The Personal is Political
‘The personal is political’ was the slogan associated with the rise of second-wave feminism. It is associated with Carol Hanisch and her essay of that name published in 1970. Most feminists distinguish between the public sphere (society) and the private sphere (family). Traditionally, discussion about the subjugation of women had been limited to the public sphere. ‘The personal is political’ sought to convey the notion that all relationships between men and women are based on power and dominance, not just those in the public sphere. Hanisch reacted against criticism of women getting together in consciousness-raising groups to discuss their own oppression as “naval-gazing” and “personal therapy”—and certainly “not political.” The essence of her essay was to highlight to women, and to wider society and politicians, that aspects of life that were considered ‘personal’ and therefore private (and no one else’s business) were in fact part of a system that sought to repress women (patriarchy). It was not an oppressed woman’s fault that she was oppressed. An "anti-woman" line made women responsible for their own oppression by, for instance, wearing uncomfortable clothes, heels, girdles. The "pro-woman" line reversed that thinking.
The idea that 'personal is political’ is a radical theory as it transforms what is meant by the term ‘politics’ to include all ‘power-structured relationships’ rather than simply what happens in the spheres of government and law. Radical feminists aim to destroy the separation of the two spheres, to allow men and women to move freely between the two and to ensure that patriarchy can be tackled at the roots of its origins — the nuclear family structure. However, some liberal feminists are concerned by what they see as the politicisation of and state interference in an area which should be private and a matter for personal choice and freedom.
Carol Hanisch is a radical feminist and was best known for popularizing the phrase the personal is political in a 1970 essay of the same name. However, Hanisch does not take responsibility of the phrase, stating in her 2006 updated essay, with a new introduction, that did not name it that, or in fact use it in the essay at all. Instead she claims that the title was done by the editors of Notes from the second year: Women's Liberation (where it was published), Shulie Firestone and Anne Koedt.
Take the extreme example of domestic abuse. In the 1960s and 1970s, domestic abuse was something that was largely ignored by society. When it was discussed, women were oﬅen blamed for provoking their husbands. Importantly, the pervading culture surrounding domestic abuse was that it was ‘a private matter’ and one that police and doctors should not intervene in. Today we can understand how ﬂawed this thinking was. Like domestic abuse, so many things in the 1960s and 1970s that oppressed women were considered ‘normal’ and ‘private’. The message of ‘the personal is political’ aimed to raise awareness among women so that they could challenge the status quo. This brought feminism into the area of personal relations between men and women and in the family.
While all feminists challenge the divide between ‘public man’ and ‘private woman’ they have not always agreed about what it means to break down the public/private divide, about how it can be achieved, or about how far it is desirable. Radical feminists have been the keenest opponents of the idea that politics stops at the front door, proclaiming instead that ‘the personal is the political’. Female oppression is thus thought to operate in all walks of life, and in many respects originates in the family itself. Radical feminists have therefore been concerned to analyse what can be called ‘the politics of everyday life’. This includes the process of conditioning in the family, the distribution of housework and other domestic responsibilities, and the politics of personal and sexual conduct.
Feminists such as Kate Millett, identiﬁed the family as a key area of women’s oppression. They see the family as fulﬁlling several roles to keep women and girls ‘in their place’.
• It socialises girls and boys to accept their diﬀerent, hierarchic roles: daughters to show dependence, obedience, conformity and domesticity; boys to be dominant, competitive and self-reliant.
• It socialises women into accepting the role of housewife as a woman’s only and most fulﬁlling role.
• Children see their parents acting out traditional gender roles and perceive these roles as natural and inevitable.
• Women are expected to carry out free domestic work, even when they are also doing paid work.
• Wives are expected to cater for the emotional, sexual and physical needs of their husband.
• Once married women have children, they sacriﬁce their career prospects and are expected to raise the children at whatever cost to their own paid work.
• Once women leave paid employment to raise their children, they ﬁnd their promotion prospects blocked when they return.
Breaking down the public/private divide implies transferring the responsibilities of private life to the state or other public bodies. For example, the burden of child-rearing on women could be relieved by more generous welfare support for families or the provision of nursery schools or crèches at work. Socialist feminists have also viewed the private sphere as political, in that they have linked women’s roles within the conventional family to the maintenance of the capitalist economic system. However, although liberal feminists object to restrictions on women’s access to the public sphere of education, work and political life, they also warn against the dangers of politicising the private sphere, which, according to liberal theory, is a realm of personal choice and individual freedom.
Radical feminists have been the keenest opponents of the idea that politics stops at the front door, proclaiming, instead, that ‘the personal is the political’. Female oppression is thus thought to operate in all walks of life and in many respects originates in the family itself. Radical feminists have therefore been concerned to analyse what can be called ‘the politics of everyday life’. This includes the process of conditioning in the family, the distribution of housework and other domestic responsibilities, and the politics of personal and sexual conduct. For some feminists, breaking down the pubic/private divide implies transferring the responsibilities of private life to the state or other public bodies. For example, the burden of child-rearing upon women could be relieved by more generous welfare support for families or the provision of nursery schools or crèches at work. Liberal feminists, however, object to the public/private divide on the grounds that it restricts women's access to the public sphere of education, work and political life, but warn against the dangers of politicizing the private sphere, which, according to liberal theory, is a realm of personal choice and individual freedom. Patriarchy Feminists believe that gender, like social class, race or religion, is a significant social cleavage. Indeed, radical feminists argue that gender is the deepest and most politically important of social divisions. Feminists have therefore advanced a theory of ‘sexual politics’, in much the same way that socialists have preached the idea of ‘class politics’. They also refer to ‘sexism’ as a form of oppression, drawing a conscious parallel with ‘racism’ or racial oppression. However, conventional political theory has traditionally ignored sexual oppression and failed to recognize gender as a politically significant category. As a result, feminists have been forced to develop new concepts and theories to convey the idea that society is based upon a system of sexual inequality and oppression.