Meeting minutes describe the weakness and perplexity of the Center women
Viewed from today’s perspective, the development of the new women’s movement seems consistent and easy to understand. A report[i] from the early days of the Berlin women’s center pinpointing the weaknesses of women’s center groups in those days, written by member Sibylle Weber, offers a different point of view. Despite our diligence—two or three working groups a week, plus the plenary—we just didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. That is how we felt, at any rate, although this would turn out to be an especially creative phase for the movement. We were like mice sitting in a tin can, struggling to see over the edge. In retrospect, it is not so much the information in the meeting minutes that counts but the mood they convey—that atmosphere when you don’t know where the road will take you.
All those newcomers
Sibylle Weber noted after one year the “shop” – the women’s center – had started:
The many new women led to specific problems: many women who passed through the groups to see where they could do something paralyzed the group work. Many women who at first are interested only in CR[ii] and meeting other women—this creates the false dichotomy: CR or outer-directed work; many women who felt the need to conduct fundamental discussions—this did not always correspond to the interests of the “old” members etc.
But if the older members had provided more precise information about the work of the groups and if the groups had worked with a concept and motivation… things wouldn’t have been so difficult.
That is why I believe that the groups didn’t go badly because of the new women, but rather that the newcomers became a problem because there were no or only a few good groups. And the whole shop[iii] wasn’t doing well—you can see that from the plenary discussions that went around in circles and repeated the same ideas, which were never put into practice anyway—because the groups just didn’t function properly. Therefore our foremost task is to inject life back into the groups, or the shop will collapse sooner or later.
Critique of the CR groups
On the one hand, the shop [the women’s center] has groups that primarily aim to deal with their members’ issues and actually mainly discuss relationship problems (couples’ issues, relationship towards women, sexuality) and difficulties in communal living situations. The accounts give the impression that problems in the workplace (the university, office etc) are largely left out or suppressed? But a CR group doesn’t necessarily mean that you only address one side of dual oppression (relationships, home life).
Moreover, one gets the impression that the CR groups are frequently irrelevant for behavior, that is, that discussing problems does not change behavior and that these groups do not proceed—as originally intended—from discussing personal experience and problems to making suggestions for work and actions and shared group action in certain arenas of society. As far as I know, no CR group has yet taken this step.
Critique of the university group
The university group produced lots of ideas at the beginning, but put hardly any of them into practice…. Why? A lack of motivation? No identification with their roles at the university? Especially difficult working conditions in this field? Their task should have been to appear in public and engage with other groups (above all with other women). In fact, however, they organized themselves as a sub-group within a seminar at the OSI[iv] and did not act publicly as a group, for the following reason:
- It is stupid and totally boring to deal with the same old idiotic arguments of the ADS[v] and KSV[vi] groups over and over again. Counter-argument: First of all, there is not just ADS and Co., but also independent leftists and potential leftists; second of all, it is wrong to leave everything to the ADS and KSV. What would happen if everybody on the undogmatic and sponti left were to do the same?
- There was insufficient motivation to do the theoretical work that would have been necessary in the seminar. Counter-argument: Our justifiable critique of a certain style of seminar and theoretical work has meant that only a few people are now prepared to grapple with books at all. But we can only effectively criticize the repressive form of theoretical work at the university if we ourselves develop alternative forms, not if we withdraw again from theoretical efforts.
- The strike rendered the program of work and ideas irrelevant. I believe that a political group working at the university cannot treat a strike as some sort of fateful storm, but has to participate in the university policy debate over the strike’s aims and the forms it takes.
The example of the [Berlin women’s center] reading group shows at the same time that vague objectives, a lack of concepts and slipping into a seminar style (this was a problem for many groups at the shop, not just the reading group) are at once connected and the consequence of a quite abstract and diffuse motivation for political work. If we do not know what relationship a working group has to the problems that we experience quite personally and that touch us most deeply, and when the working group becomes a pleasant chatty evening, a hobby for salon socialists and serves as an excuse for not doing political work, then there is no motivation, one has discussions without an interest in practical consequences, people attend irregularly and the whole working style is uncommitted.
Often, it seems to be like this: We want to do “political work”—after all, we are part of left-wing groups and a leftist “scene” and want to have something to show for ourselves, or we simply feel strange if we aren’t doing anything, because we have learned that “you do political work,” or we at least want to belong to a respectable political group—but we don’t know what we actually want to achieve, what this political work is supposed to do for us.
I don’t intend this critique to be understood as moralistic, and I include myself in it. What we need to ask ourselves is: where do we experience oppression, where do we need to fight for our interests, and where can we fight for our interests too?
Demands of the working groups
We thus have to set the following conditions for the working groups that wish to tackle a specific topic, a specific target group or a specific societal problem:
- They need to have at least a minimal concept for their work and present it and its political significance and perspectives for action to the plenary. The joint discussion of the work of these groups by the plenary should be a sort of check, on the one hand (a private coterie or rival enterprise to the university has no business appearing as a politically relevant group at the shop) and a help (via ideas, criticism and support with actions) on the other.
- They should develop perspectives for action and approaches to interacting with women outside the shop (that is, no purely internal muddling along).
- They should refer more strongly than previously to activities (study and work) and experiences outside the shop. Perhaps, for example, we should organize primarily according to the various working areas: university departments, teachers and other professional groups. If we don’t do that, sooner or later the women whose most important problem is conflicts and difficulties in the workplace will leave the shop [i.e., the women’s center]. It would be a disadvantage, however, if the women’s group were always composed solely of students.
On the problem of actions
At the meeting for “old’ members, someone suggested doing an action against Andy Warhol’s film “Women.” Everybody found the suggestion good, at least nobody spoke out against it. But no one had a strong enough personal interest that she insisted at the end of the meeting that we discuss concrete plans.
Maybe the only reason for this was that everybody was preoccupied with the question of how to inspire the groups to engage in activities with a longer-term perspective. And a single action naturally would not solve this problem. Instead, the long-range work of the groups had to be such that the shop’s occasional actions did not just fall from the sky, but rather were a necessary consequence and an essential component of the work of the groups. Then the actions would be well-argued and well-prepared, everybody would know what they were about, we wouldn’t just stand around after such an action, the experience of an action would be discussed and processed in the group, if not in the whole shop (including the consequences for subsequent actions). Actions without such roots in the continuing work of the group usually go badly, and group work that excludes such actions is also lousy. After all, we aren’t just a debating society, at least that’s not what we aspire to be.
[i] Private collection of Cillie Rentmeister.
[ii] CR stands for consciousness raising (group). See also the chapter CR Groups.
[iii] We also called the Berlin women’s center “the shop” or the “women’s shop” (Laden, Frauenladen).
[iv] The Otto-Suhr-Institut or OSI is the political science department at Berlin’s Free University.
[v] Aktionsgemeinschft von Demokraten und Sozialisten (Action Group of Democrats and Socialists).
[vi] Kommunistischer Studentenverband (Communist Students’ League).