What if Sarah Palin (and all the other “it’s a personal issue” voices) understood that THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL? Or, what if we baked a new damn pie?

I was going to avoid writing about Palin, mainly because the topic has already been covered so well by so many others. However, thanks to prompting from a reader, I decided to add my two cents to the discussion.

In reading around the feminist/progressive blogosphere, I have noticed two distinct threads that intrigue me in relation to Palin. The first is that many bloggers have weighed in on the matter of her 17-year-old daughter’s unplanned pregnancy, arguing this is a ‘personal matter’ and Palin’s daughter should be left out of the discussion. For examples of this line of argument, see here and here. The second thread that intrigues me is the analysis of how Palin’s ‘personal life’ and practices (i.e. 5 kids, a love of moose hunting, etc) shouldn’t have any baring on the analysis of her as a leader and, that, further, the focus on these details is fueled by the inherent sexism of our society. For an example of this line of argument, see here.

I agree with both of these lines of argument to an extent. Regarding the first, I agree Palin’s daughter should not be dragged through the mud because of the misfortune of suddenly having her life thrust into the limelight due to her mother’s VP candidacy. However, I disagree that this ‘personal, family matter’ should be left out of the discussion. (I will elucidate why shortly).

Regarding the 2nd line of argument, I agree much of the coverage of Palin has been sexist in the extreme and that we, even if we don’t endorse Palin or agree with her political stance, should call out the sexist attacks/coverage of Palin (as we should with any woman). However, I disagree that her ‘personal life’ should not be part of the political discussion.

As I thought about these issues, a famous feminist slogan began ringing through my head: “The personal is political.” While there has been much debate over the origins and meaning of this slogan over the years, it is most widely attributed to originating from the title of 1969 essay penned by Carol Hanisch.

In common usage, it has come to mean that what we do in our personal lives has political ramifications and, conversely, that our personal lives our dictated by the politics of society. Here, ‘politics’ is not meant in the specific sense as in of/or relating to electoral politics and politicians, but, rather, as in the broad systems and ideologies of power that shape society.

Hanisch, in her 1969 essay, was responding specifically to the belittling of feminist consciousness raising as unimportant, as unrelated to broader systems of power, and as ‘just therapy.’ Hanisch was also criticizing what she saw as an ‘anti-woman’ stance of some segments of the movement at that time – or, to clarify, a stance that attacked other women rather than the system of male dominance/patriarchy.

Hanisch and other radical feminists liker her called for a ‘pro-woman’ stance that avoided blaming other women or constructing them as dupes, and called for blaming the system instead. In relation to the now famous slogan “the personal is political,” this meant that the personal issues facing women were linked to the wider societal systems and institutions – that, what you do in your own house, your own daily life, is linked to (and defined by) the politics of the society in which you live. Or, as Hanisch put it in her essay, “personal problems are political problems.” Or, as Elanas at blogher defines it much more recently, “there is an entire political structure that takes shape in my everyday life. My personal life is a function of the political order.”

This slogan is very pertinent to Palin’s candidacy. She has been the victim of an extreme “anti-woman stance,” both from the mainstream media and from alternative media/the blogosphere. She has been personally attacked and vilified from the minute her candidacy was announced, as Kim Gandy elucidates here. Hanisch was critiquing just this type of stance, suggesting that we should not attack the individual woman, but the system that creates (and rewards) women for their appearance, their normative beliefs, their buying into patriarchy/sexism etc.

The “personal is political” slogan and the sentiment behind it also informs Gloria Steinem’s recent piece “Wrong Woman, Wrong Message”. When Steinem writes that, “Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman. It’s about making life fairer for women everywhere. It’s not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It’s about baking a new pie,” she elucidates that the ‘pie’ of our current culture is unjust, and that everyone’s ‘personal’ piece of pie is part of the bigger pie. When this pie is racist, sexist, classist, etc, it’s no good to have a nice big privileged piece of it – rather, we need to make a new pie! We should not be celebrating Palin’s nomination as a victory for women (and certainly not for feminism), rather, we should see it as a solidification of the existing system that tries to make itself look equitable by giving CERTAIN women bigger pieces of the existing corporatist patriarchal white supremacist pie.

So, how does all this further link to the “new hotness” as one sexist troll called Sarah Palin in the commentary on Steinem’s piece? Well, firstly, the fact that Palin’s appearance has been EXCESSIVELY focused on links to the fact that our pie, our society, is filled to bursting with sexism and that women, no matter how powerful, are ripe for being sexually objectified. Even though I do not agree with Palin’s anti-choice, anti-woman, anti-justice stance, I still take issue with the fact that we live in a society that thinks it’s ok to value women mainly for how ‘hot’ they are. This links to “the personal is political” notion in that our sexist society affects the personal lives of women via the way it values them based on their appearance. In Palin’s case, perhaps this affected her personally by giving her the message that beauty contests are a-ok and competing to be “Miss Alaska” is say, more important than competing for equitable wages.

