This post is in relation to Gender and Domination.

In the first chapter of her book titled “Gender,” Tina Chanter undertakes the task of exposing “the invisible whiteness of mainstream feminist theory.” To this end, she proceeds to explain how the feminist motto adopted back in the 70s, “the personal is political,” in her view, ended up establishing feminism as a white, middle-class and heterosexist movement. And while I fully agree that, indeed, feminism’s intentional or unintentional obliviousness toward the nuances of women’s identities (such as class, race, or sexual orientation) is definitely an issue that has caused many setbacks in the development of women’s struggles, I nevertheless take issue with the way in which Chanter engages the motto itself. It seems to me that her reading of the claim “the personal is political” is particularly narrow; for while Chanter simply assumes that by means of this phrase all that women in the 70s were doing was attempting to conquer “the public, political, masculine marked realm,” I believe that there is a much more powerful role that emerges from it as well.  By exhorting women to fuse the two realms, the “private” and “public” spaces, feminists were not only opening the door towards the personalization of the political, they were also calling for the politicization of the private.

This is an important distinction because it is only through such a reconceptualization of the personal that we could start to envision the embracing of the plurality of bodies that may at once inhabit our personal spaces. What other way do we have to really perceive ourselves as a locus of what Chiara Bottici calls “bodies in plural” while carrying on our mundane activities, which more often than not require one to  remain relatively secluded within the walls of one’s home? If we accept that “the personal is political” we are urged to also accept that nothing that we do (even if done in isolation, for our sake and choice) can be considered to be irrelevant or innocuous in the larger scale of things that constitute our society. This is not to deny that the point Chanter makes when she denounces the way in which straight, white, middle class women in the 1970s ended up marginalizing domestic workers is not valid or true. Of course it is. But in my view, Chanter’s analysis depicts the problems experienced almost as personal failures of the particular women that took upon themselves the “occupation” of public spaces. In this way, the philosophical project encompassing the embracing of the personal as political gets fogged by the historical limitations that complicated its implementation in the past. In light of this, it is important that, in attempting to answer the burning question “why did the application of this motto fail to achieve a positive outcome for women across the board?”, we keep in mind the many layers of intersubjectivity that characterize the “political turn.”

Chanter’s analysis is, in my opinion, a little bit shortsighted when it comes to engaging the nature of the forces at play in the transformation of the personal. All she does is provide a historical-sociological account of the events that took place at the time the motto originally came to life. In this way, Chanter simply tells us that an important issue complicating the success of women’s struggles has been feminists’ tendency to live in accordance to the tenets of white hegemony. This is why, even while fighting for their own liberation, privileged white feminists tended to shoulder aside the concerns of non-white or non-privileged women. In trying to engage this point in a more philosophical manner, and without merely associating the flaws of the implementation of the motto “the personal is political” with its necessary fate, we realize that there are important philosophical –and political–lessons to learn from the failures of the past as described by Chanter. One of these lessons involves the realization that, in their attempt to embrace a version of the “situationism” that Carol Ehrlich talks about (namely, in trying to reinvent the conditions of “everyday life”), middle class women from the 70s forgot that their particular conditions were not everybody’s. In other words, an important mistake was that these feminists failed to notice that their personal conditions were not political enough (in the sense that said conditions did not reflect the circumstances of the majority, and, perhaps even more importantly, were not plausible models that everybody could aspire to, given that to reach the level of comfort that these women enjoyed would inevitably require a resorting to the oppression of others, such as domestic workers, immigrants, etc.)

Put this way, the “problem” seems easy enough: back in the 70s women made mistakes, but surely today we know better and can do better, right? Not really, for there is an important factor that more often than not is lacking within women’s struggles for liberation, and this factor is solidarity. In this sense, Étienne de la Boétie makes an important contribution that really illuminates the reasons why solidarity is such an elusive component of popular struggles. In The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, de la Boétie tells us that “it is not arms that defend the tyrant,” rather, he goes on to argue, it is the fact that many people condone and even embrace the power that subjugates them, in particular because the masses often manage to find a way to profit from the state of affairs they live in, even if such state costs them their freedom. Of particular importance for the point I am trying to make is de la Boétie’s assertion that many “can be led to endure evil if permitted to commit it, not against who exploits them, but against those who like themselves submit, but are helpless.” And this impulse or disposition seems to have prevailed throughout the centuries. This becomes obvious while reading Paul Goodman (certainly not a contemporary of de la Boétie), who in his 1969 article “The Politics of Being Queer,” writes that an “understandable ego defense” that he has often come across during his struggle to embrace his life as a queer individual involves the idea that “[one] gotta be better than somebody.”

Here, I think, lies the biggest difficulty that we encounter when we try to politicize the personal. Given that people are raised with a disposition to embrace, to applaud, and to reproduce hierarchy, even while in theory people fight for equality, they have such a hard time letting go of their desire to be “better” than somebody else. This is utterly noxious for our attempts to take down all forms of domination, insofar as the very core of domination is intrinsically dependent on the conscious or unconscious validation of hierarchy, of non-fluid manifestations of power. What good can it entail to make the personal political in a way that still validates the exercise of power conveyed by the acceptance of different forms of institutionalized hierarchies? It is in light of this that we can begin to make sense of the idea that to be free has to entail freedom for everybody else. Not in a way that incites us to feel disconnected from others, or that compulsively forces us to praise self-sufficiency (which may result in a reluctance to cooperate with others) but in a way that prompts us to think of our fellow human beings as having the right to disobey or reject all instances of unaccountable and static exercises of authority put in place in order to enable domination.

One thought on “Solidarity, Hierarchy, and the Critique of the Public/Private Distinction in Feminist Discourse

  1. A brilliant little piece that rescues a little bit of the philosophical from the political. A larger and longer rescue mission is perhaps overdue.

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