The Personal Is Political

The Personal Is Political

‘Politics’ is usually thought of as an interactive activity that takes place in the public sphere of life- activities such as governmental institutions, protest groups and so on. Private life such as the family is usually seen as the private sphere of life and therefore non-political. Second wave feminism however, insisted that politics takes place wherever there is any kind of human relationship and not merely in public life. Politics is thought to exist wherever social interaction and conflict is found. Millett defined politics as ‘power structured relationships’. The relationship between state and citizens is therefore clearly political but, relationships such as those between husbands and wives or parents and children are also political.

This understanding of politics is important because it explains the feminist argument of sexual inequality. They claim that inequality and oppression is underpinned by the sexual division of labour that runs through society and has been thought of as ‘natural’ rather than political. Traditionally the public sphere of life such as politics, arts and work has been seen as a male world. The private sphere of life such as the family, home and children have been seen as the female world. If politics only takes place in the public sphere this means that women are excluded from public life / politics.

Feminists have therefore sought to challenge the divide between ‘public man’ and ‘private woman’. However, they have not always agreed about how to do this and what their focus should be. Radical feminists have been the keenest opponents of the idea that politics stops at the front door, arguing that the ‘personal is political’. Female oppression is thought to operate in all walks of life and is preserved and created by the family institution. They have therefore challenged the ‘politics of everyday life’ – for example – child rearing responsibilities, domestic chores and other so called ‘female duties’. Liberal feminists focus more on the equality of opportunity in the public sphere. They warn against politicising the private sphere, claiming that this is a place of individual freedom and choice.

Equality Feminism & Difference Feminism

Although the goal of feminism is to end sexist oppression, feminists have often disagreed strongly on what this means in practice and how to achieve it. Traditionally women have demanded equality with men and this is often seen as the core of feminism. However, the meaning of the term equality has often divided feminists and some feminists even dismiss the notion of equality altogether in favour of a promotion of difference.

Liberal feminists have supported the notion of public legal equality between men and women so that they can compete on equal terms. This means equal status in the public realm. Socialist feminists argue that equal legal rights are meaningless unless women enjoy an equal social status. They, therefore, argue that equality must be focused in terms of equal economic power – wages, ownership and the concept of waged and unwaged labour. Radical feminists are primarily concerned with equality in family and personal life. This must mean equal treatment in terms of domestic expectations and responsibilities, sexual expectations and the control of one’s body and reproductive processes. Despite these differences all feminists are united in viewing gender differences / discrimination as negative. They are all seen in this sense as equality feminists as they all want some form of equality between the sexes. They see this discrimination as the fault of patriarchal attitudes in society. They want to liberate women from ‘difference’.

Difference feminism, on the other hand, embraces the concept of a natural difference between the sexes. They see the concept of equality as either undesirable or impossible. To want to be equal with men implies that you are ‘male identified’, meaning that women’s goals are defined by male standards of life. Their goal is therefore to be female identified. This means to overthrow the negative attitudes of men (competitiveness and aggression) and design society around female characteristics (empathy and compassion). They subscribe to a ‘pro-woman’ position that argues that the sexes are different and that that difference is important. They see this difference as not a socially learned character but a biological difference that creates different types of people (‘essentialism’). They argue that women should celebrate their ‘natural’ characters and look to develop society in these ways against the negativity of male characteristics. An extension of this view is that, to be truly female-identified, a woman must have a relationship with another woman, as all heterosexual relationships involve an unequal balance of power, favouring the man. This is the concept of political lesbianism- sexual orientation as a political choice.

Other feminist groups have strongly criticised this position, arguing that the view of difference feminists, that women are ‘naturally’ different to men, was the very reason used to justify negative treatment of women in the past, and undermines the progress made by the feminist movement.