Is feminism defined by the belief that ‘the personal is the political’?

One of the main debates within feminism has been whether the personal is the political. This debates centres on the issue of whether female oppression occurs in all walks of life, public and private. Feminism has been largely split by the issue with radical and socialist feminists taking the view that the personal is the political, whilst liberal and some postmodern feminists have taken the opposite view.

One of the main debates within feminism has been whether the personal is the political. This debates centres on the issue of whether female oppression occurs in all walks of life, public and private. Feminism has been largely split by the issue with radical and socialist feminists taking the view that the personal is the political, whilst liberal and some postmodern feminists have taken the opposite view.

Radical feminists believe that the origins of patriarchy, the dominance of men in society, lie in the structure of family, domestic and personal life. The process of conditioning takes place largely within the family with boys and girls encouraged from a young age to conform to very specific gender identities. This is reinforced later in adult life through the distribution of housework and other responsibilities. Germaine Greer suggested that this has ‘castrated’ women and has led to them being conditioned to a passive sexual role. Furthermore, feminists such as Susan Brownmiller have stated that men have created an ‘ideology of rape’, which creates a source of intimidation that keeps women in a state of fear’. Brownmiller argued that even men who don’t rape benefit from the fear and anxiety that rape creates. Thus, for radical feminists, the nature of politics needs to be redefined. Politics occurs in both the public sphere and the private sphere, with the pattern of male domination that characterises society reflecting the power structures that operate in domestic life. To achieve full equality, equality must be achieved in the private sphere and not just the public sphere. To do this the patriarchal oppression that originates in the structures of family, domestic and personal life must be overthrown by a sexual revolution.

Liberal feminists take a different approach to the view that the personal is the political. Due to their liberal in outlook, liberal feminists believe that private life should be a realm of choice and freedom, meaning that it is shaped by natural rather than political forces. Thus, the private-public divide must be maintained as it protects the individual from state control. Furthermore, liberal feminists believe in the principle of individualism, and that all individuals should be entitled to equal treatment. This has led to liberal feminists such as J.S. Mill campaigning for equal citizenship and political rights, with the main goal being to gain equal access for women to the public realm. This includes the right to education, the right to vote, the right to pursue a career and so on. The reason why liberal feminists have put less emphasis on the private life is because they assume that men and women have different inclinations, therefore meaning that women’s leaning towards family and domestic life is influenced by natural impulses and so reflects a willing choice. This has been argued by feminists such as Betty Freidan who argued that the family is still of central importance in women’s life. Therefore, for liberal feminists, the need to maintain the private/public divide is very important.

Socialist feminists tend to agree with radical feminists that the personal is the political. Socialist feminists believe that patriarchy is rooted in the social and economic structure. Friedrich Engels argued that the position of women had changed with the development of capitalism and the institution of private property. For Engels, female oppression operated through the institution of the family. In the traditional family, the man would work whilst the woman stayed at home to work as housewives. This leads to the degradation of women because in their role as ‘breadwinners’ men enjoy high status within the family and are relieved of the burden of ‘trivial’ domestic labour. Furthermore, socialists have argued that women constitute a ‘reserve army of labour’, which can be recruited when needed and gotten rid of equally easily. Therefore, women’s labour is vital to the efficiency of the economy but due to the public/private divide that exists the significance of women’s work is not recognised. Engels also argued that the bourgeois ideas of private property oppressed women. This can be seen to be similar to the radical feminist view of ‘conditioning’ in that men pass on their property only to their sons and insist upon monogamous marriage, which thereby create strict gender identities. Therefore, socialist feminists believe that capitalist system makes the personal the political and thus leads to the entrenchment of female oppression.

Third-wave feminism has tended to side with liberalism in the debate over whether the personal is the political. ‘New feminists’ sought to separate the personal from the political. For example, in 1999 Natasha Walter stated that feminists should seek to address the political, economic and social inequalities, while at the same time not policing their personal and sexual behaviour. However, there have been diverging views within third-wave feminism with Walter herself admitting in 2010 that the ‘hypersexualisation’ of girls and women was a problem. Nevertheless, the view of separating the personal from the political still holds supremacy within third-wave feminism. Camille Paglia attacked the tendency of feminism to portray women as victims and stated that women need to take greater responsibility for their personal and sexual conduct. Naomi Wolf elaborated on this by saying that the principal impediments to women social advancement are ‘psychological’ rather than political. Yet, third-wave feminisms has been criticised by established feminists such as Germaine Greer who argued that women had abandoned the goal of liberation and had settled for a ‘phoney equality’ of assimilation.

In conclusion, the idea that the personal is the political is very controversial within feminism. There is a strong divergence of opinion with radicals and socialists believing that the personal is indeed the political but liberals and third-wave feminists believing that the personal is separate from the political. Therefore, it can be seen that there are strong conflicts within feminism over this belief and consequently only radical and socialist feminism can be defined by the belief that the personal is the political.

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