The personal is political

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.[1] The phrase has been repeatedly described as a defining characterization of second-wave feminism, radical feminism, women's studies, or feminism in general.[2][3]

The phrase, and the idea behind it, was developed in response to Liberal political theory which saw a division between the "public" sphere of politics and the state, and the "private" sphere of the home. In this conception of politics, the "private" sphere was a sphere which was apolitical; the Liberal belief in ensuring the maximum amount of liberty for individual citizens led to a Liberal consensus that the state should have as small a role as possible, and not interfere in the "private" lives of its citizens. Both the phrase and the idea behind "The personal is political" came to prominence during the 1960s, and 2nd wave feminists used it to criticise this Liberal conception of politics in several ways. First, they argued that this "public" / "private" divide excluded women from politics (either coincidentally or purposefully) as men were generally considered public citizens while women were confined to the private sphere as housewives and mothers, and therefore the "the personal is political" as women should have a place in politics as well. Second, they argued that "private" issues such as which partner in a marriage worked, domestic violence, and division of household labour are in fact political, as they are issues which concern the balance of power, and politics is about who has power, and how much, over who. Third, they argued that "private" bodily concerns such as abortion, reproductive rights and freedom, contraception, rape, men's entitlement to sex within marriage, childcare, and other such issues should be considered "political", and therefore open to debate and legal address, as they directly affected women's lives and their place in society. Therefore feminists argued that The personal is political from two distinct standpoints: politics should include women, who have historically been seen as private individuals; politics should include a wider range of issues, including those historically considered to be private.[4]

The phrase was popularized by the publication of a 1969 essay by feminist Carol Hanisch under the title "The Personal is Political" in 1970,[5] but she disavows authorship of the phrase, as she says that "As far as I know, that was done by Notes from the Second Year editors Shulie Firestone and Anne Koedt after Kathie Sarachild brought it to their attention as a possible paper to be printed in that early collection"[6]. 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."[7] Gloria Steinem has likened claiming authorship of the phrase to claiming authorship of "World War II."[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."[8]

The Carol Hanisch essay

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.[9] 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.[9] 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.[9] 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 faiulures or problems with themselves, but rather by an oppressive system, and should be treated as such, even though they may appear purely personal[10]. 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.[9]

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.[9] It has since been reprinted in Radical Feminism: A Documentary Reader.[11]

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."[12]

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."[13]

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."[9]

Impact on politics in Western nations

This phrase has been used as a rallying call by feminists since the 1960s to change the agenda of politics in terms of who and what is included, based on ideas of redefining the political to have a much broader meaning. its centrality 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) [14] Access to contraception on the NHS regardless of marital status (1967) [15] Criminalization of rape in marriage (1991, 2003) [16] Married women property act revision (1964) [17]

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. [18]


  1. Angela Harutyunyan, Kathrin Hörschelmann, Malcolm Miles (2009) Public Spheres After Socialism pp. 50–1.
  2. "The great thrust of radical feminist writing has been directed to the documentation of the slogan 'the personal is political.'" McCann, Carole; Seung-Kyung Kim (2013). Feminist theory reader: Local and global perspectives. London: Routledge. p. 191.
  3. "At the heart of Women's Studies and framing the perspective from which it proceeds was the critical insight that 'the personal is political.'" Ginsberg, Alice E (2008). The evolution of American women's studies: reflections on triumphs, controversies, and change. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 69. ISBN 9780230605794.
  4. Heywood, Andrew (13 February 2017). Political Ideologies: An Introduction (6th ed.). Red Globe Press.
  5. Smith, Dale M. (2012-01-15). Poets Beyond the Barricade: Rhetoric, Citizenship, and Dissent after 1960. University of Alabama Press. pp. 153–. ISBN 9780817317492. Retrieved August 1, 2012.
  6. Hanisch, Carol. "The Personal is Political". Retrieved 02/11/2019. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  7. Burch, Kerry T. (2012). Democratic transformations: Eight conflicts in the negotiation of American identity. London: Continuum. p. 139. ISBN 9781441112132.
  8. Crenshaw, Kimberle (1991-07-01). "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color". Stanford Law Review. 43 (6): 1241–1299. CiteSeerX doi:10.2307/1229039. ISSN 0038-9765. JSTOR 1229039.
  9. Hanisch, Carol (January 2006). "The Personal Is Political: The Women's Liberation Movement classic with a new explanatory introduction". Retrieved 2014-09-07.
  10. Hanisch, Carol. "The Personal is Political". Retrieved 02/11/2019. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  11. Radical feminism: A documentary reader. Barbara A. Crow (ed.). New York: NYU Press. 2000. pp. 113–117. ISBN 978-0814715550.CS1 maint: others (link)
  12. Hartmann, Heidi (1997). "The unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism: Towards a more progressive union". In Linda J. Nicholson (ed.) (eds.). The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory. New York: Routledge. p. 100. ISBN 9780415917612.CS1 maint: uses editors parameter (link)
  13. Rust, Paula C. (1995). Bisexuality and the challenge to lesbian politics: Sex, loyalty, and revolution. New York: New York University Press. p. 329n21. ISBN 9780814774441.
  14. "Birth control and the contraceptive pill on the NHS". Check date values in: |accessdate= (help); External link in |website= (help); Missing or empty |url= (help); |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  15. "Birth control and the contraceptive pill on the NHS". People's history of the NHS. Retrieved 02/11/19. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  16. "when did marital rape become a crime?". The Week. Retrieved 02/11/19. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  17. "Timeline of the women's liberation movement". British Library. Retrieved 02/11/2019. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  18. "Timeline of the women's liberation movement". British Library. Retrieved 02/11/2019. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
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