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Letter to My Mother

You were right about many things, but feminism doesn't have to be either sappy or serious.
 
 
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Editor's Note: Underneath the greeting card/flowery industry hype of Mothers' Day and the media buzz about the "mommy wars" is a real conversation between mothers and daughters about what it means to be a woman, a feminist, and a mother. Here, Courtney Martin and her mother, Jere, tell each other what drives them crazy and what they most admire about the other.

You use words like "patriarchy" and "crone." You have a dream group, two book clubs, a medical psychic. On your bathroom wall, you have a photograph of a middle-aged naked woman stretched out in the curve of a leaning tree. I love you, but sometimes your ideas of feminism seem sappy, sentimental, unproductive.

I am not one of those Sophie Kinsella fans who likes my heels high and my man Cro-Magnon. In fact, despite my teasing, you are the most powerful person I have ever known. You founded the longest running women's film festival If you like a book, 10,000 of your closest friends immediately buy it. You can sense that I am sad from thousands of miles away. You gave me feminism, and when I was old enough to comprehend the profundity of that gift -- 18 years old and watching all of my friends fall apart from eating and anxiety disorders -- I embraced it with a vengeance.

On Mother's Day, I first and foremost want to say thank you. It is clearly not said enough by the women of my generation, the inheritors of Title IX and day-care centers and gender studies programs. Thank you for getting us these things, and thank you for doing away with others -- girdles and sanitary belts immediately come to mind. Thank you for teaching us to speak truth to power. Here I speak, not just to my all-powerful mother, but all second-wavers.

Your version of feminism sometimes feels like what Bitch Magazine founder Lisa Jervis called "femmenism", an idea that "female leadership is inherently different from male, that having more women in positions of power, authority, or visibility will automatically lead to, or can be equated with, feminist social change."

We have witnessed Abu Ghraib and Condoleeza Rice and Paris Hilton. This to me is evidence enough that women aren't inherently better or more just. We don't believe in goddess worship or that getting just any old lady into office will make the world a better place.

What we do believe in is education and choice. We believe in pleasure. We believe in humor. God knows, OK, Goddess knows, we believe in ambition; too many of us are unhealthy, perfect girls -- faithful, if unconscious, imitators of our supermoms.

Sometimes your legacy feels like a ten-ton weight, like we can never accomplish enough. Sometimes your adoring gaze feels like a critical stare -- as if our moments of frivolousness movement is dead. Sometimes your well-intentioned advice feels like a dooming prophecy. One feminist writer told me that she could not bear to connect me with her agent because the publishing world was inhumane. I was 24 with a mountain of ideas and hope that wouldn't pay the rent. Let us earn our own bitterness. Stop shaking your heads at NOW conferences because "the youth" don't show up. We are trying to maneuver a new path towards social change, and it has less to do with "everyone say aye" and more to do with blogs, networking sites, the hostile takeover of pop culture. Watch Pink's new video "Stupid Girls" ( http://popsugar.com/5256) or read Feministing ( www.feministing.com) if you want a sense of where we are fighting the 21st-century battle.

We want to fight the good fight, but we want to make sweet love too. We want our partners -- girl, boy or something radically in between -- beside us. We want boys to be less buttoned-up and more down for parenting and dancing to stupid '80s music in public; if they pay for dinner, unlike Maureen Dowd's hyperbolic claims, it doesn't mean we are riddled with '50s-era nostalgia. We just don't take some things as seriously as you do.

I can hear a chorus of Eileen Fisher-wearing women now -- wait until you have kids. I surrender. I have no clue about how I am going to realize my equal parenting dreams; I watched my own idealistic parents fail. My mom and I joke that she has grandmother Tourette's these days -- she shouts, "Babies would solve that," and then looks over both shoulders and asks, "Who said that?"

But for all our laughing, we know that the still-unsolved problem of work-family-gender balance is grave. I am scared of compromising my cherished independence, deathly afraid that I will wake up at 40 with an indistinguishable fire of bitterness in my guts. Sometimes I find myself standing over the sink washing my boyfriend's dishes even though I made dinner, and it scares the shit out of me.

When I recently came across second waver Cynthia Horney's rare message, it made me breathe a deep sigh of relief: "We got nowhere close to Having It All. But here's what I think … we had an awful lot of it. My point is simply that this turned out to be the very life I wanted: not my mother's life, not my husband's life, but a patched-up-some-of-both model that I worry is in danger of being cast aside as unworkable by people who have listened to too many women like me despair over what we are missing. We didn't make enough noise celebrating the great parts, did we?"

No, you didn't. But it is never too late.

Courtney E. Martin's book, "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters," will be published by Simon & Schuster's Free Press in March 2007. Read more of her work at courtneyemartin.com.