The Personal is Political: Reflections on my feminism at 25

The personal is political. Sound familiar? If you’ve ever taken a beginner’s Gender Studies course, or read anything about the second wave of feminism in the 1960’s and 70’s, it probably does. It was the collective cry of women who wanted their feminism to be taken seriously as a platform for acknowledgment of their lived experiences, but also one for political resistance and transformation.

I’ve abandoned most of what I learned about second wave feminism for the sheer irrelevancy of it to any of my life, but if I retained one thing, it was the the personal is political. As I reflect on what it means to be a 25 year old (as of today!) black (girl) woman and feminist, I can only think of that phrase to sum up my journey. During a time when I feel like everyone is inclined to fall on one side of the fence or the other (extremely political or completely individualistic), remembering the larger implications of my personal actions and beliefs is difficult; in the same way that seeing myself within larger political institutions has become.

If I had to share what feminism has taught me to someone, it would be that although there are thousands of ways to do it wrong, there is no right way to be a feminist. There are as many kinds of feminism as there are feminists and not one of them is limited by definition. Adversaries, and some supporters, say that the feminist movement’s lack of “unified goal” is our weakness. This is simply not true. We don’t lack a unified goal, we lack a defined goal. And that is not our weakness, it is our work. Self-definition is our priority. Autonomy and liberation are what all of us are looking for, across the human spectrum. And with it’s focus on intersectionality, social justice, and human rights I whole heartedly believe that feminism is the one movement that can truly liberate us all. You can quote me on that.

But it starts with a basic acceptance of the act that our personal is political: and in the same way that is true for us, it is also the reality for others. Only a handful of other people might understand why feminism, for me, means the freeing of black minds, the rights of twerkers, and the redefining of the term bad bitch. And that’s okay. But I can’t police other feminists who don’t share those goals or have knowledge about my experiences, because they’re mine.

As I prepare to explore 25 more years of feminism I hope that I can continue to humble myself to the experiences of others.

Feministing's resident "sexpert", Sesali is a published writer and professional shit talker. She is a queer Black girl, fat girl, and trainer. She was the former Training Director at the United States Student Association and later a member of the Youth Organizing team at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She received her bachelors in Women's and Gender Studies from Depaul University in 2012 and is currently pursuing a master's in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. A self identified "trap" feminist, and trained with a reproductive justice background, her interests include the intersections of feminism and: pop culture, youth culture, social media, hip hop, girlhood, sexuality, race, gender, and Beyonce. Sesali joined the team in 2010 as one of the winners of our So You Think You Can Blog contest.

is Feministing's resident sexpert and cynic.

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  • Sam L-L

    Happy birthday!

  • Anjana

    I cannot agree with you more! Each woman who calls herself a feminist and each man who does the same have completely different experiences for reasons that transcend race, class, sexual orientation, religion, and other labels, albeit many find those labels important for self-identification. We cannot police other feminists or force our views on them, but it is important that we bring all opinions to the table.

  • smash

    “Listen. Self-definition isn’t a feminist priority, it’s a personal priority. The well-being and fate of women, as a class, all over the world, is a feminist priority. Feminism is not a fun, personal tool. It is not a vibrator, it is a political movement. And any woman who can dismiss the entire second wave for its “sheer irrelevancy…to any of my life,” has skipped the required fucking reading.

    Is legal contraception and abortion irrelevant to any woman’s life? Domestic violence and sexual harassment laws; are these quaint artifacts from a bygone era? How about protection from workplace discrimination? None of the above has anything to do with the “autonomy and liberation” you’re so into? No hat tip to the foremothers? No “Hey thanks, second wave” before you shimmy away with jazz hands? Just arrogant, ignorant smuggery, with a reassurance that you “can’t police other feminists”? Because everything is everything and we all choose our choices?

    The last paragraph reads: “As I prepare to explore 25 more years of feminism I hope that I can continue to humble myself to the experiences of others.”

    Continue to? She hasn’t started. At this rate, the light leaving from “started” will not reach her for another hundred million years. No, no, no. FAIL. Sit down.”

