All five women in Norma Goldstein's living room on the Upper West Side of Manhattan feel as if they've come home. Norma, a 54-year-old pianist, settles into a corner of the couch. Alice Campagna, a 44-year-old restaurant owner, scours the room for an ashtray. Andrea Sedlak, a 39-year-old senior research scientist, pours herself a glass of wine. Brenda Boozer, 38, an opera singer, and Carol Morra, 45, an actress, catch up on news of each other as they fill their plates with chicken.
More than a decade ago, the five were part of a women's consciousness-raising group initiated by the National Organization for Women. They held weekly meetings in the neighborhood - often in this very apartment - between 1972 and 1974. Every Tuesday night they divulged their thoughts, feelings and fears about issues prescribed by NOW as being pertinent to consciousness-raising: body image, first sexual encounters, marriage, sexism in the workplace, aging, abortion, to name a few. Their group - which included, at times, as many as 11 women- followed the format that had been created by the New York Radical Feminists and modified by NOW. A topic from the prepared list was selected for each meeting; topics were also introduced by the women themselves. Each woman was allowed "free space" to talk for as long as she liked, without interruption. Women who were by nature reticent, therefore had as much opportunity to speak as women who were inclined to run the show.
Sometimes there were tears and expressions of anger. Sometimes there was the release of communal laughter, as on the night each of them learned she was not the only one to be obsessed about her breast size. And sometimes there were shocking revelations, when one or another confessed to having been abused as a child, or to having been raped. But mostly, there was the freedom to say what was on their minds and the comforting realization that they were all in this together.
In 1974, having covered all the topics in the NOW format, the group disbanded, and this is the first time these five women have been together in the same room since. Only Norma and Alice still live in New York. Andrea has just settled in a Maryland suburb outside Washington. Brenda has moved to Westchester County. Carol lives in Beverly Hills, Calif.
The reunion brims with nostalgia.
"Remember the night we talked about sexual positions?" asks Carol, laughing. "It changed my life." Norma remembers the evening they invited men, and how their presence seemed to alter the women's behavior. Alice recalls the first time she ever attended a group meeting: "I walked into the room and said, 'Wow! This is where I belong!!" "There was love in that group," says Andrea, wistfully. Adds Brenda, "There's been nothing like it in my life ever since."
From the left: Norma Goldstein, Alice Campagna, Andrea Sedlak, Carol Morra and Brenda Boozer
In the early 1970's, consciousness-raising, a woman-by-woman, systematic program of education, was among the highest priorities of the women's movement. Some date its origins to the mid 6O's, when groups of leftists met in Tampa, Fla., for self-criticism sessions, using as a focal point the teachings of Mao Zedong. The practice made its way north, where, in 1969, it was incorporated into the manifesto of the Red-stockings, a radical feminist splinter group. By 1972, however, consciousness-raising had come under the umbrella of the National Organization for Women, which clearly outlined its purposes: to break down the barriers between women, to encourage open communication among them, and to help them develop pride in their sex. Some individuals, it was understood, would use the insights gained in consciousness-raising solely in their personal lives without becoming active in the women's movement. But it was hoped that the collective experience would radicalize many of the women and encourage them to become agents for change. By 1973, some 80,000 to 100,000 women across the country belonged to small feminist groups, most of which met for consciousness-raising.
It is a measure of the success of the feminist activism of the 1960's and 70's that the lessons of consciousness-raising are now part of our common cultural rhetoric and that a whole generation of American women have grown up in a society familiar with feminist doctrine. Women's rights are an integral part of our social and political discourse. In culture and commerce, the contributions of women, both in general and in particular, are sought and recognized with greater consistency than they were a dozen years ago.
Yet as all idealistic causes must over time, feminism has yielded its intensity to other pressing issues, and it is evident that the women's movement has slipped into a period of dormancy. Women coming of age today, though they have benefited from the efforts of the preceding generation, particularly in the area of career opportunities, have turned away from a collective focus. The dwindling number of women who remain activists find themselves largely concentrating on specific projects, the establishment of rape crisis centers, for example, or the campaign against pornography. A personalized form of feminism has taken over in the day-to-day struggles of women in the home and in the workplace; the collective outcry for equality that issued from activists of a generation ago echoes today in the demand for respect by women who refuse to be bullied by bosses, colleagues or husbands.
