Perplexities of the personal and the political : how women's liberation became women's human rights
In this dissertation, I analyze understandings and employment of the idea that ‘the personal is political’ and how it appears in feminist politico-theoretical thought and activism in the period from the late 1960s until the middle of 1990s. My focus is primarily on the uses of personal stories in activism at the intersections of politics and legal discourse. The period in question is characterized by an evolving global feminist movement that gradually turned towards the framework of human rights. I explore two events that took place on either side of the human rights turn. These events are two international People’s Tribunals and their respective theoretical and historical contexts. The two tribunals were outspoken feminist initiatives, one held in Brussels in 1976 and the other in Vienna in 1993. They were organized by different actors at different historical moments who nevertheless identified themselves as being participants in a common international or global women’s movement. Their common denominator was both the choice of the form of a people’s tribunal and their aim of transcending national borders. Yet, their frameworks and language differ significantly. The first tribunal, Crimes against Women, held in Brussels in 1976, was planned as a radical feminist grassroots event, an upfront and critical response in opposition to the United Nations Conference on Women held in Mexico in 1975. In Brussels, feminist consciousness raising was fused with the method of a people’s tribunal to contribute to the creation of a transnational feminist political subject. Testimonies included personal stories of oppression and sexual violence, and they were meant to educate and motivate the women themselves in their struggle. There were no judges involved in the ‘trial’ procedures because the organizers and participants claimed that women had had enough of being judged by a patriarchal society. The event was for women only and no media were allowed to attend. Inspired by the tribunal in Brussels, the Vienna Tribunal on Women’s Human Rights , however, was planned in relation to the UN’s Conference on Human Rights in 1993, with the conceptual framework “Women’s Rights are Human Rights.” Testimonies were now directed outwardly, and strategically-selected judges commented and promised to offer support for the campaign to include gender-based violence in the human rights framework. My analytical focus is on three interrelated and overarching threads. Firstly, I identify ideas about politics found in the tribunal texts and the theoretical contexts that I place them in. Secondly, I trace the genealogy of violence against women as an international political issue. This converges with the history of transnational feminist activism, the rise of the human rights discourse and the search for common denominators. Thirdly, I look at the affective dimensions of the personal story as a political mobilizer. I argue that they change significantly according to historical, institutional and theoretical (ideological) context. Although the strategy of using personal testimonies might at first sight seem to be the greatest similarity that links the two events, the ‘method’ underwent some significant changes. I argue that the focus in Brussels was on creating a ‘counter-public’, to cultivate the participant’s own political emotions, notably righteous anger and to forge transnational feminist consciousness and solidarity, whereas, in Vienna, the framework had a more strategic character, as the individual stories were aimed at personalizing the political and motivating the empathy or compassion of an audience.