Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton, and the Legacy of “The Personal Is Political”

Rachel Pierce



Sarah Palin claims that she is a feminist. Meanwhile, feminists active in the 1970s support Hillary Clinton and rail against Palin’s “appropriation” of feminism. Who is right? And what does feminism have to do with one’s political stance anyway? The answer to this question is up for debate, but journalists and scholars rarely root their analysis in the history and messages of feminism advanced during the women’s liberation movement. “The personal is political” is perhaps the most famous mantra of the movement, but various interpretations of this sentence have fueled widespread confusion over what qualities, beliefs, and goals constitute feminism. And whether they claim the mantle of feminism or not, current women’s politicians are just as confused about the meaning of feminism and how it relates to their role in a political world that continues to be masculine.

For the most of United States history, politics was defined strictly as partisan electoral and legislative battling. Individuals who carved out careers for themselves as politicians were first and foremost policymakers, whether they worked for parties or in government. These individuals were almost entirely men. The assumption that policymaking was male is built into our legislative buildings. In the 1970s, Congresswomen had to lobby to put doors on the men’s bathroom, all the while still using a converted closet located several walking minutes away from the House and Senate floors. The manufacture of policy was defined as masculine, so spaces of legislative production were designed solely with men in mind.

Culturally and numerically in charge of politics, men established their ability to govern on their uniquely male qualities, safe in the assumption that these differences occurred naturally and thus did not represent unfair domination of the fairer sex. And prior to the women’s movement, women largely agreed. Men were more likely to be competitive, level-headed, and quick-thinking, as well as possessing leadership and management skills. The language and symbols of legislative and political life were overtly male, emphasizing war, battles, running races, “making deals,” and ultimately “bringing home prizes.” Furthermore, this masculine culture promoted a combination of drinking, socializing, politicking, and womanizing. Government was frequently characterized as a place “where a ‘males only’ sign hangs on the clubhouse door.” Women were not welcome in legislative halls because it was (mostly correctly) assumed that they would be uncomfortable with spaces so culturally distant from the feminine worlds they “naturally” inhabited.

The women’s liberation movement challenged the institutional and cultural masculinity of politics with the declaration that “the personal is political.” Many women working within civil rights, the student movement, the antiwar movement, and grassroots social work organizations slowly realized that their political work could not be disconnected from the sexual hierarchies that governed their private lives. Consciousness-raising sessions were, in fact, political acts. And the subjects they talked about – sex, child care, media stereotyping, housework – were as political as civil rights or the Vietnam War. As radical feminist Charlotte Bunch asserted, “there is no private domain of a person’s life that is not political, and there is no political issue that is not ultimately personal. The old barriers have fallen.”

Yet feminists who sought to challenge the embedded masculinity of American politics also argued that political institutions would impose gendered norms on women, even if women were engaged in oppositional behavior. Attempts to appeal to male institutions pushed women’s organizations towards traditionally feminine roles and rhetoric. A number of women had experienced this overtly feminized political approach in earlier protest and organization activities. Women’s liberation thus sought to overthrow the need to appear weak and in need of protection in order to attain their goals. These readings of history, liberation ideology, and socialism posited – as radical feminist Shulamith Firestone argued – a strict choice between “single issue organizing as opposed to organizing to raise the general consciousness.”

The move often disengaged organized grassroots feminism from the halls of legislative power. At the same time, some women began to vocally reject the basic tenets of feminism, as well as the movement’s apparent takeover of both parties. Led by Phyllis Schlafly, more conservative, anticommunist women had been attempting to gain control of the GOP’s women’s auxiliaries for decades. Here was a set of issues these women could use to permanently bolster their position within the party. With the emergence of antifeminism, “the personal is political” forged a new politics of the nation, as feminists and antifeminists unhesitatingly conflated traditional men’s and women’s political concerns and areas of expertise. Feminism came to represent the extension of Big Government at the expense of the traditional authority of the church, the neighborhood, and the family.

