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Feminism Is Defined By The Belief That The Personal Is The Political

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Discuss Although not all strands of feminism advocate interference in the personal lives of women, feminism has proven to be unsuccessful in achieving full female emancipation by purely focusing on the public life of women. In this way, the only way for feminists to be successful in their aims is to concern themselves with the personal lives of women which subsequently means that feminism, in the modern sense, with the knowledge of the failure of both the first and second wave liberal feminists and socialist feminists to bring about female emancipation, has to be defined by the belief that the personal is the political. Until the 1960’s feminism was not considered its own ideology, but a subset of both liberalism and socialism. It wasn’t until the emergence of radical feminists in the second wave and subsequent feminists thereafter who believe that the ‘personal is the political’ that feminism was deemed its own ideology. It had simply become too complex to be accepted by any other conventional one.

The first strand of feminism, which emerged during the first wave in the late eighteenth century, was liberal feminism. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of Women published in 1792 argued that women should be entitled to the same privileges as men in the public sphere on the grounds that women are human beings too and are therefore just as rational as men which was drawn from the Enlightenment liberal belief in reason and its radical commitment to equality. She called for women’s suffrage and equality between men and women within the law but did not concern herself with the role of women within the household because she believed that once equality was achieved in the public sphere, female emancipation would be brought about. John Stuart Mill’s On the Subjection of Women published in 1869 proposed that accidents of birth including sex should be irrelevant where entitlements were concerned.

He too advocated the right for women to vote and believed that the ‘distinction of sex’ would become irrelevant once women were considered rational beings in their own right. Similarly, second wave liberal feminist Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique published in 1963 argued that the sense of unfulfilment women face from being confined to a domestic life or the ‘problem with no name’ as she referred to it, would be fixed by allowing women to enter the political arena. In this way she too believed that personal problems faced by women would be resolved once they were given an equal stake in the public sphere.

However, she also differed from first wave liberal feminists in that she recognized that the cultural pressure to behave in a ‘feminine’ way in the private sphere, affected the way women behaved in the public sphere and discouraged them from being politically involved. In fact, first wave liberal feminists usually assumed that women’s inclination towards a domestic life was a natural impulse and represented a willing choice rather than an expectation brought about by society. This was particularly advocated by J.S Mill who believed that given the choice, women would chose a domestic life but that this in no way needed to hinder them in the public sphere should they wish to enter it once equal rights were achieved.

Even Friedan’s The Second Stage published in 1983 has been criticized by more radical feminists for contributing to the ‘mystique of motherhood’ and upholding some of the ideas about the nature of women supported in the first wave, though many second wave liberal feminists would agree that patriarchy and other cultural constructs are what lead women to a domestic life, not choice. In fact first wave liberal feminism was unsuccessful in achieving female emancipation because of its failure to recognize not only the social and cultural impacts on white, middle class women, whom they were mainly concerned with, but more importantly the cultural and social constraints of working class women, black women and other women in the developing world. Socialist feminist ideas stemmed from Friedrich Engels’ The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State published in 1884 in which he argued that the position of women in society had fundamentally changed with the emergence of capitalism and the institution of private property, though socialist feminism didn’t fully emerge until the second wave.

Engel’s argued that the position of women and the relationship between the sexes was rooted in the social and economic structure of society and that only a social revolution would bring about true female emancipation. In this way, socialist feminism is different from first wave liberal feminism in its firm belief that private sphere of women and the institution of family greatly influenced their role in the public sphere. The bourgeois family is patriarchal and oppressive because men wish to pass on their property to their sons only. Some socialist feminist even suggest that this can be overcome by subscribing to early utopian socialist ideas such as communal living and ‘free love’ as advocated by Charles Fourier. This strand of socialist feminism is clearly focused on the private and personal life of women a means of their emancipation. Juliet Mitchell highlighted the four main roles of women in a capitalist society which she believed were to act as a ‘reserve work force’, bear children, raise children and act as sex objects. In this way women face ‘double oppression’ because they are oppressed because of their sex and because of their status in society within the capitalist system. In this way, socialist feminism focuses on both the private and the public and recognizes the interplay between them.

In fact the failure of socialist societies such as the USSR to bring about female emancipation suggests that it is the role of women in the private sphere that needs to be tackled because equalizing them on a political and public level did not put an end to female oppression. In this way it seems that the personal is indeed the political. Radical feminism was born out of the second wave to distance feminism as a subset of liberalism or socialism and instead promote feminism as its own ideology and attack patriarchy directly in all aspects of human life and society. They criticized socialist feminists for putting too much emphasis on the ‘class war’ instead of the ‘sex war’ and liberal feminists, both first and second wave, for focusing too much on equality instead of ‘sisterhood’. In this way, radical feminists more than any other feminist groups before them viewed the patriarchy that existed in the private sphere as the root of all inequality in society. Radical feminist’s ideas were influenced by Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex which was published a few decades earlier in 1949.

