Feminism 101: The Personal is Political January 27, 2008Posted by Winter in Feminism 101, feminist theory.
This is the first of what will hopefully be a series of posts for people who want to know more about feminist theory, but are not sure where to start. I’m not an expert, I’m just a reader and I’m still learning myself, but hopefully these posts will provide a way into some influential feminist theories.* I’ve decided to start with Carol Hanisch’s 1969 essay ‘The Personal is Political’ because it’s one that informs our thinking on this blog.
‘The personal is political’ is one of those phrases that feminists tend to bounce around a lot, but not that many people seem to have read Hanisch’s essay. This is a shame because it’s still relevant and challenging and I think it’s very important that people read beyond the famous title and absorb the rest of what she’s saying.
Hanisch was a member of the New York Radical Women and her essay was written as a response to the argument that consciousness raising was just “therapy.” “Consciousness raising” refers to the early women’s liberation movement activity of women getting together in groups to discuss their own oppression. In her 2006 introduction to the essay Hanisch writes, “they belittled us no end for trying to bring our so-called “personal problems” into the political arena.”
Is the Personal Political?
First, it’s important to note that the phrase ‘the personal is political’ manifestly does not mean that everything a woman does is political or that all her personal choices are political choices. In feminist terms, the ‘personal is political’ refers to the theory that personal problems are political problems, which basically means that many of the personal problems women experience in their lives are not their fault, but are the result of systematic oppression. In this respect, Hanisch is drawing heavily upon Marxism – the focus is off individual struggle and onto group struggle.
The theory that women are not to blame for their bad situations is crucial here because women have always been told that they are unhappy or faring badly in life because they are stupid, weak, mad, hysterical, having a period, pregnant, frigid, over-sexed, asking for it etc. The personal is political proposes that women are in bad situations because they experience gendered oppression and massive structural inequalities.
Understanding that our oppressive situations were not our own fault — were not, in the parlance of the time, “all in our head” — gave us a lot more courage as well as a more solid, real foundation on which to fight for liberation.
So far so good, but Hanisch goes onto to say some things that are more challenging for feminists.
The pro-woman line
The “pro-woman” line is central to Hanisch’s argument:
What it says basically is that women are really neat people. The bad things that are said about us as women are either myths (women are stupid), tactics women use to struggle individually (women are bitches), or are actually things that we want to carry into the new society and want men to share too (women are sensitive, emotional). Women as oppressed people act out of necessity (act dumb in the presence of men), not out of choice. Women have developed great shuffling techniques for their own survival (look pretty and giggle to get or keep a job or man) which should be used when necessary until such time as the power of unity can take its place. Women are smart not to struggle alone (as are blacks and workers). It is no worse to be in the home than in the rat race of the job world. They are both bad. Women, like blacks, workers, must stop blaming ourselves for our “failures.”
The pro-woman line was not accepted by the entire women’s liberation movement:
In September of 1968 — six months before “The Personal Is Political” was written, the Miss America Protest brought home to many why the Pro-Woman Line theory we were developing was so important when it came to taking action outside the group. In another paper entitled “A Critique of the Miss America Protest” I wrote about how the anti-women faction of the protesters detracted from our message that ALL women are oppressed by beauty standards, even the contestants. Signs like “Up Against the Wall, Miss America” and “Miss America Is a Big Falsie” made these contestants out to be our enemy instead of the men and bosses who imposed false beauty standards on women.
This is a trend which I think we now tend to call “woman-blaming” and we still see plenty of it within feminism in the idea that if only women would stop doing things that cause their own oppression and bloody well stand up for themselves, many of our problems would be solved. Whether or not you think women bear responsibility for their own oppression and that of other women, it is inimical to the “pro-woman” line taken by Hanisch in which “the most important thing is getting rid of self-blame” and, by implication, blaming other women.
This article on body image and plastic surgery, which Vibracobra has already mentioned in a post, demonstrates the problems that come with women-blaming. Here, self-identified feminist Bidisha argues that women collude in their own objectification:
If any woman buys that line, she’s an idiot. One minute spent appraising oneself as an object, whether the conclusion is positive or damning, is a minute wasted. But it seems that there are lots of idiots out there. News that the cosmetic surgery industry is now worth billions, with breast implants being the most popular operation, is evidence of women’s thraldom to the porno ideal of big chest; thin everywhere else. In a scenario that could be a treatment for a future Eli Roth film, a woman crawls to a man she barely knows, begs him to cut her up, pays him for it and crawls home in pain to recover, thanking her lucky stars for this transformative experience. To the man, the woman is just another paying chump on the chopping block; to the woman, the man is a saviour.
Women’s real mental emancipation is still far away if they have so little actual pride, and such a high degree of self-objectification, that they are assiduously doing patriarchy’s job for it. They’re voluntarily turning themselves into pornography.
