The Personal is Political… and Professional

by Heather Shea Gasser

A rallying cry of the women’s liberation and second-wave feminist movement is “The Personal Is Political.” The phrase charged legions of women who for too long had kept to themselves, thinking their private matters were just that… private. Therefore, highly personal topics like childbirth, sexual assault and harassment, and domestic violence were frequently hidden and consequently shameful. The feminists of the early 70s wanted these private matters to instead become matters of public concern. They established consciousness-raising groups with the hopeful outcome of increasing awareness of common experiences as a necessary precursor to broader social change.

The phrase, ‘The Personal Is Political,’ is also the title of a well-known essay by Carol Hanisch and was originally published in Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation in 1970. The full text of the document, with a new introduction by the author written in 2006 is available here. To sum up the intent of the article, Hanisch described early consciousness-raising groups as a mechanism for feminist activism that differentiated between “personal problems” requiring therapy and “political discussions” requiring “political action.” Not to diminish the personal issues or concerns as less important, Hanisch argues, instead there is power to organize and collectively work on behalf of these issues through broader political action. According to Hanisch, dissenters calling the groups “therapy groups” was a misnomer, as the groups were not intended to solve any one woman’s individual personal problems. Instead, consciousness-raising was a form of political action to elicit discussion about such topics as women’s relationships, their roles in marriage, and their feelings about childbearing. She says:

“One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems…We need to change the objective conditions, not adjust to them.”

I strongly believe in collective consciousness-raising as a tool for political action. I’ve found great power in encouraging a tactic of encouraging women specifically, but all people, to be more vocal about the barriers they are facing. These limits on personal and professional advancement that are directly impacted by one’s gender needs to be brought out into the open, first within safe spaces and then within a broader context in order to create mechanism for social change. Clearly, this tactic was incredibly successful in the 2nd wave and much was accomplished after consciousness-raising groups turned political. I’d bet most if not all of the accomplishments of the 2nd wave were rooted in early consciousness-raising efforts, including: The Equal Pay Act, Title VII, Title IX, Women’s Shelters, “no-fault” divorce law, the publication of “Our Bodies, Our Selves”, founding of Ms. Magazine, Roe v. Wade, marital rape laws, and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. And these are only some of the direct outcomes of the second wave of the feminist movement in the United States alone.

As one of the founders of this blog, I believe part of our goal in launching this site is indeed consciousness-raising. We want to develop a shared and safe place where we can encourage individual stories and then offer mechanisms for social change. And, with respect to our positions in student affairs, I contend that personal and political spaces are not enough. Gender barriers have a professional impact. If institutions and organizations are going to reduce institutional barriers and address systemic sexism or oppression (for all genders), we all need to bring these topics into our student affairs divisions and create political action as professionals as well. Sharing our stories is a form of political action.

As the director of a campus-based women’s center for over five years (shout-out to the University of Idaho Women’s Center, who also has a great blog!), I learned first-hand how the personal can be political but also professional. Women’s centers are uniquely positioned to provide a safe place for the sharing of stories around issues of gender specifically and identity broadly. Often intentionally designed and located with privacy in mind, women’s centers and other advocacy offices are safe places where individuals who experience marginalizing circumstances can connect and participate in collective consciousness-raising. My colleagues and I shared our own stories and brought our whole selves to our work, thus diminishing the boundaries between our personal, political, and professional lives. On occasion, in addition to sharing my own story, I saw my role as the director of a women’s center on campus as a listener and then as an advocate for change. I saw ways that I could listen to personal and individual stories and when appropriate and with confidentiality in mind I could draw upon these experiences to advance institutional changes to policies and practices that diminished sexism. The personal and political became a women’s center staff member’s professional responsibility.

WC Meme
Unfortunately, many people neither understand the role or nor support their campus-based women’s centers, a fact that we captured when this meme was popular (credit to Paige Davies for developing this!)

Now that I’ve moved on from my role as director of a women’s center, I look broadly across my current campus and across the field of student affairs generally and want to believe that women’s centers aren’t the only places where where consciousness-raising occurs and where the personal becomes political and professional. I see pockets here and there, but often leave wanting more. How and when we connect with other people who experience similar struggles is fundamental to changing the objective reality of our situations. If what Hanisch says is true, we need pathways to move from personal and political conversations to professional action and activism.

As a next step on this pathway, I’d like to invite others to join me in exploring this topic and share personal and political stories as a means for professional consciousness-raising and changing the objective reality of our collective situations. I will begin my next post on this blog with talking about my unique experiences with pregnancy and miscarriage, child bearing  and parenting as a student affairs professional. It is my unique story and I see how generalizing can be dangerous, so my intent in doing so is to connect and bring into the open experiences that have shaped my way of being as a feminist, educator, and student affairs professional.

How does the personal become political and professional for you? What experiences and stories would you add to this conversation?

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