How Political is the Personal?:
Identity Politics, Feminism and Social Change

Joan D. Mandle
Associate Professor of Sociology
Colgate University

jdmandle @ mail.colgate.edu

Second Wave Feminism

One of the best known and most important political slogans of the early Women's Liberation Movement in which I was involved in the middle 1960s claimed that "the personal is political." That phrase was honed in reaction to struggles within the 1960s social movements out of which the Women's Liberation Movement first emerged. It captured the insight that many of what were thought to be personal problems possessed social and political causes, were widely shared among women , and could only be resolved by social and political change.

In the l960s social movements - the Civil Rights Movement, the movement against the War in Vietnam, and the student movement which called for more student rights and decision-making power on college campuses - women were central actors. Within all these movements, however, women activists were denied the recognition and the responsibility that they deserved and that they had earned. Despite their commitment and contributions, they were all too often refused leadership positions, treated as second class citizens, told to make coffee, and put on display as sex objects. By the middle 1960s many of these women began to react to and organize around the strong contradiction within social movements which fought for self-determination and equality and yet which denied these same basic rights within their own ranks. First in the civil rights movement, with a statement written by Mary King and Casey Hayden, and soon afterward and more frequently in the anti-war movement, SDS, and other social movements, women radicals began to demand equity and respect as activists.

The reaction of many of their male and female comrades seems predictable in retrospect, but was shocking and demoralizing at the time. Women's claims were met with derision, ridicule, and the political argument that they were worrying about "personal" issues and in this way draining movement effectiveness in fighting the "political" injustices of racism and imperialism. How could women be so selfish, it was asked, to focus on their personal disgruntlement when black people were denied voting privileges in Mississippi, peasants were being napalmed in Vietnam, and students were treated as numbers in large faceless bureaucratic universities?

Movement women had no shortage of responses to these objections, but the one that became a mantra of the new women's movement emerging out of these struggles was the claim that personal lives - relationships with friends, lovers, political comrades - were not personal at all but characterized by power and fraught with political meaning. Women argued that assumptions that they were followers and men leaders, that women naturally were "better" with children and men "better" at organizing, that women should type and men should discuss issues - that all these assumptions were deeply political, denying women not only equality within progressive movements, but even more basically the freedom to choose for themselves what they could and should think and do. When most men and some of the women involved within the 60s movements refused to listen, many women left the movement to, as they put it at the time, "organize around our own oppression." They began a liberation movement dedicated to eliminating the ways in which women were constrained and harmed by sexist assumptions and behavior.

By and large the early women's movement, emerging from a political critique of what was defined as "personal" both in progressive movements and in the wider society, pressed for the removal of the social barriers and obstacles that had constrained women's choices. This was true with respect to a wide range of issues including reproductive choice, educational and occupational options, legal rights, as well as sexual orientation and personal relationships. The movement was intent on achieving social justice which it defined as providing women and men with similar opportunities to grow, develop, express, and exercise their potential as people. The political analysis underlying this vision of personal fulfillment asserted that elimination of the sexism which pervaded political and social institutional arrangements and attitudes was the best way of ensuring that every one, regardless of sex, would have the ability to exercise personal freedom.

Successes were many during those early years. The decades of the 60s and 70s were in fact characterized by enormous change in the range of behavior and choices open to women in our society. Consciousness was raised, and attitudes of both men and women underwent significant change concerning women's capabilities and rights, while the notion of equality between the sexes gained increased legitimacy. Change was especially rapid in the law during those years. Indeed, Jane Mansbridge notes that had the ERA been passed in l982, its effect would have been largely symbolic because almost all sex-differentiated (sexist) laws which such an amendment would have changed had already been altered by that time.

The social and political changes effected by the early women's movement thus were in the service of a sex-neutral model of society. In this, each individual would be afforded an equal opportunity to shape her or his own life regardless of sex. The notion of gender difference was deemphasized by a movement focused on equality, as women sought to gain the right to fully participate in all aspects of society. Differences between women and men, which had consistently been a central ideological and behavioral component of limiting women to a separate stereotyped "feminine" sphere, came under attack. The personal fact of one's sex became an arena of political struggle, as increasing numbers of feminists challenged the prevailing ideology that sex and gender were legitimate constraints on the right to self-determination. Political justice demanded that gender make no difference. Expectations were high that women would achieve the freedom they had been denied and that sexism would be defeated.

