Deborah Siegel, PhD is a writer and consultant specializing in women’s issues. She is a Fellow at the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership and co-editor of the anthology Only Child. She has written about women, sex, families and popular culture and has been featured in Psychology Today, USA Today, The New York Times, Time Out New York and Ms.
Deborah took time out from her participation in the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) Conference, June 28-July 1 in St. Charles, Illinois to email the answers to my questions on her new book, Sisterhood Interrupted, From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild.
The running premise of Sisterhood Interrupted is that the generations and waves of feminist activism and organizing in the U.S. are more alike than they are different. For individuals who havenâ€™t yet read, Sisterhood Interrupted, can you please give some examples of these similarities? And how did you go about conducting your research to prove this perspective?
Itâ€™s amazing to me how feminism cycles. The language and scenes of organizing and activism have changed across the past 40 years, the period I cover in the book. But the issuesâ€”the passionate controversies around themâ€”have not. The questions that defined a generation in the late 1960s and early 1970s are largely the same questions that women in our twenties and thirties are grappling with today: Are we equal? No? Well, why not? Should feminism be a movement for personal empowerment or broad scale social change? Is it a culture or a cause? And, of course, who is feminism for? These questions sparked hot debates as radical feminists fought passionately amongst themselves to define their cause. They raised hackles and ire, but they also raised a movement. NOW founder Betty Friedan sparred with radicals about how to mainstream a revolution. Weâ€™re still in the thick of these debates. And these same questions, among othersâ€”including that one about can women have it allâ€”rage on. The debates may take place on blogs today instead of in consciousness-raising groups on someoneâ€™s living room floor. But as I show in the book, they rage on with great intensity, and perhaps with even greater consequence today than ever before.
As for method: Iâ€™m a literature scholar by training. Iâ€™m obsessed by words, language, and, in particular, by a phrase: â€œThe Personal Is Political.â€? I read scads of manifestos, memos, letters, memoirs, magazine issues, archives, news reports, bestselling books, anthologiesâ€”pretty much every written source I could get hold ofâ€”to examine what those women most invested in defining â€œfeminismâ€? in the public eye have argued and argued about across the decades. But I also gathered data and experience from within. For 15 years, Iâ€™ve worked in and out of the womenâ€™s movement, mostly in the research and policy sector. Iâ€™ve seen these debates and dynamics up close. And I concluded that in spite of all the differences, when it comes to fighting for and over feminism, so-called second and third wave feminists have far more in common than we think.
You state: â€œBoomer women and women of Generations X and Y often have different ideas of what power is. They sometimes have different ideas of what sexism is. And theyâ€™re bound to have different ideas of what feminism is.â€? Can you talk more about this? What are some examples of how generations of women can have different views on what power and sexism are, and essentially what feminism is?
Women of different ages are going to have different experiences of feminism because we enter history at different moments. It matters whether you came into consciousness at a time of mass collective movements and mass optimism about the possibility of change (think MLK, JFK), or if you came to it during a more pessimistic and individualistic era (like today), if you came of age under the likes of Reagan/Bush I or the Clintons, or during a time when your peers are known for saying â€œIâ€™m not a feminist but.â€? I get into these different contexts in the book.
When youâ€™re told by the media that yours is a postfeminist generation, that thereâ€™s no longer a need for feminism, certain experiences that used to be called sexism lose their political frames and their public names. The personal tends to become solely personal again. But lines also get blurred. Are women who dance around poles liberated or enslaved? Women within generations are constantly debating the contours of power, but these days, it often plays out generationally. In the early 1990s, we had crazy popular disagreement about how far we had, or hadnâ€™t, come, whether we were victims or agents in our own lives, whether Monica was a victim or a tramp, whether Anita Hill was a hero. Today, some older women think Girls Gone Wild is typical of a younger generationâ€™s internalization of sexism, and that all younger feminists equate sex with power. But, as usual, itâ€™s more complicated than that. I write about all this in the section of the book called â€œDaughters.â€?
