‘The personal is political’

This week I read a piece about the way the ‘alt-right’ has co-opted a certain idea of feminism to serve its own ideological purposes, celebrating women like Ivanka Trump and Marine Le Pen as ‘feminist’ success stories and role-models. I’m glad the writer has drawn attention to this trend, and I think she makes some good points about it. However, there’s one argument she makes which I have a problem with:

Perhaps one of the reasons why this co-optation might be easily available is that mainstream white feminism failed to articulate how to move beyond individual white women and their issues, encapsulated in the 70s slogan of “the personal is political” […] By embracing the personal in the form of the individual and never setting any ideological goals beyond “career for mostly white women”, this feminism could be easily co-opted by any woman who just attaches the label to herself or by any media outlet that pins it on a woman (whether she claims it for herself or not).

I don’t disagree that some feminists, past and present, have focused on advancing the careers of a privileged minority—what you might call the ‘lean in and break the glass ceiling’ version of feminism. What I do disagree with is the suggestion that 1970s feminists ‘never set any ideological goals beyond career for mostly white women’ and the claim that this very limited vision is ‘encapsulated in the 70s slogan “the personal is political”’.

The writer apparently takes ‘the personal is political’ to mean something like, ‘if you’re a woman, your personal advancement is a political/feminist issue by definition—regardless of how privileged you are and how many less privileged people you step on along the way’. This seems to have become a fairly common interpretation, but it is absolutely not what the feminists who originally used the slogan meant by it. Since it’s one of the best-known of all feminist slogans, in this post I want to take a closer look at what it did mean to its original users.

One important meaning of ‘the personal is political’ had to do with the definition of ‘political’. It might be hard to credit now, but in the late 1960s all kinds of issues today’s feminists would see as self-evidently political–including housework, childcare, domestic violence and rape–were routinely dismissed as ‘personal problems’, because they happened in the home or within intimate relationships.

There’s a good illustration of this dismissive attitude in Marge Piercy’s Vida, a novel about the leftist counterculture of the late 1960s and early 70s. The central character Vida is a radical activist who has gone underground because she is wanted by the FBI. At one point she risks a clandestine visit to her sister Natalie, who is hosting a meeting of her women’s group. While Vida waits for the meeting to finish, she picks up a pamphlet the group has produced, and is taken aback by its subject-matter:

It really was about rape. She felt embarrassed. What a weird subject! Next they’d be doing pamphlets on mugging or toothache. ‘What is this stuff?’ she demanded of Natalie as the last visitor straggled out.

‘We find in groups that half of us have been raped. You see, when women start to talk to each other, the old assumptions crumble’.

‘Half the women in groups. You get the ones who are mad already’.

‘Don’t you think rape is common?’

‘Come on Natty, what do you mean, common? Is murder common? It sure is in Vietnam’.

‘The personal is political’ was a challenge to the view that issues like rape were trivial, and no more political than toothache. By sharing their experiences in consciousness raising (CR) groups, feminists had come to the realisation that these so-called ‘personal’ experiences were not just random things that happened to unlucky individuals, they were part of a pattern which both reflected and reinforced a larger power-structure. In other words, they too were political. (As Natalie puts it later on in her conversation with Vida, ‘what’s more political than coercion?’)

The second point feminists were making when they proclaimed that ‘the personal is political’ was pretty much the opposite of the one attributed to them in the piece about the ‘alt-right’. Far from cheerleading for what we might now call the ’empowerment’ of individual women, these 1970s feminists were firmly rejecting the idea that there could be  individual solutions to problems which were rooted in the oppression of women as a class.

The classic statement of this position is an article entitled ‘The personal is political’, written in 1969 by Carol Hanisch, who was a member of New York Radical Women. (The text is reproduced on this website along with a retrospective commentary Hanisch wrote in 2006.)  The article defends the practice of consciousness raising against a criticism often made by leftist women like the fictional Vida, that it’s more akin to therapy than ‘real’ politics. Therapy, Hanisch says, is about helping individuals adjust to bad situations by changing their own behaviour, whereas CR is about helping women understand their situation so they can take political action to change it.

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.

CR also leads women to question their tendency to blame their problems on themselves (‘my husband’s having an affair because I’ve let myself go’, or ‘my boss wouldn’t have groped me if I hadn’t worn that short skirt’). If most women in a group have had the same experience (like being cheated on, or sexually harassed), it becomes more difficult to see it simply as evidence of your own personal inadequacy. Rather than look for an individual explanation you can start to construct an alternative, political analysis. This is a long way from the ‘lean in and break the glass ceiling’ approach, which treats sexism as an obstacle individual women must overcome through their own efforts rather than a form of oppression women should collectively revolt against.

In her 2006 commentary, Carol Hanisch observes that a lot of ideas that originated in the Women’s Liberation Movement have since been, as she puts it, ‘revised or ripped off or even stood on their head and used against their original, radical intent’. The interpretation of ‘the personal is political’ as an expression of what’s now labelled ‘white feminism’ (totally individualistic and narrowly focused on the aspirations of a small, ultra-privileged minority) is an example of what she’s talking about. I’m not suggesting it’s illegitimate to criticise what feminists said and thought in the past. But if you’re going to criticise them, I do think you should go back to what they wrote and make a good-faith effort to understand what they actually meant. As the writer of the ‘alt-right’ piece says herself, there are plenty of people out there with a vested interest in misrepresenting feminism. We don’t have to follow their example.