It’s a ringing phrase, that came out of the feminist second wave (although as far as I can make out nobody is sure exactly who coined it). It makes us feel like we are saying something meaningful. But what does it mean? What does it mean to you?
To me, it means lots of things. Mainly, it means the following:
Often what seems to one woman like an individual, personal problem – one that she can solve (or could have avoided) by acting differently or having different attitudes – is actually something bigger.
Society has long encouraged women to see their problems as caused by something that is wrong with them personally: a woman who does not fit or take pleasure in her pre-ordained feminine role is personally aberrant, she is in need of treatment for her hysteria – or punishment for her depravity. This is why women are the main customers – sorry, patients – for those who seek to treat the symptoms of misery: from Freud on down. We are taught to view our unhappiness as an abnormality requiring treatment rather than a sign that something is wrong with the wider world.
But it is not just one aberrant woman who cries in the night because her life is so empty of meaning. It is not just one aberrant woman who cannot enjoy sex, who cannot enjoy food without guilt, who feels guilty about her abortion, or who doesn’t think or feel or want or do the things that she thinks she is supposed to think or feel or want or do. It is not an individual problem, but a problem common to women all over the place.
Understanding that a problem is not yours alone is the first step towards understanding that its causes may go beyond the idiosyncrasies of one individual.
The first step towards an analysis of possible wider causes.
The first step towards a political understanding of apparently personal problems.
The first step towards a solution that seeks to change society rather than the individual.
This aspect of the slogan “the personal is political” shows us why consciousness raising is so important. Why sharing our personal stories can help bring a sharper awareness that we are not alone, that we are not aberrant. It can bring us to an understanding of social causes, an identification of political solutions, and the strength to pursue them.
Sometimes, actions and choices that seem to be private and personal are not.
I’m talking about whether or not we choose in our personal lives to take a path that reinforces political and social ideals that we criticise in our political lives.
I’m talking about whether in our personal lives we comply with a fake beauty ideal, or a fake man-centred heteronormative sexuality ideal, or any other harmful aspect of the fake femininity we are sold from the day we are born.
I’m talking about whether in our personal lives, despite an expressed political opinion that discrimination and prejudice are wrong, we discriminate against or have prejudices about people based on their race, sex, sexuality, gender identity, disability or anything else of that sort.
I’m talking about whether in our personal lives we actively take steps to redress the injustices we claim to detest: whether we put our money (or time, or strength, or whatever resources we have ) where our mouth is. Do we actively invest time or money to help further those causes? Do we actively choose to spend money with businesses that share our values rather than those who have contempt for our values? Do we do it enough?
The injunction “the personal is political” is an injunction to ensure that the personal choices we make are consonant with the political opinions we express. It is an injunction against hypocrisy and an injunction to put your money where your mouth is. It is an injunction to think carefully about whether and how choices that seem like personal choices can have political consequences (even if “only” in reinforcing the status quo rather than challenging it), and to let those political consequences influence our choices.
It is this aspect of the slogan that we think about when we say it is a feminist act to grow our body hair or ditch our uncomfortable high-heeled shoes, when we withhold our small bit of cash from Nestle, when we volunteer for a women’s group and when we send a little bit of spare money to a women’s charity, when we stop going to church, when we refuse to stay silent. These may be small personal acts, but to the individual they are important steps to reinforce and support the underlying political beliefs – and to others they can be a shining example of liberation and solidarity.
Patriarchy is invasive – it enters into our private and personal sphere as much as our public and political one. It does not distinguish between personal and political. It is the water in which we swim.
Many of us are entirely ignorant of its existence and cannot even see it. Those who see it, see it sometimes clearly and sometimes not. Sometimes we understand its influence on us (in which case we can consciously accept or reject that influence) and sometimes we miss it altogether, or get so tangled up in seeking an exit from the matrix that we give up trying and just do what seems or feels right, accepting that it may be based on a mistaken understanding.
So when a woman’s personal acts do not accord with our political beliefs, or even with her own expressed political beliefs, that does not make her stupid or bad or a hypocrite. When a woman’s beliefs and attitudes about her personal acts are inconsistent with what we believe about those personal acts, that does not make her stupid or bad or a hypocrite either.
If a woman shaves her legs, it is a political act supporting the patriarchy.
If a woman shaves her legs, it is (almost certainly) because of the patriarchy.
If a woman believes that her personal choice to shave her legs has nothing to do with politics or feminism then that is (almost certainly) because of the patriarchy, too.
And all that applies regardless of whether the woman in question is a feminist who understands feminist theory and knows what the patriarchy is. It applies regardless of whether she is an innocent who sees nothing, a (self-)deluded feminist who fails or refuses to see what is clear to others, or a clear-eyed woman who knows exactly what she is doing and why, and makes her choice accordingly.
It is this that we think of when we throw up our hands in horror and say – the patriarchy is everywhere! nobody can escape!
And it is this we should remember when we look at a woman and criticise her personal choices for the political consequences they may have or for the hypocrisy or illogicality or ignorance that we think they may betray.
These remarks were partly inspired by the following two posts, which helped to crystallise and galvanise the thoughts I have tried to express herein:
Den of the Biting Beaver: The Politics of Penetration
Ballastexistenz: No Good Guys or Bad Guys Here