The personal is political: Contemporary relevance of the radical feminism

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The maxim of radical feminism, “personal is political” was coined by Carole Hanisch, a radical feminist in her work “Notes From the Second Year: Women’s Liberation” in 1970. Since then, it has become a strong and provocative outcry for feminist scholars.

Contextual debate

In ancient Greek, the works of Plato and Aristotle have been opposite in the context of women. Plato was very much optimistic about women’s role in the state. He talked about equality of opportunity for women and imagined the idea of ‘Philosopher queen’ similar to ‘Philosopher king’ of a male counterpart. He raised voices for women’s education and war against the cost of wasting half of the human race. In his work, he tried to liberate women from upbringing so that they can devote themselves to knowledge and a life of virtue in the theory of communism.

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Since his work, women have faced ignorance in the eyes of political theorists. Even Aristotle excluded women in his ‘Theory of Citizenship‘ on the narrow logic that has time to participate in civic affairs. It indicates that women’s personal life is different from their political life. An artificial separation was created between the personal and public sphere since the time of Aristotle. This has led to the marginalization of the voice of women. Radical feminists want to destroy this wall of separation.

Originated in the second wave of feminism

The core concern of feminism was the upliftment of women. But over a period of time, it has become meta ideology and opted for different means for the emancipation of women from exploitation. It has led to the development of different schools of thought within them. It was started in the west and has successfully been able to improve the status of women around the world. The development of the meta ideology of feminism is understood through three-wave of feminism.

The first wave of feminism is marked by the French revolution till 1960. Liberal and socialist feminism is the core feature of this phase. They asked for the social and economic empowerment of women. Marry Wollstonecraft is known as the mother of feminism. She asked for a charter on the right of women on the line of the French Revolution which led to the charter on the rights of men. They had moderate and progressive demands in the interest of women like gender equality.

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The 1960s till the 1980s is marked by the age of radical feminism led by two prominent theorists – Betty Friedan and Simon De Beauvoir. Here, women asserted their rights radically. Betty Friedman conducted a survey among American women primarily from white and upper-class families to find whether they were satisfied with life or not. Women responded to her that they were missing something. Phrase ‘personal is political’ in feminism got its origin in this wave where Susan Moller Okin in her book “Gender Justice and Family” explains it in detail.

Going back to drawing boards: Intellectual intellections

Susan Moller Okin elaborates in her book that politics is neither confined only to the public sphere nor only to personal affairs. Politics within the family also happen. Politics impacts the personal lives of women too. For example, recently the government of India banned the instant triple talaq. Ministry of minority affairs claimed that there is an 82% decline in triple talaq cases since the law against “social evil” was put in place. It has definitely revamped the social and economic sphere of women. It suggests women to participate in the political process to make it inclusive and democratic.

Catherine MacKinnon in his book “Towards a feminist theory of the State” has shown the patriarchal nature of the state. She links how the exclusion of women from the public sphere results in the laws with loopholes. Interpretation of a text by a person is not free from personal experiences. It has a reflection in the political sphere. For example, understanding of Manusmriti is different for Dr. Ambedkar and Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan based on their personal experience where Dr. Radhakrishnan was a staunch supporter of the Varna and caste system but Dr. Ambedkar opposed it brutally.

Similarly, during the development of realism in International politics, personal experiences and time have led to the creation of differences within the school. The classical realism of Hans Morgenthau was inspired by Machiavelli who believed that states are also power-seeking and power is both the ends as well as means. It is because of his personal experiences of the inter-war period. But during the détente period of the cold war, cooperation was developed in international politics. The Personal experience of this period by Kenneth Waltz, moderates the realist schools in this defensive realism.

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The contemporary relevance of the Maxim

First, Religious texts of almost all religions are generally criticized as patriarchal in nature and look narrowly at women. Benazir Bhutto in her book, “Daughter of the East” has shown that there was an absence of women while writing or interpreting religious text. That’s why it appears patriarchal to us. It indicates that the personal experiences of male interpreters have a reflection in their interpretations. The absence of women in the political sphere due to the wall of separation has led to the overturning of a supreme court judgment in the Shah Bano case through the patriarchal legislative approach of the state.

Second, the former managing director of IMF, Christine Lagarde, estimated in her study that equal participation of women in the workforce in India has the potential to increase India’s GDP by 27%. It indicates that if women face injustice at home, it would reflect not only the social and political but the economic sphere of the state as well. Prevention of women from domestic violence act 2005 brought by the government of India is an example of recognition of violence within four walls of the house.

Third, Farmer’s suicide has been one of the serious questions of the time in Indian politics. NCRB data shows that 42,480 farmers and daily wagers committed suicide in 2019. Political parties in India are using temporary relaxations like loan-wave-off, subsidies, and cash intensives to contain farmers’ suicide. The inclusion of women in agriculture, and feminization of agriculture has the potential to absorb the shock during distress and prevent her husband from debt trap and Suicide. A study finds women who are good at management can also reduce input costs in the field and maximize profits followed by increasing the income of farmers.

Fourth, the Women’s Reservation Bill, or 108th amendment bill has been hanging in Indian parliament since 2008 which promises to give one-third reservation to women in parliament as well as state assemblies similar to local government. Women’s participation in politics through local government has impacted the personal sphere of women too. World Bank report says that women’s representation in local governance has also increased their bargaining power at home. Sushma Bhadu, a sarpanch in Haryana publicly discarded the “Ghunghat” at a conference of women panchayat.

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Sixth, In politics, corruption has been a serious concern since ancient times. A study by Chandan Jha finds less corruption in countries where more women are in government. Seventh, Nirupama Rao, former ambassador of India to Sri Lanka in her Article “Have the women spoken?” says women are peace-loving in nature and have the potential to erase the boundary of hate between India and Pakistan. Eighth, the Women’s group, Kudumbashree, helped the Kerala government during the Kerala flood in 2018. It shows that the personal efforts of women have helped the political sphere during crises.

Ninth, The general impression is that Nitish Kumar’s decision on the liquor ban in Bihar is more associated with the votes of women. It indicates that women’s personal affairs regarding domestic violence affect political decisions and vice-versa. Tenth, similarly, votes of Muslim women have been seen as ‘silent voters’ for the BJP in the context of banning instant triple talaq. It is so because the personal affairs of Muslim women affect political calculations as well.

Thus, today these artificial boundaries have been broken in political science. Women have been performing outstandingly in all spheres whether it is armed forces, education, banking, sports, and arts along with the political sphere.


  1. Duke Repository | Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation
  2. JSTORAristotle’s Definition of Citizenship: A Problem and Some Solutions
  3. The Hindu | About 82% decline in triple talaq cases since a law enacted
  4. The Economic Times | NCRB data shows 42,480 farmers and daily wagers committed suicide in 2019
  5. India Today | These female sarpanches are changing how Indian villages function
  6. Science Daily | Study finds less corruption in countries where more women are in government
  7. The Indian Express | Have the women spoken?
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    Amit Chaauhan

    Wonderfully written,
    just when I start thinking I have read enough about women’s movements I come across content like this which makes me realize my aloofness.

    July 12, 2022
    • Decoding World Affairs

      July 26, 2022

      Thanks a lot Amit Bhai !

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