    • Maya

      Is this a joke? Please tell me this condescending and disrespectful bullshit is not serious. I do not take kindly to people who apparently don’t even have the reading comprehension skills to grasp the point of a very thoughtful, personal post to come here and tell one of my fellow bloggers to “sit down.”

      • Kelly Kendrick

        Agreed. Why would a woman who claims to be a feminist take time to trash on another woman? She spoke her mind in a vulnerable, thoughtful way. This should be acknowledged and respected by her fellow feminists. Otherwise, we might as well go to some garbage site like topics and tear each other a new one for fun. More time encouraging strong women/less time shredding them.

        • Jacqueline Hentzen

          IMHO — because, sometimes, people are jerks. Even we feminists aren’t perfect — chances are, “smash” is just… kind of a jerk. Or had a jerk-moment. But, either way, I can’t say I’m surprised.

          Though I am at least glad that there were other feminists who weren’t jerks and on their A-game willing to call “smash” out.

    • Maya

      In addition to what I said here, I’d just like to note what a strange statement this is: “Self-definition isn’t a feminist priority, it’s a personal priority.” Especially in response to a post that was explicitly framed around the “personal is political” principle that directly came out of the second wave that phonaesthetica thinks Sesali didn’t pay enough respect to. Seriously? You all no longer think the personal and political are linked? Or that self-definition is a pretty key part of women’s liberation? Obviously feminism is a political movement. In fact, in the original post, Sesali said she thought it was “the one movement that can truly liberate us all.” And that movement could be a lot more powerful if more people felt that it spoke to their experiences and reality. Call me naive, but I sorta thought that rad fems at least gave the occasional nod towards intersectionality these days?

  • Chrissey

    @Smash and phonaesthetica: Any woman (man, trans, bigender, human being) who thinks it’s appropriate to call out a black girl for pointing out the second wave of feminism as largely irrelevant to her frankly must have put her books down in 1987 and missed out on the third wave completely.

    Any feminist who feels it’s appropriate to use personal jabs at a person’s age, experience, or intelligence to prove a point is entirely sabotaging feminism’s potential to grow and move forward. Horizontal violence might be another fun term for you’d like study up on should you choose.

  • smash

    phonaesthetica did not ask me to post this here. I thought it was a great response, so I shared it.

    I should have prefaced with happy birthday to Sesali Bowen. 25 is a great year.

    • Maya

      Well, feel free to share my response back there. And please do let me know if rad fems ever decide to seriously consider the importance of intersectionality and join us here in the third (fourth?) wave.

      • RWWFY

        I’m 27 but even at 25, would not have been ignorant and offensive enough to declare the 2nd wave irrelevant.

        It’s funny because you won’t and can’t respond to the charges laid out in that very interesting blog linked in response to this sad excuse for a post. Please, please, “strong black girl”, continue to totally ignore/lie about knowing anything historically related to the 2nd wave and continue to believe that you got many of your current legal, social, and political rights bc of the 3rd and whatever the heck this “4th” wave is supposed to be. I will go back to organizing with my local NOW chapter where most of the heavy lifting and fundraising is done by 2nd wavers and where the clictivism and nonconstructive criticism are held down by the 25 yr olds.

        • Angel H.

          Please, please, “strong black girl”

          Okay, you see that? That shit right there? That’s the kind of shit she’s talking about.

          Why the fuck should we give a damn about anyone or anyting that doesn’t even respect our Black womanhood?

          • RWWFY

            Dear Angel,

            That phrasing was 100% intentional. She feels a need to draw attention to the things that make her diff from your typical irrelevant (in her world) 2nd wave feminist and yet knows nothing really about the history of that movement and its gains. How is strong, how is she a feminist, when she willfully ignores such a huge/important time in ALL of our history, esp here in the United States. Special treatment in light of her once again, willful ignorance, is patronizing. I guess that’s more important to you, though.

  • smash

    This post was meant for folks who were already radical feminists, and I stepped out of line posting it on feministing. If I had thought it through, I would have recognized that phonaesthetica would have phrased her objections differently if she knew I was going to share her piece for a wider audience.

