Feminism has always been about advances in the home and in the larger world, and about tying the two together. Of course women having control over their bodies, such as access to birth control, would affect them accessing things like votes, housing and credit. While the phrase “the personal is political” cropped up during the second wave feminist movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, its essence has always been true.
Which is why it’s a shame to see issues affecting women’s bodies dismissed as unimportant. At Spiked, Ella Whelan argues against the notion that “TMI” has anything to do with feminism, writing, “The original aim of women’s liberation was to fight for a woman’s right to leave behind the dishcloths, baby bottles and kitchenware of the private sphere and be as much a part of the public world as any man. Encouraging women to leave the isolated realm of the private sphere, and thus leave behind their subservient roles as wives and mothers, was what it originally meant to fight for women’s rights.”
But that’s not true. Going back to the days of the suffragettes, women weren’t just looking to ditch the private sphere, but to transform it, discussing issues that are still relevant today. Take Lucy Stone, who’s credited with being the first woman to keep her maiden name upon marriage, something we are still debating about today. Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President of the United States, was also an advocate of “free love” and wrote, “Let women issue a declaration of independence sexually, and absolutely refuse to cohabit with men until they are acknowledged as equals in everything, and the victory would be won in a single week.” Amelia Bloomer advocated for dress reform so women could wear pants under their dresses and get around more easily—and introduced Susan B. Anthony to Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
The idea that what women do inside the home and outside don’t impact each other is ludicrous. Yet when women talk explicitly about sex, bodies, menstruation, childbirth, breast milk, etc., there’s an immediate uproar that these topics are “too personal” to be discussing in public. While I agree with Whelan on one point, that “There is nothing wrong with keeping our periods, body hair and breast milk to ourselves,” I sharply disagree with her that by extension, “private life should be kept private. Not because we shroud the female body in secrecy, but because no one else should care about your body except you.” What she misses is that the insistence on privacy does create secrecy, along with shame, lack of understanding and inequality. That’s at the heart of everything from 1960’s feminist consciousness raising groups to 1980’s Take Back the Night marches, which in turn led to the more recent rise of anti-rape activism on campuses, such as Emma Sulkowicz’s mattress project. What starts with talking about things we’re told should be “kept private” can lead to asking important questions about how our society is run, and demanding changes.
As Dunham told NPR last year, TMI is already coded, and used as a way to shame women in particular:
The term "oversharing" is so complicated because I do think that it's really gendered. I think when men share their experiences, it's bravery and when women share their experiences, it's some sort of — people are like, "TMI." Too much information has always been my least favorite phrase because what exactly constitutes too much information? It seems like it has a lot to do with who is giving you the information, and I feel as though there's some sense that society trivializes female experiences.
But I’m not writing this to further obsess over Dunham herself. Rather, the debate over whether “TMI” and all that it entails is the core of modern feminist issues. As for those bodily fluids, of course we need to talk about them. Breast milk and breastfeeding? IBM is launching a service so women traveling on business can ship breast milk home to their babies. If women hadn’t conducted nurse-ins and been vocal about why breastfeeding shouldn’t be seen as shameful, we wouldn’t be carving out policies that change policies of stores like Target. Periods? Rather than women and girls feeling ashamed about them, instead they are starting podcasts and magazines to discuss the ups and downs of monthly bleeding and urging Instagram to recognize menstruation as part of everyday life, in response to a deleted photo featuring a period stain by Rupi Kaur (which was later restored). Female ejaculation? We’re fighting back against studies that tell us it doesn’t exist.
Amazingly, it’s possible for women to both not want to be limited by our bodily fluids and the way our bodies function, and not to be told we should hide from these topics, or only discuss them in private whispers behind closed doors. Whelan claims that “there’s no such thing as too much information,” a phrase Dunham used to describe her upcoming newsletter Lenny is the “logical continuation” of “the personal is political”—and she’s right. It most certainly is, and social media has given women a widening array of tools to discuss these formerly “personal” matters and the implications they have in the wider world. But it’s not the case that “Rather than insisting women leave the private sphere behind, feminists like Dunham now insist that every private detail of women’s lives and bodies be celebrated in public.” No one is suggesting women who don’t want to talk about their private lives “has” to do so.
What Whelan misses is that women aren’t just making topics like nipples and tampons public for no reason. She writes “Recent feminist campaigns such as #FreeTheNipple and #JustATampon seek to make the private lives of women a public affair.” This ignores the fact that women aren’t creating art and campaigns around these subjects randomly, but in response to what they see as the injustice that, in the case of the former, women’s nipples are censored and deemed obscene online while men’s aren’t. In the case of the #JustATampon campaign launched by Plan UK and V Point, the selfie campaign was about raising awareness about facts such as this: “Only 12% of girls and women have access to sanitary products around the world. And in Africa, one in ten girls miss school when they have their period."
But the very TMI Whelan decries, personal disclosures about intimate topics, is part and parcel of changing societal attitudes, of letting others who may face the same quandary know they’re not alone. It’s why a piece like Sarah Khan’s Ravishly essay “12 Reasons Why I Keep A Box Of Tampons On My Desk At Work” is indeed a feminist act, not, as Whelan seems to suggest, because she’s urging all women to follow her lead, but because she’s talking about something millions of women use yet still isn’t discussed that often, especially in the workplace. Whelan attributes an aggressiveness to women sharing details about our lives that just isn’t there. She suggests that once we allow TMI to become part of our culture (which it already has), we somehow give up our right to also demand legal and political power. But the sentiment behind Dunham’s TMI statement is that women (and those who support them) don’t want to have to choose between sweeping our “private” lives under the rug in order to gain equality. We shouldn’t have to given up our claims to “the personal” in order to be taken seriously as political beings. That’s what “TMI feminism” is about, and it’s certainly not going away any time soon.