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Feminism: Personal or Political?

Lambrini is second year student in History and International relations

‘The Personal is Political’ – Carol Hanisch, 1969  

Hanisch’s claim that the ‘personal is the political’ is emblematic of the second-wave feminist movement. It’s possible that the quote means nothing to you. It’s possible that you think the personal isn’t political. Of course they can be separated. Throughout time the same claim has been made; an individual has both private and public spheres that operate independently of each other.  

But take a moment to dissect the overwhelming concept which we call identity. If we try to deconstruct what makes us, us, we may begin to align ourselves with Hanisch’s quote. Why do you care about certain issues? Why do you not care about certain issues? Why do you care if this law protects you or not? Why do you care about where the money that you earn goes? Why do you care (or not care) about specific groups of people? 

Once we begin to question why we have the beliefs that we do, it becomes difficult to detangle oneself from the idea that the personal is inextricably intertwined with the political. 

This idea is central to the foundations of feminism. It is rooted in the notion that our private lives are inherently affected by the political happenings of our time and the times before. Hence, integral aspects of one’s identity such as gender, race, social class, and sexuality (the list goes on), are often viewed through the lens of the contemporary political climate both by you and those around you. Ask yourself what views people may construct about you based on the colour of your skin, your gender, or your sexuality. Then ask yourself whether these views seem to be reflective of the current political climate. If you see a correlation, then you may find yourself agreeing with Hanisch.  

One of the clearest ways the personal and the political intersect is when we look at the concept of ‘representation’. This term refers to the general idea that an individual in a field like politics represents you. This often means that they have the same political viewpoint as you, but also may mean that a fundamental part of their identity, like gender, race, ethnicity, or sexuality, may be similar to you. What is interesting about representation is that a shared identity does not necessarily mean a politician’s policies may be in the best interest of their identity group. Contradictory, don’t you think? It’s strange to imagine that a woman, for example, would not want to create change for all women, when she has the position and power to do so at a time when debate about women’s rights courses vigorously through the veins of international and national politics. But more often than not, this has been the case in British politics.  

It goes without saying that the patriarchy restricts women, no matter how powerful they are. Despite this, even within the parameters of power which female politicians have in a patriarchy, often their policies have not benefitted women. Think of Margaret Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister in Britain. Her journey to such a position was woven with the rampant sexism of the 1960s and 1970s. Despite experiencing this first hand, Thatcher essentially did not believe that systemic sexism existed. Rather, she openly opposed feminism, having claimed to her adviser that ‘it is poison’. Her policies did not lessen the inequality between women and men, despite being a key representation of a woman in power.

Think of Liz Truss, whose disastrous economic policies would have naturally hit women the hardest, as they still earn less than men. Think of Suella Braverman, the current Home Secretary, who claimed that she was ‘proud of the British Empire’. How do these women represent the views of British women? Are they enacting policies for us? Perhaps the only Prime Minister who is an exception is Theresa May, who, prior to becoming Prime Minister, helped make coercive control a crime, extended the legal age for a domestic abuse victim to sixteen-year-olds, and was instrumental in the Modern Slavery Act.

Now, of course, as noted above, being a woman does not necessarily mean that one has to further policies in the interest of women. It does not necessarily mean that being a woman in power means you have to help other women. But this begs the question: what is the fundamental role of a representative if it is not to represent? Why are female politicians in positions of power continuing to perpetuate the inequalities that run strife in our society when they could do otherwise? As women, we should help other women, shouldn’t we?