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June 26, 2007

Can Mothers be Sisters?

When I look back on my relationship with my late-mother it had all the hallmarks of a typical mother-daughter relationship. The fighting, the arguing, and me bringing home the man she didn't like (whom I did marry and she grew to love). So why is it that intergenerational issues between women are framed with a mother-daughter dynamic? Within the feminist movement, this is exactly how issues get framed and well, like a mother-daughter argument, someone stomps off or they hit the local ice cream shop to talk it out.

Deborah Siegel's latest book (author of Only Child: Writers on the Singular Joys and Solitary Sorrows of Growing Up Solo, Harmony, Jan. 2007) Sisterhood Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild deals with just that issue and many more. It is far from a complete history of the feminist movement from 1970 to today, but it does cover a lot of the highlights. She does a great job at documenting the infighting that occurred in the 1970s between radical feminists and liberal-Betty Friedan- feminists as well as the current intergenerational conversations between second wave feminists and third wave feminists. Is wearing high heels and getting a Brazilian anti-feminist? If so, who made that decision? How can today's young women believe in the need for feminism when they are the majority on our nation's college campuses? I was lucky enough to pose a few questions to Deborah via email this weekend  about the book and why as mothers this book might be something we pick up. She is in town and details are after the jump:

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1) Considering that you're an only child, what does sisterhood mean to you? I have friends who are best friends with their sisters, others who rarely talk, and then others in the middle and can understand how they frame "sisterhood". I'm curious to see how someone without a sister frames
As an only child, I idealized the idea of a sister—always wanted one—but I also saw the reality to be far more complicated.  My best friend growing up was a twin, and my mother is a twin.  My best friend was (and is) very close with her twin, but my mother and hers didn’t become close until mid-adulthood, and they have an older sister from whom my mother is alienated.  I‘ve watched these sets of sisters suffer hurt feelings and envy in addition to enviable closeness and great love.  So my closest models of biological sisterhood were of this loving but tempestuous relationship.  Historically, for the women’s movement, the concept of sisterhood was powerful.  But the idealized vision many had quickly erupted into something much more difficult, but, I think, far more real.  Sisterhood (metaphorical or real) is not about twinship—looking into the mirror and expecting to see oneself—but sadly I think that’s sometimes what happens when you get swept up by an ideal.  The word “sisterhood” today elicits an eye roll from many women under 40 (confession: myself included!) and particularly among a younger generation of feminists who are more conscious than their foremothers about the intensely significant difference of race in particular, but I use it in my book’s title to evoke a profound sense of lost common ground.  Sisterhood to me doesn’t necessarily mean sameness, or agreement, but rather recognizing commonalities across our differences.  Generation is a new, salient difference, and I think it’s dangerous that because of the finger pointing going on right now (“younger women are throwbacks—they’re letting feminism down by dropping of careers, and flaunting their sexuality!” “older feminists are out of touch with our issues!”), women across generations have lost sight of what we do share in common—namely, lack of affordable childcare, access (still) to many of the nation’s top jobs, equal pay (77 cents on the male dollar!)…I could go on.

2) Why do you think that feminist leaders like Rebecca Walker and Katha Pollitt didn't want to frame the intergenerational conversation within the context of the mother-daughter relationship? I think they both probably felt that mother-daughter drama was a reductive narrative, a way to trivialize the movement at large, and a way to keep the popular focus on its battles in the domestic arena.  And to an extent, I agree.  Does the civil rights movement, for example, get reduced to a familial fight between fathers and sons?  No. But I think there’s something else going on in this resistance too, something deeper.  The mother-daughter relationship implies competition, and the assumption that daughters are going to one day surpass, or render irrelevant, mothers, can be threatening—both to Boomer-aged mothers (who aren’t ready to pass the torch—“Get your own damn torch; I’m still carrying mine” said Robin Morgan once in a public forum) and to feminism’s more dutiful Gen X and Y daughters, who want to distinguish themselves as different, but also want to please.  Reductive or not, I think it’s impossible not to talk about mother-daughter dynamics when you consider that, for the first time in history, we have at least two generations of feminists living side by side and that some of the early prominent spokeswomen for a  younger generation of feminist—like Rebecca Walker, who coined the term “third wave”—are literal daughters of second-wave feminist activists from the 1960s and 1970s.  In addition to being Alice Walker’s daughter, Rebecca was also Gloria Steinem’s goddaughter, too.  I write about these dynamics in the chapter of my book called “Rebels with a Cause.”

