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Electras talk back: responses to Susan Faludi’s Harper’s piece

Harper's Magazine
Last week, Harper’s published an essay by Susan Faludi about intergenerational feminist tension, in which she examines how the “mother-daughter divide” damages the feminist movement. The way she sees it, younger women have “fallen into the 1920s trap of employing a commercialized ersatz ‘liberation’ to undermine the political mobilization of their mothers.” Amanda Marcotte, Emily Bazelon, and others have posted thoughtful responses to it, and we’re sure plenty of good dialogue has been going on in offline listserves and coffee shops alike. We mulled over how to respond most effectively here at Feministing, and have decided to publish a week-long series of responses from a diversity of young voices in our community, in addition to a guest post from Jennifer Baumgardner. We’d love to hear what you think, as always, so keep the comments coming. I’ll be starting things off…

I was really looking forward to Susan Faludi’s essay on intergenerational feminism, which I knew (via fact-checking and her own heads up), was coming via Harper’s this month. I respect Faludi’s work, not only because she’s managed to carve out a career in just the intersections I aspire to, but also because she’s such an original, fierce thinker–always bringing a fresh perspective to tired issues and making bold arguments that really stir up a good debate.

So it was with genuine disappointment that I read this latest piece. For starters, I found myself cast as the symbol of matricidal, consumerist, pop culture-obsessed young feminism. Not a fun place to find oneself. It was particularly crushing as I just published a book that represents two full years of work researching, reporting on, and writing about activism–a subject which she argues that my generation of feminist leaders is uninterested in, at best, and all-out rejects, at worst. I’ve spent the last few years constantly engaged in intergenerational feminist work–via the panel that is referenced in the article, but also through a partnership with The Women’s Therapy Centre Institute, and friendships with so many amazing older feminists. I made a short documentary film called Letter to My Mother, in which I paid homage to my predecessors and told the story of my first feminist protest march, and write frequently about these issues in my column at The American Prospect, and of course, here at Feministing. Suffice to say that if I’m enacting a “ritual matricide,” murder is looking pretty kind these days.

But beside my personal chagrin at being mis-characterized, the most disappointing thing about this piece was the reporting. Faludi searches for the center of feminist struggle at academic conferences and organizational elections. Of course the field of Women’s Studies is critical, and institutional feminism has brought all sorts of stability to the movement, but if you want to find feminism-in-action, you need to go where some of the most dynamic work is–environmental justice meetings where young leaders are talking about the disproportionate effects of climate change on women of color, safe houses for former sex workers where young women are helping one another get out of “the life,” veterans who are bonding together to fight back against military sexual assault etc. There are young, feminist-identified women doing community and political work every single day, aware of their legacy and confident about their future.

Faludi has a throw-away line pointing towards this: “Feminism takes many forms and plays out in efforts in which younger and older women do collaborate over serious issues, usually out of the spotlight.” But she neglects to acknowledge the huge flood light in her own hands as she writes this. It is journalists, particularly ones with access to such precious media real estate, that must tell the real behind-the-scenes story, not rehash the same tired misconceptions.

Faludi writes, “What gets passed on is the predisposition to dispossess, a legacy of no legacy.” Is there nothing in between becoming mini-me’s of our mother’s revolution and mass foremother genocide? To my mind, we are in a sometimes difficult, but often worthwhile dialogue with the past, while forging a new path into the future–one where we can engage on issues that we care most deeply about in methods that fit our contemporary times. Faludi quotes me, out of context, as having said that young feminists need to “be seen.” What I meant was not that our revolution is one of aesthetics, but that our leadership has to reflect who we are and who we want to become, or we won’t be able to identify with the movement. This is as much a race and class issue, as it is an age one–something that pulses underneath the story, but is never explicitly addressed.

I talked to my own mom as I was deciding how to respond to this article and she said this: “The way I see it, you have to stop listening to my voice at times, so you can learn to listen to your own.” I depend on both my own mother, and the larger feminist legacy, for wisdom, but I expect to be seen and heard accurately and compassionately in return. It’s time that we took this dialogue to a new level; instead we’re wallowing in finger-pointing and holier-than-thou judgment. There are real enemies out there, waiting for our good energy and savvy methodologies. Let’s not waste all of our time parodying one another.

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  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    We find it difficult to trust that which we do not understand. Each generation has its own unique differences and challenges, but a dialogue must be established. I myself could easily discount those a generation or so behind me as naive or misinformed, but I do so at my own peril.

  • http://feministing.com/members/ajsimo/ Ann Simonton

    Thank You Courtney for restoring my faith in the feminist community. I was so ticked after reading Faludi’s death knell, steam emitted from both my ears. While Backlash was great book, I have long felt Faludi is given precious, public, media space and wastes it. She wrote a piece about our feminist activity in the 1980’s and rather than expose the specifics of the great work we were doing she filled non-commercial space (Mother Jones) with descriptions of my long trim legs and fans clamoring over chairs to hug me after a speech –and me (an activist who committed non-violent CD) was reduced to always the compliant one who acquiesces. She wasted precious media real estate in the New Yorker’s, Waiting for Wood, on male porn stars. What is so pitiful is that she could have given the feminist movement the thunder it deserves or kill it off and she clearly chose matricide. Thank you for reminding me that no one small person can destroy a movement that lives in the hearts and minds of so many thousands– regardless of age, race, class, sexual orientation and even gender.

  • http://feministing.com/members/gretel/ Gretel

    Thank you for this, Courtney. I read the article last night and was horrified to see the caricature of you and other young feminists as painted by Faludi. You are so spot-on about her single-minded focus on NOW and academic settings. I was completely baffled about how such a shallow view of feminism made it into the pages of Harper’s. I encourage everyone to write a letter to the editor.

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