‘The Personal is Political’ is a term that rose to popularity during the second-wave feminist movement. It is often attributed to Carol Hanisch, from her paper of the same title published in the book Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation in 1970. Hanisch herself credits the title to the editors of Notes from the Second Year. Yet, despite the ambiguous origin the thought process permeates second-wave feminist ideals. From storming beauty pageants and wedding conventions to achieving actual law reform, the thought remains that political action is informed by personal experience, and visa versa.
Hanisch outlines the concept of ‘the personal is political’ as a movement which attributes value to the “therapeutic” feminist discussion groups of the New York Radical Women. These discussion groups would inquire into the personal experiences of their members, and by doing so link personal experience to the political realm. “Political struggle or debate is the key to good political theory. A theory is just a bunch of words— sometimes interesting to think about, but just words, nevertheless—until it is tested in real life. Many a theory has delivered surprises, both positive and negative, when an attempt has been made to put it into practice.” Hanisch calls the process of discussion Consciousness Raising, seeing the groups as a way to become increasingly aware of how the oppression of women interrupts their ability to make personal choices. Hanisch cites that the most valuable outcomes of consciousness raising is to separate the blame from the individual as to her personal circumstances. Oppression defines the roles of women even unto their experience of motherhood, marriage and sexuality- and to separate a woman’s personal life from her political is to cloud an individual’s understanding of the actual, real result of structured oppression. “It is at this point a political action to tell it like it is, to say what I really believe about my life instead of what I’ve always been told to say.” Hanisch, 1970. C. Wright Mills, in his text The Sociological Imagination, some eleven years before, wrote of a similar opinion. “The first fruit of this [sociological] imagination – and the first lesson of the social science that embodies it – is the idea that the individual can understand her own experience and gauge her own fate only by locating herself within her period, that she can know her own chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in her circumstances. In many ways it is a terrible lesson; in many ways a magnificent one.” (Mills, 1959). Hanisch works this thought backwards in her field- that, to enact political change one must inquire into personal circumstance. Only by realising the personal state of a woman can you truly appreciate the need for collective action. Hanisch states; “One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution. I went, and I continue to go to these meetings because I have gotten a political understanding which all my reading, all my “political discussions,” all my “political action,” all my four-odd years in the movement never gave me. I’ve been forced to take off the rose colored glasses and face the awful truth about how grim my life really is as a woman.”
The second wave feminists adopted this slogan with gusto. The aim was to bring the personal, private sphere into dialogue. This concept was interpreted in varied ways- an extreme example might be the interpretation that, for the objective of making a political statement a woman would use her personal life. Thus, a few second-wave extremists would publicly reject heteronormativity (i.e. the act of being heterosexual, in a patriarchal climate, where all decisions are, by necessity, made under patriarchal pressure) and adopt a life of being publicly lesbian or bisexual, dressing in physically repugnant ways to challenge beauty standards, join an extremist ‘man-hating’ group like Society for Cutting Up Men (S.C.U.M.) and reject a host of other ‘feminine’ traits. In this instance political lesbianism was not a declaration of attraction to women, but public declaration of a rejection of men. A famous example of extremist second-wave feminist rhetoric would be Andrea Dworkin’s stance on heterosexual sex. Dwarkin explores the idea that, because of the way patriarchal society structures women’s lives, they are unable to ever claim freedom or power to the extent of making a truly personal choice, and that no act of heterosexual sex can be made without a woman, in effect, being raped. More conservative examples of how the personal informed the feminist agenda would include workplace and marital law reforms. For instance, in 1963 the passing of the Equal Pay Act in the United States (in Australia in 1969) required that employees be given access to equal pay in the workplace regardless of sex. By extension, further ratifications involved the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974, and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (this falls under the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984 is Australia). This last is particularly interesting in regards to the personal/political movement, as it literally advocates towards a goal which is experienced by only a fraction of the female population, and in their personal lives at that, and yet is advocated for by the entirety of the Women’s Liberation Movement. This is because ‘the Personal is Political’ acknowledges that a singular woman facing oppression is a product of a larger framework. Although only a few women suffer from pregnancy discrimination, having made the personal choice to seek or continue work whilst pregnant when others choose not, the reality is that this discrimination is enacted against all womenkind. Where one woman suffers, and that is allowed, all women will suffer. Even closer to the personal realm is the illegalization of marital rape, and the legalisation of no-fault divorce. Marital rape in Australia was illegalised progressively from 1981 to 1992, and no-fault divorce in 1975. Both of these issues entered the private home lives of the woman, and gave her choices where previously she had none. Her private experience would inform and bolster the political debate- a woman who explicitly said no to her husband was given the political power to have that statement backed up by the law. In fact ‘No’ was a statement given huge political force. The Women’s Liberation Movement was, essentially, a vehicle to drive personal statements. In her life a woman may choose, and that choice was given to her through a targeted restructuring of social order. The fact that as an individual I can not only believe this, but place it into action, is a direct result of the Women’s Liberation Movement during second-wave feminism. The difference that is key between the first and second waves is this exact focus. First wave feminism was focused on giving women the tools to operate as humans in a man’s world. They focused on civil rights, such as the vote, such as the right to work and to education and to a Voice. Second wave feminism looks at how a woman is socially codified into a role which does not allow her the choice of political autonomy. She, despite having a voice, cannot use that voice if she is expected to get an education, work in a job, raise the children and maintain the household. She was asked to accept the fact she cannot maintain all of her roles as a personal “failure”, not an institutional failure. A woman was required to be either/or- there was no room for a political woman within a mother, or visa versa.
