Chapter 5: Women’s (and Men’s) Liberation Groups

Growth Groups
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.

Chapter 5: Women’s (and Men’s) Liberation Groups

The pedestal upon which women have been placed has all too often, upon closer inspection, been revealed as a cage.

Raymond E. Peters, Associate Justice, California Supreme Court1

Women in our society are still trained from infancy to entertain, to please, and to serve -- mainly men. Women are not yet raised to be just people -- whole, fully participating individuals.

Joanne Cooke:, The New Woman2

Of all our society's multiple revolutions, the revolution in female/male consciousness and roles will become the most earthshaking; eventually it will touch and change every aspect of man-woman relationships.

No marriage (or premarriage) growth group can be "with it" today and avoid grappling with the issues raised by the women's liberation movement. Growth groups exist, we have said, to develop human potential, nurture self-esteem, and enliven persons in their relationships. These are also implicit goals of women's liberation! Think of the wasted intelligence, leadership capacity, creativity, strength, and sensitivity of the millions of women denied full educational and vocational opportunities, kept in narrow role-boxes, using only a fraction of their capacitiesl

Anthropologist Margaret Mead holds that changes now occurring in women's roles are as radical as those which hit men some 14,000 years ago -- when agriculture was first practiced. After eons of scrambling for sustenance as wandering hunters, men started to raise enough food to permit some free time ( which made possible the eventual development of culture). The roles of women, however, remained largely unchanged -- bearing and rearing children, doing housework, and serving men. Now, with population pressures reducing family size and with extended longevity, women generally will not be able to find fulfillment in homemaking roles alone.3 (Not that these roles ever did really foster the full self-realization of many women.) Women in increasing numbers are awakening to this fact and to the continuing oppression of a male-dominated society. There is a mounting insistence among women (including many who reject the methods of militant liberationists) that they be treated as full human beings, with freedom to choose and to develop their personal gifts and abilities. As psychologist Naomi Weisstein declares: "Women's liberation is part of a movement toward a just and humane society, a society in which no human being will be forced into a servant role."4

The changing consciousness of women has already begun to precipitate what will become a massive crisis in marriage. Those of us who do marriage counseling can think of examples of marital conflicts stemming from a three-way collision among a wife's need for fulfillment, a husband's need to be one-up, and the needs of both for a satisfying marriage.

Growth groups can help both women and men discover the creative possibilities that lie in the profound changes ahead. The new femininity offers opportunities for (in fact demands) a richer masculinity; together men and women can create more mutually humanizing relationships, including more delightful marriages, than have been possible before. Women's liberation can mean "human liberation."

The awakening of feminine awareness will reach into marriages at all stages. For those couples who have the mutual caring, imagination and guts to struggle through to new ways of relating, a more satisfying companionship-marriage can result. The Parent/ Child distancing games which have devitalized one-up/one-down marriages, can be replaced by the intimacy of a growing Adult-to-Adult relationship.5 For these fortunate couples the coming crisis in marriage will be a crisis of growth

Types of Female/Male Liberation Groups

Marital and premarital growth groups should deal explicitly and personally with how changing roles affect the participants. This will happen spontaneously (which is best), if there's even one "liberated" woman present; she'll be sensitized to the innumerable put-downs all women experience (but many are resigned to). In one way or another, she'll confront the men with the prejudices, subtle and not-so-subtle, with which most men are infected. She'll also confront acquiescent women.

In addition to dealing with liberation issues in mixed groups, special women-only groups are needed to provide mutual help in changing self-defeating attitudes toward themselves (consciousness raising), coping with the conflicts and challenges of the struggle for full personhood, and working for liberation through social action. ( Several thousand women's liberation groups already operate in North America.) Men-only groups may become useful in coping with distinctively male pressures and problems associated with the revolution in roles. But, as those in the power position, most males have little motivation to work on their side of the relationship unless they are confronted by the "victims." All-women groups can be good preparation for men-women groups, where both sexes can discuss and discover mutually fulfilling relationships.

To help couples develop more liberating relationships, the leader must be aware of the vital human issues involved and aware of his or her own prejudices. We're surrounded by our culture as fish are by water; it's impossible to grow up in a sex-prejudiced culture without catching some of it. In the self-image of males it takes the form of a feeling of superiority to women; in females it expresses itself in the feeling that one is worthwhile only in relation to a man or men. To be a facilitator of liberation, a leader must work to change these prejudgments and be sensitive to the person-damaging social forces which the liberation movement is fighting.

