The personal is political | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

The personal is political

Amy H. Shapiro believes everyone leads political lives. 

By political, Shapiro said, she doesn’t mean the choices voters might make at their polling place or the ordinances they might lobby aldermen to enact. Rather, the emerita professor of philosophy and humanities from Alverno College in Milwaukee is talking about how personal choices and identities are embedded in a “highly stratified” world. 

“We’re constantly making choices about who we are, and there are times when we’re not even aware of those choices that they’ve made for us because of how people respond to us,” Shapiro said. “We’re always engaged in intercourse with other members of the polity, so our lives are never separate from that – which is why we have to attend to the personal, because it is political.” 

“Yes, the personal is political,” is the title of a talk Shapiro is scheduled to deliver Sept. 21 at Jewish Museum Milwaukee, 1360 N. Prospect Ave. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and The University of Chicago, Shapiro taught at Alverno College from 1986 until her retirement in 2019. 

There, Shapiro headed up the philosophy department and oversaw the Women’s and Gender Studies program since it began. She also is a Holocaust scholar and had run what today is known as the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center. 

At her September talk, Shapiro said she plans to discuss how philosophy approaches different concepts, including competition, for example. This can take shape in many ways, Shapiro said, including how people identify “success,” when luck may be a bigger factor. She raised the example of the Holocaust, saying survivors she has talked to credit luck and chance, not intelligence and ability, for their survival. 

Drawing on her background both as a philosopher and a scholar of the Holocaust, Shapiro said she intends to outline how competition and other concepts “help maintain the status quo in terms of how power’s played out.” 

One issue she plans to address is that the different “isms” people experience or perceive – such as sexism, racism or ableism – are not in competition with each other. She wants her audience to be willing to reflect on people’s varied experiences. 

She pointed to the example of antisemitism. Many Jews struggle with how to address antisemitic incidents without appearing as though they are competing with people who have experienced racism, Shapiro said. 

“They’re afraid to be heard, saying, ‘We’ve had this experience. I’ve had this experience,’” she said. 

Shapiro said she would leave time after her talk to allow for discussion. She hopes the people who attend will walk away thinking more about the context surrounding the issues she is raising. 

“I want people to be able to talk about their own experience, the idea that the personal is political, without it being in contradiction to someone else’s personal experience, but as an opportunity to explore further,” Shapiro said. 

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How to go: ‘Yes, the personal is political.’ 

What: Dr. Amy H. Shapiro will offer an analysis of the relationships between society’s various -isms, the political landscape, and personal identity. 
When: Sept. 21, 7-8:15 p.m. 
Where: Jewish Museum Milwaukee, 1360 N. Prospect Ave., Milwaukee 
Cost: $5 for museum members, $10 for non-members 

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