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“The Personal Is Political,” by Carol Hanish (1969)

One of the most influential slogans that radical feminists contributed to revolutionary politics in the late 1960s and 1970s was the slogan The personal is political! which profoundly challenged the narrow limits that Marxism, National Liberation movements, and other popular ideologies had set on what topics could be discussed as real political issues, which people’s problems were or were not counted as serious problems to be addressed by organized movements, and what sorts of strategies might be seriously considered as means to liberation. The phrase quickly spread throughout the women’s movement during the 1970s, and was soon being widely discussed without any reference back to the original source of the idea. But originally the phrase came about as the title of a 1969 position paper by Carol Hanish — a radical feminist who played a founding role in the formation of New York Radical Women and later the Redstockings — in which she defended the Women’s Liberation movement’s practice of small-group consciousness-raising meetings, against Left-wing criticisms that c.r. groups were doing therapy rather than politics, and complaints from movement politicos that feminist groups should spend less time talking about problems amongst themselves and more time taking public protest actions.

Hanisch’s paper was printed as part of the movement anthology Notes from the Second Year. The text for this edition is taken from the reprinting of the paper in the Appendix to the Redstockings anthology, Feminist Revolution (1975/1978), pp. 204-205.

The Personal Is Political

For this paper I want to stick pretty close to an aspect of the Left debate commonly talked about–namely therapy vs. therapy and politics. Another name for it is personal vs. political and it has other names, I suspect, as it has developed across the country. I haven’t gotten over to visit the New Orleans group yet, but I have been participating in groups in New York and Gainesville for more than a year. Both of these groups have been called therapy and personal groups by women who consider themselves more political. So I must speak about so-called therapy groups from my own experience.

The very word therapy is obviously a misnomer if carried to its logical conclusion. Therapy assumes that someone is sick and that there is a cure, e.g., a personal solution. I am greatly offended that I or any other woman is thought to need therapy in the first place. Women are messed over, not messed up! We need to change the objective conditions, not adjust to them. Therapy is adjusting to your bad personal alternative.

We have not done much trying to solve immediate personal problems of women in the group. We’ve mostly picked topics by two methods: in a small group it is possible for us to take turns bringing questions to the meeting (like, Which do/did you prefer, a girl or a boy baby or no children, and why? What happens to your relationship if your man makes more money than you? Less than you?). Then we go around the room answering the questions from our personal experiences. Everybody talks that way. At the end of the meeting we try to sum up and generalize from what’s been said and make connections.

I believe at this point, and maybe for a long time to come, that these analytical sessions are a form of political action. I do not go to these sessions because I need or want to talk about my personal problems. In fact, I would rather not. As a movement woman, I’ve been pressured to be strong, selfless, other-oriented, sacrificing, and in general pretty much in control of my own life. To admit to the problems in my life is to be deemed weak. So I want to be a strong woman, in movement terms, and not admit I have any real problems that I can’t find a personal solution to (except those directly related to the capitalist system). It is at this point a political action to tell it like it is, to say what I really believe about my life instead of what I’ve always been told to say.

So the reason I participate in these meetings is not to solve any personal problem. 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. I went, and I continue to go to these meetings because I have gotten a political understanding which all my reading, all my political discussions, all my political action, all my four-odd years in the movement never gave me. I’ve been forced to take off the rose-colored glasses and face the awful truth about how grim my life really is as a woman. I am getting a gut understanding of everything as opposed to the esoteric, intellectual understandings and noblesse oblige feelings I had in other people’s struggles.

This is not to deny that these sessions have at least two aspects that are therapeutic. I prefer to call even this aspect political therapy as opposed to personal therapy. The most important is getting rid of self-blame. Can you imagine what would happen if women, blacks, and workers (my definition of worker is anyone who has to work for a living as opposed to those who don’t. All women are workers) would stop blaming ourselves for our sad situations? It seems to me the whole country needs that kind of political therapy. That is what the black movement is doing in its own way. We shall do it in ours. We are only starting to stop blaming ourselves.

We also feel like we are thinking for ourselves for the first time in our lives. As the cartoon in Lilith puts it, I’m changing. My mind is growing muscles. Those who believe that Marxd, Lenin, Engels, Mao, and Ho have the only and last good word on the subject and that women have nothing more to add will, of course, find these groups a waste of time.

