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Why Feminists Fight With Each Other

An interview with the author of <i>Sisterhood Interrupted</i> provides historical context for contemporary feminist infighting: the overblown mommy wars, raunch feminists and their older, horrified detractors, and bloggers virtually ripping one another apart.
 
 
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Deborah Siegel -- writer, feminist and entrepreneur -- doesn't strike one as the type to dredge up old fights. Though she's 38, she looks about 18 as she sits happily in the grass at Union Square in a green and brown print dress, sandals thrown to the side and her legs curled under her, and tells me about the anticipation she feels about her new book coming out. Sisterhood Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild (Palgrave) is essentially a historical tour of the last 40 years of ideological, and sometimes sadly personal, battles for the soul of feminism.

Siegel is an apt guide as something of a renaissance feminist. With her Ph.D. in English and women's studies from the University of Wisconsin, she connects with academics. With her large network of New York-based feminist authors and nonprofit gurus, she connects with cultural critics and feminist celebrities. And with her Midwestern roots -- she was born and raised near Chicago -- she connects with the average girl.

Sisterhood Interrupted is the kind of book that will draw them all in, not just because it is ripe with controversy, but because it provides historical context for contemporary infighting: the overblown mommy wars, raunch feminists and their older, horrified detractors, and bloggers virtually ripping one another apart. Siegel and I took our own dialogue to the net, as the sun was too bright and Siegel had things to do.

Courtney Martin: What inspired you to write about feminist fighting?

Deborah Siegel: I wrote Sisterhood, Interrupted because I grew tired of hearing women -- both across and within different generations -- blame each other for feminism's failures. It started in the early 1990s when Katie Roiphe blamed 1970s-style feminism for turning women into victims, and it's going on today in the form of women accusing each other of being "faux feminists" on their blogs.

Of course, fights were hot during the late 1960s and 1970s, too. Today, we're repeating past battles without even realizing it. There's so much left to do -- it's such an unfinished revolution -- and I believe we long ago lost sight of our common ground.

Martin: Did you worry that opening old wounds would lead to more fragmentation in the movement instead of less?

Siegel: You can't talk about feminism and not talk about conflict. I wrote about the stands and splits within the popular women's movement across 40 years as someone seeking to understand them -- not to titillate readers, and not to air dirty laundry. For those solely interested in a catfight, my book is going to disappoint!

Martin: What do you hope older feminists get out of the book? Younger feminists?

Siegel: I wrote the book I wanted my younger cousin, my mother, and my great aunt to read: a road map to the feminist past for a younger generation and a guidebook to the present for women who have been calling for change for years.

I want women across the generations to understand that, in important ways, we're more alike than we are different. Older and younger feminists are often depicted at odds, with veterans cast as relics of a bygone era and younger feminists portrayed as unaware of or ungrateful for the work their mothers did. But younger women aren't abandoning the movement -- they're reinventing it. This is our legacy. Feminists have been creating, imagining and reinventing since day one.

Martin: You write, "Across the generations and at the heart of the battle to articulate feminism as a movement with mass appeal has been that singular tagline: The Personal is the Political ." Why is this phrase still so damn powerful?

Siegel: The idea behind this truly brilliant slogan transformed the way Americans thought of the politics of private life. In the book I write about how these words launched a movement, then quickly morphed into a philosophy and a blueprint for action that meant different things depending on where you sat.

Today, we're smack dab in the middle of those conversations -- whether we realize it or not. But there's a new hitch. In the absence of a visible, organized, and powerful mass movement and in an era that's far more conservative and individualistic, younger women are less inclined to see our problems as shared.

We blame ourselves for not being able to be it all, when the problems are still systemic -- and the very notions of "it" and "all" are changing. Older women can point their fingers at us, the so-called "opt-out generation," all they want, but it's not getting anyone anywhere. Women across generations need to work together to bring the political, structural issues that shape our personal lives -- pay inequity, lack of affordable childcare and so much more-back on the national agenda.

Martin: How much of these fights centered around the question of whether feminism is a movement grounded in collective action, or an ideology pushed forward by very individual, often lifestyle-oriented, choices?

Siegel: In the early days of the second-wave women's movement -- and actually all the way through the 1990s -- feminists debated whether the best way to make serious, lasting change was by changing the world outside or changing ourselves. Today, we're debating the merits of "choice feminism" and "Sex-and-the-City"-style empowerment, but we're asking ourselves the same question: What needs transforming, our head or the world? Depending on your answer, feminism becomes a culture or a cause.

Martin: How much of these fights centered around the question of whether feminism should be radical, regardless of the loss in membership, or inclusive, regardless of the loss in progress?

Siegel: Betty Friedan worried that radical feminists were alienating suburban housewives with their talk of "orgasm politics" (cue raging vibrators). Radical feminists worried that the National Organization for Women was alienating twentysomething hip chicks with its "tame" emphasis on working within the system (cue respectable ladies picketing men's eating clubs).

