The Political and the Personal, The Private and the Public

Photo by great_sea -

What I would like to see more of is the ‘private virtues’ (nurturance and love) taken out into the public sphere (of aggression and contest).

The Personal is the Political

One of the great insights of the feminists in my opinion was that “the personal is the political”. This discovery cut across the division of the world into public and private spheres where politics was allocated to the public sphere.

The public was generally equated with male and the private with female. This was extended to virtues and codes of behaviour as well. The private/female world was about nurture and co-operation; the public/male world was associated with warfare and contest. This was sometimes extended to an understanding that males and females were essentially suited to this world: that women were born co-operative and men were born more aggressive. The public was about the exercise of power, and the private was the place for vulnerability, nurturance and love.

These ideas are by no means relegated to the past. There is talk of female vs. male forms of leadership for instance, and one of the justifications for the inclusion of women in boardrooms and parliaments is that they are essentially different to men. Evolutionary psychology sometimes speaks in this way.

The feminists were extremely sceptical of these divisions. One way of talking about the division of roles between the sexes was to distinguish gender (social role) from sex (physical maleness or femaleness). They pointed out that the Western stereotypes often did not apply in other cultures — and that the stereotypes contained contradictions. For example, it was understood — and commended — for women to be aggressive in the defence of their children.

The division into public and private was challenged by the statement that ‘the personal is the political’. That is: power was very much a feature of the private sphere — which men didn’t notice because they were at the top of the pyramid of power, with women below and then children lowest of all. The feminists pointed out that (as a group) men had an interest in keeping women (as a group) confined to the private sphere — and that men (as a group) often exercised power there, and sometimes didn’t show a great deal of love either.

Privacy, Sex and Money

The discovery that the personal is the political has lead to some hostility to privacy. Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert, but I don’t necessarily want some parts of my life exposed indiscriminately. Whose business is it if I fall in love with men or women? Sexuality has often been thought of as belonging to the private sphere, and I don’t see much harm in this (so long as it isn’t a cover for violence).

One of the curious aspects of modern Western culture I think is that money is also regarded as private. This goes along with a kind of financial exhibitionism (conspicuous consumerism and boasting of financial conquests). This seems a bit strange to me, but I can’t see much harm in it either.

So, for me I don’t mind at all if some aspects of my life and relationships remain private.

Taking the Private Into the Public

What I would like to see more of is the ‘private virtues’ (nurturance and love) taken out into the public sphere (of aggression and contest). The behaviour of politicians in the Western nations’ parliaments is little short of bullying — OK, actually I don’t think it is short of it at all — and business is conducted in a fairly gladiatorial spirit at times (OK, lots of times).

I think we need to rediscover the virtues or co-operation and collaboration. As I see it, there are many signs that any kind of humane life on our little planet is going to require great co-operation in the years and decades ahead (not just for our grandchildren or children anymore, but for those of us who aren’t old yet).

Power and Love

One of the important points of the discovery that ‘the personal is the political’ was that power exists (and is used) in the private sphere — this is shown most awfully by the figures on domestic violence and incest. The notion of the private sphere — by definition not open to investigation or interference by others — can be used as a cover for this kind of abuse.

I hope I have said enough above to make clear that I think that there is a valid place for privacy. I have no desire for my private life to be on public display.

But then how to distinguish what is validly private? For me the answer is power and violence. The exercise of power and the use of violence should be public knowledge. There are good reasons for our parliaments, courts and prisons (along with other venues) to be open to the public gaze.

But this is a somewhat negative approach. It is a guarding against exploitation, which is vital but not exactly positive. I think we also need to open spaces for the ‘private virtues’ both in private and public.

Showing love can be difficult even to those we know well. There is little education on how to nurture our selves and our relationships. (I liked learning about Ancient Egypt, but perhaps some education on healthy relationships wouldn’t go astray in our schools.)

I would like to hear your ideas. Do you think our public and private lives could be more loving and caring? How might we bring this about? Do you think this is just sentimental tosh? All views are welcome; I look forward to hearing from you in the comments.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

11 Comments (2 Discussion Threads) on “The Political and the Personal”

The comments form is currently closed, but you can click to read the comments left previously on “The Political and the Personal”.

Overseen by an international advisory board of distinguished academic faculty and mental health professionals with decades of clinical and research experience in the US, UK and Europe, provides peer-reviewed mental health information you can trust. provides archived posts that have been retired from the main blog Psychology, Philosophy and Real Life.

Copyright © 2002-2023. All Rights Reserved.