The groups that I have been in have also not gotten into alternative life-styles or what it means to be a liberated woman. We came early to the conclusion that all alternatives are bad under present conditions. Whether we live with or without a man, communally or in couples or alone, are married or unmarried, live with other women, go for free love, celibacy, or lesbianism, or any combination, there are only good and bad things about each bad situation. There is no more liberated way; there are only bad alternatives.

This is part of one of the most important theories we are beginning to articulate. We call it the pro-woman line. What it says basically is that women are really neat people. The bad things that are said about us as women are either myths (women are stupid), tactics women use to struggle individually (women are bitches), or are actually things we want to carry into the new society and want men to share too (women are sensitive, emotional). Women as oppressed people act out of necessity (act dumb in the presence of men), not out of choice. Women have developed great shuffling techniques for their own survival (look pretty and giggle to get or keep a job or man) which should be used when necessary until such time as the power of unity can take its place. Women are smart not to struggle alone (as are blacks and workers). It is no worse to be in the home than in the rat race of the job world. They are both bad. Women, like blacks, workers, must stop blaming ourselves for our failures.

It took us some ten months to get to the point where we could articulate these things from the standpoint of what kind of action we are going to do. When our group first started, going by majority opinion, we would have been out in the streets demonstrating against marriage, against having babies, for free love, against women who wore makeup, against housewives, for equality without recognition of biological differences, and god knows what else. Now we see all these things as what we call personal solutionary. Many of the actions taken by action groups have been along these lines. The women who did the anti-woman stuff at the Miss America Pageant were the ones who were screaming for action without theory. The members of one group want to set up a private day-care center without any real analysis of what could be done to make it better for little girls, much less any analysis of how that center hastens the revolution.

That is not to say, of course, that we shouldn’t do action. There may be some very good reasons why women in the group don’t want to do anything at the moment. One reason that I often have is that this thing is so important to me that I want to be very sure that we’re doing it the best way we know how, and that it is a right action that I feel sure about. I refuse to go out and produce for the movement. We had a lot of conflict in our New York group about whether or not to do action. When the Miss America Protest was proposed there was no question but that we wanted to do it. I think it was because we all saw how it related to our lives. We felt it was a good action. There were things wrong with the action, but the basic idea was there.

This has been my experience in groups that are accused of being therapy or personal. Perhaps certain groups may well be attempting to do therapy. Maybe the answer is not to put down the method of analyzing from personal experiences in favor of immediate action, but to figure out what can be done to make it work. Some of us started to write a handbook about this at one time and never got past the outline. We are working on it again.

It’s true we all need to learn how to better draw conclusions from the experiences and feelings we talk about and how to draw all kinds of connections. Some of us haven’t done a very good job of communicating them to others.

One more thing: I think we must listen to what so-called apolitical women have to say–not so we can do a better job of organizing them but because together we are a mass movement. I think we who work full-time in the movement tend to become very narrow. What is happening now is that when nonmovement women disagree with us, we assume it’s because they are apolitical, not because there might be something wrong with our thinking. Women have left the movement in droves. The obvious reasons are that we are tired of being sex slaves and doing shitwork for men whose hypocrisy is so blatant in their political stance of liberation for everybody (else). But there is really a lot more to it than that. I can’t quite articulate it yet. I think apolitical women are not in the movement for very good reasons, and as long as we say, You have to think like us and live like us to join the charmed circle, we will fail. What I am trying to say is that there are things in the consciousness of apolitical women (I find them very political) that are as valid as any political consciousness we think we have We should figure out why many women don’t want to do action. Maybe there is something wrong with the action or something wrong with why we are doing the action or maybe the analysis of why the action is necessary is not clear enough in our minds.

Carol Hanish (March, 1969)

The themes that Hanisch develops in this position paper are very similar to, but apparently were not directly influenced by, ideas developed in the earlier work of Claudia Jones, an black American Communist, whose 1949 essay “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!” similarly challenged the male Left’s attempt to exclude personal issues like marriage, social life, and family relationships from political organizing. Although the title of Hanisch’s paper is the original source of the slogan, and the discussion in the paper is an early major source for the analysis that the slogan represented, Hanisch does not take credit for coining the slogan itself; she made clear in later interviews that the title The Personal Is Political was given to the paper by Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt, as editors of Notes from the Second Year.

One Response to ““The Personal Is Political,” by Carol Hanish (1969)”

  1. Rad Geek People’s Daily 2010-03-02 – Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Toward a Dialectical Anarchism Says:

    […] Carol (1969). “The Personal is Political.” In Redstockings (Ed.) (1978), Feminist Revolution. New York: Random House. […]

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