The stories of the five women at the reunion illustrate this history on an individual scale. In 1972, each of them came to the group seeking a feminist perspective on her life. Today, they still call themselves feminists; the term suggests a value system to which they yet subscribe. But for them, as they look back, consciousness-raising appears to have been a mixed blessing. It encouraged their pursuit of careers, for example, but those among them who have not achieved their professional goals are particularly hard on themselves, and they are all confounded by the problem of combining work and motherhood.
In fact, the strongest tie that unites the four women who have children is the unqualified pride they take in having been good mothers. And for the fifth, Andrea, childless as yet, getting pregnant is her first priority. The women are angry that motherhood remains devalued in our society, perhaps even more so since women have been encouraged to leave the home. They wonder why just being a mother isn't good enough. It is one aspect of womanhood they feel feminism has failed to address.
The five women also discovered that a raised consciousness has not insured their happiness with men. They say that a feminist perspective has a way of sabotaging relationships with men whose expectations are rooted in traditional roles, or that striving for across-the-board equality can lead to debilitating power struggles, even in the best of partnerships. Norma maintains her marriage was saved by consciousness-raising. But Alice, a divorced mother in 1972 who is the only single woman in the group today, says that the group sessions may have made her relationships with men more difficult. Carol, realizing her marriage couldn't survive in a feminist context, submerged her feminism.
For all five, consciousness-raising amounted to a ceremonial introduction to life as a woman, an organized life-support system that is largely unavailable to women in our society today. In fact, when Brenda says, "There has been nothing like it in my life ever since," she could be speaking for tens of thousands of women who struggle in their daily lives to be feminists but who do so without the once-a-week shot in the arm that characterized consciousness-raising. In a way, it was a little like telling a child she should learn to ride a bike, buying the bike for the child, convincing her to get on it, then vanishing as she wobbled wildly down the street.
A generation ago, feminists argued that women's groups like this one provided women with tools to combat their problems. In the portraits below, the five women who attended the reunion discuss the circumstances that brought them to consciousness-raising and the events of their lives since they last congregated. Did the group make a difference? Each of them remembers its eye-opening importance in 1972. But concerning the discoveries the women have made in the intervening years, Alice Campagna puts it most succinctly. "Life," she says, "is not a consciousness-raising group."
A mother with a happy marriage, a scholar, musician and painter, yet she says, 'I'm disappointed.'
"I have not been able to apply a lot of things I learned in the group to my personal life," Norma says. "I have not pursued a career the way I dreamed it. I still feel that to be financially dependent is to be at a serious disadvantage. I've done this to myself, and it has been very hard to unravel."
Norma's self-criticism is a little surprising, because she is so clearly an accomplished person. She went to the Juilliard School of music on a scholarship and graduated at 19. Four years ago, at the age of 50, she graduated summa cum laude from Hunter College, majoring in philosophy. She has recently taken up oil painting and this spring won a scholarship to the Art Students League. Her marriage of 34 years is thriving, and she is proud of the job she has done raising her two children, Nancy, 24, and Steven, 19 -both of whom live at home. Still, she finds it hard to account for herself. "'I'm disappointed," she says.
Norma's dissatisfaction stems from her not realizing the lifelong goal of becoming a concert pianist. "I want the respect that comes from that kind of achievement," she says. "I've worked hard at it. I gave up my teen years for it." After Juilliard, she married, and though she did play a few small recitals, she concentrated on "doing what women did then," settling down to raise a family. She still practices daily and gives lessons. But what was once her dream, she says, "has settled down to a little painful pocket of frustration."
Ironically, participation in the group, which promoted the notion of individual accomplishment, may have resulted in exacerbating her sense of failure. She feels herself now a victim of her past ambition and today's emphasis on success. "I had a friend once who said she woke up every morning and asked herself how she was doing in life, and I used to think that was a little crazy," Norma says. "But when I turned 50, I became one of those people."
But if consciousness-raising was in part responsible for Norma's current unease, she nonetheless maintains it was an important step. To her group, she remains hugely grateful. "I could cry this very minute," she says, "when I think of what it did for me."