She insisted that women’s position was determined purely by social factors and was not in any way natural as early liberal feminists such as J.S Mill suggested. Her work also drew particular attention to the role of patriarchy in female oppression which has been adopted by radical feminists. Similarly, Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics published in 1970 emphasized the effect patriarchy, which she viewed as a ‘social constant’, has on all parts of life and that this is the root of female oppression rather than any legal or social disadvantages. She believed the family was patriarchy’s ‘chief institution’, demonstrating her concern for the personal lives of women which she proposed to tackle through a process of consciousness raising. Radical feminists criticized liberal feminists for merely attacking legal equality in the public sphere, which they felt was but one of many consequences of the patriarchal system.

By the end of the 1970’s most conventional goals of feminism had been achieved. Females in the west enjoyed equality in a political and legal sense and women were becoming more successful in a professional sense as a result. Changing attitudes towards women as well as updated abortion laws and more widely available contraception gave women more choices in life and greater freedom. Nevertheless instead of the fading of the feminist movement, the effect of these developments was to fracture the feminist ideology into different strands. These new strands are often classed under ‘postmodern feminism’ or third wave feminism. Such feminists subscribed to postmodernism and believe that the concept of a united women’s movement is outdated. Postmodern feminist reject ‘essentialist’ theories of female oppression which is where radical third wave feminists differ from the second wave. They recognize that female oppression is the result of a very complex set of circumstances, and may not be entirely a result of patriarchy.

British feminist Natasha Walter for example recognizes that women’s issues are different in different parts of the world and that for this reason, women’s movements will have to have different aims in accordance with the specific set of circumstances in which they are trying to bring about female emancipation. She is the co-founder of Women for Refugee Women and recognizes that women’s issues are a whole mixture between the personal and the political depending on context (Walter, 2014) . However, the new strands of feminism belonging to the third wave differed greatly in their approaches and ideas about how to achieve equality and emancipation for women, with matriarchal feminists even arguing that women should be superior to men. One such strand of postmodern feminism is separatist feminism which suggests that ‘all men’ are physically and psychologically disposed to oppress ‘all women’, making men the enemy.

These sorts of feminists suggest that in order for the patriarchal system to be overthrown, men and women need to be separated for a period of time until women can discover themselves and their own capacities and only then be integrated back with men, hopefully achieving an equal society. In this way, separatist feminists are clearly interested in the personal lives of women as a means of achieving true female emancipation by destroying patriarchy. Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will published in 1975 suggests that men have created an ‘ideology of rape’ which intimated all women into a state of permanent fear. She argues that even those men who don’t rape benefit from the intimidation and fear it induces in all women. Feminists who advocate Brownmiller’s radical ideas, many of them separatist feminists, have also been known to argue that all heterosexual women are ‘male identified’ and can only become ‘woman identified’ by abstaining from all sexual relationships with men because they are by nature, oppressive.

This had stemmed from a movement in the 1960’s during the second wave known as political lesbianism. Feminist author Ti-Grace Atkinson is credited to the slogan ‘feminism is the theory; lesbianism is the practise’. To Atkinson and her peers, feminism is only defined by the personal; if women want to achieve true emancipation, they will either have to engage in homosexual relationships or remain celibate. However, separatism and indeed political lesbianism are not advocated by majority of modern day feminists so it would be wrong to say that their views represent those of the feminist movement as a whole. They do however demonstrate the level of permeation into the personal lives of women that radical feminists are willing to go to achieve their goals. This increasing divide within the feminist movement has resulted in the emergence of ‘post-feminism’ whereby different groups of feminists tackle different issues such as pornography, abortion, prostitution and censorship, all with different methods and ideas.

This is a sign that indeed feminism is an ideology rather than just a political movement which encompasses a range of often-competition traditions. Since the 1980’s feminism has faced much hostility particularly from neoconservatives like Thatcher and Regan and also from the advance of Islamic fundamentalism. In Islamic countries, we have seen exclusion from women in political life, the abolition of their legal rights and a return to the veil. As a response to this, modern day feminists have to be concerned for both the private and the political sphere of women because Islamic women face oppression in their personal and their political lives. Similarly, neoconservatives called for a return to the ‘nuclear family’ and the traditional role of women as housewives. Neoconservatives agreed with first wave liberals such as Mill that women remaining in the domestic sphere was natural. Conservatives also called for this to maintain social cohesion and order which stem from traditional conservative beliefs in the organic society.

As a response to this, modern feminists have to be concerned for the private lives of women as they see increasing political pressure for women to behave in a certain way in their personal lives which poses a threat to their freedom. Although first wave liberal feminism and arguably some parts of socialist feminism focused on the political rather than the private, both movements were unsuccessful in achieving their aims of liberating women once legal and political equality was realized. In this way the only way for feminism to be successful, which in a radical feminist’s sense would be to achieve emancipation and equality both in a cultural and social sense as well as in a political sense, is to be concerned with the personal lives of women.

Although for a first wave liberal feminist like Mill, perhaps just achieving legal and political status was enough. He never expected that women would chose the political life over the private and so perhaps he would have been contented with the achievements made by liberal feminists. In this case, feminism is indeed only concerned in the political lives of women. However if feminists want to achieve emancipation in the full meaning of the word, then feminism has to be concerned with the private sphere. In this sense, feminism or successful feminism has to be defined by the belief that the personal is the political.


Walter, N. (2014, June 9). Natasha Walter. Retrieved from The Guardian : http://www.theguardian.com/profile/natashawalter

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