Let’s leave my momma out of this.

In response to Susan Faludi’s recent Harper’s article, we at Feministing are doing a go around of feedback from different folks. This is my reaction to the piece, you can read Courtney’s and Miriam’s as well.

When I hear people use phrases like “women’s movement,” I get all confused, because both through academic training and as a racial justice advocate, with the lived experience of being a “foreigner”, “woman,” to me is so obviously an unstable category, something that assumes whiteness, a certain class level and even educational status. Woman only describes me when it is modified, “immigrant woman,” “woman of color,” “working class woman,” “queer woman,” and the list goes on. I’m not telling you something you haven’t heard, I’m just wondering why people can’t seem to displace this idea that there is some centralized “women’s movement” that is so static and unchanging that we can compare it to previous movements and gain a comprehensive insight into feminism or social change.

Similarly, I get confused when people talk about generational differences in feminism. I don’t feel inspired to write about them, I don’t feel drawn to the debates about them, and I don’t feel like they explain my experience at all. Perhaps this moment of cognitive dissonance comes from my own history. My mother is not a “feminist,” in the sense that she has articulated such a vision for herself. She is an immigrant that worked a working class job her whole life and dedicated everything to making sure I got to go to college since she didn’t. My relationship with my mother has been at times strained, but there is a common understanding and sense of community and togetherness in our experience that transcends a political one, despite its inherent politicalness. In this fucked up, immigrant hating, racist world, I know my momma has my back. And my only choice is to do right by her, since she didn’t benefit from the work of the prior feminists, she fell through the cracks and just worked and worked and worked her whole life with little to show for it, except a ton of debt and feelings of having failed at the American dream.

Why am I bringing all this up? Because intergenerational feminism and the conversations that revolve around it are culturally specific—they exist only for a subgroup of people. Yes, much of my feminist training is from the academy, and most of my activism work is not within the context of women’s issues, but larger social justice issues, but I am still a feminist. After reading Faludi’s rather exhaustive piece on the generational divide, I found myself annoyed at the revisionist ways that it took on theory and activism. Since Courtney and Miriam both talked about activism, I can focus a little bit more on the theory as someone who has a both a BA and MA in Women and Gender studies.

I have a tendency to dwell in the obscure, in music, in fashion and definitely in politics and most likely prompted by the “obscure,” theory that I read in college. Something that has always been difficult for me in being a feminist is aligning myself with “traditional,” feminist work. Conceptions of sisterhood didn’t include me, maybe as an afterthought but not in a rigorous way that actually recognized how the experience of difference, changed my relationship to sisterhood, destabilizing its very notion. I am not alone in this, all the women that write for this site are in some way tackling some of the misgivings of previous generations of feminism, actively seeking to move it, always acknowledging when and where it has failed us, when and where it has supported us, but all of us searching for our own truth, carving out our own voices and spaces, all while identifying as feminists.

Theory helped me find my truth, because there are few places in contemporary feminism that incorporate the voices of women of color the way that academic feminism has. Never would I have read the work of bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Gayatri Spivak, Emma Perez and the list truly goes on and on of post-colonial, anti-imperialist, Marxist, anti-racist feminists who formed the core of my feminist understanding, hinging from the recognition that the Western women’s movement was a specific cultural experience that often mimicked the work of the colonizer. That’s not an easy message to hear, but it is a real one. Academic theorists, not journalists like Susan Faludi, gave me the words to understand my mother’s experience, my grandmother’s experience, etc. This is not easy for me to acknowledge, as academia itself is such a site of othering and displacement, but this is my truth. In the wishy-washy, unknown redefinitions of gender, race and experience, my story started to make sense. And I don’t even care about Gaga-theory, but you best believe in the 80’s feminists were obsessed with Madonna, so that is not even a new development in academic feminism.

Perhaps I would feel more sympathy for Faludi if I did not feel like she is one of the feminists that has benefited from Western feminism’s impartiality to having white spokespeople. She herself has built off the work of feminists of color, while many of them have stayed in academia (Jasbir Puar comes to mind as the first person I ever read writing about the conflation of misogyny and terrorism). This is not to say her work hasn’t been relevant and important, but it appears to me those that have been the loudest about the generational divide have been the ones that have benefited from feminism’s very same othering. How many openly feminist women of color are New York Times bestsellers? (No really, tell me, I don’t keep track of this kind of thing, I am down to be wrong here.) Perhaps if Faludi articulated more of the shortcomings of the previous generation of feminists, more young feminists would feel her on this critique, since the critiques of second wave feminists (outside of what she dubs “matricide”) are solid, documented and spans a wide variety of people, not just the daughters of the second wavers.