What the group did was save her marriage. In 1972, Norma had been married all her life, or so it seemed then. At 40, she was taking motherhood seriously, but her 21-year marriage to Bob Goldstein, a commercial artist, was foundering. She heard about consciousness-raising groups at a NOW meeting.
Immediately upon joining the group, she recalls, "I began to lose the paranoid sense of 'This is happening only to me,' and to see my situation as one that all women deal with. This is not to say I didn't suffer. Even though I understand things now, I still suffer. But it helped, absolutely."
Norma also gives credit to her husband, who, unlike many other men who were being confronted with the demands of feminism in their personal lives, listened to the news Norma was bringing home week by week. "He was smart enough and insightful enough to listen to the issues and to see the justice," says Norma. "My marriage has succeeded because of that - because he heard and he understood."
The oldest member of the group, Norma, more than the others, brought an intellectual rigor to their discussions. She alone was fluent in the semantics of feminism, reading the works of feminist writers and insisting that the others do so. During this time she became practically obsessed with feminism. And though, over the years, the obsession has waned, she is experiencing now a rekindled passion. This spring she traveled with her daughter to Washington to participate in a pro-choice march to the White House. "It's easy to put feminism on a back burner unless there's an issue that arouses your feelings," Norma says. "Denying women the right to choose to have an abortion or not arouses me. In fact, it enrages me. But you can't just go march and then clap your hands and say, 'That's done.' You have to keep up the pressure. You have to resist the forces that are trying to take these rights away."
In her renewed fervor, Norma fears that the past decade has turned women inward, away from one another, and away, too, from the notion that solidarity among women is ultimately a source of personal strength. "Feminism is not separate from your life," she says. "It is not an objective topic. I was telling a woman the other day about having been in a consciousness-raising group, and she said, 'Oh my god, I could never be in a group like that. I mean, I don't even like being with women.' And I was practically tongue-tied with sadness. There are still so many women who hate themselves and each other."
A restaurant owner and mother of a son, 20, she is a 44-year-old human being who is still struggling.
"Last night I saw the Killing Fields,' and I felt like adopting a child from Cambodia, but I know I won't," Alice says. "I could go on marches, but I never do. I've gotten more tired. I want to read mystery books and go shopping."
Shortly after the group disbanded in 1974, Alice's engagement with feminism receded. Consciousness-raising, though, did make a difference for her, she says: because of it, she sees her personal struggle in a feminist context. But she knows the days of her commitment are over. About her lapsed activism, she is cheerfully resigned.
"I'm ashamed to say my own issue is surviving," Alice says. "I'm a lot more middle-class. I don't know if I'm more conservative, but maybe I am. I think we're all more conservative. I'm not as closed a person as I once was, but I don't have the hunger to share that I did then. Consciousness-raising takes a lot of energy, and I'm putting that energy into other things. There's a part of me that would like to belong to a group now, but there's a part of me that's just too lazy."
In 1972, Alice had long straight hair parted in the middle, as was the style then. She dressed, she says, in "arty" clothes - jeans, a black leotard, and jewelry. A single parent in the days before such status became epidemic, she was raising her 6-year-old son, Adam, with little from her former husband. Living in a small apartment on the minimal wages she earned as a waitress, she was looking for a man to come along and take care of her.
At 30, Alice was a nascent feminist. She'd been trapped in a miserable marriage in Michigan during her 20's, and until she met Norma Goldstein, who would introduce her to the group, she had shared few confidences with other females. In the atmosphere in which she was raised, women were people with whom you were competitive, people from whom you kept secrets. When she joined the group, she says, "I went from being an infant to being a woman."
Today, at 44, Alice is thinner than she was at 30; she admits that she has been nearly anorexic at times. When she is anxious, she says, she simply stops eating. She still smokes cigarettes, and says she'll give them up "someday." Her hair is cropped short. "You can't be in your 40's and have long hair," she says, and laughs.
Alice owns a restaurant called Vintages, on Columbus Avenue. Her son Adam is now 20, and has completed his junior year at the University of Pennsylvania. When he comes home, they share her Riverside Drive apartment. She says, only half in jest, that she is now a "capitalist," and that on any given day she wakes up thinking about the weather, an important consideration in her business. Asked if she's happy, she says that depends on what day it is, what time of day you call her, whether Adam is home with her, how her business is going. She thinks it's an asinine question.
