Women's History: 'The Personal is Political'

In this brief activity, students explore a key phrase in the women's movement during the 1960s and 70s. 

What does the phrase 'the personal is political' mean?

Write on the board or say:  "The personal is political."

Ask students:   What do you think this term means?

Chart students’ responses.

Discuss with students the variety of meanings, including:

  • Our personal experiences (say, of being disrespected or excluded) often reflect larger political realities in the world, including oppressive practices that need to be changed.
  • Our efforts to strengthen ourselves or express our individuality can affect things in the broader world.
  • More generally, there are no harsh lines between what we experience personally and the political, social world we live in.  The two are interwoven.

Ask students:  What do you know about the origins of this expression?

Tell students that this phrase expresses a key concept of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s -- sometimes called "second-wave feminism." (First-wave feminism, including the movement for women’s right to vote, was in the late 1800s and early 1900s.)

For additional consideration

Read and discuss the following quotes.

1.  Carol Hanisch, reflecting on how she and other feminists experienced their fellow political activists during the late 1960s:

... they belittled us [feminists] no end for trying to bring our so-called ‘personal problems’ into the public arena—especially ‘all those body issues’ like sex, appearance, and abortion. Our demands that men share the housework and childcare were likewise deemed a personal problem between a woman and her individual man.

Ask: How does this relate to the idea that "the personal is political"?

2.  Audre Lord, a Caribbean-American writer, feminist, lesbian and civil rights activist, writing in 1984:

Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.

Ask: What does she mean?

In a go-round, ask students to share, if they like, one experience they’ve had that is personal, but that relates to a broader societal issue.