The Personal Is Political

“The Personal is political.” When I first started hearing this phrase in college it was more of an accusation than anything else. Wearing lipstick, dating men, these were all personal choices I was making and they were somehow harming feminism. I had seen this train of thought in action from the other side. For years, my mother hated the way she looked. Her jaw stuck out at an unattractive angle. My sister and I had the same jaw and we’d had orthodontia to correct the problem.

Over the years at appointments for my sister or me a variety of dentists and orthodontists had suggested that they could fix her jaw and make her more attractive. She dismissed them, angry and upset at their sexist focus on her appearance. Then, one dentist finally explained that fixing her jaw was not just about appearances, it was a health issue. My mother broke down in tears and shortly after began the long process. I wondered how long my mother had wanted that surgery, how long she’d hated her jaw but been limited by her notion of what a good feminist would and wouldn’t do.

The personal is political. I wanted no part of that second wave feminism, the subjection of my personal needs and desires, to a greater political goal.

As my friends and I all got older and better at political debate and nuances and less eager to attack each other, I came to understand that the phrase means something slightly different. The personal and the political are not separate things, they are entwined. You may see your choice to quit your job when you have kids as purely personal, but in fact, you’re making that choice based on some political realities. Would everyone who quits their job do so if a more robust maternity leave were offered, if childcare was subsidized, if flex-time were feasible, if working mothers were not routinely portrayed as cold and uncaring? These are political factors that play in to your personal decision.

Today though, I think the expression is taking on a new level of meaning. Personal stories have always been used to advance political causes. It’s why we refer to famous court cases by someone’s name, not a number. It’s why we have laws named for crime victims. It’s why the President invites ordinary everyday people to watch the State of the Union address to help sell his agenda. Telling a story helps make a situation real and important, it helps make it personal and understandable.

Blogs are allowing more and more people are telling their stories. Those stories are personal, but they are also becoming part of the political conversation. People have always had personal reactions to political stories, but are we now allowed to have political reactions to personal stories?

Emily Letts, an abortion counselor, filmed her abortion and wrote about it. She wanted her personal story to become part of the political conversation about abortion. But does that make her personal decisions fair game for political or public discussion? Having read her story are we allowed to criticize her for using the rhythm method instead of a more reliable form of birth control? Are we allowed to criticize her for not telling the man who impregnated her of her decision? Are we allowed to criticize her personal choice to have an abortion?

I imagine many people would say in this case, the answer is obviously, “yes.” She made what was personal public. But remember Kim Hall, who wrote a blog post about why girls shouldn’t take sexy selfies, and then published photos of her shirtless sons. Her post was on a small, personal blog, like this one. It went viral by accident. It entered our public, political conversation about gender roles and social media. But, does the fact that we read her views mean we get to criticize her personal parenting decisions? Does it make a difference if the writer wanted to be part of the public conversation? If a blogger writes about her family’s struggles, if she encourages us to read her writing, is that inviting us to comment on her family and her decisions?

What if the comments and stories aren’t really public at all? Is it possible, for example, to make a political critique of the ice bucket challenge, or Susan G. Komen’s pinkification of cancer, or homeschooling without implicitly criticizing those who have made a private decision to participate? What about the recent Slate article about a study showing that many people find cooking family dinner difficult. A lot of people saw the article not as a report on a study, but as an attack on their personal commitment to cooking family dinners.

If the personal is political, is the political always personal as well?


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