“The personal is the political” is a general feminist thesis, which postulates that what affects women on a personal and subjective level ultimately is related to social and political constructs and contexts. In other words, particular personal issues that women experience, for example, in relation to their health and bodies, are not merely a case of biological determinism. Rather, there are political and social reasons for why women may have certain health issues; which is to say that the political and social determine why personal issues become personal issues. From another perspective, the phrase has another crucial resonance: it implies that things that women experience on a personal level should not be merely restricted to psychological introspection. Rather, solutions to personal issues, insofar as they are caused by the political, should also be searched for on the political level. Personal issues become a means by which one can critique the political system. The emancipation from the political system that causes personal issues can be realized by opposing the specific political and social normativities that create them.
Accordingly, questions of the personal identities of women become means with which the theorist can explicitly interrogate the social structure in general. Hence, many feminist theorists use personal biography as a jumping off point for the examination of various social norms. For example, Maysan Hazdar examines the personal identities of Muslim women, starting from her own experiences: “I’ve been covering my hair, as is prescribed for Muslim women, since I was twelve years old. And while there are many good reasons for doing so, I wasn’t motivated by a desire to be different, to honor tradition or to make a political statement. I wanted the board game Girl Talk.” (164) Hazdar uses this mundane incident from her past in order to radically question both traditional and contemporary values. Her personal identity was formed by a combination of factors such as tradition, culture, economics and social belonging. By understanding the factors that constitute one’s identity and choices, one may thereafter critically evaluate them.
Moreover, examining how women have been personally affected by traditional norms becomes a tool of resistance to these same norms. Issues such as female genital mutilation clearly have deeply personal effects on women. However, these personal issues are ultimately the product of social and political factors. The crucial point of “the personal is the political” is to turn this very personal traumatic experience around, and to realize its true source as exterior to the person, using these experiences to critique the norms that create personal trauma. Hence, Waris Dirie, a Somalian activist, is head of the “Waris Dirie Foundation, an international organization dedicated to eradicating FGM.” (Mortimer, 205), whose aim is to “turn the barbaric torture of girls to an educational program instead.” (Mortimer, 207) Furthermore, Dirie is “also the UN special ambassador for the elimination of female genital mutilation” (Mortimer, 205), The goal is therefore to posit personal traumatic experiences on a political level, thus attempting to eliminate the non-personal causes of such personal problems.
Sexuality is also a clear example of how seemingly intimate and personal issues may become politicized. For example, as Serano writes about the transgendered, it is crucial for transgendered people to formulate their experiences in a discourse that can be understood by others. Here, the personal and intimate nature of sexuality becomes something that must be politically and socially phrased, precisely because issues of discrimination against the transgendered are not individual phenomena, but rather products of the greater social construct: “to have illuminating and nuanced discussions about my experiences and perspectives as a transwoman, we must begin to think in terms of words and ideas that accurately describe that experience.” (Serano 172) Serano’s point is that personal experiences must not remain personal – one must attempt to communicate one’s experiences to the other. This is once again because the personal is ultimately inseparable from the community of social beings and from the political. While Serano notes that “a potential problem” with such an approach “is that it gives the impression that all of these transgender-related words and phrases are somehow written in stone” (169), the attempt to articulate such a discourse does not equal the attempt at an all-encompassing definition. Rather, the advancement and presentation of these experiences performs a politicization of the personal, in which those classically excluded from society re-enter this same society through their participation in it.
Thus whereas some “might dismiss much of this language as contributing to a ‘reverse discourse’ that is, by describing myself as a transsexual and creating trans-specific terms to describe my experiences, I am simply reinforcing the same distinction…that has marginalized me in the first place” (172), the objective of this language is not to reinforce distinction, but to join the common dialogue through a personal intervention that is also political.
What is crucial in this feminist slogan is that the personal must realize a relationship of change within the political, according to which personal issues become opportunities for the expression of desired emancipation politics. By realizing that personal choices have a relation to the political, one begins to perform a type of ideological criticism, showing that these minority identities, like those of the transgendered, are just as much a part of the political process and social construct as the so-called “normal” sexual identities. This ideological critique is the surpassing of the “institutional hurdles” such as “gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, parenthood, and limited educational and financial resources” (Rytilahti, 131) that inform the personal: these personal hurdles are issues from which one can understand the political nature of the personal itself. The personal experience of, for example, the “feminsation of poverty” in which “women’s patterns of morbidity and mortality are attributable to the nature of gender divisions in society and particularly to the continuing inequalities between the sexes” (Doyal, 150) shows that even the personal issue of death can have a clear relation to the structure of society.
From these examples, therefore, we can understand the feminist imperative of “the personal is the political” in two main senses. Firstly, the thesis articulates that many of the personal traumas which individuals experience are in fact products of the political and the social, in the sense that the latter creates the stereotypes and prejudices that create the former. Secondly, one must understand that their personal choices can have an effect on the political, insofar as this personal subjectivity can be used as a tool to transform the existing normativities in a positive manner that benefits the marginalized of society.