The Personal Is Political

Ok, well, I’ve been holed up in this alphabet apartment for the better part of this week, putting the finishing touches on my thesis. My advisor gave me some pretty intense edits, pushed me rul’ hard. I think I pushed back. In fact, I was sort of annoyed and over this whole process, and I think I let that anger motivate me. In any case, the point is I feel pretty great, pretty capable, pretty powerful.

Powerful. What an important word. I stumbled across a quote during my edits that really captured something I’ve been feeling a lot lately. The first part I was able to use in my paper, and I’m going to share that with you first. It’s an explanation of the phrase ‘The Personal is Political’, a phrase which basically encompasses why I sit at this computer and write this blog. The quote is by my scholarly idol, Bettina Aptheker, from her memoir Intimate Politics:

… when I was growing up, issues such as rape, sexual harassment (for which there was no language), sexual abuse of children, domestic violence, reproductive rights (referred to only as abortion), childbirth (assumed to be best left in the hands of the doctor), childcare (needed only by women who were derelict in their maternal duties), and sexuality (even between men and women) were spoken of in the hushed tones of shame and guilt. All were considered personal issues having absolutely nothing to do with politics. These issues became political as a result of the women’s movement… we came to understand that the personal is political- or, more precisely, that the personal reveals the political.

~ Aptheker

I believe really strongly that gender issues flow through our lives in really complex, sometimes unrecognizable ways. Especially in personal relationships, which is why I’m so often writing about that. And issues of power and intimacy are political, as Aptheker describes above, and we should try to recognize them in our day to day relations in order to better understand how we are working as part of a system. For women, in large and small ways, this can be scary, as this next quote touches on.

However, for women and children, especially girls, relations of power are often enacted in moments of intimacy, when we are the most vulnerable, in our families, with our parents or lovers, when we should experience the greatest sense of safety. Relations of power between women and men are likewise enacted in public places, when we are at work, or walking the streets, or riding public transportation. These instances also can take on an intimate quality because we experience them as a violation of personal space, or violence against our own person. What I am describing are widely shared experiences affecting the lives of millions of women virtually everywhere in the word…

~ Aptheker

This passage hit a nerve in me, because lately I have had a few encounters with men, strangers, that were unsettling. I find that guys, without a second thought, are apt to touch women without invitation. Especially in a nighttime setting, especially if its dimly lit and a crowd creates a buffer. I have also met people who assume that I will want, automatically, to hang out with them. I suppose this is based on ego, on their success in life in general. But success in life doesn’t mean you’ve put the work in to know me, and when I’m not immediately compliant I get accused of having trust issues. But men forget how unbalanced power can be in these situations. Physically, emotionally, culturally. It is all too easy to make a person feel small, especially when gender dynamics support it. Body language, invasion of personal space, pushy or aggressive language, these are all tools that can have a really detrimental effect if you’re not careful. I think even guys with good intentions can cross those lines without realizing it.

Ok well I suppose this post is really at the heart of why I write this thing. If you are out and about, and find yourself creeped out or feeling violated by a guy, this is not a unique experience and it’s not just your personal emotion. You are actually experiencing a shared phenomenon, and performing in a dynamic that other women have already performed. The degrees of violence and danger vary, as do the specific details. But if you can recognize this commonality, maybe you will feel better about pushing back, speaking up, leaving, or whatever appropriate response you come up with, instead of allowing yourself to feel small or defeated. I find that, when I remember how gender dynamics are working and how I’m not alone, it’s much easy to bite back.

(Side note: typing in ‘the personal is political’ to google images is pretty hilarious. Obama and Beyonce both make random appearances, as do Hermoine and Bristol Palin. Lots of buttons. Who knew?)

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