Chapter 1: The Issues In A Fishbowl

Counseling For Liberation
by Charlotte Ellen

Chapter 1: The Issues In A Fishbowl

Also, the idea that, as women become more secure, men become more insecure, and vice versa, makes one wonder. Is it really true that we are on a teetertotter and that only one sex can be secure at a time?

Mabel Blake Cohen (1)


Consciousness Raising, Fishbowl Style

Seven women sat on the floor in a circle, talking with one another. Surrounding them in a larger circle sat seven men listening intently. Around the room, eyes and ears concentrated on the inner circles, perhaps forty more people were gathered. From time to time as the women spoke, an exclamation, a gasp, a sigh, an oath could be heard from outside the inner circle. An observer, glancing about the room, could see heads shaking, tears welling up in some eyes, an angry expression here, a delighted one there.

CAROL: Sometimes I think things are getting better for women. But then something happens. A couple of weeks ago we were in a restaurant with friends. I noticed a large bronze plaque on the wall at the other end of the room. It said: Four Things a Woman Should Know How to look like a girl How to act like a lady How to work like a horse How to think like a man Most of the men in our party thought the plaque hilariously funny. One of the women said she just ignored things like that. The waitress said, "That's the way it is around here!" The cashier said she didn't like it but she didn't know what to do about it. I was so angry, it ruined my whole evening!

ANN: But what made you so angry? You hear silly things like that all the time. It doesn't really mean anything.

MOLLY: Oh, yes it does! It's a real put-down, the sort of thing that makes something go click inside. You know, when all of a sudden it strikes you that you're in a box and someone is trying to keep you there, and you say to yourself. "Oh, no you don't!" It happened to me when my six-year-old son came home from school saying he was planning to be gover- nor some day. I

said I thought that was just great. I'd often thought of running for office myself. He said, "Oh morn, you can't do that. You're a woman." Click! Here I thought I was such a liberated mother raising liberated children. That blew my mind. The school has more influence than I do!

ANN: But why would you want to be governor anyway?

ALICE: Ann, I want to be free to do anything I'm capable of doing. I don't want to be told it's wrong for a woman, or that I'm "unfeminine" when I do something aggressive or strong.

CAROL: What makes me mad is being treated like an appendage to my husband. I like being Carol, not Mrs. Joe Smith. If I must have a title then I prefer Ms. It makes me furious when I see all those "Mrs. Joe So-and-Sos" listed in the church bulletin. Haven't they got names of their own? Aren't they people too, even though they have husbands?

MARY: I agree with all this, but, it's scary! What do you do when you realize after ten years of marriage and two kids that either you have to leave or you die inside? I kept hoping that my husband would see the reasonableness of my wanting things different. He didn't. He wanted the woman he marriedùthe straight housewife-mother. So now I'm a divorcee. In spite of that awful word. I'm a lot freer and happier person. But I'd still like to know if it's possible to make it with a man and remain a human being.

CAROL: Well, I think it's possible, but it isn't easy. And I think a man has to be willing to change too, and to see women in a different light, and to try to understand our anger. Joe thought that sign in the restaurant was funny at first, but when he saw how angry I was, he gave it some thought. The hardest thing for him, I think, is that since I've gone to work I'm not as available as cook, laundress, and mother. He has to share those chores. I guess I'll feel we've arrived when he thinks of those things as truly his responsibility too and not just that he's helping me out.

MARY: I can't even imagine it. I'm afraid even to think about marriage again -- it feels like prison to me.

ELAINE: One of you said something about the church. That's been one of the hardest struggles for me since I got my consciousness raised. And if you think that isn't a problem when you're married to a minister! I can hardly bring my- self even to attend church any more, partly because of the all-male language and symbolism of the services, partly because women are expected to stay in the kitchen and the church school classroom and the pew, and partly because even the Bible seems to make women inferior.

CAROL : Well, I just don't go to church anymore. But then, I'm not a minister's wife. I do miss it, though. I keep hoping the church will change.

