I was excited to find a new collection of essays by feminist writer Vivian Gornick, Taking a Long Look: Essays on Culture, Literature, and Feminism in our Time in a San Francisco bookstore recently.
Gornick was a political and social issues writer for the “Village Voice” and other publications who eventually found the form of memoir and moved in that direction. She earned great acclaim for Fierce Attachments (1987) a memoir about her relationship with her mother. She is now 84 years old and still going strong.
This particular collection of essays literally takes a long look back over fifty years of her published essays. Gornick is thirty years older than me but her work in 2nd wave feminism (60s thru 80s) inspired me greatly when I was a young woman. I am happy I joined her in this long look back because I was reminded of the positive contributions of 2nd wave feminists.
The younger people I hang out with like to talk about generational cohorts and their qualities. As a Baby boomer on the cusp of Gen X, from their point of view my generation was lame and lamer and 2nd wave feminism of that time period, even more so. While I work hard to listen and take in what younger people have to say without defensiveness and move forward with the times, I wholeheartedly disagree that boomers and 2nd wave feminism did not contribute anything to the culture. I was happy while reading Gornick’s book to revisit the specifics of the positive contributions.
The valuable impact of Baby Boomers are numerable: environmentalism and civil rights to name a couple not insubstantial ones, but for the purpose of this essay I will stick to 2nd wave feminism which has taken a heavy beating in recent years. I will focus on three significant influences that stood out me while reading Gornick’s book.
Consciousness-Raising Groups—Where Would We Be Without Them?
Gornick’s book reminded me of something I value that has powerfully and positively impacted my life that emerged from 2nd wave feminism: the advent of “consciousness-raising groups.” These days we might call them “women’s circles,” or “women’s groups.” Book groups and other discussion groups and circles that include process, active listening with sensitivity training are all descendants of 2nd wave feminism’s consciousness-raising groups. These groups are omnipresent and extremely popular today.
In her essay “Consciousness” Gornick writes about how this practice found its way into the general public and how the thinking that was generated within it reached women who would never think to call themselves feminists. This is the true test of the success of the movement: that it has infiltrated the culture so broadly one doesn’t even think of it as emerging from feminist theory and thought.
In the essay published in 1978, Gornick describes it like this:
“the radical feminists sensed quickly that a group of women sitting in a circles discussing their emotional experiences as though they were material for cultural analysis was political dynamite. Hence, through personal testimony and emotional analysis could the class consciousness of women be raised. And thus the idea of the small “women’s group”—or consciousness–raising group—was delivered into a cruel but exciting world.
Consciousness raising is, at one and the same time, both the most celebrated and the most accessible introduction to the women’s movement and the most powerful technique for feminist conversion known to the liberationists. Women are drawn to the practice out of a variety of discontents, but it’s under the spell of a wholly new interpretation of their experience that they remain”(198).
Differing from other more formalized group settings, these meetings often take place in members’ living rooms, and power is decentralized. That is why we sit in circle. Circles imply equality. Each participant has the same amount of space and power. Leadership roles cycle and circle through the group.
There was even an early rule book which stated:
“The sessions consist mainly of women gathering once a week, sitting in circle and speaking in turn addressing themselves –almost entirely out of personal experience—to a topic that has been preselected”(199).
In the essay Gornick leads the reader through one of these consciousness-raising groups in New York City in the 70s. She describes each woman as they leave their home or work to go to the meeting and then details the meeting itself with the women’s dialogue around the topic assigned that evening. One gets an inside peek into a woman’s circle, something quite new at the time but well known today.
The consciousness raising groups illustrated and helped women feel and experience the 2nd wave tenet that “The personal is political.” Women beginning to allow themselves to self reflect on, name and articulate their personal experiences together with one another empowered them to see how these experiences had commonalities and that they were often consequences of larger cultural beliefs and agendas. Then they could begin to see how changing the culture could change their experience rather than always feeling they had to change themselves to suit the culture. In “Toward a Definition of Female Sensibility,” also from 1978, Gornick discusses how women’s experiences begin to show up in women’s writing at this time as well, however timidly and in the essay she looks forward to a time when women’s experiences in art and literature become more commonplace and are told with greater confidence. We are still working on that but we have made great strides. In 2021, we want to make sure all women’s experiences are included and stretch that even further, to all humans and even non humans.
I myself have benefitted immeasurably from my women’s circles. Each of them has had a different theme, some spiritual, some intellectual, some feminist, some shamanic, but all are about circles of women getting together to talk and listen.
I can’t imagine a life without these intimate groups of women holding space for one another as we attempt to name our experiences and support each other in our growth. It is priceless and it is thanks to 2nd wave feminists.
Women’s Studies Programs
I was lucky to study Women’s Studies in the English Department of The University of New Hampshire under teachers who were diverse and whose syllabi included a diversity of women writers as well. I value my Women’s Studies classes and experiences immensely and feel they were formative in me becoming who I am today. Women’s Studies are a gift from 2nd wave feminists.
My women’s studies program introduced me to concepts and ideas that were radical at the time and exposed me to cultural and societal issues we are yet grappling with today. In the program I read women writers Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maxine Hong Kingston, Adrienne Rich, Margaret Atwood, Toni Cade Bambara, Mary Shelley, Gwendolyn Brooks, Charlotte Bronte, Mary Daly and Virginia Woolf. Topics of discussion were violence against women, women’s reproductive rights, social justice, intersectionality, feminist theory, feminist literary criticism, and the big thinkers and ideas of the day. The program was alive, active and supportive of young women’s voices, stories and ideas. And the program was always underfunded and needing to fight hard to be there and for the resources it deserved.
