When I first came across one of the foundational slogans of second-wave feminism – the personal is political – I was taken aback by the simplicity and power and all-encompassing truth embodied by it. It was the title of an essay written by Carol Hanisch of the New York Radical Women and published in Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation. Hanisch does not take credit for the title which she believes was formulated by the editors, Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt. Although it has been generally interpreted to be a recognition of the fact that women’s lives were not the outcome of individual choices but part of a systematic patriarchal oppression, the original essay, written in 1969, makes the point only in general terms saying that ‘personal problems are political problems’. It is in the new introduction to it, written in 2006, that Hanisch expands on this point, ‘Our demands that men share the housework and childcare were likewise deemed a personal problem between a woman and her individual man. The opposition claimed if women would just “stand up for themselves” and take more responsibility for their own lives, they wouldn’t need to have an independent movement for women’s liberation.’
The feminist slogan was about joining the dots between the two; it soon evolved from being a description of the reality to a prescription of how we should act as feminists. If the slogan suggests that the personal reflects the political status quo, then Paula Rust argued that, ‘one should make personal choices that are consistent with one's personal politics; personal life and personal politics are indistinguishable.’ The use of the word ‘should’ suggests prescribed feminist norms, inevitably increasing the gap between the personal and political or at least making the gap more distressing. At a mundane level, women agonised about whether any expression of femininity (wearing lipstick, shaving hair) was a betrayal of feminist politics. At a more fundamental level, my daughter accused me of hypocrisy in response to my advice to her to dress conservatively in places where she might be at increased risk or to come home at a reasonable time or take a particular route. At a political level, I argue for a woman’s ownership of public spaces no matter how she’s dressed and what time of day it is. Having to juggle between freedom and safety, however, does require the political principle to be compromised by personal considerations. In my defence, I could have quoted Hanisch’s view to my daughter that “There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.” However, that would be missing my daughter’s point that there is sometimes a gap between the two.
A misrepresentation of the slogan also legitimised a particularly regressive form of identity politics in which only those with experience of race or gender discrimination, say, had the authority and authenticity to speak about it and whose opinions had validity simply because of the social position of the speaker regardless of their political stance. This kind of thinking led to social media breaking out in a rash of CYP ‘check your privilege’ injunctions to anyone who dared to critique anything of which they had no direct personal experience. This would mean, for example, that I have no right to criticise the hijab as a non-Muslim woman or disability politics as a non-disabled person.
Outside of feminist politics, the slogan, if not the exact words, has been co-opted by politicians and public figures as a way of simplifying complex political ideas by using the personal as a metaphor. The slogan was not meant to be used in reverse, i.e. trying to understand the political in terms of the personal as that can subvert the original idea. Margaret Thatcher was a great believer in this form of discourse, ventriloquizing the popular voice, as Stuart Hall describes it. Thatcher particularly liked discussing the national budget in personal terms as Margaret Drabble reminds us, “Many economists …warned her you couldn't run the country as you ran a household budget... It didn't square up with monetarism and privatisation and the reckless deregulation of financial services and the Big Bang”. It is the kind of discourse which influences voters to vote Conservative because they understand the national debt in terms of personal debt and believe that it is a sign of prudent management of finances when the Conservatives say that it is their number one priority to reduce borrowing even if it means drastic cuts to spending. Living within your means, the personal motto that might drive a thrifty person, is no way to run a country.
It is the same extrapolation that makes many ordinary Germans disapprove of the financial support that their country provides to Greece. A journalist asks a German woman what Germany should do about Greece. ‘I really don’t know how much longer we should keep patting their backs and telling them everything’s going to be alright – here’s an extra 100m,’ she says. ‘If my son kept coming to me for money to get himself out of trouble, I’d help him immediately, but I’d want to see that he was trying to get out of any mess he’d got himself into, wouldn’t I? I couldn’t afford to keep tossing banknotes in his direction.’ Using this analogy encourages us to see Greece as a reckless teenager and glosses over the deep structural problems of the European Monetary Union. The German government’s grudging support for Greece becomes incomprehensible to the German public .
This kind of framing carried particularly dangerous overtones when the Pope responded to the Charlie Hebdo murders in personal terms. In order to illustrate his views that there were limits to freedom of expression, pope Francis said “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch.” What sort of political message is conveyed by this personal metaphor? That the killers were justified, that the response was proportionate, that insults can be justifiably dealt with by physical violence, that giving offence to a belief system is equivalent to insulting a family member? For a so-called man of peace as all religious dignitaries like to see themselves, the suggestion that murder is justified is a shocking one. No one who argues for the right to offend or critique a belief system in secular, democratic societies would try and exercise the right to offend in the drawing room of their host; the public square operates by different rules.
All successful slogans are subject to misappropriation: it is a sign of their success. We just need to be alert to this process and guard its legacy if it’s still worth preserving. The personal is political – but mind the gap.