Consciousness-Raising at Oberlin College During the Second Wave: Gender and Sexuality Conferences and Workshops
Project Group: Tory Sparks, Hannah Cohen, and Shihze Hu
Student Editor: Rebecca Debus
Content Warning: This project contains descriptions and discussion of abuse, sexual harassment, assault, and rape. More specific content warnings for individual documents have been provided.
The Office of the Dean of Students at Oberlin College oversees many aspects of student life. Its archived collection contains documents that chronicle the myriad of ways in which the Office engaged with the student body. This includes, but is not limited to, residential life, student organizations, and administrative records. This mini-edition project, drawn from the Dean of Students records, focuses on documenting consciousness raising discussions of gender, sexuality, and feminism in the 1970s and 1980s, and seeks to illustrate what Second Wave feminism looked like on college campuses. During this time, college campuses became important consciousness-raising venues, as well as places where students could learn how to organize. This college activism and consciousness raising had impacts far beyond the campus, and was an important part of the legacy of the Second Wave.
The documents in this project focus on four conferences and their results. The first of these workshops, “Brave New Women: Society in Transition,” was a women’s conference that occurred in October 1972. It examined the role of women at Oberlin College and also served to raise larger consciousness about women’s oppression in society. In 1973, a follow-up conference entitled “Snakes ‘N Snails ‘N Puppy-dogs’ Tails: Why shouldn’t men be gentle, caring, loving and sharing?” took place. This conference came directly out of “Brave New Women” and explored men’s roles in society and what they saw as their own form of societal oppression. Both of these conferences were aimed at current students and alumni, held as they were over Alumni Weekends. The consciousness raising at these two conferences set the stage for continued discussion at Oberlin about dismantling prescribed societal gender roles.
In 1987, fifteen years after the men’s conference, members of Oberlin’s administration and faculty attended a conference on “unwanted sexual activity” in Cleveland led by George Langeler, the Dean of Students. Events on campus and the general student response to them showed a need for the faculty and administration to be more thoughtful and better informed about many issues of gendered oppression, but particularly in cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault, which were among the issues mostly strongly embraced by the national feminist movement. This conference, like many others at the time, paid particular attention to the problem of “acquaintance rape.” In the past rape had generally been considered to be something committed by a stranger. At this time activists both on and off campus were drawing attention to the fact that rape was often committed by someone known to the victim, and that this kind of rape was underreported and often badly handled. Faculty and Administrative responses to this conference were generally positive, and the attendees developed a brochure and a similar workshop for students to address these issues on campus. The documents within this project demonstrate the effect of student activism upon the administration, and the administration’s early commitment to addressing the issues of unwanted sexual activity.
The following year, in 1988, George Langeler attended a workshop for administrators in Boston called the “Problem of Rape on Campus Workshop.” The workshop, run by a subset of the American Crime Prevention Institute, was meant to aid administrators in navigating the problems caused by the increased awareness of rape and sexual assault on campuses. While the workshop included sessions designed to help educate students on issues of sexual assault, it also focused on the legal aspects of the problem. George Langeler’s notes from the conference dealt primarily with the legal responsibilities of the college in regards to security and rape. This heightened focus on legal issues reveals the results of successful consciousness raising: it is clear that various forms of sexual assault were viewed far more negatively than they had been in the past, and that colleges were increasingly being held responsible for creating environments that allowed sexual assault to happen. Beyond the legalities, attendees were also encouraged to share information and advice on programs to combat sexual assault. Attendance at the workshop not only strengthened the commitment to addressing issues of unwanted sexual activity in Oberlin College, but also permitted Oberlin to contribute its valuable experiences to the larger discussion thereby making an impact on the national efforts to prevent sexual violence in society.
From 1973 to 1988, student activism at Oberlin had implications beyond campus. As Maria Bevacqua has written, “the radical feminist approach to rape was built on the experiences of brave women who described their rape experiences in consciousness-raising sessions and public speak-outs and translated their experiences into action.” These workshops at Oberlin College exemplified and helped build the Second Wave movement within the collegiate context, and beyond.
Oberlin’s workshops identified the issues of gender and sexuality that were of greatest concern at colleges across the country at this time. Taking seriously the maxim that “the personal is political,” students brought the topics of gender roles and sexual assault into public conversation. The workshops saw consciousness raising as a key method by which people, especially women, could make their oppression known and understood. Here, the personal became the political in that the private experiences of unwanted sexual activity were unearthed and discussed as parts of patterns of greater oppression and violence. The Office of the Dean of Students at this time sought to start conversations, even when solutions were not entirely clear.
Often, however, these workshops and conferences did not consider an “intersectional” approach, that is an approach taking seriously the ways in which race, gender and class are bound together as intersecting axes of oppression. The 1987 memo by Jan Cooper, then an Assistant Professor of English, is one of the few documents in which the issue of race is broached, and even then only because of the absence of discussion of race in the analysis of sexual assault. This may reflect what Shirley Geok-Lim terms the “social capital” of Oberlin’s second wave students, in which their dominant (white middle-class) feminism had access to organizations and spaces for consciousness raising that minority feminists did not. The Oberlin administrators and organizers possessed the social capital to create workshops that did not always include issues of race and ethnicity. Cooper’s letter reminds us to interrogate larger feminist concerns of intersectionality.
Overall, these documents from the Oberlin College Dean of Students records provide a glimpse into how Second Wave feminism manifested in collegiate contexts. The workshops illustrate the increasing awareness and concern about issues of gender and sexuality on campus, and they also demonstrate a clear progression from raising awareness to delving deeply into discussion of specific forms of oppression. The issues explored by these various conferences are still relevant today. Sexual assault and rape on college campuses continue to be issues, and the need for collective consciousness raising about their prevalence on campus remains, despite the continued absence of a solution. In examining these documents, we can see the ways in which consciousness raising could serve as a catalyst for real change, and how successful student activism rippled outwards, raising awareness in both the College administration, and the nation as a whole.
 Maria Bevacqua, “Reconsidering Violence against Women: Coalition Politics in the Antirape Movement.” in Feminist Coalitions: Historical Perspectives on Second-Wave Feminism in the United States, ed. Stephanie Gilmore (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 165.
 Shirley Geok-lin Lim. “Ain’t I a Feminist?” In The Feminist Memoir Project, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Ann Barr Snitow (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2007), 465.