There is an interesting comment thread over at Feministe about "false consciousness." I have never actually heard a feminist use the term "false consciousness." I imagine that this term is most frequently used by Marxist feminists, since "false consciousness" is a concept associated with Marxism. The general idea (and I do not claim to have a nuanced understanding of the matter) is that people can be misled by the dominant ideology (the common set of beliefs and values taken for granted in their society) to act or think in ways contrary to their best interests without necessarily even realizing it.
Like a lot of Americans, I automatically recoil when I hear the term "false consciousness." It sounds authoritarian. It sounds like an excuse for those who believe they know the "truth" to impose their will on those who are supposedly laboring under delusions. It sounds like a reason not to have to engage in debate or dialogue; one can simply dismiss one's opponents by saying they have "false consciousness." Part of the problem, of course, is the idea's association with Marxism, which automatically makes us think of totalitarian states like the U.S.S.R. and China and North Korea, in which repression and authoritarianism for the common good were seen as the solution to capitalist excesses. And if there is one value that I hold dear, it is that I am quite capable of deciding what is best for myself, as is every other average citizen out there.
But suppose we strip away the unsavory connotations of "false consciousness." Let us further accept that every adult human being's right to self-determination should be respected, regardless of sex or background or educational level or mental impairment, and regardless of whether we believe that human being is acting in accordance with his or her best interests. I would assert that there is value in recognizing that people do not always see the ways in which societal institutions or assumptions may hurt them or hurt the class of people to which they belong. This is particularly true of women because our culture is rife with all sorts of assumptions about women which inure to our detriment -- assumptions about our essential nature (including the assumption that there even is an essential feminine nature), our capabilities, our proper role, and our relationship with men.
You're probably not ever going to catch me using the term "false consciousness." And you are certainly never going to catch me saying that women, or any other types of individuals, are somehow incapable of identifying their own interests and acting to further them. I often do, however, see instances when women will buy into a paradigm or set of sexist assumptions that I believe are either not good for them as individuals or are not good for women in general. But rather than write off the instances I have observed with the one-size-fits-all explanation of "false consciousness," I believe there a number of explanations for this phenomenon:
-- Unquestioned assumptions: Often assumptions about gender are so ingrained and so much a part of the fabric of our culture that we simply take them for granted without questioning whether these assumptions are correct or whether these assumptions hurt us. This was even more true in the past. Thus, my mother was well into adulthood before she questioned her family's assumption that she did not need a college education like her brother; nor did she question societal expectations that the only appropriate careers for women were teaching, nursing, and secretarial work. Today, I have met many women who have never questioned the assumption that parenting -- at least its day-to-day nuts and bolts aspect -- is primarily a female responsibility. I am sure there are numerous other examples.
-- Failure to recognize external constraints upon our ability to make free choices. This is, I suppose, a subset of the concept of unquestioned assumptions, but it is worth a special mention since the notion of "choice feminism" has been hotly debated in recent months. A lot of women may say, "It was my choice to do x or y." That may well be true. But sometimes (and before you start yelling at me, I said sometimes, not always), women do not recognize constraints or limitations that do not apply to men and that may drive, at least in part, the decisions they make. So Jane's choice to stay home with her kids may have been her preference and her decision. But she may not be recognizing the fact that her decision was driven in many ways by societal factors that affect her differently than her husband. Like the fact that everyone around her expects her and not her husband to be the children's primary caretaker. Or the fact that mothers often face doubts among bosses and colleagues about their commitment to their work in a way that men and childless women do not. Or the fact that a man who takes time off from work to be a stay-at-home-dad is stigmatized in a way a woman is not. Or the fact that a woman is likely to make less money than her husband. And on and on.
-- Internalized attitudes one holds even while recognizing that they are wrong. Even the most staunch feminist might have terrible body image or have trouble ridding herself of the notion that she automatically bears greater responsibility for housework than her male partner. No matter how much we may question and critique our cultural assumptions they may continue to have an emotional hold on us that may be hard to shake. Thus, on one level a woman might recognize that her inherent worth does not hinge on her dress size or the attractiveness of her figure-- but on another level that woman might have trouble shaking the feeling that she is less than worthy as a human being if she is anything but model-thin. Our rational thinking alone may not be sufficient to overcome beliefs with which we have lived since birth.
-- Women who have different values. Many women may recognize that they are in a subordinate position but accept it because they do not value social equality. A woman may believe that God has mandated a subordinate role for women in the home and in society. She may not feel any urge to protest that subordination because she believes that whatever God has mandated is good by definition. Such a woman's belief (wrong though I think it is) is not necessarily the product of unquestioned assumptions.
-- Out-and-out disagreement about what harms us and what doesn't. Reasonable adults can disagree. Here I differ from the traditional conception of "false consciousness" because I recognize that a person may have thought through all the issues, examined all of her assumptions, and simply reached different conclusions than I have. For example, there are feminists who think that high heels are contrary to the equality and dignity of women. I don't. It's not that I have failed to consider the issue. It's not that I have internalized an irrational belief that I must wear high heels. I have thought about it and I just don't have a problem with high heels. On the other hand other women may disagree with what I consider obvious truths about what is contrary to women's dignity, welfare, and equality of opportunity. Even though I think the women with whom I disagree are wrong, I am capable of recognizing that they may have considered the issue.
-- Women who are differently positioned than the rest of us. Many women are rewarded for taking anti-feminist positions. Anti-feminist women writers and pundits like Caitlin Flanagan or Carrie Lukas or Ann Coulter are not acting contrary to their best interests when they loudly opine that a woman's place is in the home, or constantly use derogatory terms like "girl soldier," etc. etc. Anti-feminism is, in fact, these women's bread and butter. Similarly, someone like Paris Hilton, who revels in being a walking stereotype of woman-as-vapid-sexbot, is riding a tidal wave to more fame and more fortune for doing so. Other women may not be so overtly anti-feminist but they may underestimate the power of sexism in our culture because it has not affected them or held them back in any way they can perceive, or any way at all. Upper middle class white professional women like me can easily fall into this category. It is easy for us to take for granted the accomplishments of feminists who came before us, and it is easy for us not to see why certain issues are important (like my younger self's failure to see why the right to an abortion is important.).
In sum, "false consciousness" as a concept may have use, even a great deal of use. Certainly "consciousness raising" sessions among feminists in the '60s and '70s were a valuable exercise for women working through the myriad ways in which they had taken for granted their own subordination or failed to recognize ways in which the values and institutions with which they lived were operating contrary to their best interests. On the other hand, "false consciousness" should never be treated as a one-size-fits-all response to everyone who disagrees with feminist ideas or with one's particular feminist view point.***
*** NOTE: I suspect that the notion of "false consciousness" is rarely, if ever, used by feminists in this manner, despite the protestations of those who enjoy attacking strawfeminists. In fact, as the Feministe comments thread makes clear, many, if not most, feminists are (like me) uncomfortable with invoking the notion of "false consciousness" at all.