But in the 1980s much of this changed. The country as a whole became more conservative in all areas of political life, as the Right, with Ronald Reagan as its standard bearer, launched what Susan Faludi has referred to as a "Blacklash" against the progressive changes of the previous decades. As the gains of the women's movement began to slow, many feminists became discouraged with the continuation of sexist attitudes and behavior. The gap between incomes for women and men narrowed but remained stubbornly persistent, abortion rights came under renewed attack, and awareness of and concern about the extent of harassment and violence against women increased. This latter ironically reflected the Women's Movement's earlier success, for due to its efforts behavior previously regarded as legally unproblematic, such as sexual harassment at work or marital and date rape, was criminalized, and increased reporting of violence occurred. In addition, growing numbers of women found themselves doing what Arlie Hochschild has called the "Second Shift" - working at full time jobs during the day and a second job at home as they continued to assume most or all of the burden of home and child care in their families. Finally, even though the 1970s were the heyday of the Movement, increasing numbers of young girls at that time were being raised in poverty because their single mothers' former husbands or lovers contributed nothing to support them, were becoming painfully aware of the dangers of abuse, rape, and sexual harassment, and were discouraged by their mothers struggles with the double burden of work and family care. As these girls matured into young women in the 1980s, many were far from convinced that the women's movement had liberated anybody. All of these problems affecting women seemed to fly in the face of feminism's promises and expectations of equality, and some women, discouraged with the pace of change and the persistence of sexism, reacted by retreating from claims for equality and from demands for social change.

But as the 1980s progressed, it was not only feminists who were experiencing disillusionment and increasing pessimism. In an era when the conservative politics of Reaganism were dominant, the tragedy was that no compelling alternative progressive world-view was being constructed. A vision of a society of fairness and justice was not offered to counter the conservative hegemony, and the attainment of an egalitarian society seemed less and less possible.

Identity Politics

Out of this situation there emerged what has been called identity politics, a politics that stresses strong collective group identities as the basis of political analysis and action. As political engagement with the society as a whole was increasingly perceived to have produced insufficient progress or solutions, and in the absence of a compelling model of a society worth struggling for, many progressives retreated into a focus on their own "self" and into specific cultural and ideological identity groups which made rights, status, and privilege claims on the basis of a victimized identity. These groups included ethnic minorities such as African-Americans, Asian- Americans, Native Americans, religious groups, lesbian women and gay men, deaf and other disabled people. The desire to gain sympathy on the basis of a tarnished identity was sometimes taken to absurd lengths, as for example when privileged white men pronounced themselves victims based on their alleged oppression by women and especially by feminists. Indeed in the last decade there has been an explosion of groups vying with one another for social recognition of their oppression and respect for it. This has been especially exaggerated on college campuses where young people have divided into any number of separate identity groups.

Identity politics is centered on the idea that activism involves groups' turning inward and stressing separatism, strong collective identities, and political goals focused on psychological and personal self-esteem. Jeffrey Escofier, writing about the gay movement, defines identity politics in the following fashion:

"The politics of identity is a kind of cultural politics. It relies on the development of a culture that is able to create new and affirmative conceptions of the self, to articulate collective identities, and to forge a sense of group loyalty. Identity politics - very much like nationalism - requires the development of rigid definitions of the boundaries between those who have particular collective identities and those who do not."

Many progressive activists today have come to base their political analysis on collectively and often ideologically constructed identities which are seen as immutable and all-encompassing. These identities, for many, provide a retreat where they can feel "comfortable" and "safe" from the assaults and insults of the rest of the society. Today it is the case that many of those who profess a radical critique of society nonetheless do not feel able, as activists in the 60s and 70s did, to engage people outside their own self-defined group - either to press for improvement in their disadvantaged status or to join in coalition. Identity politics defines groups as so different from one another, with the gap dividing them so wide and unbridgeable, that interaction is purposeless. Not only is it assumed that working together will inevitably fail to bring progressive change that would benefit any particular group. In addition, identity groups discourage political contact because of their concern that the psychological injury and personal discomfort they believe such contact inevitably entails will harm individuals' self-esteem and erode their identity.

Identity politics thus is zero-sum: what helps one group is thought inevitably to harm another; what benefits them must hurt me. It is a politics of despair. In the name of advancing the interests of one's own group, it rejects attempts to educate, pressure, or change the society as a whole, thus accepting the status quo and revealing its essentially conservative nature. Identity politics advocates a retreat into the protection of the self based on the celebration of group identity. It is a politics of defeat and demoralization, of pessimism and selfishness. By seizing as much as possible for one's self and group, it exposes its complete disregard for the whole from which it has separated - for the rest of the society. Identity politics thus rejects the search for a just and comprehensive solution to social problems.