    That being said, all of her points still stand.

    Dismissing feminists who have come before us on such a widely-read blog as feministing is incredibly disrespectful and short-sighted. It’s not only about “respecting one’s elders”—it’s an amnesic approach that will lead feminism to repeat the mistakes of the past, and greatly truncate young feminist knowledge of what feminism means and where it is going. Ms. Sesali Bowen’s description of the second wave’s “sheer irrelevancy to my life” shows a contempt for her foresisters and the gains they fought for. That contempt deserves to be critiqued. Certainly there are problems with each “wave”, but their contributions should not be brushed over and disregarded on a feminist blog in the way they were in this post.

    Additionally, Phonaesthetica was correct to point out that self-definition is not the point of feminism. Self-definition does not address power structures– it is personalized feel-good therapy. It is important to point this out. Feminism is about the liberation of women. If we aren’t fighting for that, we aren’t challenging anything. What’s worse, the version of feminism that Ms. Sesali Bowen espouses makes it seem as though feminism is challenging to patriarchy, which makes it *even harder* for us to get on with the job of fighting systems of power.

    There are not just “many ways of doing feminism”. There is work towards freeing women, and then there are other movements with other goals. I think this is what phona meant when she paraphrased the article as saying, “Because everything is everything and we all choose our choices”. If we don’t define feminism as a particular movement with women’s liberation as the goal, then anything and everything can be considered feminism, and we no longer accomplish anything– apart from feeling good about every choice we make, I suppose (which is, again, not feminism).

  • smash

    to edit above, 4th paragraph, “makes it seem as though _her version_ of feminism”

  • Zaneta

    This is all very interesting to read, both OP and commentary, however I just had to point out two of the comments over on the response blog:

    — smash


    Firstly, google is not always your friend. Twerking is a type of dance.

    Secondly, I feel like this type of rhetoric is proof positive what the OP was getting at. Feminists (all along the spectrum of what feminism means to different folks) speak a different language, have different definitions, find certain issues more relevant for themselves and communities than others. Why? Because of their lived experiences.

    There ARE “many ways to do feminism” because women do not all have the same experiences. There are women of color, women with disabilities, immigrant women, trans women, and a whole lot of other folks with interlocking identities which they should not have to erase or compartmentalize just because some folks can’t see them as whole beings.

    Thirdly, you can not pretend to understand how to liberate women if you have a very white, upper-class, cis, able-bodied definition of womanhood. There are a lot of other women out there…and yes…some of them twerk.

  • Laurie

    I am new to feministing and I found the response to the OP disheartening. Part of my call to feminism was watching the harmful marginalization of women by other women. The response posted on the other blog was condescending and the responders misdefinition of terms the OP used, as demostrated in the response’s comments (ie twerking), only further highlights the need for more intelligent post’s by intelligent women like Sesali. Every fem-gen is framed by the injustices of their time… let’s respect each others evolution and struggle here. Feminism “can liberate us all” but there are still some women out there who would deny freedom to others who “aren’t doing it right/their way”.

  • Matt Markonis

    It’s not really surprising but kind of bizarre to see a critic shamed in this way by accusing them of some kind of backbiting pseudo-violence among other things. Firstly because shaming and peer pressure aren’t enlightened or pragmatic tactics; they don’t elevate discussion or help people who really are violent, etc., which just goes to show you how serious are the claims about violence. Second, free speech doesn’t equate to violence just because you don’t like what you’re hearing, that’s just absurd; and people are entitled to be disrespectful (any good counselor will tell you that people aren’t entitled to respect, it’s earned). Third, she’s got some good points about the self-absorption of first world feminism. I’ve also had it pointed out to me recently that ad hominem isn’t always a logically invalid form of argumentation (by definition age, experience and education bear on the argument). It sounds like this discourse would benefit from the tradition of combative debates such as that written about by Father Ong, author of “Orality and Literacy,” since it sounds like what’s being questioned is actually the right to be critical and have ideas questioned at times or on some level.