Certain pundits like to say that feminism has failed because women can never agree on anything, including the best way to dismantle the patriarchy -- or whether "the patriarchy" even exists. But as Deborah Siegel points out in her important new book, Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild, internal conflicts over the meaning, objectives, and culture of feminism have been the driving force behind the movement's evolution, and its underlying strength. The real problem, Siegel proposes, is not that feminists disagree over the politics and practice of feminism, but that different generations of activists lose track of the historical context of the feminist project and no longer see their work as part of a continuum of conflict, reassessment, and renewed progress.
Siegel's primary subject is the generation gap between second and third wave feminists, particularly as it plays out in changing interpretations of the popular slogan, "the personal is political." "These words more than any others link the far-flung battles of women fighting for equality," she writes, "including those we are in the midst of today." For activists born during the post-war Baby Boom, connecting the personal to the political meant understanding the countless ways women's private lives, personal freedoms, and opportunities were constrained by sexism, and the relationship between social forces and women's self-image and sense of possibility. But for women now in their twenties and thirties, Siegel notes, 'politics' means partisan politics or grass-roots organizing -- "not necessarily the underlying currents that shape their personal lives."
When second wave activists were busy processing their internalized degradation, taking part in protests or pushing for legislative reform, they had the support of a vitalized social movement at the height of its visibility and power. Today, Siegel reports, young women are more likely to feel alienated from (or abandoned by) the collective cause and the earlier generation of activists and scholars who helped define it. "Without a movement behind them," she writes, "the reasons women still can't have it all -- fulfilling career, committed relationships, kids -- seem, as in the days before Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique, merely 'personal.' Many of women's social problems once again have no public names." But instead of coming together to articulate our discontents, we're sidetracked by arguments "over the question of whether women are oppressed at all."
As a framework for her discussion, Siegel wisely chooses to focus on the activities, published works, and public speeches of authors and leaders who helped make feminism more accessible -- and in some cases, more acceptable -- to the masses. Regardless of age, the typical American woman is more likely to relate to the brand of feminism popularized by Ms. Magazine (and the sadly defunct teen culture magazine, Sassy) than the radical theorizing of influential East Coast groups such as the Redstockings. In her survey of the second wave, Siegel concentrates on media-savvy members of NYC Women's Liberation groups, including Kate Millet (author of Sexual Politics) and Robin Morgan (editor of the groundbreaking anthology Sisterhood is Powerful), Gloria Steinem, and Betty Friedan. Among third wave writers and spokeswomen, Siegel highlights the work of Rebecca Walker, Katie Roiphe, Naomi Wolf, and the editors of BITCH and BUST magazines.
Sisterhood, Interrupted is not a comprehensive history of the feminist movement, nor is that Siegel's intent. But by using how the personal became political as her starting point, she manages to capture most of the major currents and conflicts in feminism from 1960 to the present. For younger feminists and members of the "I'm-not-a-feminist-but…" contingent, Sisterhood, Interrupted offers a wonderfully readable and sympathetic introduction to what really happened during the wild ride of the early second wave (hint: no bra-burning took place), and an equally thoughtful assessment of why younger women rejected aspects of their mother's feminism and set out to forge a version of their own. Throughout, Siegel tactfully suggests that extracting the political from the personal and over-personalizing politics by conflating private acts of rebellion with strategic resistance are equally problematic. At a time when it's reasonable to anticipate the next president of the United States will be female, it's difficult to portray women as helpless victims of the patriarchy, or to contend we have the freedom and power to lead fully self-determined lives. It's the space between those two points, Siegel believes, that overlapping generations of feminists should pay attention to today, even if we don't see eye-to-eye on all the details: "Sisterhood is not the answer," she writes, "but neither is the unqualified embrace of difference -- the principle that seems to have replaced it."
Even if the idealization of sisterhood in a non-starter, Siegel concludes that feminism still matters -- perhaps now more than ever. Women's progress always has, and always will, depend on the complex interaction of personal empowerment through individual resistance to women's subordination and working collectively for social change. Under the circumstances, ideological conflict is normal, predictable, and necessary -- not a sign that the pursuit of women's equality was wrongheaded from the start.
Although Siegel doesn't delve deeply into this aspect of the continuity problem, the other disadvantage of forgetting or misremembering the real history of feminist activism is that we tend to underestimate how impervious powerful institutions are to change. Mothers and others who support legislative reform to improve conditions for working families and advance mothers' and caregivers' economic rights often wonder why it's taken so long for work-life issues to enter the feminist conversation. What's missing is a collective memory of strong, strategic, and successful opposition to earlier bids for universal child care and more generous parental and medical leave under the FMLA. Reproductive rights are not the only women's rights that have been whittled away over the last quarter-century, and it's vital that we reabsorb the history of resistance to women's progress as well as the history of our triumphs.
To that end, Siegel makes a convincing plea for reclaiming the word "feminism" as the best and most powerful label for our personal and political commitment to women's equality:
To drop feminism wholesale is to let those who have trashed the word win. Some think it's time for a new word, but why reinvent yet another wheel? The one we have can still do the trick. Whether we call it "feminist" or something else, without some word to call ourselves collectively and in public, it becomes increasingly difficult to invest with focused intention on women's collective future.
Sisterhood, Interrupted is authoritative, informative, and fast-moving, making it perfect summer reading for anyone ready for an original and optimistic perspective on the women's movement and how to bridge the ideological gap between younger and older feminists. This book is also required reading for anyone interested in getting feminism out of its current rut, and (re)organizing women for change.
mmo : june 2007