We're having the same conversation again -- is sexual empowerment radical? Who is feminism leaving out? But it's differently inflected, as I show in the book, because the players, and the zeitgeist, have changed.

As for inclusivity, generation is the newest form of difference that we're dealing with now. In the back of Sisterhood, Interrupted there's a discussion guide, which I wrote with the hope that women of different ages might read and discuss the book together. If women who support gender parity in this country can't talk to each other, then feminism's grandchildren are going to pay the ultimate price.

Martin: Do you see these conflicts as fundamentally healthy for the movement, or are you calling for somewhat of a ceasefire?

Siegel: Ceasefire. Some conflicts are healthy. Others -- like the current round of intergenerational warfare -- are not.

Martin: Betty Friedan is a central character in this story. She sadly passed away last year. If you could have interviewed her, what would you have liked to ask her?

Siegel: I'd be so curious what she thought about the latest bruhaha around books like Leslie Bennetts' The Feminine Mistake , which has stay-at-home moms up in arms. You know, Friedan coined the term "the feminine mystique" to refer to ... well, you'll have to read the book! But I think it's interesting how things get replayed. You know, Friedan's third book, The Second Stage , was a call to restructure the workplace and to make this part of the American political and economic agenda -- something we have yet to really do, though we've certainly made enormous strides in the right direction.

Martin: What can those embroiled in the mommy wars learn from old examples of infighting?

Siegel: You know, I'm not a mom yet, but my best friend, who's an active professional and a mom, keeps telling me how peacefully SAHMs and moms who work outside the home coexist in her social circle. The media really has the whole "war" thing overblown. It's a great distraction from the real work that needs to get done (and that groups like MomsRising and the Mothers Movement Online are, thank goodness, now doing).

So what can we learn from the past? Not to believe the hype. Mainstream media have been historically lame about truthfully covering women's realities. Other lessons from the past: Read books like Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born .

Martin: Why do you think these ideological battles tend to turn personal? Is this unique to women or do you think movement turmoil among men also devolves into character defamation?

Siegel: Definitely it happens among men. The early civil rights movement was as divided as the women's movement. I think it's more of a visionary thing than a gender thing. Visionaries can be difficult, impatient people by nature. Still, I think women are slightly better at going for the jugular when we take each other on.

Feminism is about passion, and the strength of conviction among women fighting for change is going to be intense. But just think how much more could be accomplished if that passion was unleashed solely at targets external to ourselves! We'd be unstoppable.

Martin: Who is the new "face of feminism," in your mind? Is it possible to have the same kind of leadership in a time of such intensified culture and hyperspeed technological and social change?

Siegel: You! Jessica Valenti and Samhita Mukhopadhyay over at Feministing and all the women at Third Wave Foundation, all those who started the REAL Hot 100, and all the others who are forming their own organizations across the country, speaking out on blogs, volunteering in record numbers, and using technology to reinvent radicalism in an era, as you say, marked by hyperspeed technological change.

Gen X and Y women are reinventing feminism in our own image -- and that image is more ideologically inclusive and racially diverse.

Martin: You write, "From its inception, the movement known as feminism has been one of the most internally fragmented and outwardly controversial -- perhaps because so many have so much to gain." What does the next generation of feminists have "to gain?"

Siegel: I think we get confused a lot by the illusion of progress -- or by the reality that there's been tremendous progress in some areas, but not in others. There are now 7.7 million women-owned businesses in the U.S., but we still make 77 cents to the male dollar.

Women now earn more than half of all bachelor's and master's degrees. But we're still only 16 percent of Congress, 2.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, and worldwide, we're still way poorer than men.

The dilemma of my generation and those behind me is that we're caught between the hope for a world that no longer degrades women and the reality of a culture that is degrading. We see a few women breaking into the upper echelons of power, and we think things are great. It's confusing to be a daughter of feminism in a culture only half transformed.

Martin: What else are you doing, besides publishing this book, to take this call for intergenerational understanding to the streets?

Siegel: In the fall, I'll be touring campuses and elsewhere as part of an intergenerational panel called "Sisterhood, Repaired." It's time that women of all ages talked and listened to one another instead of rehashing the same cliquish complaints in isolation. We want to reopen the dialogue about women's lives, power, entitlement and the future of feminism, but this time, with a cross-generational understanding. This conversation is also taking place through the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, where I'm currently a fellow, and where older and younger women mentor and learn from each other.

But I've also started offering women scholars and researchers -- which is the world I come from -- a course on blogging. The course is a kind of reverse mentoring. Because blogging, of course, is the new vehicle for consciousness raising. It's where the liveliest debates about feminism are happening, but it's also, for many, young and old, the new "CR."

Courtney E. Martin is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body . You can read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com. Deborah Siegel's book -- Sisterhood Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild -- is out in stores now. You can read more about her work at www.deborahsiegel.net.

 
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