Feminism and Identity Politics

Like other progressive social movements, feminism has been deeply affected by the growth of identity politics. Within feminism, identity politics has taken two often-related forms which, together, I believe to be hegemonic today. One is generally referred to as difference or essentialist feminism, and the other as victim feminism. Difference feminism emphasizes the unique identity of women as a group, stressing and usually celebrating essential female characteristics which it believes make women different from - indeed even opposite to - men. Victim feminism also assumes that women have a unique identity, but the focus of that identity is women's victimization on the basis of sex, typically at the hands of men.

In defining difference feminism, Wendy Kaminer has stated that, by suggesting that women differ from men in a myriad of ways, it identifies "feminism with femininity." In what is perhaps the most influential version of this ideology, popularized in the work of Carol Gilligan, difference feminism emphasizes that women share "a different voice, different moral sensibilities - an ethic of care." According to Kaminer, this notion of female difference is attractive to feminists and non-feminists alike for a number of reasons. Difference feminism appeals to some feminists, she asserts, because it revalues previously devalued characteristics such as emotionality and social connectedness which women are thought to embody. In declaring female traits superior to those such as aggression and rationality which characterize men, difference feminism seems to reject sexism by turning it on its head. It thus provides a clear group identity for women which stresses the way they are special.

According to Kaminer, difference feminism is also attractive to feminists in another manner. She argues that it allows feminists to be angry at men and challenge their hegemony without worrying that they are giving up their femininity. Because they are socialized to fear the loss of femininity, the advocacy of radical change in gender roles is deeply threatening to many women, including feminists. Difference feminism's reassertion of the value of femininity helps to assuage these fears and thus seems to make feminism more acceptable. Finally, even some non-feminists are drawn to difference feminism because it legitimates a belief in immutable and natural sex differences, a central tenet of conservative claims for support of the status quo. As noted above, this conservative bias is a pivotal element of difference feminism.

What Naomi Wolf has called victim feminism also reinforces identity politics, for victim feminism also assumes women's diametrical difference from men as a central component of its view. According to victim feminism, however, what is unique about women's difference is that they are powerless to affect the victim status by which they are primarily defined. Wolf argues that victim feminism "turns suffering and persecution into a kind of glamour." The attractiveness of this model is partially due to the fact that feminists understand all too well the discouraging reality that women have been and continue to be victims of sexism, male violence, and discrimination. But victim feminism is attractive to others primarily because it absolves individuals of the political responsibility to act to change their own condition. Its emphasis on personal victimization includes a refusal to hold women in any way responsible for their problems. It thus implies that, as a group, women are helpless in the face of the overwhelming factors which force them to accept - however unhappily - the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Such a view of women resonates with many non-feminists as well because it pictures women as passive and in need of protection, a view consistent with traditionally sexist ideas of women and femininity. And finally, victim feminism is popular because it is consistent with the explosion of self-help programs and talk shows where individuals - disproportionately women - compete for public recognition of their claims to personally victimized status. These shows try - all too successfully - to convince their audiences and even perhaps their guests that exposing personal problems on television is itself a solution to them, in this way delegitimating the serious political changes which many such problems require for their elimination.

The hegemony of identity politics within feminism, in my view, has helped to stymie the growth of a large scale feminist movement which could effectively challenge sexism and create the possibility of justice and fairness in our society. On the one hand identity politics makes the coalitions needed to build a mass movement for social change extremely difficult. With its emphasis on internal group solidarity and personal self-esteem, identity politics divides potential allies from one another. Difference feminism makes the task for example of including men in the struggle against sexism almost impossible, and even trying to change men's behavior or attitudes is made to seem futile because of the assumption that the sexes share so little. Indeed some difference feminists assert that women and men are so different from one another that they can hardly communicate across sex at all. The phrase "Men don't get it" too often implies that they "can't" get it, because, it is argued by difference feminists, only women have the capacity to really understand what other women are talking about. This of course is nonsense without any empirical validity, but identity politics so strongly stresses sex differences that this has come to be the accepted wisdom.

