analyzed their shared patterns, gave names to injustices once just called “life,” and turned them into public issues through speak-outs and political action. In many ways, it was those early c-r groups that gave feminism its heart, depth, and most lasting legacies.
I remember meetings about which we never said, “I can’t believe I have to go to another meeting,” because they were the highlights of our week. We brought our problems and experiences, from what to do about a racist/sexist boss to tensions with mothers and lovers; we went around the room with serious personal themes and also with outrageous jokes; we talked about sex with an honesty I’d never heard before; we listened, really listened to each other for clues to our mutual welfare; an we unearthed archaeological fragments of our lives that were parts of larger political patterns. The result was a personal exhilaration, and an amazing political impact.
In the last dozen years especially, however, the very success of the feminist movement has created a backlash, and the resulting necessity of fighting hard to hang on to external gains has often caused us to neglect internal ones. Over and over in this year, I’ve heard women wish for more time, space, and energy for themselves, and more links to other women for support, community, and growth. Yet I’ve also heard the women’s movement described as admirable but remote, valuable but inaccessible, more concerned with protecting legislative gains than with the everyday stuff of women’s lives—and the same is true for the other hard-pressed social justice movements. Recovery and self-realization movements have spread partly in the response to this hunger; yet they lack an activist side.
As a result, we seem to have come into a time of polarization, with self-explorers refusing to vote and activists refusing to restore themselves; with New Agers who put off action for so long that, like women restricted to the house who developed agoraphobia, they’ve come to fear it; and with activists who criticize self-realization or recovery movements without ever asking what they are offering that social justice movements are not.
Fortunately, many people are now figuring out that the internal half of the circle doesn’t work for long without the external. Groups and movements that are only external are realizing that imitation or exhaustion are their fates. That’s part of the yearning to put both together in small groups that can truly be communities.
Perhaps our first job is to envision a full-circle, extended-family-size group and know we have a right to it. Otherwise, we will go right on turning to big organizations, narrow interest groups, and nuclear family units that can’t take the pressure of all our hopes and needs. Look at it this way: if each cell within our bodies is a whole and indivisible version of those bodies, and each of us is a whole and indivisible cell of the body politic, then each of us has an organic need to be a part of a group in which we can be our whole and indivisible selves.
So, as a result of what I’ve learned from readers of this book, here’s a suggestion for a goal by the year 2000: A national honeycomb of diverse, small, personal/political groups that are committed to each member’s welfare through both inner and outer change, self -realization and social justice. It doesn’t matter whether we call them testifying or soul sessions as in the civil rights movement; consciousness-raising or rap groups as in the early feminism; covens, quilting bees, or women’s circle as in women’s history; or revolutionary cells, men’s group, councils of grandmothers, or “speaking bitterness” groups as in various movements and cultures. Perhaps they will have an entirely new name, since combining the elements of diverse communities will make them different from all of them. I think of them just as “revolutionary groups,” for a revolution is also a full circle. The important thing is that they are free, diverse, no bigger than an extended family—and everywhere.
This isn’t as large an order as it sounds. If two white male alcoholics could start a national network of meetings [Alcoholics Anonymous] that are free, leaderless, and accessible, so can we.
If early consciousness-raising groups could analyze the politics of women’s daily lives at a time when biology, God and Freud were still thought to be immutable, we can deepen and widen that personal/political process to encompass our own childhood and those of our parents, links with our counterparts in other countries, division and diversity among women, the politics of everything from eating disorders to religion, the relationship of self to nature—and much more.
If the self-realization and healing movements can tap powers through meditation, visualization, and other internal techniques, these full circle groups can explore those powers, too. If the political movements have taught us necessity of turning out our vote, block by block and technology has given us electronic networking, these local groups can use such decentralized tactics very well.
A nationwide network of full-circle groups doesn’t have start from scratch. There are already bits and pieces and relevant experiences lying around the landscape waiting to be gathered up.
From the afterword of Revolution from Within (Little, Brown & Company Limited), copyright 1992, 1993 by Gloria Steinem; reprinted with permission.
Join Gloria Steinem, Jamia Wilson and more, for Women Together: Revolution From Within, on Friday, April 5, 2019.
Gloria Steinem is a writer, speaker, activist and feminist organizer. She cofounded New York Magazine and Ms. magazine, where she remains a consulting editor. Her books include the best sellers My Life on the Road, Revolution from Within and Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. In 2013, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor. gloriasteinem.com
photo: Beowulf Sheehan