ANN: I can't understand what all of you are saying! It sounds like you all think it's not good or satisfying to be a housewife. Can't you be liberated, whatever that means, and still enjoy homemaking as a career? I enjoy being a wife and mother. I like being home with my kids and being there when my husband come home at night. I like working at church suppers. And I resent being told I'm not liberated because I do. A woman who is happy being a wife and mother and homemaker shouldn't be made to feel less respected and worthwhile than a woman who has a job or career. Most of us who are content with home and family have happier marriages!

MOLLY: Well, that may be true for you Ann, but when I got married I wasn't aware there were any other options. Now I'm struggling to add other dimensions, which doesn't mean I don't like my husband or my marriage. Ann, you said something about a woman being happy as a wife and mother and homemaker. Well, of course she can be! But if that's worthwhile and respectable for women then it ought to be worthwhile and respectable for men too. Just try changing that sentence of yours to say "man": "A man who is happy being a husband and father and homemaker should be respected . . ." How does that grab you?

ANN: But that's different . . .

LAURA: You know I've been sitting here listening to all of you talk and getting more and more churned up inside . . . (Here a hushed silence fell over the room as Laura struggled with her tears.) This is one reason I haven't talked up to now -- 1 knew I'd get emotional about it . . . You know, this is the first time I've been in a group with other women who feel the way I do. I've felt so alone . . . Of course, I've read about these things, and it's all over the papers, but mostly the media put the whole thing down. When I have mentioned some of my feelings I've been labeled a "crazy women's libber." I thought there must be something wrong with me, that I feel this way. I like my husband and my children and some of the things I do, but right now I hate my life! I'm angry -- that's the first time I've admitted that to myself, much less to anyone else. I'm tired of letting myself be used and abused by my familyùand they don't even know what's wrong. I'm not sure I do either. I'm tired of feeling inhibited and limited and intimidated and helpless. And I suppose this discussion today really gets to me because I suddenly feel less alone, like maybe my anger isn't all my fault. It's frightening too . . . where I live I'm so alone . . . What am I going to do about it all? . . .

After forty-five minutes of discussion among the seven women of the inner circle, they were asked to change places with the seven men who had been sitting around them listening and watching. The seven men now in the inner circle were asked to talk with each other about their own reactions to what they had heard the women saying:


JERRY: Well, I must say this has all been a shock to me. Most of what I hear about women's lib sounds pretty far out -- like a bunch of women who couldn't make it airing their complaints. But today it sounded different. I hadn't really realized that women are hurting so much. I suppose it makes me feel a little guilty.

BILL: I wonder if they really are hurting or if they're just whining. I'm glad my wife isn't here today. She hasn't got such a bad life. I make a good living; she doesn't have to work. I wouldn't want her to. The kids aren't that much trouble and she has all the household appliances many don't buy. She doesn't have to worry about earning a living. I can't see what any of these women are complaining about.

JOE: Well, Bill, just wait till your wife gets her consciousness raised. That poem Carol read -- sure I laughed like all the others -- it seemed funny and not very serious. And of course, Carol was madder at me than at anybody else for laughing. But if I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that I do tend to see a woman first as a sex object -- I look her up and down, and if she doesn't appeal I classify her as mannish, or domineering, or plain, or old. I certainly don't look at her as an intelligent or competent human being. Not that I'm very proud of that. I'm just now beginning to try to see women as persons. And incidentally, I do see the housework as my responsibility too. I just don't like it and I avoid it if I can! (Laughter)

JIM: I agree with Bill. I think they are just a bunch of "crazy women's libbers." I didn't happen to know any of these particular women before, and I'm sure that individually they're very sweet gals; but together they're a bunch of witches. Ann is the only one who makes sense. And all this business about the church! Women are taking over there too. We had a woman minister at our church on Sunday. It's against everything in the Bible. And worrying about the language! It's ridiculous. Next thing you know, God will be a she!

BEN: I don't feel as strongly about it as you do, Jim. But I do wonder what will happen to all the values we've always believed in. With so many women getting out of the home we're already seeing increased family breakdown and divorce and more kids on drugs and the crime rate rising. Motherhood is the greatest and most important job there is and it's a woman's natural calling.

Where will we be if women give it up?