During the â€œsecond waveâ€? of feminismâ€™s history, you come to the conclusion that despite the works of feminists of color, â€œstill the version of feminism that captured the publicâ€™s attention was that promulgated by white women, whose groups had colorful names that reflected the energy and vision of the women who founded them.â€? Can you talk more about this? And do you think the mainstream notions that women of color are of color first, and women second, also played a role in the dismissal of their feminist activism and organizing?
I write that while white womenâ€™s versions of feminism (especially the radical version circa late 60s/early 70s) captured the mediaâ€™s attention, it was the feminism of women of color that in many ways most influenced a younger generationâ€™s vision of what feminism should or could be. But back then, the women who called themselves radical feminists capturedâ€”and courtedâ€”major media attention. Some called them publicity hounds, but I call them savvy manipulators of the press. Some of the better-known radicals had their start as writers and editorsâ€”there was even a former actress. Their actions and books made the evening newsâ€”even if the news anchors ended up disparaging the politics of it all by ending with a clip of scary-looking women learning karate.
Women of color felt shut out as early radical feminist groups were forming. Like Betita Martinez, who participated in a radical feminist group until the evening Martin Luther King was assassinated, when no one at her womenâ€™s meeting that night thought it should take precedence over their usual business. Many feminists of different racial/ethnic groupsâ€”black, Chicana, Asian American, Native Americanâ€”went on to establish independent organizations, separate from the primarily white radical feminist groups that organized mostly along the axis of gender. Their efforts didnâ€™t make popular headlines in nearly the same way. But women of color played a critical role in the widening of the second-wave womenâ€™s movementâ€”much more so than is generally acknowledged. New scholarship on their contributions is finally beginning to emerge, and I focus on how third wave feminists reclaim that legacy in the second part of the book.
You conclude the book with a look at the current state of feminism and how it often appears ironic to you. What do you want todayâ€™s feminists and critics to gain from reading Sisterhood Interrupted? And do you think the criticisms voiced by the second wave against the third wave, and vice a versa, have a lot to do with the mis-telling of feminismâ€™s overall history and its contributors?
The irony comes when veteran feminists donâ€™t recognize younger feministsâ€™ dilemmas as familiar. And when younger feminists donâ€™t realize that they (we? at 38, Iâ€™m never quite sure where to position myself!) are reinventing battles that women have been fighting for years. Gerda Lerner once wrote that the only constant across feminist history has been a constant forgetting of our past. But I think our failure to see the past in the present is a major blockage, too.
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 long been calling for change. I wanted women across generations to understand that, in important ways, weâ€™re more alike than we are different. The mutual recriminations (younger women casting veteran feminists as relics of a bygone era, veterans chastising younger feminists for ingratitude) are getting us nowhere. Fast. Thereâ€™s a discussion guide, in addition to the resource list, in the back of the book, and I hope that women of different generations might read and discuss the book together and find ways to understand their common ground so that we can keep the movement moving forward, together.
As for criticisms and mistellings, I think weâ€™re witnessing a mistelling of feminismâ€™s present, and not just an incomplete picture of its rich past. Younger women view the second wave monolithically, but older women are now also stereotyping the third wave. What those who think young feminism is all Sex and the City donâ€™t get is that this younger set is passionately duking it out, just as an earlier generation did around the politics of power around porn in the 1980s. Some of the most interesting debates about what it means to wield sexual or real power (vs. merely feeling â€œempowerfulâ€?) take place in the comment sections of blogs like this one. Instead of being alienated by this threadâ€”or worse, not even knowing it and others existâ€”veteran feminists need to understand that these conversations are modern versions of their own. At the same time, younger women need to recognize that we are not the first to engage in these debates. Nor will we be the last. Itâ€™s important that we play an active role in the shaping of stories about our generation. And itâ€™s equally important to know the truth about the feminist pastâ€”which is, indeed, far more nuanced that the Birkenstock-wearing man-hating image of the second-wave feminist suggests.
How did you find your way to feminism?
