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

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.

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