A Women's Liberation Group

The specific objectives of an all-women growth group depends, of course, on the wants, needs, and unused gifts of its individual members. There are, however, common directions in which many women desire to move. The following is from a "Personal Enrichment Group" composed of women ( late thirties and early forties ):

Joan: "I really can't get excited about women's lib . . . not for me . . . My kids are about out of the nest. Liberation is just around the corner for me . . . good years to use as I want."

Betty. "But what do you want -- for the next twenty years or so?"

Joan: "I don't really know at this point. What can you do with an ancient B.A. in English?"

Betty: "When I think of spending even the next five years volunteering 'til I'm blue in the face, entertaining Dan's clients, bridge club and church things (she scowls) . . . I've got to find something that uses more of me, I guess . . . not necessarily a job . . . but something I really want to do with me. I've had it up to here (points to chin) with all decisions depending on Dan's career . . . Where do I come in?"

Betty's honesty about her frustrations and her need to find another dimension to her life triggered brisk sharing in the group. Later in the session --

Joan: "I've toyed with the idea of seeing if I could get a master's in rehab therapy. I like the volunteer things I do with the handicapped. But I haven't been near a classroom in almost twenty years and . . . well, I wasn't exactly a brain in college -- interested mostly in trapping a man, I guess. I doubt if I could make it -- with all these bright young things."

Leader: "Have you considered taking a course at the state university to see how it goes? Lots of women commute for a course or two."

Joan: "I've thought of that. Even mentioned it to Tom [her husband]. He wasn't exactly thrilled. He asked why I don't spend more time with my volunteer groups, if I want to work with the handicapped. He seemed to feel that it would be a reflection on him for me to have a career."

Leader: "How do you feel about that?"

Joan: "A little put down, I guess, and hurt at the time . . . Of course, a part of me agrees with Tom. As he says, we don't particularly need the extra money. But I've tried lots of volunteer things. They're good but . . . well, they still don't really satisfy me. Maybe they should . . ."

What must Joan do to free and use more of her capabilities? First, she must decide on goals. What does she really want to do with the next twenty years? What is feasible? Second, she must devise workable plans. A career guidance center may provide aptitude testing and educational advice to help her check the realism of her goals and strategies. If she sets her sights on becoming a rehabilitation therapist, where can she get training?

If Joan's growth goals require enlarging her orbit beyond home and volunteer activities, she will have to do two other things -- overcome her low self-estimate regarding competing "in the world," and cope with her husbands resistance to changes in their roles. The group's perceptions of her abilities and resourcefulness, shared in subsequent sessions, helped to rectify her "I'm-OK.only-in-'female'-roles" feelings. The group also challenged her to take the leap -- at the risk of possible failure -- by enrolling in one course to test and toughen flabby academic muscles. For strengthening self-esteem, nothing succeeds like success. That B+ did wonders for her self-image as a person with brains she could use in a graduate program if she chose.

Before enrolling in the course, Joan reopened with her husband the issue of her role for the next twenty years. A stormy session ensued. When the smoke cleared, Joan explained that she valued their marriage and loved him but that she had to start liking herself more. To do this, she pointed out, might or might not involve a career, in addition to her present role. "What I need is the freedom to discover what is best for me and you and the children." Tom expressed his desire for her to be happy and fulfilled as a person but showed continuing distress at the thought of things changing as they would if she acquired a career. They eventually reached agreement on Joan's plans to take a course on a trial basis.

Obviously Joan and Tom have a considerable way to go toward renegotiating their relationship so that both will be more fulfilled. Without a new mutually acceptable agreement, their marriage will become increasingly strained. If Joan gives up her search for a revised identity, resentment of her restricted options will escalate. If she goes ahead against his adamant opposition, or if Tom merely gives in, his anger will mount, driving a deeper wedge between them. But, if they can achieve a revised covenant -- a mutual agreement concerning their roles and needs -- their marriage can prosper in fresh ways. A couples' growth group, including others facing the mid-years identity crisis, could help Tom and Joan in their struggles for a new relationship.