AL: I believe in motherhood too, but I also believe in father- hood. And I think our experience, Elaine's and mine, has been that as she has put less emphasis on her motherhood role, and more on herself as a person, she's been a better mother . . . and I'm a better father. I spend more time with the children ahd enjoy them more. When Elaine first started talking about shared parenting and shared homemaking I thought she was crazy. Now I don't think so. It's let me out of my box too.

MICHAEL: I've been sitting here wishing that Judith were here. I'd give anything if she would get interested in something besides me and the kids and the church. I don't mean getting a job, unless she wants one. . . . But I'd like to be able to share ideas with her, and do more stimulating things together and not have our lives always revolving around the kids. What's it going to be like for us when the kids are grown? Maybe I'm also feeling heavy about the burden a bread winning father and husband has to carry. Sometimes I think, what if I fail? Maybe I'm beginning to wonder about the whole "be a man" philosophy. If Judith were here today maybe we could open up some of these areas.

The seven women and men in the two inner circles were now requested to join each other in one circle, where they immediately began talking all at once and very excitedly to each other while the larger group around the room continued to listen. Some of the women were very angry:

MOLLY: Some of you guys who are talking about motherhood and a woman's natural calling and very sweet gals and all that really make me furious. I don't know whether to laugh or to ignore you, or to fight back. I suppose for myself I've sort of decided that I have to do what is right for me, even if a lot of people don't like it. It seems to me that it ought to be possible for a woman to be married and be a parent and do other things too, just as a man can.

ELAINE : One of you, I think it was Jim, said something about women taking over. Is that what's worrying you? Do you really think we want to take over or that we could? Is it because you're afraid of us that you want to keep us in our places? (She sounded incredulous.)

JOE: Well, I confess that when Carol started changing, and wanted an equal say in our decisions, and wanted to have her life considered as important as mine, I did think maybe she wanted to be the boss. I also thought I might lose her! Would she really want to stay with me if she wasn't dependent on me?

JIM: I'm not afraid of women. I just think they ought to do what they were meant to do and stop trying to take over. I get the feeling they want to be on top and put men on the bottom.

CAROL: That's not what I'm talking about at all. I don't want to take over. I just want an equal partnership and the same opportunity to use all of myself in whatever ways are OK for me. When I get angry, it doesn't mean I want to take over or that I want to leave.

ALICE: I felt really hurt when Bill said he thought we were all just whining -- that we really don't feel angry and hurt. That pushes me away almost more than the "stay in your place" put-down. It's the sort of thing that makes me feel, well, maybe I do have to get along without men if they're not even going to take me seriously. When what I really want is just to be friends. Aren't there any men who want that too?

AL: I think that's what some of us have been trying to say, if you'd only listen! There are men who do. It's been a real struggle for me to change, especially when Elaine starts raising questions about the church. I am a minister after all. But women have been treated as second-class, in the church as well as everywhere else, including our marriage. I want that to change -- 1 want to be friends with women, and especially Elaine.

LAURA: Well, Al, all I have to say is that I wish our pastor felt the way you do. I know some ministers are different, but when I went to see our minister he told me I had no real reason to be discontent, because I had everything a woman could possibly want-- a good husband, a home, nice children; he said I ought to pray about it and get right with God.

MARY: Trust in God, she will provide! (laughter) I had a different experience when I went to our minister for marriage counseling before our divorce. He could see the problem and really tried to help me be patient and encourage my ex-husband to accept some changes. It wasn't the minister's fault that we parted. But after my divorce I felt ignored by the church. It seems that everywhere I go there's not much place for singles; only couples are acceptable. Of course single men are always in demand. But a single woman is a liability and a failure. In spite of that, I've discovered that it is possible to be happy and single -- now that I feel good about myself. Also I'm not that "very sweet gal" that Jim describes! I like my independence and freedom and I'll keep right on fighting for it.

The discussion among the fourteen women and men in the inner circle continued intensely for some time. Then the group was asked to open the discussion to the larger audience sitting around the room, many of whom were having trouble keeping quiet any longer.

Several women felt with Laura -- and it was a revelation to them to discover that they were not alone in their feelings. One woman felt a closer kinship with Ann; she said, "Why do we have to get so angry with each other? It isn't right. That's the trouble with this women's lib thing. It stirs up a lot of problems that otherwise wouldn't be there." That comment made others angry; one person expressed her feeling that the words lib and libber are put-downs -- The women's liberation movement is a serious thing and shouldn't be referred to lightly or flippantly.