In regards to the most recent kerfuffle over her teen daughter’s unplanned pregnancy, this ‘personal’ issue is one that is no doubt affected by the ‘politics’ of a nation that pretends teenagers won’t have sex if we don’t teach them about it (as with abstinence education). Moreover, claiming that this is a ‘personal matter’ is utter hypocrisy. So it’s personal when Palin’s daughter gets pregnant, but when anyone else does, it should be a matter of the state??? Or, as Gary Younge puts it in his piece on Palin, “The woman who would like us to keep her daughter’s pregnancy a private matter is running for office so that she can make the pregnancies of other people’s daughters an affair of the state.”

As Younge also points out, “Palin decided to showcase her personal life, and particularly her motherhood, as a centerpiece of her candidacy.” Thus, as he advises her (and other politicians in general) “if family and children are off limits, then do us all a favor and keep them the hell off of the stage and away from the microphones.”

Or, as Tim Rutten similarly argues in the LA TIMES “the fact of Bristol Palin’s situation and the way in which she and her family have chosen to deal with it are legitimate issues, because they involve public policy issues on which Sarah Palin, candidate for vice president, has taken political positions.” These positions include opposing sex ed in schools and trying to eradicate choice for everyone not in her own family. So, if you are a Palin, you get to make reproductive choices. Not a daughter of Sarah? Sorry, no choice for you. (To get a laugh from the mind-blowing hypocrisy of this stance, see Samantha Bee’s brilliant piece here.)

The other thing we need to consider is that not only is the personal political, but the political is also personal. Political decisions, acts, laws, etc., affect our personal lives each and every day – they determine everything from how much we pay at the pump to whether we can get our birth control prescription filled at the local pharmacy. As such, the binary split we tend to uphold between public and private, between the political verses the personal, is false (as are all socially constructed and maintained dichotomies).

So, yes, I agree that much of the commentary on Palin (and Bristol) has been intrusive, however, I disagree that the fact Palin’s teen daughter is pregnant is a “personal issue” – especially given that Palin, as a current governor and possible VP is using her personal (evangelical fueled) religious beliefs to limit the choices and opportunities of the people in her state and potentially, if she becomes VP, of people all over the world.

I also agree that much of the commentary on Palin has been very sexist. And this gets me back to the pie issue. When our culture is akin to a pie baked with sexism, flavored with anti-choice laws, laced with abstinence only education, and filled to the brim with the sexual objectification of women, should we really expect any different? Well, not unless we work together to bake a new damn pie! (And guess what?!? Palin doesn’t want to bake a new pie, she just wants a big ole piece of the existing one – with a side of moose.)


11 thoughts on “What if Sarah Palin (and all the other “it’s a personal issue” voices) understood that THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL? Or, what if we baked a new damn pie?”

  1. Ah, me, Prof you make a good argument. I’m all for going after Palin. Her kid though? What rights has she? It’s a sticky question.

    Let’s say we go after Bristol. How much “good” can it do? If enough perhaps the sacrifice of the daughter’s could be justified. Or maybe not.

    Oh, it’s a tough question for those who have ethics, isn’t it? We must all think about this one, and think carefully. Thanks for wading in, Prof. We need much intelligent debate on this.

  2. I wouldn’t say I am for “going after” Palin or her daughter — rather, I think the situation (re: Bristol’s pregnancy) is worth scrutinizing in relation to Palin’s anti-choice stance. In fact, Palin is SO anti-choice I somehow doubt Bristol was given a choice — if Bristol didn’t want to carry out the pregnancy, would that have been a choice her mother would allow? Or, was the only choice (and thus not really a choice at all) to carry out the pregnancy?

    I think if anything, Bristol is a victim here — both of her mother’s own beliefs AND of the wider societal endorsement of abstinence only education. Can we blame young girls and women for unplanned pregnancies when we refuse to teach them even basic sex ed?

    So, I don’t think we should go after Bristol at all — how can we blame someone for carrying out basic human desires — i.e. desiring and taking part in sexual activities? Rather, we should go after a system that says don’t have sex, don’t learn about sex, don’t teach about sex, BUT think about it all the time because corporations make a heck of a lot of money off the sexualization of everything (and especially women).

    With all the hypocritical messages our culture sends youth about sex, what are we to expect? So, Bristol is not too blame. Politicians, voters, anti-choicers, etc are.

    I still can’t believe here we are in the twenty-first century and our laws regarding sex and reproduction seem like they come from the dark ages. That’s my vent anyhow.

    Anyhow, thanks for reading, and for your thoughts on the issue

  3. Ok, I’m with you 100 percent so far. But what guidelines should be adhered to? What limits should we expect the press to observe?

  4. You expect the press to observe limits and rules? Ha! Maybe if we had a free press — but with our corporate owned mega press, I think all rules were thrown out the window starting with Reagan’s so called “de-regulation of the media” — which has resulted in 3 to 7 corporations (depending on mergers and acquisitions) controlling 90% of the media since. This being the case, we can’t really expect much from the mainstream media…

    However, in terms of the teensy weensy bit of independent media out there (and SOME bloggers fall in this camp), I think the guidelines in terms of the Bristol Palin story should be to discuss/scrutinize only those issues that affect or reflect public policy (and especially those policies – such as anti-choice – that the McSame/Pain ticket endorses). Yet, if the people involved put themselves in the public eye via interviews, etc, then they are putting themselves out there for much further scrutiny… Say, for ex, Bristol and the beau went on Oprah or something, well, then they are constructing themselves as public figures and should know that this may lead to their lives being put under the microscope.

