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?
[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 unyielding a way has led feminism to a dead end… If you separate out the personal and the political you achieve two things. First, you give the social and political 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 Feminism
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 grounding.
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’ similar 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