A women's growth group should provide activities directed at both inner liberation (raising self-esteem) and outer liberation (achieving equal opportunities for women in all areas of society). Women, like blacks and members of other oppressed groups, must break their inner bondage and gain self-esteem if they are to use fully their potential in collective efforts to change the systems of injustice ( discriminatory laws, pay scales, admissions policies to professional schools, among others ).

Unconsciously, most women have adopted the attitudes of our culture, viewing themselves as naturally subordinate. This is described in women's liberation as "the enemy within." Long dependence and semivoluntary servitude have produced ambivalence toward the risks and responsibilities of freedom. Prejudices toward women professionals among women reflect their low self-esteem as women (even though these persons may be confident and competent in their "feminine" roles). Consciousness-raising in groups reverses this negative conditioning, helping women "take pride and delight in our femaleness. trust and love each other as sisters (not competitors for male approval) . . . deciding and re-deciding each day, individually and together, that we will take control over our lives . . . and struggle together for the liberation of all women."8 This is the new feminine consciousness which can be nurtured in a liberation growth group.

In addition to growth-action groups focused explicitly on "women's liberation," a variety of all-women growth groups organized around other objectives should be available, e.g., "Women's Sharing Group," "Enrichment Group," "Women in a Changing World." Thus, many women who "wouldn't be caught dead" in a women's liberation meeting can have the opportunity to deal with the issues which inevitably will confront them as sex roles change in our society.

Women who are awakened to their full femininity and to liberation issues are most effective as leaders of women's groups. Couples or other male/female co-leaders who have been involved with these issues are best suited to this dimension of marital group work. Unless a man is unusually liberated from male prejudice and empathetic regarding the experience of being a woman in our culture, he had better not attempt to lead an all-women liberation group.

The Liberation Thrust in Mixed Groups

In the fabric of human existence, the lives of men and women are inextricably interwoven -- sexually, biologically, emotionally, socially. Neither can be truly free or fulfilled unless both are, because each enriches and completes the other's world. It is in men-women groups that women's liberation can most fully become human liberation.

Mixed groups can awaken both sexes quickly and personally to the issues. One or more sensitized women will feel the pain of male put-downs; they can respond by confronting the man or men responsible with the effects of their behavior. Couples often recognize one-up/one-down games more quickly in other relationships than in their own. Furthermore, mixed groups provide both stimulus and support for couples to grow jointly around the crunch of changing roles. It's not easy to change a marriage in any basic way. A group provides both caring support and caring confrontation the constructive pressure for a couple not to settle for less than they can achieve. It's in the actual give-and-take of interacting that couples work (or muddle) through to more fulfilling patterns.

Gains for Men in Women's Liberation

In liberated marriages and other male/female relationships, men lose their feelings of superiority, control, economic advantage, and the practical satisfactions of a servant-satellite relationship. In growth groups, men should discover what they can gain as well. Deeper companionship is one. There's a mutuality based on equality that can't be present in any up/down relationship. A wife has more to give because she feels more adequate and has a richer life. There is less mutual manipulating which creates I-it feelings between people. Inequality breeds manipulation -- overt domination by the husband; sneaky, "feminine" controlling by the wife. Increased sexual pleasuring is another gain for both men and women. A woman who feels worthwhile and free to enjoy being a woman is great in bed! Contrast this with the "frozen anger"7 of women who feel chronically inferior

Another gain for a man is knowing that he is involved in the fulfillment, rather than the exploitation, of another human being. Still another benefit may be a fuller sharing by the wife of responsibility for family support. As a group member put it: "Maybe fewer of us men will kick off at forty with heart attacks and booze, when we let our wives carry more of the load." Freedom to feel the rich range of human emotions, with no off-limits categories labeled "unmasculine" is another gain. Those of us who were taught in our early years that "little boys don't cry" ( or feel tenderness, or admit needing others, etc. ) have a new chance to enrich our inner lives. The freedom to be, for women, and the freedom to feel, for men, are two sides of a liberated relationship. Greater closeness to children is another gain. One couple renegotiated and actually rewrote their marriage contract, dividing rights and duties evenly, including caring for their small daughter. After several months under the new agreement, she said to her father one day, "You know, Daddy, I used to love Mommy more than you, but now I love you both the same."8

Liberation Awareness Exercises

Here are some of the group methods we have used to stimulate awareness of liberation issues. At a one-day intimacy workshop focused on changing roles, (for about 60 couples), my wife and I began by dialoguing on the emerging shapes of marriage (including ours) and the new possibilities for conflict and intimacy therein. Then, volunteers from the audience role-played a mid-years marriage involved in head-on collision between the wife's intense desire to complete her college course and the husband's equally intense desire for them to go for a business and pleasure fling in Las Vegas (during her examination week). This role-playing took workshop participants to the feelings-attitudes level of changing roles almost immediately. The debriefing, in small groups, was intense and personal.