But it is not just coalitions across sex that are assumed to be impossible, but coalitions among women as well. One of the problems with identity politics is that its assumptions can lead to an almost infinite number of smaller and smaller female identity groups. Identity politics puts a premium on valuing and exaggerating differences existing among women as well as those that are cross-sex. This makes large and potentially powerful feminist organizations difficult to sustain. One example of this effect was the problem of fractionalization within the National Women Studies Association (NWSA) some years ago, largely due to the many splits that occurred within its ranks. Identity groups organized within the organization pitting academic women against non-academic, Jewish women against non-Jews, women of color against white women, lesbians against straight women, lesbians of color against white lesbians, mothers against non-mothers and more. Each group focused on its own identity, its own victimization which it set up in competition with others' claims of victim status, and ins response to which it demanded recognition and concessions from the organization. The center - if it existed - simply could not hold and the organization, which had played a very important role in creating and supporting women's studies programs on campuses, was wracked by years of conflict from which it has only recently recovered.

Thus, by stressing the characteristics which divide us, the logic of identity politics is that ultimately each individual is her own group. If each individual is different from all others, then to protect herself adequately she needs to be selfish - to ally with no one and to count only on herself to protect her interests. It is obvious that this stance makes it completely impossible to bring together the large numbers of people necessary successfully to press for social change. Coalitions fail to develop or are not even attempted. In this way, identity politics within feminism, as elsewhere, is basically conservative, working against progressive change and supporting the status quo.

The divisions promoted by identity politics are especially pronounced today on college campuses. Not only between male and female students but also among students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, differences are perceived as unbridgeable barriers and victimized status is a badge of honor. It is especially ironic that this separation is occurring at precisely the moment in history when real differences among students are less pronounced than ever in the past. American society is in fact culturally very homogeneous, as almost all young Americans who attend college grow up watching the same television programs, shopping at the same malls, listening to the same music, and eating the same fast food for large portions of their lives. Beginning salaries for students who graduate from elite universities have increasingly become similar by race and sex. But the identity politics which is hegemonic on such elite college campuses emphasizes difference above all else, even when students have trouble actually articulating what, in concrete terms, those significant differences are.

The focus of attention within the context of identity politics becomes building solidarity and loyalty within one's own group. The outcome divides students from one another. Female students of different ethnic groups, for example, come to see themselves as having nothing in common with one another, and to compete over their relative degree of victimization. Feminist women of color, for example, on many campuses including Colgate's separate from white feminists, and take as a major task the goal of criticizing and creating guilt in white women students for their alleged racist attitudes. Similarly, within groups of women of color the same process occurs, with different ethnic groups dividing off and emphasizing the large differences among them. On other campuses, it is lesbian women who claim an especially oppressed status and, stressing their differences from straight women, critique the attitudes and behavior of heterosexual women towards them. Regardless of the merit of any particular critique, this model of identity politics effectively divides from one another those who could be allies in facing the many real problems - of poverty, violence, reproductive control, and work/ family conflicts - that women share when facing the world outside the university. Though in fact female college students share large numbers of issues around which they could build an inclusive movement to attack sexist behavior and attitudes, they turn inward, reinforcing their own feelings of victimization and loyalty, and typically turn outward only to attack one another.

In addition to dividing potential allies from one another, identity politics' dominance of feminism creates other obstacles to effective struggles for social change. Its focus on personal identity produces a kind of a-political narcissism. Its attempt is to redefine politics as the attempt to know and assert "who I am" as part of a specifically narrow group. The notion that politics should involve responsibility toward others as well as toward oneself and toward whatever one defines as one's "own group" has been lost. The assertion of one's selfhood, concern with one's own self-esteem, as well as group loyalty become ends, the primary goals of political expression. In addition to its inward-looking focus, the strong emphasis on group loyalty characteristic of identity politics creates exaggerated emotional dependence on the group and consequently enormous pressure towards conformity and away from dissenting or independent thought. Stephen Carter, in his Confessions of An Affirmative Action Baby, exposes the damage done to independent and creative individual thinking that such a situation produces, again especially on college campuses. This exaggerated loyalty, then, also serves as an obstacle to the creation of an inclusive and thoughtful feminist politics.

The Future of Feminism

So where do we go from here? It is no doubt clear from my presentation today that my own politics are in strong contrast to identity politics. For a successful progressive politics to emerge again in our society, I believe that we need to create a political atmosphere where the zero-sum model of group competition gives way to coalitions among progressive groups to work on specific social problems; where personal issues of identity and self-esteem do not stymie individuals and groups' abilities to act politically; and where a unifying vision of fairness and social justice replaces the pessimistic focus on difference.

