The Personal is Political

Kate Brenner is a current OHMA student. In this post, she reflects on the political nature of oral history. Watch the full lecture on YouTube.

The personal is political. A mantra of second-wave feminism, that phrase still carries significance in contemporary feminist oral history projects. Ynestra King, director of the Women and Disability Documentary Project, highlighted this idea before her presentation on “Listening with the Whole Body In Mind Feminist Oral History Project.”

The lectures given are public, but my class has the opportunity to have a conversation beforehand, with extra reading material to discuss. This week King had assigned disability studies readings and an interview transcript. What struck me was how explicitly political the interview was, coupled with a reading quoting Paul Thompson, explaining that oral history is only able to cast a light on the voices that aren’t often heard, and that’s enough.

But is there the possibility for more? King’s project began by interviewing Barnard and Columbia alumnae with disabilities, but she also tried to expand the voices to include those who had not attended either school. She agreed that just getting the personal stories of these women put in a prestigious and often used archive like Columbia’s was a political act in of itself, that, “this is worth hearing, it's worth recording, it's worth putting in the Columbia Archive.”  The mantra that the personal is political posits that this act of sharing personal stories, and the extra step of making them available, is enough of a political statement itself.

King highlighted the driving political force behind the project by opening the lecture with the description of the project from the project’s proposal. “Women’s disability narratives are central to feminist theory and politics, including politics of the body, sexuality, reproduction and artistic representation. Yet, these narratives also should be integral to the formation of socially just public policies, yet there are relatively few recorded narratives of the lives of women with disabilities, and even fewer the lives of poor women who represent the overwhelming majority of women with disabilities.” The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, yet it still has not managed to address many of the needs of people with disabilities. This series of video interviews about embodied experiences of disability highlights many of the flaws of the ADA. In addition to that, they also interviewed a person on the President’s Commission on Civil Rights, not only about her disability, but also on what type of legislation could be passed that would be an improvement over the ADA. In a situation like this, oral history’s political power is not abstract, but has the potential to create tangible change.

Some people may think that this is too much to ask of oral history, but not members of Groundswell: Oral History for Social Change. This group was created by Sarah Loose while a student at OHMA. In her master’s thesis documenting the creation of Groundswell, she starts off with the idea that oral history has been used to document social change, but that, “less explored, however, is the powerful role that oral history can play in not only documenting radical social change, but actively contributing to it” (Loose 4). What began in 2011 with 15 oral historians who believed they could use oral history to activist purposes has grown into a national network with a bi-annual gathering and regular video meetings to share skills. Their mission is, “to provide mutual support, training, and resources in the practice of applied, community-based oral history in order to build the creativity and power of social justice movements.” 

For anyone having a hard time imagining what types of projects would explicitly use oral history in this manner, they have a whole “mixtape” highlighting different projects. For them, what makes it social justice work is, “when the praxis of oral history is purposely and strategically mobilized towards a specific aim of social transformation and in the context of a collective struggle (Loose 8)”. Each project interprets this in their own specific way, but keeping within the spirit of activist oral history. 

One highlighted project is the Welfare Rights Initiative Oral History Project. The Welfare Rights Initiative was started in 1995 to address the changes in welfare and the lack of voices by those affected by these changes included in the debate. The oral history project aims not only to make the archive easily accessible so that other organizations can learn about how a diverse organization like the WRI can run, but also to promote the voices of those who are or have been on welfare and make sure their voices are included in political considerations:

As a result, these narratives will help us to better understand what political and social conditions are needed in order for a grassroots community organization to succeed despite race, class, and gender tensions within its ranks. This digital oral history archive will be targeted at researchers, students, activists and historians as a digital tool to enhance research and teaching in social protest movements and feminist activism. Ultimately, this archive will give a platform to those who have had, for the most part, little voice in the public debate on welfare reform: former and/or current welfare recipients. It will provide students and scholars of social movements a positive working example of how women from various backgrounds can band together and enact social change.

Oral history, by bringing personal stories to the public, is political. For many projects, that is just as political as they want to be. However, people who hope to create a more definable change should realize that creating an oral history project, or incorporating oral history into a preexisting project can add great political power.