If feminism didn't take with Alice over the long haul, certain lessons learned in the group nonetheless stuck with her. The meetings about sex stand out in her memory. "I was a mess of misinformation," she recalls. "I thought I wasn't having the right kind of orgasm. I thought something was wrong with me, that I was a freak. But I learned through the group that sex was wonderful. It's affected not only my own life, but also the way I've taught my son about women."
Alice is very clear about her greatest success - her son. She is proud of her mothering, and her relationship with Adam remains the most joyous part of her life. On the other hand, she says, "My biggest failure is that I haven't had a man in my life - a successful long, long relationship."
In the years immediately following her involvement with the group, she sometimes found it hard to find a man who understood her feminist concerns. "A lot of the reasons my relationships with men didn't work was that the men may have been mouthing that they were feminists," she says, "but at heart they weren't."
Today she says she would take any man with two legs ("only kidding") and that if she could change anything in her life it would be to have more money (not kidding). At heart, however, she is still much the same woman she was in 1972. "I would describe myself as a 44-year-old human being who is still struggling. I don't know what I want - as a woman. I like being alone, yet I think I have to be married. I still have the same strings manipulating me that I did 14 years ago. I think I'll have the same problems till the day I die."
'I've come further than ever, but I have a lot of fears about it not working out. I want to have a child.'
"I just found this saying and put it on my refrigerator,' Andrea remarks. "It says, 'Happiness is having something to do, someone to love and something to hope for.' I guess that covers all of my bases."
A bromide, perhaps, but one that didn't apply to Andrea Sedlak's life until very recently. She got married for the first time in October 1984, to a physical chemist she met by putting an ad in the local paper in New Haven, where she was living at the time, and last August she bought, with him, her first house. Her career, as a senior research scientist at Westat, a consulting firm just outside of Washington, is, at last, well established. Her 40th birthday will be in December; her greatest hope is to be pregnant before then. After what she describes as 14 years of "tortuous" meandering around the country - to Kansas, to North Carolina, to Connecticut, to Iowa and finally to Maryland-Andrea Sedlak is settling down.
Unlike many of her professional peers, however, Andrea Sedlak couldn't be described as a yuppie. She isn't a consumer. Her new home is small and modest - decorated much like a graduate student's might be. At work, she still wears the suits she was given when she was in high school. As a hobby, she raises finches.
The first member of her New Jersey working-class family to attend college, Andrea was exposed in the 1960's and early 70's to new ideas that still characterize her thinking. A shy, fragile-looking woman who speaks in thoughtful, measured cadences, her feminism is couched in a rhetoric that echoes that of a generation ago. But it's tinged now with personal need, as if it isn't solidarity she's speaking of, but companionship. "Women feel alone," she says. "We are usually the only mother or the only wife in the house. Our problems seem unique."
In 1972, Andrea Sedlak was 25 and studying psychology at Columbia University. She had been politically active as a leader in a student effort to do away with comprehensive exams, but didn't know much about feminism. Because she was curious about the movement, and also because she was having personal problems with men, she joined the group. "From it," she says," I got a very powerful message of 'You're O.K.' It was my first discovery that such a message existed."
In 1973, Andrea left New York in search of a job. During the next 12 years, she would organize women's groups all over the country, wherever she happened to be. In the beginning, she established consciousness-raising groups. Later, she organized support groups specifically for rape victims, and she worked in a shelter for battered women. "When I was in the group, I saw how powerful a peer support group was, and I thought to myself if my feeling of relief was so great, then a person who had gone through some really bad experiences - like being raped or being battered - would stand to benefit even more."
Of all the women reunited in Norma Goldstein's living room, Andrea feels the most hankering to belong to a women's group now. Recently, she underwent surgery in an effort to reverse her infertility, and perhaps in her concern over the outcome of the operation, she confesses to a loneliness that she can't quite come to terms with. She also admits to financial problems. Medical bills and a hefty new mortgage have sapped her resources. "I don't exactly need basic training all over again, but I've been thinking that it would be nice to have a group right now," Andrea says. "I guess what I miss is the large amount of sharing that goes on - the number of different comparisons you have for yourself."
