The personal is political.
That’s not the first thing that comes to most people’s minds when they hear the word “feminism.” They think equal rights, equal pay, and the right to choose.
“The personal is political” might be second-wave feminism’s most important contribution to contemporary political theory and community organizing. For sure it’s the most overlooked, and probably the most misunderstood. Plenty of people take it to mean that focusing on the personal is a substitute for political action. It doesn’t.
Women have always talked among ourselves. In the 1960s and 1970s, this talking became more widespread and more focused. We discovered that we weren’t the only ones dealing with job discrimination, harassment, abusive husbands, arrogant doctors, depression, etc., etc. These things weren’t talked about in public, never mind covered by the news media. In our isolation, we assumed the problems were ours alone. We had no idea how widespread they were. We discovered this by talking among ourselves.
We didn’t stop there. We organized, in small groups and large groups, to address these issues. It turned out that they were more widespread than we, sitting in our kitchens and living rooms, had ever believed. More than that: they were inextricably entwined with all the other challenges facing our own communities and the whole goddamn planet. It was, in a word, overwhelming.
Progress was made, though. Ideas considered outrageous in the early 1970s are now mainstream enough that it’s the attacks on them that seem outrageous, at least to some of us.
But by the end of the 1970s, “CR” — consciousness-raising — had pretty much died out. We didn’t realize what a powerful tool it was. We didn’t realize that consciousness-raising is a lifelong process, or that women start out from different places and at different times. Perhaps most important, we forgot how key it was to tell our own stories and make these connections for ourselves.
As a result we wound up with a generation gap. With a split between insiders and outsiders: those who’d made it up for themselves and those who read about it in books, those who recognized their own experiences in feminist theory and those who didn’t.
These days there’s a serious society-wide disconnect between our individual lives and what we call politics. We take it for granted that politicians are different from us — much wealthier, to start with — and that when they listen to us, it’s to placate us (and win our support), not to hear what we have to say. Most of us get most of our ideas prepackaged, from right-wing talk show hosts, liberal columnists, alternative news sources, and everything in between.
Much is made of the incivility of political discourse, on all levels, from Main Street to the halls of Congress. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that we’ve grown accustomed to not being heard, and when you’re accustomed to not being heard you often end up saying any damn thing that pops into your head, often at a high decibel level.
Or you grumble in private.
Or you just shut up.
What if we did more of our talking face-to-face? What if we focused on the details of our own lives, and pooled our experiences, and tested the words and deeds of politicians against what we know to be true? What if we built our theories from the ground up — and, along with them, the networks and organizations to make change happen?
The poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, in “Käthe Kollwitz”:
What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open
What if we told the truth about our lives, and listened to each other’s tellings? Would we still put up with “politics as usual”?