One man in the audience said he was impressed with how the seven women in the inner circle got immediately to their feelings and related at a deep level, whereas the seven men were mostly head-tripping. Another man remarked that he thought that wasn't true of this particular group but that in general it is difficult for men to express their feelings; they weren't brought up that way, they're supposed to be rational and not have feelings. A woman in the audience said she heard the men expressing lots of feelings but some of them copping out on their own responsibilities. She suggested directly to Michael that he take the risk of sharing his feelings with Judith instead of waiting for other people to raise her consciousness: How would she know what he wanted if he didn't tell her?

This session of a consciousness raising group, fishbowl style, took place at a weekend Conference on Human Liberation. The session, originally scheduled to run for two hours, actually went on for three. People became so deeply involved that they didn't even notice they were missing lunch. The intensity of such an experience is not unusual. It is happening with increasing frequency as the consciousness raising style of the women's movement is spreading to mixed groups and to men's groups as well. As women have begun to get in touch with their feelings about being women in our society and as men begin to notice changes in the women they know best, and in the collective consciousness of women, relationships between women and men are beginning to change dramatically. The excitement and chaos, fear and anticipation, that this rising movement brings with it is being felt at every level of our individual and collective lives.

Consciousness raising, then, is simply the bringing into conscious awareness of those influences which cause us to feel and behave as we do. Without such awareness, we cannot have conscious choice about the way we live. Consciousness raising can happen in any area. All of us these days are having our consciousness raised, for example, about the ways in which we are polluting our environment and destroying our natural resources. Once we become aware of what is happening we have some power to change things if we wish to.


Awareness of the Issues

The fishbowl consciousness raising group described above was focusing on the rapidly changing relationships between the sexes. Many important concerns of both women and men were raised in that session. Some of the issues for the women were:

1. Anger at the many subtle and "humorous" put-downs of women.

2. The desire to be involved in education, employment and government as well as the home.

3. The desire to be free to feel and to act on feelings formerly considered only the province of men.

4. Wanting the role of mother and homemaker valued in a new way.

5. Wanting the church to take a fairer attitude toward women.

6. Awareness of the loneliness of being single in a couple-oriented society.

7. The need for a language which includes women.

8. The need for counselors and ministers who are open to the new identities of women.

9. The desire for a new kind of relationship with men.

For men, some of the issues raised were:

1. The importance of emphasizing that male boxes too are tight.

2. Awareness of heavy and often unfair financial burdens.

3. Awareness of not feeling free to be tender and vulnerable.

4. The fear that women want to take over.

5. The fear of being abandoned by women who no longer need men.

6. A concern for what will happen to children and the family.

7. The question of feeling OK when no longer in a one-up position.

8. Guilt over the realization that women are hurting so much.

9. The possibility of some gains in a new kind of relationship with women.

These issues and the many others raised by the changing relationships between the sexes are both personal and social and have tremendous significance for the church. Many of the problems stirred up by the fact of changing roles are bringing individuals, couples, and families for counseling.

These issues and problems are causing many people to insist on a different response from the church. Both women and men need, and are asking for, the kind of counseling and consciousness raising which will help them challenge old stereotypes and liberate more fully their spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical potential. The following chapters will look at the role that ministers and counselors can have in facilitating the fullest kind of personal growth in themselves and others.

Inevitably this book leans more heavily on the needs of women. There are two reasons for that.

(1) The book is written by a woman, and therefore from a woman's point of view. I find it hard to know how men feel or to believe that they hurt as much as women do.

(2) Generally speaking, it is the women who are angry today and asking for change; it is therefore through women that change must begin to come. But men need consciousness raising and liberating too; their anger, while initially a response to the changes women are seeking, often evolves to an awareness of the way sex role stereotyping has limited them too. In the long run, no one is free unless everyone is free. This book, therefore, in spite of its emphasis on women's needs, is a book about human liberation.



1. Mabel Blake Cohen, "Personal Identity and Sexual Identity," in Miller, Psychoanalysis and Women, p. 182.