    Your thoughts on guidelines?

  5. “I also agree that much of the commentary on Palin has been very sexist.”

    In so far as the MSM, ironically, I think they actually have been fair in scrutinizing her record and helplessly trying to avoid dragging Bristol into the conversation. As far as the liberal blogosphere goes, I think they have been quite unfair – and that especially includes me. I think I’ve called her Miss Congeniality once or twice before. Although, I would debate whether or not I’m a sexist.

    I think it’s that line she said at the convention about the difference between a pitbull and a hockey mom. Answer being lipstick. Now there, I think she set herself up for the sexism conversation. She wants to be treated like any ordinary politician, but yet she wants to walk both lines. I think you mentioned that in the context of the personal and the political, and whether or not you can have it one way or the other with regard to family and policy. I think.

    You know what? I think this is too complex for me and I’m going in all different directions now. I’d have to be careful about what I say because I’d hate to offend anyone here.

  6. MM,
    I think you make a very good point about the MSM. They have been far more ‘fair and balanced’ in their assessment of Palin and her daughter than they were/are of, say, H. Clinton or Michelle Obama. As many bloggers have pointed out, if the Obama’s had a 17 year old pregnant daughter, the coverage would be MUCH different.

    Yet, there is still a lot of sexist commentary on Palin — on her looks and surrounding the idea of her as a woman — ie, the comments that question her abilities because she is a woman. It is also sexist to only focus on the female in the case of unplanned pregnancies. If Bristol were a male that had impregnanted someone, it wouldn’t even be news…

    I don’t think calling her Miss C is necessarily sexist — it depends on the context and the intent. And, as you point out, she has set herself up for certain types of scrutiny via the way she presents herself.

    I also agree she wants to have it both ways — like most politicians! As in “I’m a public figure but those things that I want to be private, well they are private — unless that is those ‘private things’ might get me money or campaign contributions.”

    You know it’s not too complex for you — quit being modest!

  7. Dear Prof,

    I think you bring up a really important larger issue that I noticed after watching the 20/20 SP interview last Friday night. As Charlie Gibson treaded into the abortion and homosexuality waters, Palin kept trying to neutralize her responses, saying that her stances were merely ‘opinions.’

    As a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric and Composition who teaches, studies, researches and writes about writing and rhetoric, I became very frustrated by her insistence that her stance was ‘just an opinion.’ As a result, SP worked against taking responsibility for the effects those opinions might have on public policy/other people and/or the larger forces/experiences that formed and perpetuate those “opinions.” Saying that “it’s just an opinion” is an absolute cop-out — ie, I tell my writing students that they can have the “opinion” that reading, responding to, or writing a text is “boring,” but that if they have that “opinion,” they need to question and reflect on that “opinion” and be able to explain how that “opinion” is not ultimately “personal” but reflects larger forces at work. In other words, one doesn’t merely “have opinions” — rather, “opinions” have — or are a result of — consequences.

    From this perspective, it’s Palin’s “it’s personal, not political” stance that is most terrifying to me, because that is true American ideology at work, and of course it is one readily/easily available to the general public and so therefore can be convincing.


  8. Lisa,
    I didn’t see the interview you mention, but this claim of politicians that their “personal opinions’ won’t color their political actions is all too common and is, as you suggest, utter hogwash. Of course our “opinions” shape what we do — there is no such thing, as you indicate, of “just an opinion.”

    As you rightly point out, opinions lead to actions, which lead to consequences. The consequence of Palin’s anti-choice “opinion” will likely lead to many more unplanned pregnancies, STDs, etc. In MY OPINION, she is an anti-feminist, anti-woman nightmare!

  9. What a thought-provoking post!

    I, too, felt annoyed that Palin immediately paraded her family across the public stage yet then declared her family to be “off limits” when it was discovered that her daughter was pregnant.

    Yet I am also troubled by the excessive attention paid to this teenager’s pregnancy. It was completely predictable that any criticism of the pregnancy, and/or of Palin because of it, would get twisted into “the left hates families” rhetoric. And, not only that, but it would invoke sympathy for Palin because it’s a situation that many Americans can relate to.

    This all reminds me of the incident where John Kerry criticized the Bush Administration for being anti-gay in spite of Cheney’s daughter being a lesbian. The right completely twisted the rhetoric around with a “how dare you bring family into this!?” attitude even though Kerry’s point was, precisely, “how could you take your own daughter’s rights away?”

  10. Thanks, Fannie!

    Such a great comparison to the Kerry/Cheney’s daughter story! Our media sure is good at NOT being anywhere even in the realm of fair and balanced.

    Thanks for commenting.

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