But to bring it back. Part of me feels like this generational conflict is a perpetuation of internalized sexism and how mother’s and daughter’s treat each other within the context of patriarchy. The competitive spirit, the anger at younger women being too sexual, the jealousy of us being the new voices and not knowing what to do with that power and older and younger women harboring feelings of being overlooked. These to me are obvious side effects to patriarchy. Every generation tries to pull away from the one before it, redefining itself and every older generation thinks they did it better. (Just listen in on any conversation I have on the weekends about new, old and true school hip-hop, you’ll know what I’m getting at.) But ideas of feminism and the “women’s movement,” have grown far past, around, behind, and in spite of modern contemporary constructions of Western feminism. There are new leaders in town and they exist in all arenas of the world, struggling against gender based oppression through myriad levels of experience and knowledge. I’m afraid it’s time to drop the generational divide talk because it really only applies to a choice few who just happen to have the loudest megaphones right now.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted September 29, 2010 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    To me there was something kind of exclusionary about the ivory tower of academia and the way that Feminist dialogue is often structured. I don’t mean that I personally felt left out, since I’m a man and Feminist discussion takes a woman-centric focus, but that I was always aware of the irony that these theories of liberation were well and good for those with the educational and financial means to absorb them.

    Like many, I came to these spaces without much in the way of formalized training. I didn’t know the names. I hadn’t read the books. But I did have a very organic understanding of what the movement was for and what it sought to accomplish. I suppose growing up where I did without the benefit of a kind of East Coast elite educational expectation as I see now all around me made me feel like an outsider myself. And I’m thankful for what I have learned since then, but I’ll always be a bit suspicious of anything too insular or too esoteric.

  2. Posted September 29, 2010 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    While I haven’t read the Faludi piece and haven’t really taken more than a superficial interest in some of the generational issues in feminism, I can’t agree with what looks like Faludi’s take on younger feminists. Particularly, I have found the commentary at this site intelligent, thoughtful and very aware of the complexity of threads of gender, race, class, ethnicity, etc. that run through all kinds of issues. To me, feminism is one major aspect of trying to work for what is moral, right and just. I have had this site bookmarked since I first heard of it. That is because for this 50+ year old feminist man, I have always found news and good intelligent analysis here, including lots of things that I have not known or persepectives that I probably would not have thought of on my own. So, good job, Samhita and the rest of the Feministing crew, and thanks!

  3. Posted September 30, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this post Samhita! I completely agree with you!

    And heck, even if you aren’t a person of color, an immigrant etc., my white mom and grandmothers don’t identify as feminist….heck, they identify as Republicans! So where’s my intergenerational conflict? Wait, I don’t have one!

  4. Posted September 30, 2010 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Samhita, for the reminder that academic feminism matters so much. As you say, it isn’t journalists like Faludi (and let me be clear, I think “Stiffed” and “Backlash” are both very important works) who tell the stories that need telling, who give context and explanation for how we ended up entangled in the Gordian knot of sexism.

    And this generational divide thing remains massively oversold. Elizabeth Wurtzel, Gloria Steinem, and now Faludi have killed a lot of trees with their public fretting about an age-based disconnect (fed, of course, by the whole Obama-Clinton trauma). To the extent that there is a divide, it’s merely the standard one you find everywhere, in any movement, when those who regarded themselves as the young lions find that the cubs are taking over and moving things in a different direction.

  5. Posted September 30, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    “But to bring it back. Part of me feels like this generational conflict is a perpetuation of internalized sexism and how mother’s and daughter’s treat each other within the context of patriarchy. The competitive spirit, the anger at younger women being too sexual, the jealousy of us being the new voices and not knowing what to do with that power and older and younger women harboring feelings of being overlooked. These to me are obvious side effects to patriarchy. Every generation tries to pull away from the one before it, redefining itself and every older generation thinks they did it better.”

    very true!
    thank you and courtney and miriam so far for your input! it helps to understand and to form an own opinion about it!

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