The personal is political, the political is personal. This is something that has been central to feminist politics since the start of the women’s liberation movement. Conciousness-raising groups helped the women involved to see that much of the trauma, pain and frustration they felt in their lives was caused by the oppressive patriarchal system under which they lived. Many feminist collectives continue this tradition today, working with this idea at the core of their activism, but many other left groupings seem uncomfortable about approaching activism in this way. Perhaps they are worried about this approach being liberalising, or a gateway to ‘identity politics’, but there is a strong political case for starting from experience and creating a culture of care within our movements.
Cis and trans women in the feminist movement understand the relevance of the personal to the political because our experiences make it impossible not to. We experience oppression in our homes, in our workplaces and our bodies. Where patriarchal oppression intersects with race, class, sexuality, disability etc, the embodied nature of oppression becomes particularly apparent. It is for this reason that many women come to the feminist movement through trauma, or having experienced trauma in the past. The process of putting our personal experiences into a political framework through feminist activism can be personally transformative as it necessitates the shifting of blame, from the self and onto the system. As Sara Ahmed writes in her essay, Feminist Consciousness:
You begin to recognise how violence is directed: that being recognized as a girl means being subjected to this pressure, this relentless assault on the senses; a body that comes to fear the touch of a world. Maybe you learn from that, from what that repetition does; you realize retrospectively how you came to take up less space. You might express feminist rage at how women are made responsible for the violence that is directed against them. Feminism helps you to make sense that something is wrong; to recognise a wrong is to realise that you are not in the wrong.
In this way, what we once understood as personal problems for which we are individually responsible, become collective problems with a collective solution. This is what builds solidarity and, ultimately, an effective movement.
Importantly, it isn’t the case that women are just inherently more caring people, more inclined to take an interest in the personal struggles of their comrades. In this context, caring is a radical political position. Feminist collectives who foster a sense of care and a respect for personal experience benefit from good retention of membership (formal or informal). They create strong, resilient networks which take into account lives complicated by pressures inside and outside the home. When we ask our sister, “Is everything ok at home? We haven’t seen you at a meeting for a while”, we give her the chance to tell us that the childcare service she relies on has been cut, that she would like to oppose this with the support of the collective and our community. The less practical implication of putting care at the centre of what we do is that we are prefiguring the society we want to create. Capitalism does its best to devalue care – economically, by paying nurses a pittance and relying on the wageless labour of social reproduction to boost profits and culturally, by encouraging violence and rewarding competition and individualism. By valuing and collectivising care, we reject this.
Of course it isn’t just the feminist movement which sees care and personal experience as integral to political activism. The two most high profile movements currently taking this approach are the housing struggles in the UK and Black Lives Matter in the USA — both struggles on the terrain of social reproduction. Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL) have been successfully collectivising issues which would previously have been dealt with as individualised casework (if dealt with at all), undertaking eviction resistance and advocacy work at their local housing office in Peckham. This work is supplemented by regular socials, as explained in their article about community organising for Novara.
We want to make and eat delicious, nutritious food together. As well as struggling for good housing, we know that low incomes mean we can struggle to afford and make good quality food, or have the energy left at the end of the day to make it. We want to politicise and challenge (food) poverty, but we also just want to hang out together. We also want to create a welcoming space for people interested in the group to meet us.
The Black Lives Matter hashtag was started by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi as a response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, his subsequent vilification by mainstream media and the veneration of his murderer as a ‘Stand Your Ground’ hero. The movement came to international attention when the murders of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York by police officers lead to widespread demonstrations, rallies and die-ins. Black Lives Matter has taken the violence meted out to these specific black men and placed it within an all-encompassing political framework – white supremacy is state violence. It has rejected the narrative of these murders as isolated incidents, unavoidable consequences of individual ‘crimminal activity’. This starting point has allowed them to make connections between white supremacy and poverty, the prison-industrial complex, disparities in education provision, immigration and the intersections of racism with homophobia and misogyny. The movement is also committed to a culture of radical care, which includes a rejection of individualising family structures in favour of a mutually supportive, collective way of ‘doing’ social reproduction. From their ‘Guiding Principles’ –
We are committed to disrupting the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, and especially “our” children to the degree that mothers, parents and children are comfortable.
We are committed to making our spaces family-friendly and enable parents to fully participate with their children. We are committed to dismantling the patriarchal practice that requires mothers to work “double shifts” that require them to mother in private even as they participate in justice work.
Perhaps we also need to start being more honest about why we dedicate so much time to activism and our activist collectives. We are exhausted by our waged work, our poverty, our poor mental health, our low-quality housing – why do we spend our evenings in draughty community centres planning and assigning each other minuted ‘action points’? Because that’s not all we’re doing. We have campaigns that we want to win and a revolution to instigate, but we also crave a space where a different world feels closer and possible. We need a place where we don’t feel at odds with everything, like we often do in our lives outside of activism (because many of us aren’t able to live a ‘full-time’ radical, antagonistic life). Our meetings can be that space. This is elucidated beautifully by Automnia’s piece, Ecstasy and Warmth, for the Occupied Times –
…the potential for warmth resides in many of the meetings we already have. What is needed is to stop fighting its existence. Instead we should embrace the inherent warmth of true collectivity; ask one another about our lives, offer aid where we can, push the contours of our struggles beyond the narrow borders of the “political”. We should not be afraid to linger after the agenda is finished, nor to take pleasure in the simple fact of being there, amongst comrogues, amongst friends.
Denying this desire to feel cared for within our collectives does not mean that caring doesn’t happen. This emotional labour is often invisible and gendered, as it is in our families and work places. Women take on the responsibility for caring for their comrades – considering childcare arrangements, noticing absences, mediating disputes and organising social events. If these activities and considerations go unacknowledged, women will continue to take on a disproportionate amount of this work. Recognising that we want and need these things from our comrades is the first step towards truly collectivising and politicising care.
It is for these reasons, amongst others, that we should reject the false binaries of personal/political, care/activism. If our meetings sometimes feel like a form of ‘group therapy’, let’s celebrate the fact that we’ve created a culture which makes vulnerability a possibility with radical political potential. Speaking out about our personal experiences of oppression allows us to identify key ‘battlegrounds’ and to bring ideas of care and struggle closer together. We care by offering a sofa and a hot meal to our evicted friend, but also by talking to their neighbours and organising a rent-strike. Let’s encourage our communities and comrades to share the problems that capitalist societies demand we internalise, and remember that the reason we’re supposed to keep quiet is because it keeps us divided and afraid instead of united and dangerous.