The Personal is (or) isn’t political (or is it?)

During the 'second-wave' of feminism in the 1960's-70's, the idea developed that 'the personal is political': i.e. that every part of our personal lives could be affected by the political situation. More recently, some have argued that this idea has given feminism a bad name and has caused feminists to focus on the wrong issues. So who's right?

, 16 May 2001

[The] movement for women’s liberation had to realise that the split

between personal relations and the more public world of work and politics

is artificial.

Spare Rib Reader (1982)

The personal is still political. The millennial feminist has to be aware

that oppression exerts itself in and through her most intimate relationships,

beginning with the most intimate, her relationship with her body.

Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman

The new feminism must unpick the tight link that feminism in the seventies

made between our personal and political lives… identifying the personal and

the political in too absolute and unyeilding a way has led feminism to a dead

end… If you seperate out the personal and the political you achieve two

things. First, you give the social and poltical demands of feminism more edge.

Freed from the straightjacket of political correctness, feminists can embrace

any strategy that will help to achieve the goal of material equality for

women… second, you will free up the personal realm. Feminism has

over-determined our private lives and interpreted too many aspects of our

cultural life as evidence of a simplistic battle, patriarchy verses women…

personal life does not always march to a political drumbeat.

Natasha Walter, The New


The personal as the political was never meant to be a prescription of

how to live your life. It was never meant to be a rallying cry to shave off

your hair and take up with the lady next door. But what it was really meant

to do was create an awareness of how our personal lives are ruled by

political forces. Of how the fact that women were not economically or

politically equal to men meant that their relationships were unequal too…

Why are we terrified of the personal being political? Is it that we’re so

fearful of being called humourless that we don’t accept the truth?… To

accept that the personal is still political is to be realistic. It is not

to say that political changes – equal pay, childcare, welfare support for

single mothers – are not important. They are particularly crucial… But

the personal – body image, intimate relationships, women’s portrayal in the

media – cannot be ignored… It is easy to agree with equal pay for equal

work. It is perhaps more difficult to open up to troubling truths about our

personal lives, and accept that our actions might have a political


Katherine Viner, in On the Move: Feminism for a new generation

Possibly the most important legacy of [the] media coverage [of 1970’s

feminism] was its carving up of the women’s movement into legitimate

feminism and illegitimate feminism… Nearly every story and editorial

about the women’s movement acknowledged that women really did suffer from

economic discrimination and approved of ‘equal pay for equal work.’… Feminism,

in this view, should only redraw the work-place, and this only slightly. Other

regions of society, like a man’s home, his marriage, his family, should be

cordoned off from feminist surveyors. Yet for women like me, these issues were

exactly the locus of the movement: we got it that the personal was indeed

political… Critiques of marriage and the family were much too explosive, and

hit too close to home, for male journalists to be comfortable analysing them…

This reinforced the media’s insistence that the personal was still the

personal and should never be politicized.

Susan J. Douglas, Where the Girls Are

Sue: …it took me some time to acknowledge that ordinary daily

events could be political.

Audrey: …My marriage broke up in 1967… Predictably, I leaned

heavily on a few women friends and we spent many, often happy enough, hours…

wondering where it all went wrong. Why did marriages fail? Why didn’t we feel

fulfilled by motherhood? We tried to analyse the problems… but we never made

the links between politics and our individual feelings of disillusionment and

discontent. Then an old friend and I attended a short course run by Juliet

Mitchell on ‘The Role of Women in Society’… and we began to read people such

as Betty Friedan, Hannah Gavron and Shulamith Firestone. Then the bells rang and

the connections were made… I was no longer alone, but part of a

movement which was primarily political but could be personal to me.

Nan: …perhaps the single most important idea that emerged for

me was that the way you live your life is a political statement.

Members of the Belsize Lane Women’s Liberation Workshop talking about

their experiences: first published in Spare Rib 1978.

Saying ‘I’ve had three illegal abortions’ aloud was my feminist baptism, my

swift immersion in the power of sisterhood. A medical procedure I’d been forced

to secure alone, shrouded in silence, was not ‘a personal problem’… My

solitary efforts to forge my own destiny were fragments of women’s shared,

hidden history, links to past and future generations, pieces of the puzzle

called sexual oppression.

Susan Brownmiller, (talking about her first experience of

‘consciousness-raising’), In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution

Second Wave feminist consciousness-raising groups were structured like

therapy sessions. The strategy worked well, in that it allowed the women

involved to view their private lives in political terms and to forge

intimate bonds despite the isolation experienced by many. The

consciousness-raising group still offers riches to women who need the

affirmation that others’ simialr experiences bring. But we need other, less

intimate models of affiliation too.

Naomi Wolf, Fire with Fire

One theme that I find myself returning to again and again is the

changing demarcation between what is private and what is public… The personal

may be political, but if we concentrate purely on the personal we lose sight of

the wider political picture. We have reached a point, I feel, where we have to

acknowledge that sometimes things are only personal. Knowing the

difference is what makes the difference.

Susanne Moore, Head Over Heels

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