3) Now that third-wave feminists are becoming mothers, what lessons do you think we should keep in mind as we are raising the 4th or 5th wavers? You state that second-wave, third-wave, and even post-feminist feminists work from the same base, but draw different conclusions, how can a 3rd waver raise the next generation with flexible feminist moral & ethical values? Can values be flexible? One thing that’s important to keep young women and even girls aware of is the truth about women’s status in a culture that’s still only half-transformed.  It can be confusing to be a daughter (or granddaughter!) of feminism these days, when we see tremendous gains in certain arenas—women now equal and in some cases surpass the number of students in law and medical school, there are more female muppets, and Heather can have two mommies—but residual lags in others—women rarely make partner at law firms, only 2.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs are female, Britney and Paris are (or rather, were) popular role models, and Heather’s mommies can’t always get on each other’s health care policy. Basic rights that my generation grew up assuming were firmly in place—access to birth control, the legality of abortion, even Title IX—are constantly under attack.  Sexual trafficking is going strong. Worldwide, women are way, way poorer than men.  It’s far too early in our revolution for complacency, and parents have an obligation to instill in their daughters and sons the need to continue to make waves and take an ethical stand.  The value of valuing women’s bodies and minds nationally and globally cannot be flexible, no.

4) Do you believe that the mother's rights movement was lost in the sexual politics of both the 2nd and 3rd waves? In the popular consciousness, perhaps, but not on the ground.  You know, Betty Friedan’s third book, The Second Stage, was all about taking the battle for equity into the home.  I think the fact that we’re now seeing a surge of women’s activism around issues of childcare, paid leave, work/family fit, and other mothers’ rights issues—and that for a younger generation, these issues are slowly becoming father’s issues too—is a very positive sign.  What’s happening is that a generation that grew up with the “You Can Do Anything” ethos and singing “Mommies Are People” is now hitting glass ceilings and concrete floors and bouncing off of windows with fresh rage.  But at the same time, we live in a historical moment when problems with structural roots (aka lack of affordable childcare across the board) are interpreted as personal problems instead of political ones.  So the ones who aren’t collectively organizing are having personal meltdowns and blaming themselves.  We need to make the personal political again—for all.

5) Organizations like NOW and Moms Rising have been successful in bringing mother's rights to the national agenda. But how does one sell mom's rights as being a part of the overall reproductive justice discussion? I find that most feminists talk about reproductive rights only in terms of what happens before one becomes a mother, not after. Is this the next frontier for feminism? What a great question!  Personally, I’d like to see this become the next frontier. Because in many cases, professional women still encounter the expectation from partners that we’ll be the ones to cut back on careers and stay home with the kids when the time comes.  And for the majority of women who have no option but to continue to work, it’s a catch 22. I like the idea that reproductive rights are not just about sexual health and preventing unwanted pregnancy but also about what happens after women reproduce.  There’s so much inequity at play in that after part of the equation, only the inequity is culturally framed in the gossamer fantasy of sparkling nurseries and pink and blue, or the fantasy that women should somehow be able to do it all, and do it all at once, without truly equal partnership from men or legislation that would guarantee real and lasting support.

6) As a feminist and a third-waver, what worries you about one day being a mom? The lack of peace in our world, hypersexualization of girls, global warming, that we'll leave our kids with one huge mess to clean up? I worry about all of the above, and then some.  And as I stare, right now, into the crosshairs of potential motherhood, it’s often the local bread-and-butter issues that stop me dead in my tracks.  Like, how are my partner and I going to afford childcare, so that I can keep writing books?  How will we afford college?  Details, I know, but critical ones. In terms of the larger issues: Even though this goes against both my generational ethos (Gen X) and the city I’ve adopted (New York), I’m a terrible optimist at heart.  Maybe it’s my Midwestern upbringing, or maybe it’s that my parents are therapists and I grew up believing that people—and societies—are capable of growth, evolution, and change as well as devolution and self-destruction.  I’m putting energy into the 2008 election.  It’s a small step, but I do believe this country is ready for a new direction.  I hope I’m right, but I’m banking that we are far overdue for some positive change.  Things just can’t continue the way they are.  We’re losing our humanity, all of us, with the current state of affairs.

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While this book isn't ABOUT mothers, I believe that this book helped me see where young women, even in my generation (I'm 32 - An aging young feminist), are coming from and how they see feminism. I think it will help me when I try to discuss with Elizabeth historical and current issues and why being politically active is important to her life and the life of others around her. The intergenerational conversation IS a mother-daughter conversation. Us youngsters don't have all the experience, but we grew up in a different environment which gives us a different perspective on the world. We're not better or worse than those who paved the road. I personally like to view the feminist movement as a work in progress. The suffragists began sculpting a more equal society and chipped off some stone, the second wavers did more work, and the third wavers are coming in and shaping this society even more. Those behind me will refine my work even more.

Deborah is in town and has two public events. Thursday's event will be with Courtney Martin whose book on body image, I hear, is a MUST read. If you go, report back on how you thought it went!

June 26 - The Book Stall at Chestnut Court
7pm Reading /

Sisterhood, Interrupted
811 Elm Street
Winnetka, Il

June 27 - Women and Children First
7:30pm Reading /

Sisterhood, Interrupted - teaming up with Courtney Martin, author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body
5233 N. Clark Street
Chicago, Il

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