The Personal is The Political

‘The Personal is the Political’ was a rallying cry of the second-wave feminist movement. The idea was first reflected in an essay by Carol Hanisch titled the same. The radical feminists used this slogan and spearheaded the movement. They believed that women’s oppression occurred everywhere even in areas that hitherto have not been subjected to scrutiny. The slogan was a potential threat and a considerable critique of traditional liberal separation between the political and the personal sphere. 

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Susan Moller Okin, in her celebrated magnum opus, “Justice, Gender and Family” argues that ‘the personal is the political’ consists of four seperate yet interrelated claims. 

Justice, Gender, and the Family by Susan Moller Okin | Basic Books

Firstly, she claims that the private sphere is the ‘sphere of power’. It simply means that power and advantage also characterize the areas of life that are excluded from the political sphere like the family life and personal relationships. For instance, the subjugation of women, domestic violence and subservient position of children in family are best examples of the same. 

Secondly, she claims that the political sphere infiltrates into the personal. That is, institutions like family that are considered to be highly personal are not immune from interference from the State. For instance, the State decides the form of marriage, i.e. if it is to be homosexual or hetrosexual; the State decides the requirements for marriage like the marriage age, number of spouse permitted, legal rights and duties applicable to married couples, incentives and tax benefits, ownership of property, conditions for divorce, etc. Therefore, Okin claims that there exist no private sphere absolutely free from any form of State interference. 

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Thirdly, she argues that the private sphere or family life creates psychological conditions to govern the public life. Family is an arena of social construction and social construction is deeply gendered in patriarchal societies. For instance, in patriarchal societies, there will be certain standard norms that govern clothing style, make-up and beauty concepts. Family or personal sphere is an arena where we, as individuals, develop our attitude towards these norms. That is, if children grow up in a household that is characterized by gendered division of labour, they will feel that these are ‘right’, ‘good’ and ‘natural’. They will internalize these differences and apply them in their lives in ways that will undermine gender equality. They will internalize the idea that women are nurturers and nourishers and should have ultimate responsibility for childcare as opposed to male role of breadwinning. This makes the gender differences instill in the next generation and gets perpetuated in the society. And hence, the personal sphere conditions our attitude and values that govern the political or public sphere. 

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Lastly, the private sphere is characterized by gendered division of labour and creates barriers for women in all other spheres of life. That is, women’s material and mental resources are exhausted or diminished by the need to take over all the domestic work in the household. Women have to work in their house as well as in their workplace. These days where childcare is expensive and holidays that are not in sync with the children’s school holidays, women are forced to take unpaid leave and sometimes resign from their job to take care of their children.