Andrea, like Norma, finds a link between the individual concerns of women and their collective predicament. But like Alice, she has discovered that with the advance of time her consuming passions are private ones. "I feel I've come further than I've ever been, but I have a lot of fears about it not working out for me," she says. "I want to have a child."
As an opera singer and mother of a son, Alexander, 2, she says, 'I couldn't be more fulfilled.'
"I look at what I have in my life, and I say: “These are the choices I have made." You could say life has been kind to Brenda Boozer. She lives in a Stanford White brick mansion on an estate that used to belong to a Rockefeller; and at first glance it looks like a small college. She is an established opera star, a mezzo-soprano and a principal artist with the Met. She has a 2-year-old son named Alexander whom she describes as a "miracle child." And she is married to the talented comedian/actor Robert Klein. At 38, she also happens to be beautiful.
"The thing about myself that I think is different from other people," she says, "is that when I was 3, my grandmother said I was going to be an opera star - and from then on I was headed to be a performer. I've always been dedicated. I haven't had a lot of time for introspection. I just lived my life and went about my goals."
Brenda seems to have been a rather unlikely candidate for a consciousness-raising group. She was not active in the women's movement, was not politically motivated and had no pressing personal problems to sort out. In fact, she has no memory of why she joined the group.
In 1972, she was studying voice in New York - having had what she describes as a "joyous" childhood in Atlanta in the home of liberal Southern parents who were part of the civil rights movement. She was already living with Robert (they married in 1973) -whom she had met when they were both performing in "Candide" - in a comfortable apartment on Riverside Drive. Nevertheless, one evening she found herself the host of a group meeting in her living room. Her own sheltered life and the blinders she wore in pursuit of her chosen goal were temporarily knocked askew. She says: "One of the most incredible things that happened to me in the group was a real bonding with other women - women who were very different from me. I grew to have compassion for the struggles women were going through. The group wasn't there to talk about how happy we were."
Fourteen years later, Brenda isn't any more active in the women's movement than she was before she joined the group. For her, unlike the others, women's issues and her own personal strivings don't necessarily overlap. "You can't chase two rabbits at the same time," she says. "I'm happily married. I can't wait to have another child. I'm thrilled about my singing, and I'm loving the work I do. I couldn't be more fulfilled. It feels so overwhelming."
Brenda likes to give credit where credit is due - to herself and to God: "The biggest change in my life since I was in the group is my spiritual growth. I pray every day. I go to church regularly." She reports having had a religious experience looking up at da Vinci's "Annunciation" in a museum in Florence. It is a painting of the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would bear the Child.
"I really feel like God was speaking to me," she says, "that he was calling me." Two months later, she was pregnant with Alexander.
Her husband, who is Jewish, doesn't share her religious fervor, and Brenda says that she thinks he is threatened by it, as he has been, at times, by what she describes as her "control." Shortly after she left the group in 1974, Brenda auditioned for the Santa Fe Opera company and was accepted. Robert needed her with him and asked that she not go, but she went anyway. "I'm not sure how much that decision had to do with the group. I already had the strength to go, and the group helped me in my conviction."
Conviction remains a strong suit with Brenda; she tends to get what she wants. Her biggest problem, she says, is finding time for everything. She describes a typical day this way: "If I don't have a performance, I get up around 8:30. I like to spend quality time with Alexander in the morning. We go to the lake or the farm across the street. We are always doing something fun. Then I'll be back here at 10 to vocalize for an hour before the pianist comes. Marion (the nanny) gives Alexander lunch, but I always put him to bed for his nap. Then I will probably have to go to the city for a rehearsal or a coaching session until 5, when I come back to play with my son. There are a thousand things with the house - 15 phone calls on the machine, someone with the wallpaper. I always put Alexander to bed around 9, and then after that, if Robert's here, we might have dinner together, and that's my time to be with him. Then I will make a couple of phone calls, take my bath and study some music. I have a real busy schedule."
Brenda believes that "feminism is about changing yourself." Yet apart from her religious awakening, she appears to have changed remarkably little. To be sure, she is richer and more well known, and she now has a son whom she dearly loves, but certain characteristics remain. The group, she says, "gave us more strength to go in the direction we wanted to go." To distinguish herself from the other members of the group, she says, "I've been successful."