For those of you who agree with me, we have a difficult but important task in front of us. Difficult especially now as we see in so many parts of the world from Kosovo to Rwanda the strength of identity politics in the form of nationalism - whether organized on religious, or cultural, or regional grounds - as a rallying cry for the most inhumane acts of violence among neighbors. Our task, then, does seem to run counter to a deep-seated tendency for human beings to react with fear and even hatred to differences, whether those differences are real, socially created, or imagined. For those of you who believe as I do, our task is to convince individuals and groups mired in the search for and affirmation of difference and victimization that it is in their interests to alter the sources of their victimization by joining with others to create a just society for all. This is not to say that individual or group conflicts will or can completely disappear. There are legitimate conflicts of interest in any society. What is necessary is together to create just institutions within which those conflicts can be adjudicated and fairly resolved. Indeed we must recognize that the only possible solution to the legitimate problems and conflicts groups face is such a broad movement for social justice.

For feminism, these issues presently constitute a crisis of definition, as well as a choice about how to proceed. In Fire With Fire, Naomi Wolf offers a number of different definitions of feminism. Two however seem particularly instructive in the present context. In one portion of the book she advocates a definition of feminism that focuses on difference, on "more for women," including anything as feminist that "makes women stronger in ways that each woman is entitled to define for herself" and allowing that a woman is a feminist if she "respects herself" and is "operating at her full speed." This identity and difference-oriented definition is one direction in which feminism may continue to go. Feminists in this view would include Phyllis Schlafly and Margaret Thatcher for surely they respect themselves and believe they have defined ways to make women stronger. This brand of feminism would focus on getting more for women regardless of the implication for others and would advocate the use of their newly attained power for good or evil, as they individually decide. For reasons outlined in this paper, I reject this view.

In the same book, however, Wolf proposes another definition of feminism. Here she emphasizes feminism's essence as a movement for a socially more just society. This then is the other possible direction that feminism today could take, reaching out to others who share a commitment to a just and egalitarian society and building the coalitions necessary to exercise the power to move in that direction. Concrete examples of such possibilities abound. Poor women, especially the young who cannot afford abortions, could join with middle class pro-choice advocates in pressing for the federal funding necessary if all women are to have real reproductive control. The crisis in day care - both its inadequate availability and quality - has the potential to unite working parents of all ethnicities and social classes. Issues such as rape, battering, and sexual harassment cut across class and race and age, pointing the way to broad-based coalitions of women and men who are outraged by these crimes. And the continued low-pay, dead end, and sex stereotyped jobs in which women find themselves could be addressed as part of the broader fight for better education and higher paying jobs in the American economy as a whole, as feminists join with unions and other advocates of higher incomes for working people.

These and other issues have the potential of combining the political influence of disparate groups which can agree on specific issues and are willing to work together to effect concrete change in the functioning of our laws and institutions. As we look to our future, we also need to be cognizant of our past. In the early 1960s when the Second Wave of feminism began, the women's movement was separate, but at the same time part of a larger number of groups - Civil Rights, anti-war, New Left, student groups - committed to and optimistic about constructing a more just society for all. These earliest feminists understood that women's personal problems had social origins and that they thus required political solutions, necessarily involving the entire society. If today we focus only on ourselves, our differences, and on our own victimization, we risk repeating the mistake made by feminism in the later l960s and early 1970s. At that time, some feminist activists began using small consciousness raising groups in a therapeutic fashion, as a way of focusing primarily on their own personal problems. Discouraged about the extent of sexism they had uncovered and demoralized by seeing themselves as its victims, they turned inward, preoccupied with the personally damaging effects of sexism. They abandoned consciousness raising groups as a way of linking themselves with others, as a way of connecting personal issues to political activism in the wider society. Isolated from larger struggles for social justice, most consciousness raising groups collapsed within a very short number of years.

Today's identity politics, both in the form of difference and victim feminism, poses a similar danger to a successful struggle to overcome sexism. The personal in these contexts is not political, primarily because it involves separation from political engagement with others in society. Rather it accepts the pessimistic - ultimately conservative - view that victimization is not amenable to change through political struggle. It accepts the notion that difference between women and men makes coalition impossible and sexism inevitable. In contrast, we need to affirm the early women's movements' insight that the personal - sexism in personal relationships, the tragedy of sexual violence or abuse, the division of housework within families, or the poverty that women disproportionately experience - can be an important factor in creating a politics of engagement. By so doing, we can join with others to construct a vision and politics that promises real democratic participation, self-determination, and egalitarian justice for all.

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