How submissive can you get?
I don’t have any body issues. For those who do, I’d recommend putting down that scalpel, going for a walk and remembering that the only way to get some self-esteem is to get some self-esteem, not make a date with Hugh Hefner
Bidisha takes what I’m guessing Hanisch would call the “anti-woman” line. She argues that women should stop buying into their own oppression, snap out of it, and get some “self-esteem,” from the self-esteem shop presumably. And she positions herself as an enlightened feminist who isn’t implicated in all this female “idiocy.”
I have a lot of body image issues and I’ve had eating disorders for over 15 years, so presumably by Bidisha’s reckoning I too am “an idiot.” Ok, but how does calling me (and all women who experience body image issues) “idiots” in any way advance women’s liberation? What it does do is let feminists who take this line off the hook when it comes to engaging in collective action against the systematic and structural factors that lead to women having body image issues. For example, sexual abuse, the pressure on adolescent girls to engage in sexual activity while at the same time being stigmatised for it, all the negative responses to adolescent female physical and sexual development, the rampant bullying of “fat” girls that takes place in school and the home, the bombardment with imagery representing beautiful as thin, and the incessant pressure to diet and lose weight. I’m sure you could think of some more. It is much easier to say that women are idiots, but sadly there are no self-esteem shops and blaming women for their own body image issues will not make any of the above problems go away.
Another central tenet of Hanisch’s is the argument that:
There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.
Again this is pretty challenging. It proposes that women cannot really change their situations on their own and indeed, they should not try to do so if it would put them at risk – “when they can’t win and the repercussions are worse than the oppression.” The only way to effect real change is to work collectively. An individual woman deciding to stop wearing makeup might be living up to her own feminist principles so good for her, but it will not change anything, or improve matters for women who are in situations in which it is not possible to stop wearing makeup because they might lose their jobs or be made more miserable in some way. The only possible solution then is to work with other women, which is never easy.
Vibracobra has also discussed this passage in a post, but I’m going to repeat it here because it’s so important in this essay and is the bit feminists don’t like to quote so much for reasons that will become obvious.
One more thing: I think we must listen to what so-called apolitical women have to say—not so we can do a better job of organizing them but because together we are a mass movement. I think we who work full-time in the movement tend to become very narrow. What is happening now is that when non-movement women disagree with us, we assume it’s because they are “apolitical,” not because there might be something wrong with our thinking. Women have left the movement in droves. .. I think “apolitical” women are not in the movement for very good reasons, and as long as we say “you have to think like us and live like us to join the charmed circle,” we will fail. What I am trying to say is that there are things in the consciousness of “apolitical” women (I find them very political) that are as valid as any political consciousness we think we have. We should figure out why many women don’t want to do action. Maybe there is something wrong with the action or something wrong with why we are doing the action or maybe the analysis of why the action is necessary is not clear enough in our minds.
Here, Hanisch firmly rejects the idea that women who are in the movement, feminists we might now call them, necessarily know better than women who are not in the movement. Indeed, it’s very important that “we” should listen to “them” because they probably have damn good reasons for not being in the movement. Then instead of asking ourselves what is wrong with women who don’t want to be feminists, we should think about what might be wrong with our own thinking and actions; otherwise we will fail. This is challenging for feminists, especially these days in which feminism is increasingly conceptualised as a personal identity rather than motivation for political activism. I think the sense that feminism is a “charmed circle” may even have strengthened in some respects. I have read a lot of articles and blog posts over the last few years implying that feminism is something you join when you become “enlightened.” Therefore women should be strongly encouraged to sign up and if they don’t want to call themselves feminists, well, there must be something wrong with their thinking. There are even arguments that feminism improves your life – you can still earn lots of money, be hot and wear makeup and nice clothes and have boyfriends and you’ll probably have more orgasms when you’re a feminist. If that’s the case, women must be very silly indeed not to call themselves feminists! The problem with this is that it allows those of us who do identify as feminists to avoid taking on board a whole range of problems within feminism, for if women who refuse the identification become positioned as “the unenlightened” ones, why should “we” listen to what they have to say? Here’s an interesting post about why women can feel alienated from feminism.
Where I think Hanisch’s essay might be alienating to women now is in her insistence upon the relentless grimness of women’s lives. A lot of young women would probably feel quite angry and this and argue that their lives are really not that grim, but that’s not a reason to ignore a lot of the other points she makes. I think her arguments about women blaming, the importance of collective action and taking women who don’t want to call themselves feminists seriously still hold a lot of weight.
I’ll finish with a quote from the new introduction:
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.
*We have set up a new ‘Feminism 101’ category specifically for these theory posts so people can find them easily.