It was in my motherâ€™s milk. And my father is a living example, too. They were the kind of parents who got me trucks and no Barbie (of course, I wanted Barbie, too). My mother always worked. My father cooked and taught me things like needlepoint. But I also came to it through writingâ€”which is why I dedicate the book, in part, to my teachers. My high school English teacher â€œMs.â€? Medwin introduced me to women poets. But she also provided a haven from her extremely macho co-teacher, whose class was high testosterone (he coached the boysâ€™ softball team and liked to call on boys).
So, the seeds were there, but I was hugely radicalized in my early 20s by Anita Hill. Fresh out of college, and in the middle of the Clarence Thomas hearings, I was hired by the National Council for Research on Women to write a report synthesizing the latest research on sexual harassment. I went to a conference where Hill made one of her first public appearances, and women legislators stood on their tables at this fancy luncheon waving pink napkins and hooting and hollering. I cried. As with the poets, I was blown away by the spectacle of a woman speaking out so publicly, when the deck was stacked against her, and telling it like it is. I also learned the harsh lesson that women who speak out get belittled while men who sexually harass get promoted to Supreme Court Justice. And we were supposed to be in an era called postfeminism?
I ended up with a PhD in womenâ€™s lit. And along the way, as I was slaving away writing seminar papers on the theme of elegiac lament in Toni Morrison, all these books were coming out by women my age (Katie Roiphe, Rene Denfeld) dissing or renouncing feminism. They had sexy and sensational titles and media coverage made it sound like they were speaking for an entire generation. Which they werenâ€™t. I wanted like crazy to jump in. So, here I am.
What are you hopes for feminismâ€™s future?
In the book, I write about how confusing it can sometimes be to be a daughter of feminism in a culture half-transformed. My generation (Gen X) and those younger than me are caught between the hope for a world that no longer degrades women and the reality of a culture thatâ€™s still degrading. So, I think itâ€™s critical that younger generations know the facts about where women today stand (take the quiz on my blog for starters!) and know how to get involved in current organizations and campaigns. Iâ€™m hugely impressed with all the media criticism thatâ€™s going on, inventive activism around the impossible standards for bodies and beauty, and the way that younger women are simultaneously taking up the ongoing issues (anti-violence, anti-racism, reproductive justice, economic justice, access and equity, and so forth) while merging feminism with myriad other movements for lasting change.
At the same time, I worry that veteran feminists are proving blind to forms of feminism that they didnâ€™t themselves initiate, donâ€™t see, or donâ€™t fully comprehend. I included a resource guide at the back of the bookâ€”a list of organizations, projects, blogs, and other places online where the latest feminist debates take place. My hope is that yesterdayâ€™s radicals and todayâ€™s girl bloggers, for instance, will recognize each other as fellow travelers in the ongoing fight for social change and personhood. And that women in general will stop blaming each other for feminismâ€™s so-called failures. Imagine what we could accomplish if we spent as much energy fighting external targets as we spend fighting ourselves. Weâ€™d be unstoppable.
Is there anything you would like to add?
This next year, Iâ€™ll be touring campuses and elsewhere as part of an intergenerational panelâ€”joining Feministingâ€™s own <a href="Courtney Martin (author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters), Kristal Brent Zook (author of Black Womenâ€™s Lives: Stories of Pain and Power), and Gloria Feldt (author of The War on Choice and former president of Planned Parenthood)â€”because itâ€™s time that women of all ages talked to one another instead of rehashing the same cliquish complaints in isolation. We want to reopen the dialogue about womenâ€™s lives, power, entitlement, and the future of feminism, but this time, with a rich cross-generational understanding.
Iâ€™ve also started offering women scholars and researchersâ€”which is the world I come fromâ€”workshops on blogging, and online courses on writing book proposals for trade. I want to help those producing real knowledge about trends in modern womenâ€™s lives reach broader audiences, and understand the role that new technologies are playing in shaping the public debate.
A final note about Sisterhood, Interrupted, why I wrote it: You know, sisterhood may be interrupted, but feminism is alive and well. It doesnâ€™t look like it once did, but that doesnâ€™t mean it doesnâ€™t exist. I think weâ€™re desperate for guides and bridges across the generations, and my greatest hope is that readers find that in my book.