Why The Personal Is Political

Emily Heist Moss discusses how the decisions at the top trickle down to affect our everyday lives.

“Nothing personal, but…”

Uh oh.

Nothing good ever comes from a statement that starts with “Nothing personal.” 

“Nothing personal, but I just think marriage should be between men and women.”

“Nothing personal, but I don’t get what’s wrong with a guy paying for dinner.”

“Nothing personal, but feminists are just so…militant!”

“Nothing personal, but I don’t like women with short hair.”

“Nothing personal, but I don’t see why I should pay for your birth control…”

“Nothing personal….”

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, “The personal is political” became a catchphrase of the feminist movement. Origins unknown, it was popularized in a Carol Hanisch essay by that name in Notes From a Second Year: Women’s Liberation in 1970. Coupled with consciousness-raising groups—sessions during which women gathered to discuss and dissect their own experiences with oppression, discrimination, sexism, and stereotyping—the “personal is political” encapsulated the relationships women were finding between their individual experiences and the broader fight for equal treatment.


It’s been over 40 years since “the personal is political” became the embodying phrase of my feminist ancestors and I still feel like I spend half my life explaining why personal decisions—to change your name, to enlarge your breasts, to get married or not, to stay at home or to work, to shave your legs—have a role in conversations about policy and politics. No one is suggesting that discussing hair removal is on par with conversations about reproductive health, only that the aesthetic objectification of women is undeniably related to the reduction of women to their reproductive parts by politicians from Mississippi to North Dakota.

There’s a criminological philosophy called the Broken Windows theory that says that when a building has one broken window, vandals are more likely to break in. More broken windows leads to graffiti, then theft, then squatters, and before you know it, the building is on fire. In How to Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran applies the Broken Windows theory to the treatment of women in the media:

If we live in a climate where female pubic hair is considered distasteful, or famous and powerful women are constantly pilloried for being too fat or too thin, or badly dressed, then, eventually, people start breaking into women, and lighting fires in them.

When headlines begin with Hillary Clinton’s makeup regimen or Sarah Palin’s weight loss, it signals what we think is important: a woman’s looks. When we begin an obituary of a groundbreaking scientist with a discussion of her beef stroganoff, it is an indicator of what we think makes a woman successful, and it’s not her work or her brains. The scrunchie commentary is the broken window, but the unwillingness to view women as humans with agency and brainpower and ambition and accomplishment is how the flames are fanned.


The point of consciousness-raising groups was to connect the dots in both directions between the personal decisions we make and the political realities that inform those choices. How does a country that doesn’t provide paid maternal leave (like virtually every other developed nation in the world) value the work, the health, and the happiness of its mothers? How are my relationships with my partner and my family related to the policies that affected my choices? How does what was decided by the powers that be trickle down, and how are my day-to-day experiences reflected by structures at the top?

Whether or not I can get married. Whether I have access to healthcare that I can afford. Whether my healthcare choices are limited by someone else’s vision of what I should or shouldn’t be doing. Whether I am at the whim of my employer regarding family leave. In today’s hyper-polarized climate, this stuff is quite political, but it is intensely personal.

Will my work be measured by the same standards as my male peers? Will my career progression be impacted by bias or stereotype? Will I be judged for the way I look or dress instead of the way I think and act? Will perceptions of my abilities be boxed in by my gender? Personal struggles, you might say, but in our media-saturated culture we see these issues wrestled with on a very public stage. Personal, yes, and political too.

The personal is political. The political is personal. Backwards, forwards, upside down or right side up, it is not in the abstract that we lob bricks at women these days. Our bricks are sexist photo spreads and victim-blaming and slut-shaming and protectionist bullshit and we-know-better and legislative restrictions on our rights and the policing of our choices and the criticism of our clothes and second-class status and fear of our independence. Those are the bricks we are throwing and the building is on fire and I will take it personally. You should too.

Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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