Why the Personal Became Political for Women in 2014

Women have discovered the power of going public with deeply intimate stories.

Randi Weingarten says she was sexually assaulted more than 35 years ago, but 2014 was the year she decided to speak out. At first, Weingarten, just a college junior at the time, had stayed quiet, thinking the incident was partly her fault. Later, it would seem like a distraction. She had no desire to press charges, and the best thing to do, she reasoned, was simply to put it behind her. That calculus changed this month, when Rolling Stone issued a retraction of its story detailing an alleged gang rape on the University of Virginia's campus and activists began exclaiming how the story "could be read as a setback for an entire movement" and "the credibility of rape victims will be put into question for years to come."

Weingarten, who's since risen to become one of the more powerful figures in Democratic politics as president of the American Federation of Teachers, set out to challenge such narratives with her own personal one, posting a first-person account of her experience on Jezebel last Monday. "My fear was that we would once again have this curtain of silence where young women were too afraid to share their truths," Weingarten told National Journal of her decision to go public. "I kept thinking, is there something I can do personally to help? And that's when it became clear to me that I had something that I could say that was important."

The notion—particularly with regard to women's rights—that the personal is political isn't new. Yet when radical feminist Carol Hanisch first popularized the phrase in her essay "The Personal Is Political" in 1969, she couldn't have known just how central to the more mainstream movement that notion would become 45 years later.

When Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand recently described the sexual harassment she faced in the Senate, she likely didn't have Hanisch in mind. Neither, in all likelihood, did the wives of NFL players who spoke out about domestic abuse this fall. Nor did the authors of more than 2 million tweets under the #YesAllWomen hashtag, in which women shared personal stories of harassment from petty to heinous in the wake of Isla Vista shootings in May. Yet Hanisch's prescient point—that the gender dynamics we perceive to be operative within the narrow confines of our own experience are more universal than we imagine—is salient in every case.

"My fear was that we would once again have this curtain of silence where young women were too afraid to share their truths."

There's a long precedent of women sharing personal stories with the intent of political impact, from the late Betty Ford speaking out about her mastectomy to raise awareness about breast cancer in 1974, to Rep. Jackie Speier discussing her decision to have an abortion in a speech on the House floor in 2011. But this year, such actions have become almost commonplace. With an assist from social media, the effects have finally broken through.

This was the year that the rape allegations against Bill Cosby, allegations that dozens of women had been making for decades, finally gained traction. It was the year Nicki Minaj wrote about an abortion she had when she was 15 years old. The year Lady Gaga opened up about the horrific sexual encounter that took her years of therapy to heal from. And the year Toni Braxton revealed she still struggles with shame and remorse surrounding her decision to have an abortion many years ago.

Very often, the act of sharing these stories can help the affected women feel lighter, less alone, or at the very least, heard. When Ellen Page came out as gay at a Human Rights Campaign event earlier this year for example, she not only earned the admiration of LGBT youth nationwide, she made herself more comfortable in her own skin. "I'm here today because I am gay. And because ... maybe I can make a difference," she told her audience. "I am tired of hiding and I am tired of lying by omission."

It isn't just celebrities and powerful political insiders sharing their stories. A Columbia University student, frustrated by what she saw as her school's inadequate response to her alleged sexual assault, drew attention to the situation by lugging a mattress around on campus until the man in question was expelled. Her actions inspired a national day of protest, which culminated in students piling 28 mattresses on the steps of university President Lee Bollinger's house in a gesture of solidarity.

It's something that has permeated pop-culture entertainment as well. One of the year's hit romantic comedies, Obvious Child, revolved around the decision of one woman (Jenny Slate) to have an abortion. And when season two of House of Cards premiered on Netflix in February, it came with the revelation that the character Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) would go public with her story of sexual assault. For Underwood, being the calculated striver that she is, speaking out was less about public good than about Machiavellian power accumulation—after a televised interview in which she'd unwittingly revealed she'd had an abortion, she wanted to get out what she perceived to be a more sympathetic narrative—but the interplay between the personal and political was operative as ever.

"I am tired of hiding and I am tired of lying by omission."

Lena Dunham, who shot to fame in no small part for her emotional and corporeal honesty, waited almost a decade to speak publicly about her experience with college sexual assault. "Speaking out was never about exposing the man who assaulted me," she would later explain of the decision to go public. "Rather, it was about exposing my shame, letting it dry out in the sun." In many ways, Dunham has made the political connections to her work explicit, as when she teamed up with Planned Parenthood and EMILY's List on her book tour. Dunham has also continued work on her critically acclaimed, albeit controversial, TV show Girls, a fiction that for many feels uncomfortably real.

"For Lena Dunham to have her own TV show that talks in a frank way about sex and the lives of young women is incredibly important," Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards told National Journal. "I'm using Lena as an example, but I think she is iconic in this field. There are all kinds of women in the media who've gained the ability to drive both stories and narratives and be an influential voice."

Richards, the daughter of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and a political force in her own right, isn't just talking the talk. In October, she penned her own piece detailing her decision many years ago to have an abortion. "If sharing stories helps any other women personally who's questioning whether it's her right to make this decision for herself," Richards explained to National Journal, "I want to make sure I've done whatever I can as an individual to reassure her that she can make her own decision."

What's remarkable about Richards's story isn't just how she told it, but how it was amplifed. The personal narratives she and other women have come forward with this year weren't relegated to the pages of Feministing—they ran in The Washington Post, The New York Times and New York magazine. This wasn't the first year that women spoke out about their experiences with rape, abortion, and sexual assault but it was the year that society really listened.