The following exercise awakens awareness of liberation issues by heightening polarization:9

Fishbowl technique -- Men sit in the center and discuss how they really feel about women drivers (doctors, clergy, lib-ers, etc.). Then the women, who have observed from an outer circle, report on what they heard. Following this, women sit in the middle circle and discuss ways they feel put-down in a male-oriented society, after which the men report and interaction continues in a single circle.

The Stakes are High

A revolution in human relations is like an earthquake -- it shakes everything; even strong structures feel the effects and shaky ones collapse. The stakes are very high. A research psychologist10 reports that a major concentration of mental health problems in our country is among women between thirty-five and sixty -- women with unused capacities, victims of purposelessness. Statistics on divorce, swinging (spouse-swapping), multiple sex, Kinsey's revelations on rates of infidelity -- not to mention the plethora of dull, lifeless, and grim marriages -- all point to the fact that run-of-the-mill monogamy is not flourishing. Only an "intensified monogamy," a more total relationship, more "marital spice" and space, and more lusty enjoyment of sex can make monogamy a viable, fulfilling pattern for women and men. Marriages growing toward liberation, toward Adult-to-Adult relationships, can achieve this kind of depth intimacy.

Henrik Ibsen has an interchange in his play, A Doll's House (written in 1879), which states pointedly the central issue in women's liberation:

Helmer: Before all else you are a wife and a mother.

Nora: That I no longer believe. I believe that before all else I am a human being just as you are -- or at least that I should try to become one.11


Additional Reading -- Liberation Groups

Bird, Caroline, Born Female -- Source Book for the Women's Lib Movement. New York: McKay, 1970.

Callahan, Sidney C., The Illusion of Eve, Modern Women's Quest for Identity. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1965.

Cooke, Joanne, Bunch-Weeks, Charlotte, and Morgan, Robin, Eds. The New Woman. Greenwich, Conn: Fawcett Publications, 1969.

Doely, Sarah B., Women's Liberation and the Church. New York: Association Press, 1970.

Stambler, Sookie, Compiler. Women's Liberation, Blueprint for the Future. New York: Ace books, 1970.


1. From a statement made in declaring a "protective" female employment law discriminatory and unconstitutional. Los Angeles Times, Part I, p. 3.

2. J. Cooke, C. Bunch-Weeks, R. Morgan, Eds., The New Woman, A Motive Anthology, p. 16.

3. Lecture, N.Y.C. Conference on Values in Psychotherapy, November, 1969.

4. Diane Monk, "Defining the New Feminists," Los Angeles Times, January 4, 1970, Sec. I, p. 17.

5. Eric Berne observed that girls are taught to use their Child side to hook the Parent side of males. Thus Parent/Child manipulations tend to dominate many marriages. By subordinating women, our society forces them to use their Child side to get what they want and need. A woman's inner Parent is activated in rearing her children and pampering or nagging her husband. When children leave home, she is reduced to Child/Parent and Parent/Child interaction with her husband, which cannot give her (or him) the human fulfillment they need.

6. Joanne Cooke, et al., The New Women, p. 190.

7. My wife has observed that the term "frigidity" often refers to this frozen anger.

8. Alix Shulman, "A Marriage Agreement," Women's Liberation, A Blueprint for the Future (New York: Ace Books, 1970), p. 217.

9. For an exercise involving a questionnnaire which elicits basic male/ female attitudinal barriers, see Pfeiffer and Jones, A Handbook of Structured Experience for Human Relations Training (Iowa City: University Associates Press, 1971), Vol. III, p. 73.

10. Personal communication, Douglas H. Heath, Psychology Department, Haverford College.

11. From the Introduction to The New Women.