After a hiatus of nearly two decades during which she concentrated solely on her marriage and family, Carol Morra wants to be an actress again. She is a vivacious personality with a 1,000-watt smile, someone who, by her own admission, "chooses to see the glass half-full rather than half-empty."
It is tempting, however, to think the positive attitude an act - her biggest role to date. One of the first things she says is that after 23 years she is still "desperately in love" with her husband, Buddy, a personal manager for entertainers in Los Angeles, and that her life is where she wants it to be. Reminded of this later, she looks surprised: "You mean you believed all that baloney I told you?"
Pressed, Carol admits she has serious doubts about having given up her 20's and 30's, when she was "the most beautiful and the most creative," to the service of her husband and children. "My choice was to preserve my marriage at all costs, and I try to keep a sense of joy in my household," she says. "But the person who's neglected is me. I take a back seat, and I find that difficult. In all the years that Buddy and I have been going out socially for his business, only one person has ever asked me a serious question."
Ironically, Carol made her choice during her time in consciousness-raising. "The group forced me to look at my values and to think about what was really important to me," she says. "I saw that it was possible to really screw up my marriage, because I was becoming awakened to a lot of things. A group of women sitting around do not always say great things about their marriages. So there was a little bit of a mental shake-up. Fortunately, I recovered. The marriage was my first priority."
Carol came to the group because of her friendship with Brenda; Buddy was Robert Klein's manager, and the four had regular dinners together. Carol recalls: "Brenda said, 'I think you should join this consciousness-raising group I'm in. We sit around and talk about different topics, and we share.'
"I said, 'Hey, that sounds cute.'"
"Brenda said, 'There's nothing cute about it.' "
In the fall of 1972, Carol and Buddy were living on 94th Street and Amsterdam Avenue with their three children, Adam, 7, Paris, 2, and Ali, who was just 3 months old. Carol, who had attended the School of Performing Arts and who had been on the road for five years acting, singing and dancing in musicals, had met Buddy at a frozen-foods counter in New York and was married to him five months later. Two years after her son was born, Carol gave up her career to be, as she puts it, "Miss Mommy." At the time, she had no regrets.
So Carol went to her first consciousness-raising meeting with an attitude of "Show me." Within the structured confines of the group she found, to her surprise, that she could allow herself to be introspective, an indulgence she had always avoided and that, in fact, she seems to have forgone since. She says she takes great pains never to be alone. "I'm not really happy being with myself," she admits. "If ever I'm alone with nothing to do, which is almost impossible to think of, I'm on the phone."
Today, living with Buddy and the kids in Beverly Hills, Carol is trying once again to get her career in gear. She has managed to do some television work in the last five years, appearing under the professional name of Carol Gordon on "The Love Boat," "Remington Steele," "Dynasty" and "Not Necessarily the News." But she is 45 now, and it's not as easy as it might have been 20 years ago. She says: "It's only in retrospect that I realized that, hey, those were very important years for me. I could have used them." In fact, it is when she thinks about the scarcity of parts available to her now - because of her age and because she is a woman that her brand of feminism is most likely to surface. "I don't think people realize this," she says, "but most of the TV work is geared to men. I see what's available, and I feel a resentment that something like 70 percent of the roles in this business are male parts."
Carol was a participant in the first women's march down Fifth Avenue, nearly two decades ago, but when she wakes up in the morning today, she says, "I'm not thinking about marching on the streets. I'm usually hoping that the shower will be nice when I get in. I get confused about political issues. I really do."
She is out of the house three mornings a week at 8:15 for tap-dancing lessons. She also takes Spanish lessons, and, in addition to having three children still at home, she recently served as understudy for the lead in a local theater production. All this activity requires energy, something Carol has in abundance. It is her most striking quality, and it has stood her in good stead in her marriage ("Buddy loves watching me walk into a room and be bubbly and effervescent") and with her children ("You give me two pillows and I've got a puppet show going").
Carol sees no room in her life for a consciousness-raising group now. "We became women in that group," she says. "It was an initiation rite like a rite of passage. That happens only once. I said it changed my life, and it did. But it was like taking a wonderful course in school. You study for a year and later you can remember only three or four sentences about it. Those are the things that stay with you."
Anita Shreve's book "Caresses and Careers: How the Working Mother Is Shaping Our Children's Future" will be published by Viking next spring.