Personal is political (20TH CENTURY)

Deliberately paradoxical phrase intended to subvert the limitations of the public private divide.

The distinction made by liberals between the public world and the private world is mistaken. It functions, moreover, to sustain the oppression of women since it presents the structured inequalities of the household as the result of free individual choice.

Carol Pateman, The Disorder of Women (Cambridge, 1989)

The Carol Hanisch essay

The essay first appeared under the title “The Personal is Political” in Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation (1970).

Carol Hanisch, a member of New York Radical Women and a prominent figure in the Women’s Liberation Movement, drafted an article defending the political importance of consciousness-raising groups in February 1969 in Gainesville, Florida.[7] Originally addressed to the women’s caucus of the Southern Conference Educational Fund in response to a memo written by SCEF staffer Dorothy Zellner, the paper was first given the title, “Some Thoughts in Response to Dottie [Zellner]’s Thoughts on a Women’s Liberation Movement”. Hanisch was then a New York City-based staffer of the Fund and was advocating for it to engage in dedicated organizing for women’s liberation in the American South.[7] Hanisch sought to rebut the idea that sex, appearance, abortion, childcare, and the division of household labor were merely personal issues without political importance. To confront these and other issues, she urged women to overcome self-blame, discuss their situations amongst each other, and organize collectively against male domination of society.[7] In her essay, Hanisch’s central argument is that women’s “therapy” groups should not be dismissed as “apolitical” or “navel-gazing” as some critics have argued, but instead that they are deeply political as they are discussing issues which affect the lives of women due to the organisation of the system. She takes pains to highlight the fact that these issues should not be seen as problems caused by women’s failures or problems with themselves, but rather by an oppressive system, and should be treated as such, even though they may appear purely personal.[5] Hanisch does not use the phrase “the personal is political” in the essay, but writes:

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.[7]

The essay was published under the title, “The Personal Is Political”, in Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation in 1970. The essay’s author believes that Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt, the book’s editors, gave the essay its famous title.[7] It has since been reprinted in Radical Feminism: A Documentary Reader.[8]

Multiple meanings

While the connection between women’s personal experience and their subordination as women is highlighted by this phrase, feminists have interpreted the nature of that connection and the desired form of political action that emerges from it in widely divergent ways.

  • An opening of “private” or “social” matters to political analysis and discussion.
  • An explanation of the systematic nature of women’s oppression. As summarized by Heidi Hartmann, “Women’s discontent, radical feminists argued, is not the neurotic lament of the maladjusted, but a response to a social structure in which women are systematically dominated, exploited, and oppressed.”[9]

Paula Rust compiled a list of interpretations of the phrase within feminist movements including the following: “The personal reflects the political status quo (with the implication that the personal should be examined to provide insight into the political); the personal serves the political status quo; one can make personal choices in response to or protest against the political status quo; … one’s personal choices reveal or reflect one’s personal politics; one should make personal choices that are consistent with one’s personal politics; personal life and personal politics are indistinguishable.”[10]

Writing in 2006, Hanisch observed, “Like most of the theory created by the Pro-Woman Line radical feminists, these ideas have been revised or ripped off or even stood on their head and used against their original, radical intent.”[7]


The phrase has heavily figured in black feminism, such as “A Black Feminist Statement” by the Combahee River Collective, Audre Lorde’s essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”, and the anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Gloria E. Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga. More broadly, as Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw observes: “This process of recognizing as social and systemic what was formerly perceived as isolated and individual has also characterized the identity politics of African Americans, other people of color, and gays and lesbians, among others.”[11]

Other authors such as Betty Friedan (Best Known for her best-selling book ‘The Feminine Mystique’) [12] have also been seen to adapt the political argument: ‘The personal is political’. Betty Friedan broke new ground as she explored the idea of women finding personal fulfilment outside of their traditionally seen roles. In addition, Friedan helped further advance the women’s rights movement as she was one of the founders of the National Organization for Women.[13] Betty Friedan influenced the author Susan Oliver to write the biography: ‘Betty Friedan: The personal is political’.[14] In this, Oliver attempts “to pull Friedan from the shadow of her most famous work and invites us to examine her personal life in order that we may better understand and appreciate ‘the impact and influence’ of her activities on the women’s rights movement”.[15] It is important to note that Betty Friedman’s Feminine Mystique focused on a small division of women in the United States who graduated from college, middle or upper classed and were white. It failed to give enough credit to women of other races and women with lower incomes in the state. It shared no experiences from African-American, Latina or Asian mothers in the 1960s who were also struggling with similar situations. Ergo, it does not represent women as a whole which makes it limited.[16]

The centrality of the ‘personal is political’ to the 2nd wave feminist movement means that it is the impetus behind many policy and law changes, including the following in England: Legalisation of abortion (1967) Access to contraception on the NHS (1961)[17] Access to contraception on the NHS regardless of marital status (1967) [17] Criminalization of rape in marriage (1991, 2003) [18] Married women property act revision (1964) [19]

It also led to many non-state political action, including women’s strikes, women’s protests (including the famous Miss World protest), Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) conferences, and the setting of women’s refuges, rape crisis centres, and women’s communes.[19]

Both third-wave feminism and postfeminism hold the argument of ‘the personal is political’ as central to their beliefs, “the second-wave’ understanding of ‘the personal is political’ quickly evolved away from its explanatory and analytical power to become a prescription for feminism living – a shift that ultimately collapsed the terms together.”[20] Thus the argument continues to impact modern feminism.

Third wave feminists tend to focus on ‘everyday feminism’ for example, combining feminist values and statements with fashion, relationships and reclaiming traditional feminised skills . They increased the importance assigned to such practices and openly declared them to be political. Some believe this is an example of combining the person with the political, however this, like the meaning of the term, is contested. Some second wave feminists believe that declaring personal choices to be political, like whether to wear nail polish, does not focus enough on how political structures shape “the personal”. [21] Some feminists argue that viewing the personal as political the way everyday feminists do does not necessarily mean ignoring how second wave feminists used the term, and that both interpretations and applications are compatible. [22]

Hanisch recently founded the website Meeting Ground recently as an “ongoing place to hammer out ideas about theory, strategy and tactics for the women’s liberation movement”,[23] thus demonstrating a how third wave feminist methods and the personal is political can be combined to create a bigger platform for debate

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