Saturday, June 19, 2021

The Personal Is Political

Carol Hanisch (b. 1942)
From Women’s Liberation! Feminist Writings that Inspired a Revolution & Still Can

Front cover of Notes from the Second Year, 1970, edited by Shulie Firestone and Anne Koedt, the collection in which “The Personal Is Political” appeared. (Click to see full cover.) The cover photograph was by freelance photojournalist David Robison. Image courtesy of Duke University Libraries Collection & Archive.
“The Personal Is Political.” As a slogan, it has become ubiquitous in many spheres of public life, a catchphrase used in situations and contexts far removed from its original purpose a half century ago, when it was coined for the title of a paper written to defend women’s consciousness-raising groups from their belittlement by activists in both the civil rights and women’s movements.

Carol Hanisch does not actually use the phrase in the paper—although she comes close: “One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems.” In a subsequent essay written nearly four decades later, in 2006, she clarifies that she didn’t give the paper its famous title when Shulie Firestone and Anne Koedt included it in the 1970 collection Notes from the Second Year. And she reminds us that the term “political was used here in the broad sense of the word as having to do with power relationships, not the narrow sense of electoral politics.”

An Iowa native and graduate of Drake University, Hanisch was the New York City office manager for the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), an organization that since the late 1940s had been fighting against segregation in the South. In 1967 she became a founding member of the action group New York Radical Women, which often held their early meetings in the SCEF office. The following year, she came up with the idea for the group’s most famous action, a protest against the Miss America beauty pageant that, after a daylong demonstration on the Atlantic City boardwalk, concluded with the unfurling of a “Women’s Liberation” banner during the nationally televised contest.

At the beginning of 1968, under the auspices of the SCEF, Hanisch moved to Gainesville, Florida, to organize women into the movement. In the introduction to the newly published anthology Women’s Liberation!, Honor Moore and Alix Kates Shulman recall how “women in small groups, in many thousands of living rooms, kitchens, and newly opened women’s centers throughout the country, practiced CR [consciousness-raising] by describing their maltreatment and exploitation in a range of ordinary experiences concerning sex, race, class, family, jobs, housework, health care, childcare, and more.” Many SCEF staff members of both sexes were extremely skeptical of the women’s liberation movement and especially of consciousness-raising, which was dismissed, Hanish writes, as “navel-gazing” and “personal therapy” and certainly “not political.”

“‘The Personal Is Political’ paper and the theory it contains,” she continues, “was my response in the heat of the battle to the attacks on us by SCEF and the rest of the radical movement.” Originally an internal memo written in reply to a document by an SCEF staff member who had criticized CR, the paper was rescued from probable oblivion by another activist, Kathie Sarachild, who suggested it to Firestone and Koedt for their anthology. Hanisch could not have predicted, of course, how widely her memo would be disseminated, nor could she have anticipated how its title would be embraced, popularized, appropriated, and distorted. “Like most of the theories 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,” she concludes in her more recent essay. “While it’s necessary that theories take their knocks in the real world, like everything else, many of us have learned that once they leave our hands, they need to be defended against revisionism and misuse.”

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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.” . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection is used by permission. To photocopy and distribute this selection for classroom use, please contact the Copyright Clearance Center.

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