Why Can’t These Mothers and Daughters Be Like Sisters?

Sisterhood, Interrupted is a history lesson, both sympathetic and frustrated, that taps into the tenuous relationship between second- and third-wave feminists. The 38-year-old Ms. Siegel chronicles the struggles within the movement—Betty Friedan versus Gloria Steinem, Ms. versus Bitch, the N.O.W. Legal Defense Fund versus striptease aerobics—while citing the right’s gleeful eagerness to stir up the “catfights.” She pores over concepts and slogans lost and misinterpreted by modern feminists, centering on the contentious idea that “The personal is political.” A collective identity between young and old is not completely absent, Ms. Siegel insists, but is in drastic need of revision.

Although Ms. Siegel invokes “sisterhood” in her title, the book is divided into “Mothers” and “Daughters.” “Mothers” is a historical primer on the feminist movement, relaying feminism’s triumphs and setbacks during the 1970’s and 80’s. But “Daughters” is the more interesting chapter. It’s about my generation of women who recognize the fragility of feminism’s legacy, but who resent the burden of the oft-vilified stereotype of humorless, sexless old-school feminists. It’s about the women who are revamping feminism’s style for 2007, when you can be a feminist and still want to “be spanked before sex, get married, own a BMW, or listen to misogynist hip-hop music,” much to the chTheseagrin of many a second-waver. Despite Ms. Siegel’s focus on the disconnect between the generations, I’m reassured by my feminist peers who understand the importance of sex appeal, wit and entitlement.

The disconcerting part comes when Ms. Siegel, in a spot-on moment, calls us the “I’m-not-a-feminist-but” generation. As the daughter of a radical-feminist writer, I was so comfortable using “feminist” that I wasn’t even aware of the word’s stigma until my teens. But some of my girlfriends—who take anything from birth control to women’s sports teams as a given—don’t know the first thing about feminism’s history, and don’t seem to care. Ms. Siegel’s analysis of third-wave feminists is accurate: Their relationship to their mothers, real or metaphorical, is thorny. But what of the scores of American women who are afraid of the “F” word? The scariest reality is not the tension between feminists—at least they exist!—but the untapped resource of strong, independent women who are feminists but don’t know it.

Ms. Siegel insists that the word “feminism” is not dead yet. “To drop ‘feminist’ wholesale is to let those who have trashed the word win,” she warns. To Deborah Siegel (and to me), shunning second-wave history will only fragment women further. But only younger feminists can convince our generation that there’s work to do. So if we ever need to find another word for feminism … please, just let us do our thing.

 

Nona Willis-Aronowitz has written for The Village Voice and Salon.