The personal is political, also termed The private is political, is a political argument used as a rallying slogan of student movement and second-wave feminism from the late 1960s. It underscored the connections between personal experience and larger social and political structures. In the context of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, it was a challenge to the nuclear family and family values. The phrase has been repeatedly described as a defining characterization of second-wave feminism, radical feminism, women’s studies, or feminism in general. It differentiated the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s from the early feminism of the 1920s, which was concerned with achieving the right to vote for white women[neutrality is disputed].
The phrase was popularized by the publication of a 1969 essay by feminist Carol Hanisch under the title «The Personal is Political» in 1970, but she disavows authorship of the phrase. According to Kerry Burch, Shulamith Firestone, Robin Morgan, and other feminists given credit for originating the phrase have also declined authorship. «Instead,» Burch writes, «they cite millions of women in public and private conversations as the phrase’s collective authors.» Gloria Steinem has likened claiming authorship of the phrase to claiming authorship of «World War II.»
The phrase figured in women-of-color 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.»
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. Originally addressed to the women’s caucus of the Southern Conference Educational Fund, 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. 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. 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.
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. It has since been reprinted in Radical Feminism: A Documentary Reader.
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.»
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.»
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.»
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