When I first came across one of the foundational slogans of second-wave feminism – the personal is political – I was taken aback by the simplicity and power and all-encompassing truth embodied by it. It was the title of an essay written by Carol Hanisch of the New York Radical Women and published in Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation. Hanisch does not take credit for the title which she believes was formulated by the editors, Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt. Although it has been generally interpreted to be a recognition of the fact that women’s lives were not the outcome of individual choices but part of a systematic patriarchal oppression, the original essay, written in 1969, makes the point only in general terms saying that ‘personal problems are political problems’. It is in the new introduction to it, written in 2006, that Hanisch expands on this point, ‘Our demands that men share the housework and childcare were likewise deemed a personal problem between a woman and her individual man. The opposition claimed if women would just “stand up for themselves” and take more responsibility for their own lives, they wouldn’t need to have an independent movement for women’s liberation.’
The feminist slogan was about joining the dots between the two; it soon evolved from being a description of the reality to a prescription of how we should act as feminists. If the slogan suggests that the personal reflects the political status quo, then Paula Rust argued that, ‘one should make personal choices that are consistent with one's personal politics; personal life and personal politics are indistinguishable.’ The use of the word ‘should’ suggests prescribed feminist norms, inevitably increasing the gap between the personal and political or at least making the gap more distressing. At a mundane level, women agonised about whether any expression of femininity (wearing lipstick, shaving hair) was a betrayal of feminist politics. At a more fundamental level, my daughter accused me of hypocrisy in response to my advice to her to dress conservatively in places where she might be at increased risk or to come home at a reasonable time or take a particular route. At a political level, I argue for a woman’s ownership of public spaces no matter how she’s dressed and what time of day it is. Having to juggle between freedom and safety, however, does require the political principle to be compromised by personal considerations. In my defence, I could have quoted Hanisch’s view to my daughter that “There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.” However, that would be missing my daughter’s point that there is sometimes a gap between the two.
A misrepresentation of the slogan also legitimised a particularly regressive form of identity politics in which only those with experience of race or gender discrimination, say, had the authority and authenticity to speak about it and whose opinions had validity simply because of the social position of the speaker regardless of their political stance. This kind of thinking led to social media breaking out in a rash of CYP ‘check your privilege’ injunctions to anyone who dared to critique anything of which they had no direct personal experience. This would mean, for example, that I have no right to criticise the hijab as a non-Muslim woman or disability politics as a non-disabled person.
Outside of feminist politics, the slogan, if not the exact words, has been co-opted by politicians and public figures as a way of simplifying complex political ideas by using the personal as a metaphor. The slogan was not meant to be used in reverse, i.e. trying to understand the political in terms of the personal as that can subvert the original idea. Margaret Thatcher was a great believer in this form of discourse, ventriloquizing the popular voice, as Stuart Hall describes it. Thatcher particularly liked discussing the national budget in personal terms as Margaret Drabble reminds us, “Many economists …warned her you couldn't run the country as you ran a household budget... It didn't square up with monetarism and privatisation and the reckless deregulation of financial services and the Big Bang”. It is the kind of discourse which influences voters to vote Conservative because they understand the national debt in terms of personal debt and believe that it is a sign of prudent management of finances when the Conservatives say that it is their number one priority to reduce borrowing even if it means drastic cuts to spending. Living within your means, the personal motto that might drive a thrifty person, is no way to run a country.
It is the same extrapolation that makes many ordinary Germans disapprove of the financial support that their country provides to Greece. A journalist asks a German woman what Germany should do about Greece. ‘I really don’t know how much longer we should keep patting their backs and telling them everything’s going to be alright – here’s an extra 100m,’ she says. ‘If my son kept coming to me for money to get himself out of trouble, I’d help him immediately, but I’d want to see that he was trying to get out of any mess he’d got himself into, wouldn’t I? I couldn’t afford to keep tossing banknotes in his direction.’ Using this analogy encourages us to see Greece as a reckless teenager and glosses over the deep structural problems of the European Monetary Union. The German government’s grudging support for Greece becomes incomprehensible to the German public .
This kind of framing carried particularly dangerous overtones when the Pope responded to the Charlie Hebdo murders in personal terms. In order to illustrate his views that there were limits to freedom of expression, pope Francis said “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch.” What sort of political message is conveyed by this personal metaphor? That the killers were justified, that the response was proportionate, that insults can be justifiably dealt with by physical violence, that giving offence to a belief system is equivalent to insulting a family member? For a so-called man of peace as all religious dignitaries like to see themselves, the suggestion that murder is justified is a shocking one. No one who argues for the right to offend or critique a belief system in secular, democratic societies would try and exercise the right to offend in the drawing room of their host; the public square operates by different rules.
All successful slogans are subject to misappropriation: it is a sign of their success. We just need to be alert to this process and guard its legacy if it’s still worth preserving. The personal is political – but mind the gap.