Thus, the emergence of a “moral majority” facilitated the mainstreaming of “women’s issues” as issues affecting all families and, consequently, all Americans. However, women themselves largely remained outside of formal political structures. And the radical legacy of “the personal is political” was left behind, in favor of a reconstructed “first wave” rights-based politics that characterized women’s reliance on men as “privilege.” As conservatives redeployed an elision of the differences between the personal and the political, they added an evangelical emphasis on familial structure as the basis of morality allowed conservatives – both men and women – to portray themselves as fighting for women’s rights by protecting the nuclear family through public policy.

Sarah Palin’s approach to politics fits well with the Republican Party’s assiduous enforcement of a nuclear family division of labor within its own structure. Much like pre-movement women’s politics, conservative women have retained a focus on men and masculinity ruining government in order to bolster their (feminine) position in (masculine) institutional politics. Thus, Republican women have been the some of the more insistent promoters of manliness as a marker of effective politics. During the last election cycle, Christine O’Donnell told Chris Coons to put his “man-pants” on, Sharron Angle told Harry Reid to “man up,” and Sarah Palin told Fox News that our president lacks “cojones” on immigration policy, unlike Arizona’s Gov. Jan Brewer. If men did not clean up their act, women would do it for them, as government’s most devoted housekeepers and “hockey moms.”

Ultimately, Palin and the Far Right have simply been much more effective at publicly advancing themselves as daughters of feminism because their feminism is lifted from the 1880s.

This is an analysis taken from Phyllis Schlafly. In her book The Power of the Positive Woman, Schlafly asserted that “[t]he women’s liberation movement does not belong to the history of feminism, but to the history of radicalism” and “[o]ur respect for the family as the basic unit of society . . . is the single greatest achievement in the entire history of women’s rights.” Likewise, Christine O’Donnell argued that wives should “graciously submit” to their husbands while her website advertised her “commitment to the women’s movement.” Similarly, the Tea Party lauds itself as a women’s movement. But in ceaselessly referencing Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton – whose politics came before the advent of reliable birth control and women’s suffrage – the “new conservative feminism” harkens back to the very American past that “the personal is political” was supposed to invalidate.

This ahistorical approach works in part because Democrats have been loathe to acknowledge that women are even in their party as a method of distancing themselves from the legacy of “bra burner” 1970s feminism. Labeled the Mommy Party after the emergence of the voting gender gap in 1980, Democratic leaders have attempted to masculinize and thus legitimize their party instead of establishing themselves as the primary promoter of women’s rights. So we heard little of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, despite the fact that this was the first bill President Obama signed, even after the Tea Party began alleging that the Administration’s policies were hurting women. Democrats use women’s issues – most frequently, reproductive rights – as bartering chips when fighting for “more important” legislation. Faye Wattleton, former president of Planned Parenthood, decries this tendency to “triangulate on the issues of reproductive rights” as an approach that devalues women’s issues as inconsequential to American rights writ large.

By systematically sacrificing family and reproduction rights, Democrats have once again separated these issues out as “interest group” politics, rather than categorizing them as issues that affect the health and wellbeing of all Americans. The personal is surely political, but only because the GOP forces issues of reproduction and family values into almost every bill that appears at the local, state, and national level. The Democratic Party stance is defined by negative reaction to Republican issue valuation; Democrats criticize the forced centrality of women’s issues in national political debate.

The promise of “the personal is political” remains unfulfilled. The current political landscape allows archconservative Sarah Palin and moderate liberal Hillary Clinton to hold fundamentally opposed political beliefs and still both identify as feminists. Palin’s feminism requires that she cross a line between women’s and partisan politics through the politicization of her personal life. Clinton is more likely to embrace and promote the goals of contemporary feminism, but works within politics by emphasizing her distance from a feminist or womanhood-based identity as a method of advancing issues and promoting herself. Put simply, these women define themselves as feminist because their engagement in electoral politics necessitates an active defense against sexist rhetoric and behavior directed at any woman who enters the masculine world of politics.

Further suggested reading:

Jo Freeman, A Room at a Time: How Women Entered Party Politics (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000)

Carol Hanisch, “The Personal Is Political” (2006; reprint of 1969), available at

Rebecca Traister, “Democrats – Remember the Ladies!” The Nation (29 Sep 2010)

Jessica Valenti, “Who Stole Feminism?” The Nation (29 Sep 2010)

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