In a post-feminist context, I see little reason to drop the personal/political motto from my understanding of the society I reside in. I believe that what the statement ‘the personal is political’ truly aims towards is, most simply, a dissection of how an individual experiences their context, and the pressures they are under towards their personal choices. I believe that what this movement leads an individual towards is questioning. To look at myself objectively, you might see my individual circumstances: female, white, upper-middle class, well educated. Then, you might see my ‘personal’ life: sexually active, single, homosexual, childless, well employed, student. And, even further, my political body: activist, feminist, equal rightist. These are aspects of a human as an individual, though how and why I can be these facets are all part of a political whole. My right to exist as a human independent of my sex is intrinsic to my political reality. To divide my life into part private, birth, and political is to deny that any of these parts might inform another. For instance, is it not true that my ability to BE a student is tied, in its entirety, to the political reality of a woman’s right to education? A right which remains one of the oldest political struggles women have participated in. And yet, I do not believe that I consciously made the choice to go on to university as a political statement. Even though I was not aware of the context, it was political because I was able to make it. In terms of ‘post-feminism’, one must acknowledge that there is no singular ‘post-feminist’ school. The context we currently operate in is the result of our political histories. A denial of feminism for a more PC term- Equal Rights, Human Rights- which removes the sex from the discussion, is one school of thought. After the Feminism Sex Wars of the 90’s, there is also the division or pro- and anti-sex feminism. And, we also have a proliferation of “Lipstick” Feminists, women who accept female gender structures as sites of empowerment i.e. the women from Sex and the City strutting on screen, drinking cocktails, buying expensive clothes and chasing men with a background of pro-woman individual power. As an individual I exist at the intersection of all of these ‘post-feminisms’. I believe that, in the exact same way that Carol Hanisch came to the realisation that the personal is political, I as an individual must explore my circumstances. A feminist lingers in dangerous territory when, in the political sphere, she believes one rhetoric, yet in her private life she enacts another. That is not to say that one cannot fight for the rights of another group- a heterosexual cis-gendered woman may recognise and fight for the rights of a homosexual trans* woman, for instance- but the risk is that, in public, she supports her peer and in private remains homo- or trans*phobic. Similarly, I cannot accept privately a state which I seek to change publicly- for example, I cannot allow subliminal sexual harassment as par for the course if I am politically outraged by its existence. I believe that the ‘personal is political’ requires me to act out in my private life the political ideal I strive towards. This is the active acknowledgement that we as individuals participate in the social structures that we try to reform, and that reform begins with ourselves.
The Personal is Political is a chant which has stood the test of time. I think the reason that this is so is because what it requires of the individual, to be understood, is an opening of the eyes. Second-wave feminists met in groups to discuss their private lives, what goes on behind closed doors, why and how they react to their circumstances, and in doing so were made aware of the totality of patriarchal structures. They were able to define how a woman is oppressed, from birth, by being socially structured towards her feminine gender role. Only in making this realisation could the movement progress beyond simply ‘getting the vote’, to creating a circumstances where a woman might actually be able to use it. But ‘the personal/political’ school is not something which ends- the school teaches that we must be continuously, thoroughly questioning our selves- and in doing so realise that our political reality, by necessity, informs our personal reality, and visa versa.
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Hanisch, C. (1969) The Personal is Political. Online copy, with 1996 Introductory statement. From: Women of the World, Unite! Writings of Carol Hanisch. http://carolhanisch.org/CHwritings/PIP.html
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Wikipedia.Org (2011) Wikipedia- the free encyclopedia. Accessed dates through 1/04/2011 to 03/03/2011. Articles inclusive of:Feminist Movement.Marital Rape. No-fault Divorce.Postfeminism. Pregnancy Discrimination. Second-Wave Feminism.Sex Discrimination Act 1984.