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Feminism 101: The Personal is Political January 27, 2008

Posted by Winter in Feminism 101, feminist theory.
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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?

Bidisha concludes:

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.

Collective Action

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.

Apolitical Women

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.