Deborah Siegel: Sisterhood Interrupted

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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.
Here’s Deborah…


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 haven’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?
It’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 issues—the passionate controversies around them—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. We’re still in the thick of these debates. And these same questions, among others—including that one about can women have it all—rage on. The debates may take place on blogs today instead of in consciousness-raising groups on someone’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: I’m a literature scholar by training. I’m obsessed by words, language, and, in particular, by a phrase: “The Personal Is Political.� I read scads of manifestos, memos, letters, memoirs, magazine issues, archives, news reports, bestselling books, anthologies—pretty much every written source I could get hold of—to examine what those women most invested in defining “feminism� in the public eye have argued and argued about across the decades. But I also gathered data and experience from within. For 15 years, I’ve worked in and out of the women’s movement, mostly in the research and policy sector. I’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: “Boomer 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 they’re bound to have different ideas of what feminism is.� 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 “I’m not a feminist but.� I get into these different contexts in the book.
When you’re told by the media that yours is a postfeminist generation, that there’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 hadn’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 generation’s internalization of sexism, and that all younger feminists equate sex with power. But, as usual, it’s more complicated than that. I write about all this in the section of the book called “Daughters.�
During the “second wave� of feminism’s history, you come to the conclusion that despite the works of feminists of color, “still the version of feminism that captured the public’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.� 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 women’s versions of feminism (especially the radical version circa late 60s/early 70s) captured the media’s attention, it was the feminism of women of color that in many ways most influenced a younger generation’s vision of what feminism should or could be. But back then, the women who called themselves radical feminists captured—and courted—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 editors—there was even a former actress. Their actions and books made the evening news—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 women’s meeting that night thought it should take precedence over their usual business. Many feminists of different racial/ethnic groups—black, Chicana, Asian American, Native American—went on to establish independent organizations, separate from the primarily white radical feminist groups that organized mostly along the axis of gender. Their efforts didn’t make popular headlines in nearly the same way. But women of color played a critical role in the widening of the second-wave women’s movement—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.
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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 today’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 feminism’s overall history and its contributors?
The irony comes when veteran feminists don’t recognize younger feminists’ dilemmas as familiar. And when younger feminists don’t realize that they (we? at 38, I’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, we’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. There’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 we’re witnessing a mistelling of feminism’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 don’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 “empowerful�) take place in the comment sections of blogs like this one. Instead of being alienated by this thread—or worse, not even knowing it and others exist—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. It’s important that we play an active role in the shaping of stories about our generation. And it’s equally important to know the truth about the feminist past—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 mother’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 writing—which is why I dedicate the book, in part, to my teachers. My high school English teacher “Ms.� 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 boys’ 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 women’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 weren’t. I wanted like crazy to jump in. So, here I am.

What are you hopes for feminism’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 that’s still degrading. So, I think it’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. I’m hugely impressed with all the media criticism that’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 didn’t themselves initiate, don’t see, or don’t fully comprehend. I included a resource guide at the back of the book—a list of organizations, projects, blogs, and other places online where the latest feminist debates take place. My hope is that yesterday’s radicals and today’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 feminism’s so-called failures. Imagine what we could accomplish if we spent as much energy fighting external targets as we spend fighting ourselves. We’d be unstoppable.
Is there anything you would like to add?
This next year, I’ll be touring campuses and elsewhere as part of an intergenerational panel—joining Feministing’s own <a href="Courtney Martin (author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters), Kristal Brent Zook (author of Black Women’s Lives: Stories of Pain and Power), and Gloria Feldt (author of The War on Choice and former president of Planned Parenthood)—because it’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 women’s lives, power, entitlement, and the future of feminism, but this time, with a rich cross-generational understanding.
I’ve also started offering women scholars and researchers—which is the world I come from—workshops on blogging, and online courses on writing book proposals for trade. I want to help those producing real knowledge about trends in modern women’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 doesn’t look like it once did, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I think we’re desperate for guides and bridges across the generations, and my greatest hope is that readers find that in my book.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted June 30, 2007 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    great interview, celina! thanks.

  2. annajcook
    Posted June 30, 2007 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    I second the thanks for the interview :) .
    I’m about a third of the way into Sisterhood, Interrupted right now and finding it an interesting meditation on the popular perception and current use/abuse of feminism(s) histor(ies).
    For some reason, I stumbled came to feminism through feminist history in my teens–I loved reading about the suffragists and radical womyn of the 1970s–and only belatedly realized that it was very much a current political movement as well! That’s what historians get for always having their noses in books. Still, it always surprises me when women in my cohort have only a vague notion of the feminism that brought us to where we are today. Hope this book will encourage all of us to reflect more on where we’re coming from, as well as where we’re going.
    I’m actually looking forward to reading Part II (about the “third wave” generation) since I feel like I know less about what went down in the 80s and early 90s than I do about the Women’s Movement :) .

  3. Posted June 30, 2007 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    This is a great book for so many reasons – I wrote a review you can read on my blog.
    http://onlinewithzoe.com
    Let me share this with the readers of feministing.com ~ I am 58 and a life long feminist ~ the wonderful books that women are writing today fill my heart with hope and my lectures with great examples on how the movement is so very much alive, vibrant, complex and shiny. Sisterhood is uninterrupted when one takes the time to look, share and appreciate.

  4. Posted June 30, 2007 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    Hello Anna! I will be back in touch.
    Me too, Zoe Ann. I agree totally and whole-heartedly.

  5. Posted June 30, 2007 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    Hello Anna! I will be back in touch.
    Me too, Zoe Ann. I agree totally and whole-heartedly.

  6. annajcook
    Posted June 30, 2007 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    Lookin’ forward to it Grace :) .

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