Wiki reports that
“After a year of intense organizing of women’s consciousness raising groups, rallies, petition circulating, and operating unofficial or experimental classes and presentations before seven committees and assemblies, the first women’s studies program in the United States was established in 1970 at San Diego State College (now San Diego State University). …around the 1980s, universities in the U.S. saw the growth and development of women’s studies courses and programs across the country while the field continued to grapple with backlash from both conservative groups and concerns from those within the women’s movement about the white, existentialist, and heterosexual privilege of those in the academy. The political aims of the feminist movement that compelled the formation of women’s studies found itself at odds with the institutionalized academic feminism of the 1990s. As “woman” as a concept continued to be expanded, the exploration of social constructions of gender led to the field’s expansion into both gender studies and sexuality studies”(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_studies)
Again, though changes needed to happen within many of the programs to address what has come to be called “white feminism,” feminism focusing solely on the issues of white women while blinding themselves to the realities of all other women, most people who were lucky enough to have a women’s studies program at their college found them an invaluable contribution to their education and who they became as adults. Women’s Studies programs broke an academic glass ceiling and paved the way for more programs that include, represent and focus on a broad range of marginalized groups.
Self-help, Self-Reflection, Self-Confrontation and Self-Love
In the essay, “The Americanization of Narcissism”, published in the Boston Review in 2014, Gornick reminded me how we were called the “me generation.” I remember receiving my first copy of the magazine “Self” when I was in high school. In fact I was targeted by them to receive the charter issue. They thought I was just the right person for their brand and I committed to filling out questionnaires for them with a free one-year subscription. My response was: I loved it.
In the essay Gornick explains how the book, The Americanization of Narcissism written by historian Elizabeth Lunbeck makes much needed corrections around the definition of narcissism and chronicles the way the term has been so flung about in pop culture and by critics of social movements for change that it has lost relevant meaning.
In this time period of the 60s-80s, self-realization, self-reflection, self-confrontation and self-help that had been brewing in previous generations became a movement. Boomers wanted to understand why they and their parents (the silent generations) felt empty and unhappy in spite of an increased standard of living. They wanted to make changes to the way we live and achieve lives of self-actualization and realization. There was the shadow side of this: cults, gurus and the gross simplification of radical ideas into overused sound bites, but the base from whence they originated was a gem, and still is today. Who am I? What fulfills me? Who or what do I live for? What are my dreams and expectations. What do I wish to aspire to? These were new ways of thinking. The silent generation did not think in this way.
Many of these movements were spiritual, adapting eastern practices and traditions to the west: yoga, meditation, mindfulness, Zen and the introduction of the widespread use of hallucinogens as a way to access other ways of knowing and being. It truly was a time of mind expansion.
Gornick opens her essay with this:
“I can remember as though it were yesterday, my jaw dropping when, in 1978, Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism was published, and I discovered in its pages that as a radical feminist of long standing I qualified as a major narcissist of what the journalist Tom Wolfe had dubbed the “Me Decade.” We, whose rallying cry was “Not for ourselves alone?” We, who hoped to see all future relations between men and women take place on a level playing field? We, who thought power over ourselves would mean we’d never want power over others? We were narcissists?”(151).
We ended up being called the “me generation” in a derogatory way meaning we were selfish brats who only thought about ourselves and often that was called narcissism. But to me that always felt inaccurate. We were looking inward as a way of addressing the outward. We thought: clean up your own house first, look inward and learn and then take the lessons and your more fully realized self to the broader world in true contribution. We thought changing ourselves could shift the world. And you know what? It did.
All of these ideas are part of mainstream culture now. Every time you say, “I need to take some time to self-reflect,” or, “I need to step back and take care of myself,” “I need a ‘me day’” or “I need space,” that is thanks to the 2nd wave feminists:
“Out of the consciousness movement came an army of therapists and writers of how-to and what-it-all means books that is with us to this day. . . Emboldened by fifty years of Freud and Marx, the counterculture laid claim to the time-honored American ideal of self-realization. Unexpectedly, it was women and homosexuals, more than any other class with its voice raised, who, politically speaking, came to embody the ideal. Under the influence of this powerful national discontent, women and gays had become aware of the second-class citizenship that characterized their lives and were now finding the courage to speak out, to insist that their irreducible humanity be recognized before the law and in social custom”(157).
Every time a movement for change asks the public to self reflect, take accountability, self confront about racism or homophobia, about poverty, class structures or social policy, that is thanks to 2nd wave feminists.
“For better or for worse, for political riches or social poverty, freedom in the past century was profoundly linked to the idea of self-discovery. For many of us, in the 1960s, civilization seemed to be reforming itself in miniature within each of us, not for the purpose of attaining self-absorbed privilege but, on the contrary so that free adult beings might reach out to one another in strength rather than weakness”(159).
Some like to say, “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.” I like to say “Life conserves what works.” These tenets, ideas and practices were birthed or brought forward with 2nd wave feminism and they have been kept because they work. They are now integral to our culture and behaviors. And I am thankful to all of us who helped midwife them through.
Vivian Gornick is a #Nasty Woman Writer
© Theresa C. Dintino 2021
Gornick, Vivian. Taking a Long Look Back: Essays on Culture, Literature, and Feminism in Our Time. London, Verso. 2021.