The personal is political

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Photo from a march in Detroit, Michigan during the second-wave of feminism. The personal is political was used as a popular slogan and rallying cry during these marches.

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. 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 was popularized by the publication of a 1969 essay by feminist Carol Hanisch under the title "The Personal is Political" in 1970, and has been repeatedly described as a defining characterization of second-wave feminism, radical feminism, women's studies, or feminism in general.[1] It has also been used by some women artists as the underlying philosophy for their art practice.

Origin and meaning[edit]

The phrase "the personal is political" was popularized by second-wave feminism in the late 1960s and was also important in the civil rights movement, student movement, and black power movement. 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. It forced popular social movements to challenge what was considered to be "political" and to reflect upon how lived experiences impact perception of reality.[2] Issues that had previously been considered moral or trivial offenses in every day actions were being acknowledged as oppressive and structural norms.[2]

The idea that women being unhappy in their roles as housewives and mothers in homes was seen as a private issue; however, "the personal is political" emphasizes that women's personal issues (e.g. sex, childcare, and the idea of women not being content with their lives at home) are all political issues that need political intervention to generate change. The personal is political drew attention to this relationship, that had not been previously acknowledged. This emphasized that politics were in play even in the most personal circumstances and relationships.[3] Furthermore, the slogan tackles the perception that women enjoy a transcendent identity irrespective of ethnicity, race, class, culture, marital status, sexuality and (dis)ability by encouraging individuals to think about personal experience politically.[4]

The second wave of feminism embraced this slogan as it is the wave that brought feminist issues into a politically activist mindset. Women were leaving their roles at home in pursuit of power over their lives and choices that were not subject to patriarchal traps. This changed the dynamic of families where the men were no longer in complete control of their homes and challenged ideas of the perfect subservient wife and mother.

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 originated during the Women's Liberation Movement. Women were belittled for wanting to bring their personal issues into the public arena. Men dismissed these issues as personal problems that should be solved in private, and by the individual.[8]

The phrase has been repeatedly described as a defining characterization of second-wave feminism, radical feminism, women's studies, or feminism in general.[9][10]

The Carol Hanisch essay[edit]

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.[11] 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.[11] 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.[11] 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.[6] Hanisch does not use the phrase "the personal is political" in the essay, but writes:[11]

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.[11] It has since been reprinted in Radical Feminism: A Documentary Reader.[12]

Multiple meanings[edit]

The phrase has adopted a number of meanings since first being coined in the 1960s. Hanisch herself observed in 2006 that "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."[11] This highlights how feminists have interpreted the nature of the connection between the personal and political in divergent ways.

  • The interpretation that arose in the second wave of feminism is that the restriction of women to the private sphere is a political issue. The home is seen by some feminists as a site of oppression because women have had little choice but to adhere to the role of housewife and carry out domestic duties.[13] These roles and norms expected of women (such as to be feminine; mothers; supportive wives) are acquired through the process of socialization. For example, young girls are often given babies and cooking sets as toys which teaches them their role is to be a mother and carry out domestic duties. Therefore, according to some feminists, the role of women at home and gender norms highlight the politicisation of the personal because it shows the consequences gender politics and the patriarchal structuring of society has had in women's lives.
  • Private, female experiences are often shared. For example, abortion is an issue that has united women from all classes and backgrounds which highlights that their personal experiences can be collective.[14] Personal experiences being shared between women makes them political because they arise from social conditions caused by patriarchy and gender politics.[15] 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."[16] So, some feminists call to declare the private as political to erode the boundaries between the two and avoid the oppression of women through ignorance towards their collective experiences.[17]
  • Believing politics only occurs in the public sphere excludes personal struggles and marginalises women. Politics is power which takes place in both the private and public sphere because issues that affect the private sphere (such as free contraception; equal pay) are also located in the public sphere. More simply, personal issues are affected by law making and enforcement. For example, due to occurring in the private sphere, the issue of domestic violence was mostly excluded from the public political arena such as legal intervention.[18][full citation needed] There was minimal legal protection for women and domestics were considered as a waste of time for the police which, according to some feminists, shows the interdependence of the personal and political.
  • This phrase has also been used to assert that women's personal issues need to be politicized in order for them to be emancipated from the patriarchy.[1] However, completely politicizing private life has its downsides, including that people are no longer able to trust one another, with friends and family turning into people to be wary of.


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 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."[19] Black Feminists expanded the personal is political by dealing with the intersections of race, class and sex.[20]

Other authors such as Betty Friedan (best known for her book The Feminine Mystique)[21] 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.[22] Betty Friedan influenced the author Susan Oliver to write the biography: 'Betty Friedan: The personal is political'.[23] 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”.[24]

The centrality of the "personal is political" to the second-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)[25]
  • Access to contraception on the NHS regardless of marital status (1967)[25]
  • Criminalization of rape in marriage (1991, 2003)[26]
  • Married women property act revision (1964)[27]

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.[27]

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."[28] 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".[29] 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.[17]


Artists such as the Australian Ann Newmarch, founding member of the Women's Art Movement in Adelaide in 1976,[30][31] used the philosophy to underpin her work, such as in her famous screenprint, Women Hold Up Half the Sky[32]

The Personal Is Political: Feminist Art from the Sara M. and Michelle Vance Waddell Collection was an exhibit in Cincinnati that showed how feminist artists connect their daily lives to the politics around their bodies. These artists used their creative expression to reveal paradigms between the personal and political realms of their lives.[33]

