SISTERHOOD, INTERRUPTED: FROM RADICAL WOMEN TO GRRLS GONE WILD
By Deborah Siegel
Palgrave Macmillan, 170 pages, $14.95
Review By Linda Hirshman
I’m having a very bad time with Deborah Siegel’s very good book, Sisterhood, Interrupted, about how modern feminism has fared across the generational divide.
It’s a helluva yarn. A small number of lefty women pissed at the only position in the movement being prone plus one scribbling housewife from Peoria changed our lives, at least for the years from The Feminine Mystique in 1963 to the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1977.
Then the nation lurched right. Surprise: When the feminists’ daughters grew up and left Harvard, they saw the handwriting etched on the glass ceiling at places like The New York Times and figured they could only get in with tactics like attacking women who complained about rape. The right-wing scribble tanks took it from there. Who Stole Feminism? We’re all past, er, post feminism now. As Ms. Siegel reports, the original feminists were pretty mad.
She takes us to a conference on women and truth where another feminist daughter, Rebecca Walker, reported from a workshop on young feminists: “We are not post-feminist! We are the third wave!” Wild cheering. Who knew their magazine would be called Bust?
Along the way, the feminists fought with one another, and the survivors fought with the post-feminists and then dissed or ignored the third wave. Now, Ms. Siegel tells us, there’s an explosion of 21st-century books and Web sites from young women like Jessica Valenti, Courtney Martin and Ariel Levy. Reading Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism at age 63 felt exactly to me like reading The Feminine Mystique at 20, except Friedan didn’t say “fuck” so much. What’s not to like? But even these youngsters are not reporting great support from the seniors.
Problem is, it’s way too soon to understand what really happened. In part, feminism suffered from the long, steady retreat of the liberalism from which it sprang. If date-rape debunker Katie Roiphe wanted to get published, she had to betray her mother. In addition, obviously, these engaged humans actually disagreed about the political issues. Within and across the waves, Betty with Gloria on radicalism; Ariel Levy with Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards on the liberating power of raunch culture; Catharine MacKinnon with Naomi Wolf on the role of female victimization; Katha Pollitt with Katie Roiphe on what actually constitutes research.
Ms. Siegel also quotes psychologist Phyllis Chesler that mothers fear their daughters as Queen Clytemnestra correctly feared Electra’s murderous intentions. But it was actually the son who did the killing, and, anyway, didn’t Oedipus slay his dad? So why do women feel threatened by their daughters’ success, while men seem to just pass along the White House without turning a hair? Conversely, why do daughters act like cnidaria, alternating each generation from a polyp to a jellyfish? Stay-at-home 1950’s moms, feminist 60’s daughters; 60’s feminist moms, post-feminist 70’s daughters; post-feminist daughters become moms, today’s feminist revival.
Surely there must be some human flourishing that applies across generations. White, Western male culture teaches the sons to value status and power. Right or wrong, that message seems to outweigh the desire to kill the father. Maybe once feminism convinces women that they’re fully human, the process will be the same. What makes a good human life? Then let’s do it, even if mom figured it out first.
Linda Hirshman is the author of Get to Work … And Get a Life, Before It’s Too Late
Review By Nona Willis-Aronowitz
When I utter the word “sisterhood” (which is never), I roll my eyes first at the cheesy assumption that half the population, in some innate sense, has a deep sororal connection. “Sisterhood” is the language of the women’s movement of yesteryear—it’s so 30 years ago. Deborah Siegel knows all too well that twentysomethings like me bristle at the word—and at most of the iconography and the “isms” of second-wave feminists—even if we claim to be feminists ourselves.
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.