May 17, 2006

"The personal is political" has become the notion "that just about anyone is allowed to transform her personal experience into a political program."

Anne Applebaum objects:
Judith Warner, the author of a book on "why we are all overscheduled," couldn't resist turning her portrait of real-life women wringing their hands over Mackenzie's class party and Joey's soccer team into a plea for "progressive tax policies that would transfer our nation's wealth back to the middle class."....

Writing about oneself has a long history: The memoir, the autobiography, the roman à clef, the essay that draws on personal experience to make witty social observations -- all are legitimate literary forms. But writing about oneself and then turning these observations about one's narrow social circle into a party platform or a tax policy -- that is a more modern invention, and one of more questionable legitimacy and usefulness.
Is this a special problem with women writing about women's issues, and does it suggest that there's something wrong with the feminist slogan "the personal is political"? Personal stories are used to make writing and speeches accessible. It's often tedious and predictable. It pads out speeches and makes books excessively easy to read. This is a widespread strategy that transcends writing by or about women.

And the slogan "the personal is political" does not mean that one's personal story ought to provide the basis for your political program. It represents the argument that what goes on in women's personal relationships with men belongs in the public, political debate and is not just a private matter to be dealt with individually. It is an invitation to turn outward from the personal sphere and, instead of working on your relationship, to think in terms of what you have in common with other women.

11 comments:

jeff_d said...

I agree that the "personal is political" slogan served an important function inasmuch as it underscored what I understand to have been a major goal of the feminist movement: convincing women to stop thinking about frustrations more properly associated with lack of access to political power as unique to their own situations. The slogan serves this purpose in that it emphasizes that an individual should strive to make a connection between her personal life and the social or political phenomena that affect it.

The danger, I think, is in carrying this so far that one's political perspective is narrowed by a fixation on one's personal experiences. In every election cycle, it seems we hear about women's issues, gay issues, or whatever. This reinforces a balkanized approach to political participation that I don't think is healthy. I think the challenge for not only feminists but other politically active groups is to transcend cheerleading for narrowly ideological positions on particular issues and encourage followers to become informed on issues of broader importance. This is something I think today's mainstream feminist movement has been generally unwilling to do, which has resulted in the movement's marginalization as a political force.

Richard Dolan said...

"But writing about oneself and then turning these observations about one's narrow social circle into a party platform or a tax policy -- that is a more modern invention, and one of more questionable legitimacy and usefulness."

"Tax policies" didn't exist until relatively recently. In that sense, I suppose you're right. But the notion of using oneself and one's experience as the basis for a political program is about as old an idea as one can find. And your conclusion is so qualified -- "questionable legitimacy and usefulness" (quite the dodgy phrase, Ann!) -- that I suspect you may even agree.

Like the writers you're criticizing, your critique is getting a bit airy and overgeneralized. I can't claim to be familiar with much of this literature -- the little I've read certainly qualifies as "tedious and predictable." What you're talking about sounds like Oprah-type stuff reduced to print. But its quality as "tedious and predictable" strikes me as a function of the limitations of the particular authors -- perhaps they're just talentless hacks trying to ride the wave of the moment, who happen to be women. It's probably true that this particular form of hack writing is aimed at women as the target audience. But drawing political or other grand conclusions about God, Man or Life from the particulars on one's own life is not a process unique to women, and there's nothing inherent in that process that always leads one astray. It's just a truism that it takes real talent and insight to use the "personal" as any kind of guide to the "political" universal, and unfortunately such talent is in woefully short supply.

Pedestrian hacks don't have insight (into themselves or anything else). That's just an indictment of hacks, not of a more general process of using the "personal" as a guide to the "political." So don't be so hard on women writers just because most are pretty bad. A better target would be hack writers. There's plenty of both genders to go around.

David said...

It is more convenient to claim victim status for personal gain/recognition than to take responsibility for one's actions.

Like a spoiled child, the victim usually can be silenced with more money rather than personal responsibility.

Elizabeth said...

I agree with Ann, and with Jeff, that there's purpose to the idea expressed in the phrase. It bridged the accepted divide between the private and public worlds so strongly defined by our Victorian ancestors as female and male, respectively. Changing that frame of mind has achieved meaningful outcomes; "the personal is political" answers "a man's home is his castle" in the issue of domestic violence. Once a family issue, it now is more properly a public, legal issue.

That being said, I've also encountered the phrase as a sort of dogma that justifies micromanaging social interactions. One example would be the movement to integrate public bathrooms, in response to the needs of transexuals. The idea is that the personal discomfort of the transexual, or person in transition, overrides the public framework of gender assigned bathrooms. I'm just raising that as a recent example, not getting into a debate about it. It's been done on this blog already.

My rotation is up for Intro to Women's Studies in the fall. This is one of the things we'll be covering in the classroom. Maybe I'll copy the Applebaum article for that.

Pogo said...

Elizabeth said: "That being said, I've also encountered the phrase as a sort of dogma that justifies micromanaging social interactions."

I agree that "the personal is political" has a downside. Your example is a good one. The problem is inherent to the idea itself, however, as the phrase is without limits, and beckons one to view all social interactions through the lens of power. It's a rather poisonous habit.

And saying "the personal is sometimes political" doesn't work as a brake in any way. In short, there is no social opprobrium against pushing its application to every conceivable aspect of relations or behavior. Such are the tyrannies of little dogmas.

Elizabeth said...

Pogo, it also doesn't fit on a bumper sticker with the "sometimes" included. Anything so distilled requires some unpacking.

R C Dean said...

I don't think you can have it both ways. Once you break down the barrier between public/political life and some aspect of your personal life for one purpose, that barrier is broken for all purposes.

Once you say that "what goes on in women's personal relationships with men belongs in the public, political debate and is not just a private matter to be dealt with individually", you beg the question of why "personal" matters that belong in the "public, political debate", are public, political matters subject to public, political control. Are they public and political matters, or aren't they?

And anyway, lets not kid ourselves: the slogan is rooted in Marxist thinking, and was intended all along to extend the area of state control into realms formerly considered private and off-limits to the state.

twwren said...

When you write about women’s choices, by explicit reference or by inference no matter how attenuated, you are a feminist whether you come down on the side of Ms. Warner or Mrs. Flanagan and the evil; the catalyst fomenting the debate is men.

Jeff said...

Doesn't the use of "the personal is political" reduce women's political field of operations to one of "feelings"? That for a woman to care about foreign policy one has to frame it in terms of narrative- starving children, etc. This seems awfully condescending and sexist. And yet it's a concept that seems to be promoted by a lot of powerful women in media and politics.

Also, it seems to be a very "progressive" way of making decisions and of motivating voters. A policy doesn't have to add up, it justs has to feel right.

Ann Althouse said...

Jeff: The slogan isn't "only the personal is political."

Elizabeth said...

Thanks, Ann!

Also, Jeff, personal includes experiences, not just feelings.