Martha Wilson is a New York artist whose work reveals how her identity as a woman has been shaped by forces around her, like power relationships, culture and predominantly gender. Her work in the Portrait Society in 2009 made use of self portraits to explore how the personal is political.[34]


Liberal feminists argue that the phrase is dangerous because it erodes necessary political boundaries. This is because it is said to take away the importance of the public aspect of politics.[35] It is further criticised by Hannah Arendt that, in this process of eroding political boundaries, the public space of politics is transformed into a pseudo-space of interaction in which individuals no longer 'act' but merely behave as economic producers and consumers.[36]

Furthermore, according to some critics, the interpretation of the phrase to be about women being oppressed in the home has a very narrow focus on middle class white women.[14] This excludes women who work, lesbian couples, women who can not afford childcare and the experiences of other cultures. For example, the 'personal is political' narrative has been shown to be less significant in African culture as black women are less likely to see the home as a source of oppression because it is a source of strength against racism.[citation needed]

The phrase, "the Personal is Political" has given rise to cultural feminism, which many female activists see as a hinderance to political action and reform. It is argued that cultural feminism encourages activists to move away from politics and give in to traditional roles of the patriarchy.[3]

The personal is political is flawed because women only want to politicize certain aspects of their personal lives. Women seek to politicize the aspects of their lives in which they are put down because of their gender. This idea fails to recognize the root of the problem, which is that women are seen as the 'second sex.'[1]

Use of technology[edit]

As argued by Frances Rogan and Shelley Budgeon in The Personal is Political: Assessing Feminist Fundamentals in the Digital Age, technology has broken down the distinction between what is private and public even further. Private items, like smartphones, become products of connectivity and public communication. This technology can be seen as oppressive or as an opportunity for women. Social media grants a larger amount of visibility to women's experiences which in turn can increase social surveillance, scrutiny and self-monitoring, and can be harmful.[8]

They assert that at the same time, social media can act in a way that portrays women's bodies and appearance as signifiers of worth. Digital spaces like social media can give their user the ability to empower themself through the platform. These platforms are also useful in bringing awareness to important gendered issues, and communicating experiences to a larger audience.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Lee, Theresa Man Ling (2007). "Rethinking the Personal and the Political: Feminist Activism and Civic Engagement". Hypatia. 22 (4): 163–179. ISSN 0887-5367.
  2. ^ a b Heberle, Renee (9 July 2015). "The Personal Is Political". pp. 593–609. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199328581.013.31. Archived from the original on May 4, 2023. Retrieved 10 May 2023.
  3. ^ a b Grant, Judith (1993). Haug, Frigga; Carter, Erica; Frug, Mary Jo; Jones, Kathleen B.; Hirschmann, Nancy J.; Phillips, Anne (eds.). "Is the Personal Still Political?". NWSA Journal. 5 (3): 404–411. ISSN 1040-0656.
  4. ^ Geoghegan, Vincent; Wilford, Rick (2014). Political Ideologies: An Introduction (4th ed.). London: Routledge. pp. 179–208.
  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. ^ a b Hanisch, Carol. "The Personal is Political". Retrieved 2019-02-11.
  7. ^ a b Burch, Kerry T. (2012). Democratic transformations: Eight conflicts in the negotiation of American identity. London: Continuum. p. 139. ISBN 9781441112132.
  8. ^ a b c Rogan, Frances; Budgeon, Shelley (August 2018). "The Personal is Political: Assessing Feminist Fundamentals in the Digital Age". Social Sciences. 7 (8): 132. doi:10.3390/socsci7080132. ISSN 2076-0760.
  9. ^ "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.
  10. ^ "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.
  11. ^ a b c d e f Hanisch, Carol (January 2006). "The Personal Is Political: The Women's Liberation Movement classic with a new explanatory introduction". Retrieved 2014-09-07.
  12. ^ Radical feminism: A documentary reader. Barbara A. Crow (ed.). New York: NYU Press. 2000. pp. 113–117. ISBN 978-0814715550.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  13. ^ Bernard, Jessie; Friedan, Betty (August 1963). "The Feminine Mystique". Marriage and Family Living. 25 (3): 381. doi:10.2307/349095. ISSN 0885-7059. JSTOR 349095.
  14. ^ a b Hannam, June (2013-08-21). Feminism. doi:10.4324/9781315836089. ISBN 9781317869818.
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  16. ^ Hartmann, Heidi (1997). "The unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism: Towards a more progressive union". In Linda J. Nicholson (ed.). The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory. New York: Routledge. p. 100. ISBN 9780415917612.
  17. ^ a b Schuster, Julia (2017-02-03). "Why the personal remained political: comparing second and third wave perspectives on everyday feminism". Social Movement Studies. 16 (6): 647–659. doi:10.1080/14742837.2017.1285223. ISSN 1474-2837. S2CID 151525059.
  18. ^ (Squires, 2004)
  19. ^ Crenshaw, Kimberlé (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.
  20. ^ BlackPast (2012-11-16). "(1977) The Combahee River Collective Statement •". Retrieved 2023-05-04.
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  35. ^ Isenberg, Nancy (September 1992). "The Personal is Political: Gender, Feminism, and the Politics of Discourse Theory". American Quarterly. 44 (3): 449–458. doi:10.2307/2712985. ISSN 0003-0678. JSTOR 2712985.
  36. ^ Benhabib, Seyla (1993). "Feminist theory and Hannah Arendt's concept of public sphere". History of the Human Sciences. 6 (2): 97–114. doi:10.1177/095269519300600205. S2CID 144223881 – via SAGE.